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Two English literary works, one a comedy and the other a tragedy, by two different authors of separate centuries, both have their fair share of characters who illustrate the admirable and the not-so-admirable of dispositions. Jane Austen’s socially satirical novel Pride and Prejudice from 1813 and William Shakespeare’s poetic poem King Lear from 1606 match each other very closely in the context of how good character reveals itself. In each piece, the authors present readers with a contrast between the wonderful and the terrible and act as puppet masters in the competition for the common object of desire; the “prizes” for Shakespeare’s dramatic characters are power and riches, and while Austen’s characters also aspire to possess affluence, their primary concern is high regard from others. In terms of Pride and Prejudice, all unfavorable characters commit different offenses against amiability in their quests for a flattering reputation, but Austen manipulates their actions so that each comes off as being an extrovert. Similar terms apply to King Lear in that Shakespeare’s disgraceful characters act grandiosely and employ dishonesty in attempts toward prosperity.
As Pride and Prejudice’s villain in disguise, Mr. Wickham sets out to convince his new acquaintances of Hertfordshire that he is a victim of a heartless Mr. Darcy. He initiates discussion with Elizabeth about Darcy’s spiteful disposition and ventures so far as to claim to her sympathetic ears “I can never be in company with this Mr. Darcy without being grieved to the soul by a thousand tender recollections. His behavior to myself has been scandalous,” (59). Elizabeth later discovers Wickham’s accusations to be false in a letter from Darcy confiding in her that Wickham “recommended himself to Georgiana [so] that she was persuaded to believe herself in love and consent to and elopement; she was the but fifteen. […] His chief object was unquestionably [her] fortune.” (155). Wickham’s deceit is in his projection of a false self, which deviates greatly from his actual self. Some extroverts in the novel take their ostentation to a higher degree and make spectacles of themselves, earning the label of “fool” in the minds of those they hope to impress. Such is the case with Lydia, Mrs. Bennett, and Miss Bingley. The youngest and most reckless Bennett daughter, Lydia, runs away with the sleazy Wickham and thinks the ordeal so funny that she writes to a friend “You need not send them word at Longbourn of my going, for it will make it will make the surprise the greater when I write to them and sign my name Lydia Wickham.” (221). Lydia’s thoughtless mind-set is along the lines of that of her mother Mrs. Bennett, who brags that “Jane’s marrying so greatly must throw them in the way of other rich men.” (77). Miss Bingley is just as shallow as the two Bennetts with her hopes to win the favor of the wealthy Darcy. She ridicules Elizabeth, but only irritates Darcy when her gratuitous stroll around the room follows interruption of the man’s reading (41-42). Wickham, Lydia, Mrs. Bennett, and Miss Bingley all desire the envy of others, but their selfish and overt tendencies result in failure to reach any sort of respectability.
The members of King Lear’s “bad team” are comparable to Austen’s extroverted characters in that they are ostentatious in their designs to attain the objects of desire, which are wealth, land, and esteem. Regan and Goneril, the ungrateful daughters of Lear, each vie for control of Lear’s kingdom. Regan outdoes her sister’s exaggerated claim of devotion when she declares to her father “[Goneril] names my very deed; only she comes too short that I profess myself an enemy to all other joys and find I am alone felicitate in your dear Highness’s love.” Lear then entrusts his well-being to his daughters, but Goneril describes her father as an old fool with the vulnerability of a baby (I,iii,20). When a power struggles arises between the sisters, the spiteful Goneril actually prefers a loss of the battle to Regan’s victory in attaining the favor of the equally wicked Edmund. (V,i,19).
As the illegitimate son of the Earl of Gloucester, Edmund is second-rate in heir status, but is not deserving of readers’ pity. In the first act, he cunningly brings a forged letter to his father’s attention, detailing plans to usurp the earl; the letter is signed in Edgar’s name by the hand of the malicious Edmund (I,ii,48-57). King Lear himself makes a ridiculous demand on his children when he commands each to profess the amount of love she has for him as if love is quantifiable. This turns into a praise contest for the three daughters because to the child who claims the greatest devotion “the largest bounty may extend where nature doth with merit challenge” (I,i,54-55). Goneril’s opinion of Lear being a fool is an accurate judgment after her disowns Cordelia, the only sincere daughter. Lear, already in possession of wealth and a kingdom, is selfish and seeks worship in his elderly state while Edmund and the two phony daughters have material greed.
