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The Downfall of King Lear
Transcript of The Downfall of King Lear
The misfortunes and tragic downfall of King Lear are believed to be the fault of his two malicious daughters, Regan and Goneril. However, it is in fact the fault of the King himself for his misfortunes due to his irrational decisions, reckless behaviour and overbearing sense of pride.
The Necessity of His Knights
The Downfall of King Lear
"I am a man more sinn'd against than sinning."
King Lear, (III, ii, 59-60)
Giving Away His Power
King Lear decides to give up his land to his three daughters at the opening of the play. This is the first mistake, of the many to come, that Lear makes and ultimately what begins the drama of the play.
It seems as though Lear wants to shift the responsibility of being a leader down to onto his daughters so he can simply enjoy the luxuries that come with being King. He still, however, wishes to be referred to as 'King' and treated as one too.
The irrationality appears with the giving away of his land, for he believes he will remain an authoritative figure and have power, even though he just gave it all away. Lear clearly did not think his decision through and is now suffering the consequences of giving away his land and even more so, his power.
"Are you not our daughter?" (I, iv, 203)
"O Reason not the need!... (II, iv, 261)
Banishment of Cordelia and Kent
Aside from the Fool, Cordelia and Kent are clearly the most loyal and devoted characters to Lear throughout the play.
Cordelia is banished for not appeasing Lear's ego and simply being honest during the love test. Despite being absent acts one through four, she shows her loyalty and love to Lear when she:
refuses to participate in the 'love test'
accepts his anger/banishment
comes to his aid when Cornwall attacks
takes care of him after the battle
Kent is banished for defending Cordelia, and attempting to get Lear to change his mind and see the truth. He shows his loyalty to Lear by:
returning in disguise to continue to help
defending him against Oswald and Cornwall
venturing into the storm with him
remaining by his side the whole play
"Unhappy that I am, I cannot heave
My heart into my mouth. I love your majesty
According to my bond; no more nor less." (I, i, 90-93)
Let it fall rather, though the fork invade
The region of my heart: be Kent unmannerly,
When Lear is mad. What wilt thou do, old man?
Think'st thou that duty shall have dread to speak,
When power to flattery bows? To plainness honour's bound,
When majesty stoops to folly. Reverse thy doom;
And, in thy best consideration, cheque
This hideous rashness: 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, 143-154)
In banishing both Cordelia and Kent, Lear is losing the two most loyal and loving characters to him. This irrational decision has left him with only the Fool to advise him, however what is said by the Fool is often seen as humor and nothing more. Therefore, Lear is now left with no one to guide, advise or help him throughout the rest of the play.
When Lear decides to live with Regan and Goneril monthly he goes with Goneril first. He brings with him one hundred of his knights and spends each moment with them, drinking, eating and having a merry time.
He and the knights are rowdy and loud when they are together, they stay up until late hours of the night and do not seem to care about how disruptive they are being.
This irritates Goneril and she begins to regret allowing him to stay with her. His reckless behaviour in her home is what drives her to ask him to leave and begin his madness.
"Not only, sir, this your all-licensed fool,
But other of your insolent retinue
Do hourly carp and quarrel; breaking forth
In rank and not-to-be endured riots. Sir,
I had thought, by making this well known unto you,
To have found a safe redress; but now grow fearful,
By what yourself too late have spoke and done.
That you protect this course, and put it on
By your allowance; which if you should, the fault
Would not 'scape censure, nor the redresses sleep,
Which, in the tender of a wholesome weal,
Might in their working do you that offence,
Which else were shame, that then necessity
Will call discreet proceeding." (I, iv, 190-204)
Lear has now broken his bond with another one of his daughters. Due to his obnoxious behavior Goneril has requested him remove 50 of his knights, and his refusal leads to his departure. Without this reckless behaviour he may have been able to stay with Goneril and Regan without problem.
Running Into the Storm
After his conflict with both Goneril and Regan, Lear flees into the storm to avoid going 'mad'. He believes that if he shows emotion towards the situation insanity will take over, and therefore he reverts back to nature and enters the storm. Before doing so, he continuously curses his daughters with hateful words, showing his reckless behaviour. What Lear does not know is that in his absence he is allowing his daughters, Cornwall and Edmund to take over the land he once called his own.
"No, you unnatural hags,
I will have such revenges on you both,
That all the world shall--I will do such things,--
What they are, yet I know not: but they shall be
The terrors of the earth. You think I'll weep
No, I'll not weep:
I have full cause of weeping; but this heart
Shall break into a hundred thousand flaws,
Or ere I'll weep. O fool, I shall go mad!" (II, iv, 275-283)
Sense of Pride
The 'love test' that Lear presents to his daughters is the first glimpse of his overbearing sense of pride. The test is essentially a way for the daughters to tell him exactly what he wants to hear in order to boost his already inflated ego in return for his land.
However, this is the moment in which Lear makes many mistakes involving trust and belief. For he grants his land to his two deceitful daughters who flatter him, whereas his truthful daughter is banished.
