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A key motivator to the horrific violence and machiavellian betrayal that is present in King Lear is inter generational rivalry. In modern England the older generation held power and authority over the young, yet in Shakespeare’s Jacobean tragedy one can see the younger generation, led by Goneril, Regan and Edmund through their attempts to seize power, and overturn the natural order. Contrastingly one too can also see representations of the younger generation being far less subversive, with even some characters in the younger generation being characterised by their quest to preserve the natural order and prevent further destruction to the status quo.
Goneril and Regan, two members of the younger generation can be read as highly subversive characters characterised by their threatening autocratic personas. This is something introduced in the very first scene of the play with the sisters deceiving Lear with ‘glib and oily art’ in the highly public ceremony before confirming to ‘hit together’ in a private duologue, a sign of the viciousness which shall characterise them till their deaths in scene V. A key example of the ruthless behaviour used by the sisters to destroy the status quo is in Act 4 with Goneril discovering that her husband Albany is reluctant to fight Lear and Cordelia. Goneril subsequently notes to Edmund that she must ‘change arms at home and give distaff / into my husband’s hands’. Here Goneril simultaneously rejects the status quo role of the obedient wife and reverses it. This gender role reversal comes through the suggestion of giving ‘distaff’ to Albany, a reference to the stick commonly used for the spinning of wool, thus aligning Albany, her husband with the domestic role in the relationship. Furthermore, this point is emphasized to greater extent in the Folio publication of the play where Goneril’s dialogue reads ‘change names’ rather than ‘arms’ suggesting that the roles in the marriage are so reversed that she should in fact be called the husband, and he the wife. One could consider Goneril’s lines here to be an attack at the patriarchal nature of English society at the time, a world where men held typically held the power over women something depicted in the first act of the play through Lear’s offering up of Cordelia to France and Burgundy, with Lear even claiming ‘her price is fallen’. Another example, of the sisters being presented as ruthless, selfish and set on subverting the status quo comes in their involvement in what many consider to be the most horrific scene in the play, the blinding of Gloucester. In act 3, it is Regan who first suggests a method of punishing Gloucester for his betrayal urging that they ‘hang him instantly!’, yet the brutality is further built upon by her sister demanding in sickening fashion that they ‘Pluck out his eyes!’, a medieval punishment typical for rape, perhaps because of the sight was a key sense in provoking men to lust. Further emphasis of the machiavellian individualism of the sisters is gained through harsh sounds of the verb ‘pluck’ mirroring that of the brutal action. This is too achieved in the Shakespeare’s manipulation of the blank verse, with the sister’s lines coming together to form a line of complete iambic pentameter revealing their brutal synchronicity. This vindictive assertiveness of the sisters would of been shocking to a Jacobean audience with renaissance models of femininity requiring women to be passive and submissive, a theory turned on its head by the sisters violence and aggression in their destruction of the status quo.
Whilst one must note the vicious tyranny of Goneril and Regan, to say that the entire younger generation are presented as ruthlessly selfish in their aim to overturn natural order would be overlooking the role that Cordelia and Edgar play in the production. Whilst Cordelia’s appearances in the play are rare, appearing merely at the beginning and the end of the play, she is characterised by her saintliness. Lear, for example, in Act 5 describes her voice as ‘ever soft/ gentle and low- an excellent thing’, this line is something one struggles to imagine Lear using in relation to his other ‘dog hearted’ daughters, with the adjectives providing relief in a play full of hate, and aggression. Furthermore, amid Cordelia’s reappearance into the play in Act IV scene VII, Shakespeare aligns her character with the sound of music, with Lear urging she come nearer where ‘louder the music there’ This association of character with music signals the sense of harmony and natural oder returned to Lear through Cordelia, further contrasted to the sounds of the ‘[storm]’ of Act 3 sounds used by Shakespeare to mirror the chaos and confusion brought to the kingdom by Goneril and Regan. This interpretation is exaggerated in the quarto version of the play with Kent and a gentleman stressing Cordelia’s feminine beauty and modestly alongside the pain she feels when hearing about Lear’s suffering. It is therefore commonplace for critics to describe her as the truest character of the play with John Cunningham noting that she carries out her ‘natural duty of protecting and sheltering Lear’, an act that would certainly present her in positive light in front of an audience of the time with her acts of obedience to her elders perhaps curing the anxieties of the Jacobean age in which social and religious change was prevalent with the medieval world and traditional assumptions being under intense scrutiny.
