King Lear is Shakespeare’s greatest play and very likely the greatest work of literature ever written. Its themes are of the most profound nature. What is the ultimate power that moves the universe? What is the meaning of justice? What motivates man to be evil or good?
The play takes place in 800 B.C. King Lear has led Britain for sixty years. During his reign he has created a fantasy land not founded on truth. He is blind to what is really around him. He is a man of vast potential; a man of enormous passion, humanity, dignity and strength who has been inundated with lies, flattery unchallenged obedience and false adoration. He who most needed and demanded truth, he whose inner being was so honest, trusting and ethical learned to compromise his integrity, thriving on lies while his subconscious, his essence, has been devastated. He has denied himself his most important need: self-realization.
When the play opens, Lear’s psychological state is such that he is often incapable of controlling his strongest emotions. He is aware of this lack of control. Even as he indulges it he fears the consequences Lear has always been a man of lowering passion but had the incredible mind and will to match it. Now, however, his purpose and control have been eroded by his increasingly irrational emotional state. Lear’s madness is not the result of evil or unjust actions, but that his actions belie his essence. Emotionally induced madness is brought on by an overwhelming accumulation of lies that the subconscious rebels against. The manifestation of madness is the body and mind’s defense against total physical destruction. Immoral actions do not induce madness in those whose essence condones them. Witness the unethical characters in King Lear who rarely lose their equanimity and are always objectively aware of what they are doing.
Edmund, the bastard son of Gloucester, knows exactly what he wants and is willing to do anything to get it. He is not immoral but amoral. He will be anything and do anything to achieve his nefarious end. He has an uncanny ability to encourage people to be what they are arid to express themselves fully. Then he uses this knowledge to destroy them. He radiates concern and empathy, and always for his own malevolent purposes.
Goneril, Lear’s eldest daughter, trusts no one, anticipating chicanery and duplicity from everyone she deals with. She believes that there are two kinds of people, those who will kill and destroy to achieve their goals and those who won’t, simply because they lack the courage. To the extent that she practices evil is the extent to which she sees and anticipates it in others. No sooner is she given new power than she is already afraid of losing it. No moment in her life is savored or enjoyed, no victory brings satisfaction. In effect, every gain in her life is a loss because it creates a new problem. She is not defeated because of complacency, but because she sees everything as a potential threat and so she continually strikes out and finally overreaches. Cornwalll, husband of Regan, is an excellent study of a purely sadistic brutal and vicious character. He is hot-tempered, ambitious, cowardly, ruthless and arrogant. He is a born dictator with a rigid code by which he judges others, but he considers himself sacrosanct. He believes that he who has the ability or good fortune to achieve power automatically has the right to use it any way he deems fit. Unlike Edmund, he is not amoral. He does have a code and rules by which he lives. He is a religious man. He believes that if one achieves power on his own it results in a divine authority and that if one inherits power (as he has) it demonstrates God’s recognition of this authority.
Goneril’s sister Regan is an insidious, vicious, mean-tempered woman who unlike Goneril has always given the appearance of being docile and even sweet. This stems from a certain diffidence and a basically quieter nature which in no way makes her morally superior. Both sisters view everything in terms of themselves and how it relates to them. Nothing else is important. Nothing else means anything. When any of these evil characters taste blood they seem to become infected by it. But it is not the taste of blood that is the catalyst, but the desire to taste it. Cordelia and Kent are outstanding studies of the virtuous and ethical nature. They are impulsive, emotional and loyal creatures who can neither lie to themselves or others. Since they are so totally discerning and selective, their devotion to Lear tells us a great deal about his ultimate worth.
Gloucester, father to Edmund and Edgar, is an undiscerning, selfish, credulous and superstitious man. He is opinionated and cynical and is constantly seeking re-affirmation of his cynicism. While Lear seeks confirmation of love and trust, Gloucester seeks the opposite. He is a kind and decent man with a weak, impressionable nature. It is his nature to be acted upon and led by stronger personalities. When the events and people who influence him are decent and moral he acts accordingly, but when they are not he goes against his essence.
