King Lear: Analysis
Analysis: Act 1, scenes 1–2
The love test at the beginning of Act 1, scene 1, sets the tone for this extremely complicated play, which is full of emotional subtlety, conspiracy, and double-talk, and which swings between confusing extremes of love and anger. Lear’s demand that his daughters express how much they love him is puzzling and hints at the insecurity and fear of an old man who needs to be reassured of his own importance. Of course, rather than being a true assessment of his daughters’ love for him, the test seems to invite—or even to demand—flattery. Goneril’s and Regan’s professions of love are obviously nothing but flattery: Goneril cannot even put her alleged love into words: “A love that makes . . . speech unable / Beyond all manner of so much I love you” (1.1.59); Regan follows her sister’s lead by saying, “I find she names my very deed of love; Only she comes too short” (1.1.70–71). In contrast to her sisters, whose professions are banal and insincere, Cordelia does not seem to know how to flatter her father—an immediate reflection of her honesty and true devotion to him. “Love, and be silent,” she says to herself (1.1.60). When her father asks her the crucial question—what she can say to merit the greatest inheritance—she answers only, “Nothing, my lord,” and thus seals her fate (1.1.86). Cordelia’s authentic love and Lear’s blindness to its existence trigger the tragic events that follow. The shift of the play’s focus to Gloucester and Edmund in Act 1, scene 2, suggests parallels between this subplot and Lear’s familial difficulties. Both Lear and Gloucester have children who are truly loyal to them (Cordelia and Edgar, respectively) and children who are planning to do them harm (Goneril and Regan, and Edmund, respectively); both fathers mistake the unloving for the loving, banishing the loyal children and designating the wicked ones their heirs. This symbolic blindness to the truth becomes more literal as the play progresses—in Lear’s eventual madness and Gloucester’s physical blinding. Moreover, Gloucester’s willingness to believe the lies that Edmund tells him about Edgar seems to reflect a preexisting fear: that his children secretly want to destroy him and take his power. Ironically, this is whatEdmund, of course, wants to do to Gloucester, but Gloucester is blind to Edmund’s treachery. Gloucester’s inability to see the truth echoes the discussion between Goneril and Regan at the end of Act 1, scene 1, about Lear’s unreliability in his old age: the “infirmity of his age” (1.1.291) and his “unconstant starts” (1.1.298) evoke images of senility and suggest that his daughters ought to take control from him, just as Edmund is taking control from Gloucester. Edmund is significantly more complicated than the other major villains in the play, Regan and Goneril. He schemes against his father’s life, but not just because he wants to inherit his wealth and land; indeed, his principal motive seems to be desire for recognition and perhaps even the love denied him because of his bastard status. The first time we see Edmund, at the beginning of Act 1, scene 1, his own father is mocking him because he is illegitimate. Edmund’s treachery can be seen as a rebellion against the social hierarchy that makes him worthless in the eyes of the world. He rejects the “plague of custom” (1.2.3) that makes society disdain him and dedicates himself to “nature” (1.2.1)—that is, raw, unconstrained existence. He will not be the only character to invoke nature in the course of the play—the complicated relationships that obtain among the natural world, the gods above, and fate or justice pervade the entire play. Analysis: Act 1, scenes 3–5
In these scenes, the tragedy of the play begins to unfold. It is now becoming clear to everyone that Lear has made a mistake in handing over his power to Goneril and Regan. Lear’s major error is that, in stepping down from the throne, he has also given up all of his formal...
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