King Lear, by William Shakespeare, is a tragic tale of filial conflict, personal transformation, and loss. The story revolves around the King who foolishly alienates his only truly devoted daughter and realizes too late the true nature of his other two daughters. A major subplot involves the illegitimate son of Gloucester, Edmund, who plans to discredit his brother Edgar and betray his father. With these and other major characters in the play, Shakespeare clearly asserts that human nature is either entirely good, or entirely evil. Some characters experience a transformative phase, where by some trial or ordeal their nature is profoundly changed. We shall examine Shakespeare's stand on human nature in King Lear by looking at specific characters in the play: Cordelia who is wholly good, Edmund who is wholly evil, and Lear whose nature is transformed by the realization of his folly and his descent into madness.
The play begins with Lear, an old king ready for retirement, preparing to divide the kingdom among his three daughters. Lear has his daughters compete for their inheritance by judging who can proclaim their love for him in the grandest possible fashion. Cordelia finds that she is unable to show her love with mere words:
"Cordelia. [Aside] What shall Cordelia speak? Love,
and be silent."
Act I, scene i, lines 63-64.
Cordelia's nature is such that she is unable to engage in even so forgivable a deception as to satisfy an old king's vanity and pride, as we see again in the following quotation:
"Cordelia. [Aside] Then poor cordelia!
And not so, since I am sure my love's
More ponderous than my tongue. "
Act I, Scene i, lines 78-80.
Cordelia clearly loves her father, and yet realizes that her honesty will not please him. Her nature is too good to allow even the slightest deviation from her morals. An impressive speech similar to her sisters' would have prevented much tragedy, but Shakespeare has crafted Cordelia such that she could never consider such an act. Later in the play Cordelia, now banished for her honesty, still loves her father and displays great compassion and grief for him as we see in the following:
"Cordelia. O my dear father, restoration hang
Thy medicine on my lips, and let this kiss
Repair those violent harms that my two sisters
Have in reverence made."
Act IV, Scene vii, lines 26-29.
Cordelia could be expected to display bitterness or even satisfaction at her father's plight, which was his own doing. However, she still loves him, and does not fault him for the injustice he did her. Clearly, Shakespeare has crafted Cordelia as a character whose nature is entirely good, unblemished by any trace of evil throughout the entire play.
As an example of one of the wholly evil characters in the play, we shall turn to the subplot of Edmund's betrayal of his father and brother. Edmund has devised a scheme to discredit his brother Edgar in the eyes of their father Gloucester. Edmund is fully aware of his evil nature, and revels in it as seen in the following quotation:
"Edmund. This is the excellent foppery of the world,
that when we are sick in fortune, often the surfeits
of our own behaviour, we make guilty of our disasters
the sun, the moon, and stars; as if we were
villains on necessity; fools by heavenly compulsion;
knaves, thieves, and treachers by spherical
predominance; drunkards, liars, and adulterers by
an enforced obedience of planetary influence; and
all that we are evil in, by a divine thrusting on.
... I should have been that I
am, had the maidenliest star in the firmament twinkled
on my bastardizing."
Act I, scene ii, lines 127-137, 143-145.
Clearly, Edmund recognizes his own evil nature and decides to use it to his advantage. He mocks the notion of any kind of supernatural or divine influence over one's destiny. Edgar must go into hiding because of...