King Lear’s Cataclysm
William Shakespeare’s plays often provided a great deal of insight into the psychology of his characters and King Lear is no exception. As King Lear prepares for his retirement, he thinks to set things up for a comfortable and easy journey through time to the end of his life. However, because of the choices he makes, Lear is forced to endure a much longer spiritual and physical journey through the door of death. As he travels from being ruler of his land to destitute madman to retired and dying king, Lear experiences a much longer spiritual and mental journey than he anticipated while still managing to maintain his nobility in the end.
As the play opens, King Lear is depicted as a strong king gone weak with age. He is tired of the burdens of ruling a country and makes plans to divide his kingdom among his three daughters and then to live out his last years in peace and comfort, being provided for by those daughters he so lovingly set up to be rulers in their own right: “’tis our fast intent / To shake all cares and business from our age, / Conferring them on younger strengths while we / Unburdened crawl toward death” (I, i, 38-41). His royal nobility is evidenced in his societal position as well as in the great respect his subjects show him. There is nobility as well in his plan to divide his kingdom among his three daughters rather than giving it to one only.
Lear takes justifiable pride in the love he commands, but this becomes his fatal flaw. Rather than simply divide his kingdom up equally among his daughters, Lear decides to make a game out of their love for him, “Which of you shall we say doth love us most, that we our largest bounty may extend where nature doth with merit challenge” (I, i, 51-53). After being disappointed with Cordelia’s response to him regarding her love for him, he commits the first act to bring about his own suffering downfall: “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” (I, i, 113-116). By disowning Cordelia, Lear separates himself from his most loyal supporter and the one daughter who would have cared for him in the way he’d envisioned.
Lear realizes his mistake shortly after this when Goneril confronts him with his powerlessness. “O most small fault, how ugly didst thou in Cordelia show! Which, like an engine, wrenched my frame of nature from the fixed place; drew from my heart all love and added to the gall. O Lear, Lear, Lear! Beat at this gate that let this folly in” (I, iv, 257-262). As he travels from Goneril’s household to Regan’s, he is quickly stripped of all his own retainers and reduced to physical powerlessness which is quickly echoed in his increasingly scattered thoughts. Without a place to turn or a coherent thought pattern, Lear is then forced to suffer a much longer spiritual and physical journey through madness and a harrowing night on the moors.
Lear is finally reunited with Cordelia again just as he’s dying. With this reunion, Lear is again provided with the physical comforts he expected in his old age and begins to recover his intellect. This recovery occurs just as Cordelia dies, forcing him to face his death with the knowledge that his own folly has not only made his own end much more difficult spiritually and physically, but has also brought about the end of his family’s reign and the placed the health of the country in jeopardy. In grief for his youngest child and in remorse over his own actions, Lear finally succumbs to the stresses he’s put himself through because of his mistaken pride and stubborn insistence on ridiculous requests. Rather than the blissful, relaxed and comfortable journey to death as he awaited his time to roll out, Lear suffers an excruciatingly painful death both spiritually and physically as a result of his own actions.
Shakespeare, William. (1969). “King Lear.” The Complete Pelican Shakespeare. Ed. Alfred Harbage. New York: Penguin.