A commonality among the evildoers of King Lear is that poor character is seen through a perversity and corruption of one’s self and of parent-child relationships. Regan and Goneril’s deceitful temperaments prove self-destructive (their treachery for power leads to their executions) as well as destructive of their father. Family has such a great influence in Pride and Prejudice because it is a domestic novel that one expects to find a similar form of ill will in Austen’s work. However, generally all characters, high and low, hold some regard for their elders. Rather, lack of good nature is seen only through a corruption of the individual’s self, which is evident in how characters like Lydia and Miss Bingley manage only to hurt their own reputation in efforts to gain admiration.
The fault of Austen’s low-value characters is not in their wish for a good reputation; most of the Pride and Prejudice players seek admiration, some more so than others. The distinction between a character like Wickham and higher-value characters like Jane, Darcy, and Elizabeth is that the latter group is much more subtle and modest in their actions and never make fools of themselves when capturing attention. Jane, the eldest Bennet sister, is almost saintly as Elizabeth describes her as being the only person she knows “to be candid and without ostentation” (10). The Gardiner family leave their children in the care of Jane and not Mrs. Bennet for a week because it is the daughter who has “steady sense and sweetness of temper exactly adapted for attending to them in every way—teaching them, playing with them, and loving them” (183). Mr. Darcy does not have the nurturing disposition of Jane, but there is a hidden side of compassion in him, despite Wickham’s false accusations (59). Only reluctantly does he expose the true ugliness of Wickham’s character in a confidential letter to Elizabeth (150-156). By the third volume of the novel, Darcy takes it upon himself to pay the debts of his antagonist, Wickham, so he marries Lydia, thereby restoring the reputation of the Bennet family. His intentions are modest; he tells Elizabeth “That the wish of giving happiness to you I shall not deny. But your family owe me nothing. […] I thought only of you” (280). Elizabeth also wants to appear fine in others’ eyes, which is obvious in the concerns she expresses to her father over Lydia’s behavior: “Our importance, our respectability in the world, must be affected by the wild volatility…” (176). However, she is a loyal sister who treks through the raw elements of wind and muddy fields to be at the side of the sickly Jane (23-24). Elizabeth is modest even in performance at the Netherfield Ball as “she had been listened to with much more pleasure, though not playing half so well [as Mary],” who appoints herself as entertainer while Elizabeth plays on request (17). Though Elizabeth and Darcy are not as warm as Jane, they all have good character due to the introversion of their fine deeds.
Those of good character in King Lear maintain a sense of duty to their superior after banishment and, unlike their evil counterparts such as Edmund and Goneril, they have no ulterior motives in their generosity. Edgar lives off the land as a recluse in the disguise of a “doleful, lunatic beggar” Tom O’Bedlam (I,i,146-147). He even goes so far as to feign madness, but later his father, Gloucester, loses his sight and depends on Edgar for guidance. Still posed as Tom, the gentle son supports Gloucester with the caring, yet misleading words “Give me thy arm, Poor Tom shall lead thee” (IV,i,80-81). Misleading because he does not tell his blind father his true identity, but it is the anonymity of his charity that reveals him as a noble character. Lear’s youngest and only honest daughter, Cordelia, faces disownment from her father when she fails to follow her sisters’ examples of eloquent speeches of devotion (I,i,89-91). She chooses to honestly express to her father “You have begot me, bred me, loved me. I return these duties back as are right fit, obey you, love, and most honor you” (I,i,97-102). Her oath holds true when her feeble father necessitates a caring soul; “O, look upon me, sir and hold your hand in benediction over me” she says to him during his descent into madness and state of invalidity. Lear also denounces his servant Kent for siding with Cordelia’s plight. Kent’s efforts to reason with the king by sounding in with “Royal Lear, whom I have honored as my king, loved as my father, as master followed” are futile (I,i,142-145). Not even Lears’s cruelty can deter the devotion of Kent as he returns to Lear’s side in disguise and solicits himself as a servant for the king (I,iv,1-44). Along with Edgar and Cordelia, Kent passes the ultimate test of loyalty by voluntarily coming to the aid of the hand that once pushed him away.
