Lear’s aberrant decision to abdicate sets in motion a chain of disastrous events that unleash the forces of evil in the play. When Cordelia, Lear’s loyal and honourable daughter refuses to pander to his narcissistic demand to outdo her sisters in their declarations of love for him, he disowns her: ‘Here I disclaim all my paternal care, propinquity and property of blood’, we become quickly cognisant of the brutality and viciousness that will dominate this play. Lear’s laceration of the familial ties that bind him to his daughter is brutal in its rashness. Cordelia who we are told was Lear’s ‘best object’, is cast off without a moment’s thought because she did not want to be fulsome in her love for him: ‘I love your majesty according to my bond, no more no less’. Lear’s viciousness of character is indicated as Cordelia’s reticence is an affront to his perception of himself.
He roars at all present ‘Come not between the dragon and his wrath’. Cordelia’s refusal to pander to his ego has obviously piqued his pride and he spitefully retaliates by disowning her ‘We have no daughter’. Lear stubbornly refuses to accept Cordelia’s sincerity and devotion: ‘I am sure my love’s more richer than my tongue’. The brutality of Lear’s decision is even more starting as both France and Burgundy reject Cordelia for a wife as she is now penniless. Lear is unperturbed by this reality.
Lear’s laceration of the familial ties that bind him to his daughter is the first example of familial betrayal in this brutal and savage play. Once Goneril and Regan have acquired ascendancy over Lear through their fulsome declarations of love for him, they have no further use for him. Goneril and Regan are Machiavellian opportunists who ruthlessly pursue moral for others. Lear has served his purpose and they are completely indifferent to the natural bonds of family and begin to denigrate and humiliate their father: ‘Pray you father, being weak seem so’ [Regan] Goneril encourages her servants to ‘put on what weary negligence you please’. Their viciousness is compounded as they conspire together to undermine Lear, ultimately reducing him to the status of a beggar.
The brutality and viciousness of Lear’s perfidious daughters is manifested in Goneril’s decision to place Lear’s servant Kent in the stocks. Gloucester warns both of them that this will be perceived as a personal affront to the royal dignity of the king: ‘the king must take it ill that be is so slightly valued in his messenger’.
However, they are completely unmoved by any consideration of their father. They manipulatively work together to debase their father, emasculating him by stripping him of any remaining vestiges of authority and pride. Lear acknowledges that he is ‘ashamed that thou hast power to shake my manhood thus’. Their behaviour is antithetical to the love and devotion that should exist between a father and his daughter. They are completely consumed by their own selfish ambitions and freed for power and are completely devoid of human decency. Regan ruthlessly remarks ‘O sir, to wilful men the injuries that they themselves procure must be their schoolmasters’ as Lear is forced out into the worse storm of living memory.
This inhospitable treatment of Lear defies the natural order. Cordelia struggles to comprehend the brutality and viciousness of her sisters when she learns of Lear’s exile. She is absolutely confounded by the irrationality of such cruelty against their father: ‘Mine enemy’s dog, though he had bit me, should have stood that night by my fire’. Lear’s abasement eventuates in his insanity ‘his wits are gone’. Lear’s suffering is clearly palpable and it is very difficult not to feel sympathetic towards this weak feeble old man, who has been made destitute by his own daughters.
The brutality and viciousness that permeates the play can also be seen in the ferocity of the storm. The sheer brutality of the elements is indicative of the mental bedeirlment of Lear as his ‘towering rages’ consumed him. Such is the effrontery of Goneril and Regan’s behaviour it has completely decimated him.
The chimerical hope offered by the honour and loyalty of Cordelia ultimately does not have the strength to restore Lear’s confidence in humanity and after her death, his will to live completely dissolves.
The physical, psychological and emotional suffering of Lear is mirrored in Edmund’s treatment of his malleable father Gloucester. He to cruelly manipulates his father for his own avaricious schemes. He betrays his father and his noble brother. Edgar with consummate ease, derisorily remarking that his practises ‘ride easy’. He callously steps aside when Gloucester is arrested by Goneril and Regan, his only concern being that of ingratiating himself to Cornwall.
The gouging out of Gloucester’s eyes has to be one of the most horrific visceral portrayals of suffering in theatre. Reagan’s insatiable desire to be cruel and vicious is conveyed in her request that he lose both eyes ‘One eye will mock another, the other too’. Furthermore, this scene reinforces the brutality and viciousness of Regan with regard to her desire to cause Gloucester as much emotional pain and suffering as physically possible by telling him ‘it was he to us, who is too good to pity thee’. She relishes the thought of Gloucester having to smell his way to Dover. The depth of these two sisters’ brutality and viciousness is completely unfathomable in terms of its ferocity and rationale.
While brutality and viciousness dominate the play we are made aware of the honour and loyalty of some of the characters like Kent, Cordelia and Edgar. All of these characters out of their devotion and love for Lear and Gloucester respectively seek to restore them to a state of health and tranquillity. The glimmer of happiness offered by the reconciliation of these characters is swallowed by the sheer brutality and viciousness of Goneril, Regan and Edmund’s evil plans.
In a world governed by self-interest and greed, the honourable and loyal characters Cordelia and Edgar are ensnared. The heart-breaking incomprehensibility of this brutality and viciousness is verbalised in Lear’s poignant cry: ‘Howl, howl, howl, howl! O you are men of stones’. He struggles the reason ‘Why should a dog, a horse, a rat, have life and thou no breath at all?’ However, we the viewer are fully cognisant of the fact that in a world governed by the Darwinian principle of survival and every man or woman is only out for themselves, honour and loyalty have no place in such a world. The fragile nature of such honour and loyalty is alluded to in the play as both Kent and Edgar are forced to masquerade their true identities, the Fool, and Poor Tom and Cordelia is absent for much of the action. Cordelia’s fervent prayer ‘O my dear father! Restoration, and thy medicine on my lips, and let this kiss repair those violent harms that my two sisters in thy reverence made’ ultimately goes unanswered. Her honour and loyalty to Lear result in her death.
Cordelia, true to her name, true-hearted sacrifices her life as a result of her solicitous devotion to her father. Cordelia, is then to be perceived as a victim of immolation as opposed to a saviour-like figure, falling prey to the forces of evil. Edgar too is not afforded the happiness of reconciliation with his father, as Gloucester dies. In a world that is saturated with such vile cruelty, honour and loyalty are annihilated. The abundance of bestial imagery throughout the play solidifies the fact that Goneril and Regan are completely devoid of humanity: ‘detested kite’, ‘pelican daughters’, ‘sharp-toothed unkindness like a vulture’, ‘tigers’, ‘the gilded serpent’.