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Truth and Deception in Shakespeare's King Lear
Transcript of Truth and Deception in Shakespeare's King Lear
Thesis: Honest characters are treated harshly while deceptive characters progress due to powerful characters' one-dimensional perceptions.
Throughout King Lear, Shakespeare presents characters that have various approaches to honesty. The characters use dishonesty with either good intentions or to serve their own purposes. Some character's honesty become a disadvantage while some show disloyalty through their lies.
Goneril and Regan
Goneril and Regan
Goneril's speech is a proclamation of love which is similar to Regan's.
Neither of them actually love their father which is evident later on, but they know that in order to receive land and power they must flatter him.
Regan and Goneril lie because of their greed for power. They lie with the wrong intentions.
Despite this, King Lear falls for their flattery and divides his kingdom among them.
Therefore, Goneril and Regan's lies bring them land and power.
Edmund Selfishly Manipulates
Similarly, Edmund lies for the purpose of gaining power as well.
Edmund declares that he will find away to replace his father's love in his legitimate brother, Edgar, and also to become the son to inherit Gloucester's land.
"Sir, I do love you more than words can wield the matter/
Dearer than eyesight, space, and liberty,/
Beyond what can be valued, rich or rare,/
No less than life, with grace, health, beauty, honor;/
As much as child e'er loved or father found;/
A love that makes breath poor and speech unable./
Beyond all manner of so much I love you" (1.1.60-67).
King Lear asks his daughters to tell him how much they love him before he can give them their inheritances.
"Legitimate Edgar, I must have your land.
Our father’s love is to the bastard Edmund
As to th’legitimate. Fine word—legitimate.
Well, my legitimate, if this letter speed,
And my invention thrive, Edmund the base
Shall top th’legitimate. I grow. I prosper" (1.2.17-22)
The false letter that Edmund writes
in the name of Edgar fools Gloucester into
thinking that Edgar wants to kill him.
Therefore, Gloucester unknowingly rewards Edmund's lies by giving him Edgar's inheritance.
Characters with Good
Cordelia is one of the characters that refuse to speak falsely for her own benefit. When her sisters flatter their father’s ego, she describes her true feelings of her father with no excess.
Although, her father sees her as "…untender…" because of her candor and he disowns her with anger.
Cordelia seems to have the ability to see the truth which Lear lacks.
"I know you what you are.."
"Time shall unfold what plaited cunning hides:
Who covers faults, at last shame them derides" (1.1.325-326).
Kent shows his complete devotion for the king by speaking the truth in order to look out for the king’s welfare.
"..be Kent unmannerly' When Lear is mad. What wouldst thou do, old man? Thinkst thou that duty shall have a dread to speak, When power to flattery bows? To plainess honour's bound, when majesty stoops to folly….And in thy best consideration check this hideous rashness'" (1.1.162-169)
Although, Kent is clearly advising Lear for his best interest, Lear, threatens him and want him “out of [his] sight”
Despite being threatened and banished for speaking the truth, he still remains loyal to Lear.
Even though Kent is seen as a character who speaks the truth for the sake of others, he still has to use deception in order to help the ones he is loyal to, namely King Lear.
He has “…other accents [which he] borrow[s]” so that his “good intent/May carry through itself to that full issue” (1.4.1-3).
Therefore, Kent must disguise himself and go against King Lear’s wishes in order to serve and protect Lear.
Likewise, Edgar lies with pure intentions. He must lie to others and assume a false identity since it will keep him alive. So, he “preserve[s] [him]self, and…take[s] the basest and most poorest shape” (2.3.6-7).
The Fool described Goneril as a cuckoo; “The hedge-sparrow fed the cuckoo so long, / that it’s had it head bit off by it young.” (1.4.221-222)
Fools are expected to criticize their masters. But when the fool tries to criticizes his masters, he is still punished. Even if he lies to make them happy, he is still whipped. When he is trying to tell the truth about Goneril and Regan, he is threatened to get whipped. "An you lie, sirrah, we'll have you whipped" (1.4.185)
Characters with Good Intentions
The Truth is Exposed
Throughout the play, lies are exposed and the characters lied to are ashamed and seek reconciliation from the victim of the lie.
For example, when Gloucester realizes that Edmund was the “…treacherous villain…that hates [him] and made the overture of [his] treasons to” Reagan and Cornwall, he realizes that Edgar was the “dear son” who was the “food of [his] abused fathers wrath” (4.1.22-23).
Gloucester wishes that he may “live to see [Edgar] in [his] touch” in fact, he feels that meeting Edgar would be as good as having his eyes again.
King Lear finds out that it was Cordelia who was the honest and loving daughter even with her unsatisfying declaration of love. When treated with cruelty and betrayal by his two eldest daughters, Lear realizes that they are “wicked creatures” and asks Cordelia to “bear with [him], forget, and forgive” because he is “old and foolish” (4.7.98-99).
Why So Easily Mislead?
While Lear is blind in the sense that he is lacking insight, understanding, and direction. He does not see the true nature of those around him. His pride and superficial view blinds him.
The moment Edmund points out that Edgar could be scheming against him, Gloucester says that he is an "abhorred villain, unnatural, detested, brutish villain" (Act I. Scene ii.)
Unable to see into Edgar's character.
In addition, Lear was also in a position of great power and should have been more cautious and not assumed that everyone was trusting and loyal.
Likewise, Gloucester should have be more wary of others because he is in a position of power, especially since Edmund, being an illegitimate son, would have motive to lie.
However, Edmund does put on a very authentic looking act when he pretends to hide the letter.
"Notes: King Lear." Alexanderbarnett.com. Classic Theatre International Program, 2005.
Web. 15 Apr. 2014.
Barbara A. Mowat, and Paul Werstine. The Tragedy of King Lear. New York:
Washington Square, 1993. Print.
Tomkins, Hannah. "Shakespeare Art Museum - Cordelia & Kent in King Lear." Shakespeare Art Museum -
Cordelia & Kent in King Lear. N.p., 2006. Web. 11 Apr. 2014.
1. What do you think Shakespeare teaches us about honesty in King Lear? (Opinion Question and Try To Use Examples)
2. Do you think that the truthful characters received justice or at least were satisfied in the end? (Prove it)
Lear is vulnerable to his manipulative, lying daughters because he has a superficial value of things such as love. He is easily flattered.