Our initial impression of Lear is extremely negative. He comes across as a peremptory bully demanding will. He orchestrates the love test in order to puff up his ego even more ‘Which of you shall we say doth love us most?’. Goneril and Regan perfidiously play along with Lear’s charade proclaiming their fulsome love for their father: ‘I love you more than words can wield the matter’. Lear accepts these declarations acquiescently. However, he is completely affronted by Cordelia’s refusal to go along with this charade. She sincerely tells her father that she ‘love you according to my bond, no more, or less’. Cordelia’s honesty and sincerely is perceived by Lear as an affront to his royal dignity and he impulsively disowns her without a moment’s consideration: ‘Here I disclaim all my paternal care, propinquity and property of love / hold thee from this for ever’. The loyal Kent urges Lear to ‘check this hideous rashness’ but Lear is implacable: ‘I have sworn; I am firm’. Lear pays an inordinately high price for this implacability of character and he rightly becomes as he calls it a man ‘more sinned against than sinning’.
Lear suffers excruciatingly at the hands of his perfidious daughters. Once Lear has divested himself of his power, he is brutally exploited by his Machiavellian opportunistic daughters Goneril and Regan ‘Pray, you let us hit together’. They begin to denigrate their father and emasculate him, ‘Pray you father being weak seem so’. Goneril is determined to humiliate him and strip him of his royal dignity by reducing his retinue of knights. ‘What need one?’ Goneril actively encourages her servants to disrespect Lear ‘Put on what weary negligence you please’. Lear suffers immensely as his sense of self-perception is undermined: ‘I am ashamed that thou hast power to shake manhood’. He is heart-broken by the filial ingratitude of his ‘marble-hearted’ daughters. He tries to reason with his perfidious daughters ‘I gave you all’ and ‘in good time you gave it’ asserts Goneril.
Lear is completely bewildered by the callous treatment he receives at the hands of his daughters: ‘O let me not be mad, not mad sweet heaven’. He is humiliated and affronted by the stocking of his servant Kent by his daughters: ‘They could not do it; they would not do it: tis worse than murder to do upon respect such violent outrage’. Lear struggles immensely to understand the callous treatment of his daughters: ‘O how this mother swells up towards my heart’.
The effect of Goneril and Reagan’s filial ingratitude is so profound on Lear that he looses his sense of his self. His mental state is totally bedevilled by their effrontery. Kent tells us how Lear suffers on the heath: ‘all the power of his wits have given way to his impatience’. However, ironically it is through this suffering that Lear acquires ‘reason in madness’.
It is through suffering that Lear is redeemed as a character. Through his physical suffering Lear experiences moral regeneration. Lear gains self-awareness and acknowledges his vulnerability. ‘Unaccommodated man is no more but a poor, bare, forked animal’. He gains the capacity to empathise with others ‘poor fool and knave, I have one part of my heart that’s sorry yet for thee’. He acquires a keen sense of social justice: ‘O I have ta’en too little care of this’. He sheds his clothes and exposes himself to the elements in an attempt to identify with the most vulnerable in society: ‘Take physic pomp; expose thyself to feel what wretches feel that thou may shake the superflux to them and show the heavens more just’. He acknowledges the corruption and injustice that stems of his reign of negligence: ‘Robes and furred gowns hide all. Plate sin with gold and the strong lance of justice hurtles breaks; arm it in rags, a pigmy’s straw doth break it’.
Lear’s heroic status is underscored in his newly acquired humility as he acknowledges his mistreatment of Cordelia: ‘I did her wrong’ and in his sincerity in trying to make amends. ‘If you have poison for me I will drink it.’ He acknowledges his foolishness and pleads with Cordelia to earnestly: ‘Pray, you now, forgive and forget’. Lear grows in humility and wisdom and ennobled by his suffering. He gains self-awareness, perceiving himself to be a ‘foolish, fond old man’. Lear’s anagnorisis underscores his essentially tragic status.
Parallels can be drawn between the characters of Lear and Gloucester. Likewise, Gloucester is duped by his perfidious son Edmund who opportunistically exploits Lear for his own ruthless desires. Gloucester is a naïve character.
Edmund boasts about his ‘credulous father, a brother noble whose nature is so far from doing harm that he suspects none’. He hypocritically speaks of the ‘manifold and strong’ the bond between father and son and yet he exploits his gullible father who was prepared to give Edmund everything: ‘I’ll work the means to make thee capable’. Gloucester is treated with contempt by this son who betrays him to Cornwall and Regan’s forces. Despite the fact that Gloucester, is a gullible ineffectual character labelling Edgar an ‘abhorred villain! Unnatural, detested, brutish villain! Worse than brutish’ without any solid evidence except for Edmund’s say so is prepared to disown his loyal and noble son. Gloucester pays a pyrrhic price for his naivety and lack of discernment. He is cruelly exploited by Edmund who betrays him to Cornwall as ‘the blind traitor’. Gloucester struggles to comprehend the nature of Edmund’s betrayal and it falls to the sadistic Regan to enlighten him ‘Thou call’st on him that hates thee: it was he who made the overtures of thy treason to us, who is too good to pity thee’.
We pity the intensity of Gloucester’s physical, psychological and emotional suffering as Goneril and Regan derisorily scoff that he should ‘smell his way to Dover’. While out on the heath, exposed to the elements, Gloucester acquires wisdom and insight though not to the same extent as Lear. In a similar fashion to Lear he acquires the capacity to see outside from himself. He acquires a sense of social justice like Lear, saying that ‘distribution should undo excess and each man have enough’.
Like Lear’s bitter commentary on the ‘furred gowns’, Gloucester is cognisant of the corruption that permeates the state: ‘the superfluous and lust-dieted man that will not see because he doth not feel’. His despair is palpable as he looses his faith in the fairness of the Gods: ‘I have heard more since / as to flies to Wanton boys, are we to the gods/ They kill us for their sport’. He also undergoes anagnorisis like Lear: ‘Then Edgar was abused. Kind gods, forgive me that and prosper him’. However, despite the noble Edgar’s best efforts in trying to preserve his father’s life encouraging him: ‘Thy life’s a miracle’, he is unable to restore Gloucester’s spirit. Gloucester is not as keen to make amends with Edgar as Lear is with Cordelia, Gloucester is consumed by guilt and shame and is unable to see past these, preferring to wallow in self-pity and regret.