Edgar too is a character that critics such as Rebecca Warren have considered ‘an agent of justice’ whom through his protection of his Father Gloucester and rise to Royalty at the play’s conclusion, he rises above the malevolent actions of his brother and Goneril and Regan, restoring order back to the Kingdom. Some have deemed Edgar’s actions so bold in fact in his attempted preservation of the old order that Valentine Cunningham has labeled him ‘the male double of Cordelia’. In Act IV scene VI Edgar defends his father Gloucester, from the vicious new order presented her in Oswald demanding he let ‘poor volk pass’. In his defence however Shakespeare presents his Edgar’s remorse, something absent in the his brother and the sisters. This remorse is shown through the line ‘I am only sorry/ He had no other deathsman’. This is crucial in the understanding of Edgar as a just character, with revengers in Jacobean dramas such as Vindice in ‘The Revenger’s Tragedy’ having sinister motives, but Edgar is presented as a benign figure seeking justice not out of self interests but out of a sense of righteousness. Edgar’s rise to King in the final scene must be deemed appropriate, especially by the Jacobean audience at the time to whom the King was not merely royalty, but a ruler on behalf of God. It is fitting therefore that Edgar is one of few characters in the play who has committed no crime against his family or the state, never questioning the authority of his elders and taking action when necessary.
Edmund, by contrast is certainly an example of the younger generation’s malevolent side, paralleling many villains in Jacobean drama, he is furious about the ‘plague of custom’ regarding his illegitimacy that keeps him on the edge of society. Throughout the play he is uncompromising, machiavellian and vicious in his aim to overturn custom. In Edmund’s claim that ‘Nature, art my goddess; to thy law/ My Services are bound’ the audience gains an understanding of the principles to which Edmund shall operate by. Nature is a brutal, anarchic force and by mirroring himself to it, Edmund foreshadows the subversion of the traditional order he shall aim to achieve in the play. Shakespeare uses Edmund’s first soliloquy to show his thirst for the destruction of the status quo ‘I grow, I prosper;/ Now, gods, stand up for bastards!’. This line is crucial in our understanding of Edmund’s views on natural order given even the subtle use of plural ‘Gods’ rather than God demonstrating contempt for the typical monotheistic views of the time. Furthermore, the mid line caesura would provide emphasis for this crucial line with his controversial words ringing out across the theater. This has been replicated in many film and TV productions of King Lear with Edmund often shot in a close up whilst delivering this soliloquy, achieving a similar effect of encouraging the viewer to see how persuasive and passionate a villain can be. Whilst at the time, this line would of been highly shocking, amongst modern audiences these lines may raise sympathy for Edmund, given his clear wronging in society, however Shakespeare soon rids the audiences of these feelings through Edmund’s methods employed to pursue it. His ‘framing’ of his Brother, betrayal, and torture of his father are considered deeply sinful and shocking amongst any audience. In act III scene III Shakespeare uses monosyllables to strengthen and dramatise the brutal overturning of the natural order that Edmund intends through his plan to betray his father to Cornwall, when she claims that ‘The younger rises when the old doth fall’. This line is crucial in understanding the intergenerational rivalry as a key motivator of the play. In early modern England the older generation held power and authority over the young. This could lead some members of the audience to sympathise with Edmund’s desire to get some power for himself, if not necessarily the machiavellian tactics he employs to do so.
In conclusion, certainly members within the younger generation are presented as ruthlessly individualistic, and determined to overturn status quo, however, to say that this is true for the entire generation in the play would be overlooking the efforts of Cordelia and Edgar. These are characters defined by the struggle in the play to undo the overturning of order done by their siblings and restore status quo to Lear’s divided Kingdom.
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