If Shakespeare’s villains show disrespect for parents and elders, then Cordelia and Edgar demonstrate total faithfulness to their respective parents, especially in moments at which the elder is at his most vulnerable2E However, Edgar and Kent do not act in complete honesty due to their false, but harmless, identities. Austen detracts from Shakespeare in that characters of high value, like Darcy and Elizabeth, show respect for their superiors but do not look upon them in a positive light. Darcy even apologizes to Elizabeth for the unrefined manners of his aunt Lady Catherine, who is of a noble position. Good characters of Pride and Prejudice and King Lear’s Kent and Edgar do not match their words to their deeds at times, but it is always with tasteful intent.
Although King Lear and Pride and Prejudice are of different genres, readers can match characters, good and bad, and draw parallels between their actions and contacts. Edmund and Wickham are extremely close in character, almost as if Austen modeled her villain after one of Shakespeare’s and placed him in the context of a satire. Both men put up a personable front and simultaneously manipulate others into turning against an innocent man, who stands in the villain’s way of attaining the want and desire. Edmund seeks possession of Edgar’s inheritance and convinces Gloucester of Edgar’s malevolence; Wickham damages Darcy’s reputation even though Darcy has knowledge of his immoral escapades and also has the power to expose the fraudulent man for what he truly is worth. Failure to reach the material goal awaits both Edmund and Wickham at the close of each work. A duke sends away the former as a criminal before he attains any form of wealth (V,iii,258) while Darcy forces the latter to marry an obnoxious fifteen-year-old, which ruins Wickham’s plans of gaining any positive status.
Edgar and Darcy are on the other side of the conflicts of Edmund and Wickham, respectively, and they too parallel each other in that both are victims of rumor, but it is reasonable to initially write them off as merely adverse characters because of their flaws. Edgar takes on the persona of a mad vagabond when he actually has a lucid state of mind. Darcy never projects himself worthy of anyone’s sympathy; in the words of Elizabeth, the general impression of Darcy is that “he is not at all liked in Hertfordshire. Everybody is disgusted with his pride. You will not find him more favorably spoken of by anyone” (Austen 59). In spite of interference from another party, Edgar and Darcy both succeed in managing the desire of his interferer. As one of the last three still breathing after multiple deaths in the conclusion of King Lear, Edgar stands to inherit a mass of land to rule over, which is exactly what Edmund so craftily works to achieve from the start of the play. After the truth of Wickham comes out to Elizabeth, Darcy wins her admiration along with her hand in marriage. In the predicaments of Edgar and Darcy, their good will prevails and leads to reward despite minor character flaws.
Character correspondence fits the relationship between Cordelia and Jane as well as it does for Edmund and Wickham, and Edgar and Darcy. Cordelia and Jane share common ground in roles as extremely humble and truthful daughters. However, even the humble are not without their imperfections. Though she is genuinely a good character, Cordelia is also a weak character with her inability to grow and create change. Her time in King Lear ends as a victim of execution (V,iii,255). Jane, being in a comedy, is not a casualty on Austen’s part; her flaw is in her inability to see ill nature in any being. She fails to recognize Miss Bingley’s efforts to hinder her growing relationship with Mr. Bingley, her newfound love. As is the case with Edgar and Darcy, Cordelia and Jane also find a rainbow after a metaphorical storm. The Lord of France takes Cordelia as his wife following her chastisement from Lear, but long before her unfortunate demise. Jane’s end is in the marriage to her equal in amiability, Mr. Bingley. While the paths of Cordelia and Jane diverge when one dies, both have virtuous character that overpowers her flaws to result in attainment of a kingdom for the Shakespeare’s quasi-heroine and admiration of a honorable man for Austen’s conflict-free character.
The similitude of King Lear and Pride and Prejudice is in all characters’ want of a common goal—wealth and esteem in the tragedy, admiration and a noteworthy reputation in the comedy—but lowly characters choose tasteless, ostentatious, and extroverted methods in meeting the desire. Superior characters demonstrate non-public acts, and anonymous deeds in terms of King Lear, and always without selfish intent. Those successful in attaining the want in both works are on the good side, but inevitable flaws mildly contaminate their characters. As authors, Austen and Shakespeare have the power to personify perfection and invent a role with developed, first-rate, and unblemished character. No one is without fault; high-value characters are the next best example of humanity. Through two contrasting literary pieces, Austen and Shakespeare both present readers with the proposition that one need not be perfect to have noble and virtuous character.
Austen, Jane. Pride and Prejudice. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998.
Shakespeare, William. King Lear. England: Signet Classics, 1998.
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