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The Influence of the Time Period Upon the Perceived Success of Kent, Goneril and Cordelia in Shakespeare’s King Lear

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Shakespeare’s King Lear was set in the Middle Ages (Mabillard) but written during the Renaissance era. There was an intense shift in how one viewed his relationship with the world right around that transition from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance. This included an adjustment in morals and one’s sense of purpose. The characters in King Lear displayed archetypal traits reflecting the common mindsets of each of those times. When analyzing Kent, Goneril and Cordelia in order to conclude who was the most successful within King Lear’s chaotic world, it is important to recognize that the relative success of these three characters depends strongly upon the temporal context their actions are perceived within. King Lear takes place in England during the 8th century, which fell within the Middle Ages, a time when theocentric thinking prevailed. Theocentricism is defined by the thought that God is at the center of the universe. In the 3rd century, out of these ideals, a method of order amongst all living things was established called The Great Chain of Being. This idea was first seen outlined in Plato’s theory of ‘The Forms’ (Bunnin 289). The Great Chain of Being was a hierarchical order based on responsibility and obligation (Meade). It’s most basic form began with God, who was followed by Angelic Beings, then humanity, animals, plants and finally minerals. Branching off of these specific sections are countless subdivisions that place every thing in existence in a certain rank. In the subdivision of humanity, the king was the highest ranking. The specific doctrine associated with this is The Divine Right of Kings that states that God had bestowed earthly power upon the kings (Kern 5). The Middle Ages were a time when keeping within this order of the Great Chain was not a question. It was considered a sin to operate outside of it especially when it directly involved an interaction with your king. To act against him was to act against God and that in itself will be the most important factor, to a person of this time period, when deciding which character was most successful. Although Shakespeare’s King Lear was set in the 8th century, the play was written between the years of 1603 and 1606. This was during the Renaissance era, which spanned from the 14th to the 17th century. The journey out of the Middle Ages and into the Renaissance was heavily marked by incredible discoveries, which resulted in turbulent shifts in regards to religion, power and man’s sense of purpose. The unearthing of the New World in the early 16th century (Davidson 417) and many other scientific finds, such as the Earth not being flat, took a serious shot at the credibility of the Church. Out of this questioning birthed what we know as Anthropocentricism, the idea that man, not God, is at the center of the universe. During the Renaissance period, two mindsets seemed to blossom out of Anthropocentricism. There were those who practiced Renaissance Humanism, which involved an eagerness to reveal man’s full potential for a fuller and more justifying existence (Ralph 23). As well as Machiavellianism where ‘morality was absolutely irrelevant: if a strategy worked, it was good; if it failed, it was bad’ (Ralph 43). Both of these mentalities held man at the center but also held him to very different standards. When analyzing the characters of King Lear against the differing backdrops of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, it is apparent that Shakespeare presented his cast as archetypes of the ideals of those times. An incredible embodiment of the way of the Middle Age’s is seen in the character Kent, especially when we look at his service to King Lear. Kent was a nobleman who acted as King Lear’s advisor and right hand man. When Lear held a flattery contest in order to decide the size of inheritance he would divide between his three daughters, Goneril, Regan and Cordelia, Kent was quick to step in for the best interest of the King. Lear was won over by the exaggeration of love that Goneril and Regan attempted to persuade him with and completely missed the true words spoken from the heart of Cordelia. ‘And in thy best consideration check this hideous rashness’ pleaded Kent ‘Answer my life my judgment, thy youngest daughter does not love thee least, nor are those empty-hearted whose low sound reverbs no hollowness (I.i.153).’ Lear becomes upset at his defiance and threatens Kent’s life if he does not mind his own to which Kent responds ‘My life I never held but as a pawn to wage against thy enemies, nor fear to lose it, Thy safety being motive. (I.i.159).’ This statement is one of a true theocentric man. To protect his king, Kent is willing to sacrifice his own life showing that he understands and operates within the great chain of being.
Nevertheless, Lear feels disrespected by Kent’s advice and banishes him from the kingdom. But, like the proper theocentric man that Kent is, his servitude to Lear does not end there. He dons the disguise of the peasant ‘Caius’ and regains the opportunity to serve Lear again once he is out on the heath. ‘Now, banished Kent, if thou canst serve where thou dost stand condemned, so may it come thy master, whom thou lovest, shall find thee full of labors (I.iv.6).’ Kent’s loyalty to Lear never waivers and we witness his ultimate sacrifice to his king in the final act of the play. These final scenes are a battle between France, represented by Cordelia and her husband King Burgundy, and Britain that is represented by Goneril and Regan’s forces. Sadly, Cordelia and Lear are captured and Cordelia is put to death by orders of Edmund. Witnessing this, Lear succumbs to his madness and misery as he faints and does not wake again. Albany, Goneril’s former husband and one of the only rulers left alive at the end of the battle, turns to Kent and the character Edgar stating that it will be them who will now reign over the kingdom (V.iii.338). Without hesitation Kent informs Albany, ‘I have a journey, sir, shortly to go. My master calls me. I must not say no (V.iii.340)’ and he dies as well. Whether it was Kent saying he will now enter the afterlife and continue to serve Lear there or that since Lear has passed he is no longer needed, in both reasoning’s there is a mind of a theocentric man. His responsibility and obligations are his ultimate duty and passion and for that, your common Middle Age’s man or woman would certainly deem Kent the most successful character, out of him, Goneril and Cordelia, in Shakespeare’s King Lear. Renaissance thinkers on the other hand would highly disagree. Kent’s actions being so strictly theocentric by blindly serving his king, go directly against what a humanist or Machiavellian person would agree to be prosperous.