Lear and Gloucester are both lied to, but this is secondary. What is paramount is that they, by accepting these lies as truth, have lied to themselves. They knew better but did not act on their knowledge. The Fool represents a pure expression of instinct. He is never cunning or clever by design. He is led by his heart and mind. He is nature domesticated. He is driven to say and do what he does. In his nightly dreams he discovers and expresses his ideas, thoughts and songs. Upon awakening his subconscious is filled with discovery. During his waking hours he discovers and expresses. Upon awakening, his subconscious is filled with discovery. During his waking hours he taps this reservoir, but he never consciously knows where the discoveries are coming from. To a great extent he represents Lear's subconscious mind, which erupts finally into madness.
Albany, husband of Goneril, is a decent, ethical man who prefers to avoid altercation and acrimony. He is one of that vast majority who don't become involved until touched personally by evil. Oswald, Goneril's servant, is as loyal to her as Kent is to Lear. He is as unconscionably ruthless and cold-blooded as his mistress. Edgar, Gloucester's legitimate son, is a totally trusting and ingenuous soul. He not only trusts his brother Edmund, he thanks him. Like Cordelia and Lear, he can't conceive of people being so evil and vicious and is therefore vulnerable to their actions. During the play he goes through an incredible process of development and maturity. He learns that only when a man loses all hope has he begun to reach the nadir of all misery. His character illustrates one of the main themes of King Lear: self-awareness, self-realization and the understanding of human nature is always an ongoing and never-ending process. A wise man is never in limbo. Losing a battle is better than not being engaged. To attempt to strive -- to seek is, by its very nature, a step ahead. Though a particular battle may be lost, the idea, the struggle, is a hypertrophy.
King Lear speaks to us of many things. Through Edmund, Goneril, Regan, Cornwall and Oswald we see a supreme study of evil in all its ramifications. Malevolence contributes nothing to the world except chaos and destruction: its execution is its end. Edmund has an incredible talent for manipulating people and achieving power. Goneril and Regan have the aggressiveness, tenacity and cold-bloodedness to attain power, but nothing more. None of them have anything of value to bring to their conquests. They thrive on error, adversity, chaos, stupidity, mindlessness and apathy. They are no more unnatural than the elements of nature. They represent evil that exists in and of itself.
By the same token Kent, Cordelia and Edgar give their friendship, love and loyalty because they must; it is part of their natural consciousness and genuine humanity. The servant who dies trying to protect Gloucester from Cornwall makes a free choice that stems from his basic nature. The Captain who hangs Cordelia is a ruthless, brutal monster who is purely and simply self-motivated. To attribute it to anything else is to excuse it. Unfortunately, the immoral nature has an advantage over the moral one. It can be anything, assume any guise (witness Edmund) to achieve its ends, while the moral nature (witness Cordelia and Kent) can only be what it is and speak what it thinks and feels. Evil has an outstanding weakness; it cannot self-generate. Its growth depends upon the support and allowance of others. Albany is the perfect example of one who prefers not to get involved. He has the right to remove himself from the battle, but must then be prepared to pay the price. It must be noted that Albany, Edgar and Kent survive, and that Edmund, Goneril and Regan are destroyed by mere fortuitousness. It is Shakespeare's way of making us realize what could have happened.
At the beginning of the play Lear is a doomed man. He has lived a life of lies for too long, though it is not too late for him to come to terms with and make constructive use of it. He demands too much too soon, and brings about the destruction of his mind. His madness does not bring clarity. Nothing constructive is created from madness. Insanity is the most horrible disease a man can suffer. The profundity of Lear's words during his period of madness is brought on by a release of inhibitions and a free display of his subconscious nature. His greatest moments of insight actually occur before he goes mad and after he recovers. The incredible pain that Lear experiences prior to his psychosis activates his ability to empathize with the suffering of others. Without the full expression of empathy a person such as Lear is doomed to psychic annihilation.
My new, full-length feature film