Lesson 6

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Key Question 6

a) The opening Act of King Lear evidently portrays Lear’s downward movement as it coincides with Aristotle’s structure of Greek tragedy. The play begins with Lear, a hero of noble birth and ruler of Britain, in an ordered society soon to be disrupted by a fatal flaw that is the result of his excessive pride. His journey from the ordered to the disordered world becomes apparent after he hands his land over to his two elder daughters and banishes his youngest daughter Cordelia from the kingdom. The initial situation began when Lear asks Cordelia, “What can you say to draw / A third more opulent than your sisters?” (I i 87-88), in which she answers “Nothing, my lord” (I i 89). This demonstrates Lear’s arrogance and triggers the rash decision he makes that would greatly impact the tragic events that follow. At the end of the scene, his two elder daughters immediately work to conspire against him so that he would be left with no power at all. Goneril says to Regan that they “must do something, and i’ th’ heat” (I ii 311). This foreshadows Lear’s impending downward movement and begins the reversal of his fortunes as things go from bad to worse. Lear’s recognition of the truth and the existence of his tragic circumstance becomes slightly clear to him when he wonders whether he has lost his mind and cries out “O let me not be mad, not mad, sweet heaven!” (I v 46). Act I leaves off at this stage where Lear is about to suffer tremendously before further stages of recognition, retribution, and restitution occur later in the play.

b) In Act I of King Lear, references to the principle motifs of nature and the unnatural, sanity/madness, and “nothing” all reinforce the downward movement of Lear’s perception of his own identity. Lear’s Fool constantly tries to warn him of his mistake in a series of riddles, puns, and songs: “The hedge-sparrow fed the cuckoo so long / That it had it head bit off by it young” (I iv 221-222). Referencing the nature of animals in that song, the Fool is telling Lear that his two daughters resemble a traitorous “cuckoo” who betrays the one who raised them. This emphasizes the eventual downward movement of Lear’ perception of his own identity as a father who is so “loved” by his daughters. When Lear leaves Goneril’s castle and is preparing to visit his other daughter Regan, he prayed to heaven that he would not go crazy: “O let me not be mad, not mad, sweet heaven! Keep me in temper, I would not be mad!” (I v 46-47). Lear’s fear of going insane from his daughter’s betrayal demonstrates another downward movement of Lear’s perception of his own identity. Also, references to the motif of nothingness occur when the Fool is speaking to Lear in the presence of Kent. The Fool asks Lear, “Can you make no use of nothing, Nuncle?” (I iv 133-134), in which Lear responds, “Why, no boy. Nothing can be made out of nothing” (I iv 135-136). This is foreshadowing Lear’s inevitable downfall because he would soon have nothing to make use of since he has chosen to hand all of his formal authority over to his two daughters who do not actually love him. It appears that Lear’s perception of his positive, all-powerful identity is about to lead him into a tragic breakdown in the way the three motifs of nature and the unnatural, sanity/madness, and “nothing” are referenced throughout the first Act of the play.

c) Lear calls upon his three daughters and announces that he intends to divide his kingdom among them, promising the greatest share to the daughter who declares that she loves him the most. Goneril begins with her speech telling Lear that she loves him “more than words can wield” (I i 57) and Regan makes a request to receive the same value of fortunes as her sister, telling Lear, “I am made of that same mettle as my sister, / And prize me at her worth. In my true heart / I find she names my very deed of love” (I i 71-73). Both daughters’ speeches, filled with exaggerated flattery and blatant lies, earn each...
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