King Lear and Morality

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Braden W. Lauer
Shirley McDonald
English 150-105
26 February 2010
The Presentation and Promotion of Morality in King Lear
Throughout life humans are faced with many crises and obstacles. It is the way in which we react to these obstacles, however, that ultimately defines our personalities. This idea is found in works by William Shakespeare where characters are continually faced with conflicts and strife. In Shakespeare’s King Lear, characters react to conflict and chaos in a number of ways thereby revealing their personalities and solidifying the idea of a certain code of conduct to live by. Shakespeare’s code of conduct allows characters that are cautious as well as principled to achieve some sort of goal or revelation for the greater macrocosm. The characters that we would define as immoral act upon personal gain and are ultimately foiled, yet some of those that we would consider to be moral characters are met with untimely deaths. Despite a seeming injustice to the code of conduct caused by some protagonist’s deaths, there is still a justice to be found in the overall good of the kingdom as the concepts and actions of morality persevere.

Before taking a deeper look at the personalities that describe certain characters we must delve into the question of how these personalities are developed and inferred by a reader. In Shakespeare’s other plays, character’s traits are usually revealed by some degree of inward thinking: A soliloquy or a weighing of options. In Hamlet for example, characters only engage in confrontations when absolutely necessary and they are completely characterized by their contemplations and thoughts. King Lear is the complete opposite. Soliloquies are rare and people are almost always characterized by the actions they take, not the mental processes preceding the action. Only by looking at the physical behaviours of the characters in King Lear can we define their personalities. Mack agrees that “action comes as naturally as breathing and twice as quick.” (227). Some characters are quite rational; others are not. Some characters act with integrity; others do not. While exploring the different combinations of these traits in characters, and how they affect a character’s impact on the kingdom, one realizes quickly the code of conduct that Shakespeare advocates. Characters such as Edmund, Regan, and Goneril act quite rationally throughout the tragedy of King Lear, yet they rarely act with integrity. It is the ultimate aspects of deception and dishonesty in these characters that Shakespeare punishes at the end of the play. At the onset of the play Regan and Goneril are depicted as deep thinkers. They regard the chaos caused by Lear’s splitting of the kingdom as something they should further think on, realizing that the man has been having “unconstant starts” (1.1.304). The pair begin to go through a number of steps to decrease their father’s power and increase their own. These actions reveal that these characters are quite calculating and intelligent. Their following actions to pluck out Gloucester’s eyes and to compete against each other for Edmund’s love are what reveal the most damning aspect of their personalities: ambition. The ambition that the two sisters have for increasing their own power portrays them as the major villains of the play and can be considered the reason for the many dishonest and deceiving things that they do. Another character that has a similar personality to the two older sisters is Edmund. After the chaos of the initial scene Edmund realizes that things are looking favorable for changes in the kingdom so he begins to scheme for his own promotion within the court. He reveals his calculating and rational mind as he sets up the plot to run his brother out of the kingdom and become the most loved son. Like the sisters though, Edmund’s ambition soon takes hold of his entire personality. Edmund reveals this when he betrays his father’s trust and juggles the love of Regan and...
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