A true poster child of the Machiavellian nature, is Lear’s eldest daughter, Goneril. She is anthropocentric in the sense that she recognizes her ability of control within her own world and completely disregards the theocentric order of the great chain of being with her self-serving nature and eager manipulation of her father and king. When Lear held his flattery contest, Goneril leapt to the opportunity. She recognized that all she had to do was inflate the truth and she would gain wealth, property and power. ‘Sir, I do love you more than words can wield the matter (I.i.54).’ With that her and her humble husband, at the time, Albany, were awarded half of King Lear’s kingdom, authority, income and everything else that accompanied kingship (I.i.130).
For this Machiavellian princess, half a kingdom was not enough. Goneril continued her anthropocentric warpath by hatching justifications with her sister, Regan, that Lear was senile and unpredictable (I.i.302). She felt it a burden to care for him and wished to take the small amount of power that he had left (I.i.310). She later did this by ordering her servants to disobey him, casting him out of her kingdom and questioning his use of the 100 knights he had exclusively asked to keep after the division.
Goneril’s next self-serving move began as a Machiavellian decision but did not pan out the way she had hoped. She was eager to have the character Edmund for herself with him being a strong, assertive and anthropocentric male (IV.ii.15). She understood that their courtship would propel her power further. Not long after Goneril’s decision to have Edmund, Regan’s husband Cornwall, dies and Regan is now a widow. She is advised to remarry as soon as possible and Edmund comes to mind as the most appropriate suitor. Goneril’s solution to this obstruction is to poison her own sister (V.iii.240). It follows the Machiavellian mandate in that it will certainly remove Regan from the picture and open the door for her and Edmund to be together, but as fate would have it, Albany becomes privy to Goneril’s adultery and her intent to murder him and charges her with treason (V.iii.162). Her power is completely stripped and she commits suicide, in the end losing literally everything (V.iii.239). A person from the Renaissance era that subscribed to Machiavellian anthropocentrism would see Goneril as one of the most successful characters in King Lear up until those final scenes. Goneril held herself above anyone and anything else and trampled her king, husband and sisters in order to gain power and property. Goneril completely disregarded the great chain and because of this would be an absolute disgrace to someone with a theocentric mind of the Middle Ages. A believer of Renaissance humanism would also view her as a failure. She was thinking for herself but she abused that ability and was not working anywhere towards the highest potential of herself as a human being. The last and possibly most interesting analysis of success is that of King Lear’s youngest daughter, Cordelia. What is curious is Cordelia’s gentle and neutral balance of the two ideals. Lear questions her last during the flattery contest and after Goneril and Regan’s overstatements, Cordelia simply responds, ‘I love your majesty according to my bond, no more nor less (I.i.92).’ The most obvious interpretation is that of theocentricism and that her statement is a referral to the great chain of being. Cordelia is not willing to put forth more than is required of her as a daughter and subject of King Lear. This can also be looked at as an independent anthropocentric reaction though. She knows her place and even with threats from her king, who would have been held on the same level as God in those times, Cordelia does not budge. She is banished from the kingdom, left with absolutely nothing and still stands by her belief. It is as if the truest theocentric person must maintain a hint of anthropocentrism in order to maintain it’s ultimate benefits. We continue to witness Cordelia’s undying loyalty to her father throughout the play, again, theocentric in her obligation with a touch of anthropocentricism in her actions. When she first learns of Lear having been cast out and now missing on the heath she turns to a Doctor and asks, ‘what can man’s wisdom, in the restoring his bereavèd sense? He that helps him take all my outward worth (IV.iv.8).’ Cordelia is explicitly asking, ‘what within human knowledge can make him sane again?’ Cordelia does not turn to God or Angels for answers to this problem; she seeks aid through mankind’s advancements. For this and her previous choices, a Renaissance humanist would name Cordelia as the most successful. Although she practices within the great chain, Cordelia thinks for herself and is on a path to do right by her own morals. This would be seen as a fulfilling approach to existence, despite her traditional ideals. A theocentric person of the Middle Ages may also dub her most successful. Someone practicing strict and slightly misguided theocentricism may feel it was wrong of her to refuse to give in to what Lear wanted but a true theocentric would observe her working flawlessly within the proposed model. A Machiavellian renaissance man on the other hand would see Cordelia as a colossal disappointment. She didn’t take advantage of the opportunity to gain the power Lear was so carelessly handing out, she continued her loyalty to Lear despite his outright dismissal of her and in the end she died at the hands of Edmund who she had every opportunity to become allied with. Through these three historical lenses, theocentricism of the Middle Ages and Machiavellianism and humanism of the Renaissance era, each character of Shakespeare’s King Lear can be found to be either a success or a failure. When analyzing Kent, Goneril and Cordelia there is no objective yardstick by which to gauge their success. Everyone who approaches the play will have his or her own prejudices and opinions that will be informed by various social, cultural and environmental factors. For example, what constitutes success for a british peasant in 1608 will bear little in common with what a 21st century Buddhist monk would deem a worthy accomplishment. Each man’s success can only truly be measured within his own mind.

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