King Lear by William Shakespeare

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Wishing to be ‘unburthen’d’ of the cares of his position is not surprising under his circumstances, and it is ironic that one of the last lines of the play returns to this idea: ‘the oldest hath borne most’ (V.iii.326).

The next time the audience see Lear, he is indeed ‘unburthen’d’ and trying to put behind him the isolation from others that has been his lot for so long. Of course, he is acting foolishly and irresponsibly, but he is quite unable see this. In joining the ‘hundred knights,’ Kent encourages this senile desire for camaraderie, and ‘becomes’ a new character, Caius, who seems to represent the kind of bluff, honest old soldier that Lear wants to commune with again. Sadly, Lear’s attempt to overcome his isolation is largely illusory. The knights desert him quickly enough as soon as they find out the way the wind is blowing:

Kent . How chance the King comes with so small a number?
Fool . And thou hadst been set i’th’stocks for that question, thou’dst well deserv’d it. (II.iv.63-65)

Between them, Kent and the Fool try to show Lear the error of his ways, but it is only through the cruellest of lessons that he achieves even the most trivial amelioration of his character. Anything else would be unconvincing, in fact: Lear is too old to change. Even at the height of his torment in the storm, when the audience at least strongly suspects that nature itself is punishing him for his unnaturalness, he still regards himself as ‘a man/More sinned against than sinning’ (III.ii.59-60). The only pathway open to him as a character, in fact, is further mental and physical deterioration, and this, finally, is what makes the more positive aspects of his character shine forth.

Firstly, Lear’s hopelessly affective nature is cured by his physical suffering. Cold, wet and desperate, Lear unexpectedly finds feeling for others in the storm: ‘Art cold?’ he asks the Fool (III.ii.68). Then he imagines, and pities, the ‘Poor naked wretches’ of his greatest speech (III.iv.28). Finally, he experiences the horror of identification with ‘Tom o’ Bedlam,’ who seems to pitch the old man into a kind of imitative madness as he strips off his clothes. This is the man who selfishly craved affection; now the audience see the other side of someone who lives entirely on his stock of feelings: there is deep affection and pity, too, in this man who is ‘in his dotage.’ Ironically, he acquires his true companions on the heath – Fool and madman – and his isolation as king is replaced by his solidarity with the very poorest of his realm.

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William Shakespeare