Lear already knows that Cordelia loves him more than anyone, but simply because she did not appeal to his ego he denies her. His pride overcame his mind and he made the biggest mistake of his life because of that.
"Let it be so; thy truth, then, be thy dower:
For, by the sacred radiance of the sun,
The mysteries of Hecate, and the night;
By all the operation of the orbs
From whom we do exist, and cease to be;
Here I disclaim all my paternal care,
Propinquity and property of blood,
And as a stranger to my heart and me
Hold thee, from this, for ever. The barbarous Scythian,
Or he that makes his generation messes
To gorge his appetite, shall to my bosom
Be as well neighbour'd, pitied, and relieved,
As thou my sometime daughter." (I, i, 107-120)
Lear is currently fighting with both Goneril and Regan about the issues regarding him staying with them. The girls complain about the rowdiness of him and his knights and tell him he must get rid of them all before he can stay.
This enrages Lear, for he has never been told what to do before. He refuses to live without his knights, and also to give reason as to why he needs them. He is too proud to give up anything or listen to anyone and this later results in him fleeing into the storm.
"Fifty men dismiss'd?
No, rather I abjure all roofs, and choose
To wage against the enmity o' the air;" (II, iv, 204-206)
Pities Himself and Takes No Blame
As the play progresses and Lear's misfortune increases, it is assumed he would see the error in his ways. However Lear continuously victimizes himself and places the blame on any other force other than himself.
Lear originally places the blame on his daughter Cordelia, stating that her betrayal began the betrayal of Goneril. He then blames both Goneril and Regan, referring to them as hags, vultures, tigers and cuckoos. Finally he carries the blame to the Gods, and refers to himself as a 'poor old man'.
He also speaks of criminals and their crimes to relate him to the victims of such crimes. He continues to speak of his innocence and how he is strictly the victim.
Lear neglects to take any blame for the incidents for his ego is far too large. In seeing his faults it could have been possible to fix what he has done.
"You heavens, give me that patience, patience I need!
You see me here, you gods, a poor old man,
As full of grief as age; wretched in both!" (II, iv, 268-270)
"Let the great gods,
That keep this dreadful pother o'er our heads,
Find out their enemies now. Tremble, thou wretch,
That hast within thee undivulged crimes,
Unwhipp'd of justice: hide thee, thou bloody hand;
Thou perjured, and thou simular man of virtue
That art incestuous: caitiff, to pieces shake,
That under covert and convenient seeming," (III, ii, 50-56)
"It was not without forethought, nor is it without its due significance, that the division of Lear's kingdom is in the first six lines of the play stated as a thing already determining his ending." (Reynolds, 1999)
Wrathful Nature of
Lear acts impulsively many times throughout the play, and each act is out of anger. He gets angry and banishes his loyal friends and family, curses the Gods and fellow characters, and even kills a guard.
Lear has issues with controlling his rage, which contribute to his misfortunes. He even refers to himself as a dragon at the opening of the play. If he were able to better manage his anger he could avoid many mistakes and possibly even survive to the end of the play.
Come not between the dragon and his wrath." (I, i, 120-121)
"Hear, nature, hear; dear goddess, hear!
Suspend thy purpose, if thou didst intend
To make this creature fruitful!
Into her womb convey sterility!
Dry up in her the organs of increase;
And from her derogate body never spring
A babe to honour her! If she must teem,
Create her child of spleen; that it may live,
And be a thwart disnatured torment to her!
Let it stamp wrinkles in her brow of youth;!" (I, iv, 265-274)
“He brings on his own downfall.., because he is temperamentally wrathful and arrogant, stupid and senile, or because he is dividing up his kingdom and resigning power, or because he sins against natural law.” (Schoff, 1962)
Insulting and Striking Oswald
Goneril gave instruction to Oswald, her servant, and the other servants to ignore Lear and all his knights. When Lear finally gets a hold of Oswald and experiences his rude actions, he hits him.
It is understood that Lear, as anyone, would be offended. However the violence and insults toward Oswald are unnecessary and later on equate to Kent being put in the stocks for arguing with Oswald the next day.
Lear: "'My lady's father'! my lord's knave: your
whoreson dog! you slave! you cur!"
"Do you bandy looks with me you rascal?"
*Striking him* (I, iv, 77-78)
Oswald: "I will not be strucken, my Lord." (I, iv, 81)
Kent: "Nor tripp'd neither, you base foot-ball player."
*Tripping up his heels* (I, iv, 82)
The misfortunes and ultimate downfall of Lear throughout the play are all due to his own actions and choices through his irrational decisions, reckless behaviour and inflated ego. He demonstrates countless irrational decisions that end up spiting him afterward, as well as unleashing ridiculous behaviour which not only upsets those around him, but leads him deeper into the conflict. However, it is the overbearing sense of pride that follows him all the way to the final act and effects every decision he makes and action he takes. It is Lear who is fully responsible for his downfall and the fatal ending that makes this play another Shakespearean tragedy.