The main plot and sub-plot in the play ‘King Lear’ mirror many of the play’s important themes:
- Paternal and filial perfidy
- Moral blindness and Moral regeneration
- Suffering as ennobling
- Indicting social abuses, poverty and inequity
- Redemption through the familial pariah – Cordelia the ‘poor fool’, Edgar the ‘abus’d’
The theme of paternal and filial perfidy is salient throughout the play as the play is concern with such aberrations in the natural moral order. Within the main plot, we are presented with the eponymous protagonist Lear, an egocentric narcissist, who commits two heinous acts of treachery against his own family. Lear’s infamous ‘love test’ seeks in vain to quantify the love his daughters have for him with no consideration whatsoever for their feelings. Whilst the obsequious Goneril and Regan have no difficulties with this request, Cordelia on the other hand, is thrown into a moral quandary of how to proceed. Cordelia is put on the spot, so to speak. She determines that she will ‘love and be silent’ yet suspecting the duplicity of her two sisters ‘I know what you are’ and consequently leaving her ill at ease.
Lear’s paternal perfidy is histrionically conveyed in his peremptory demand that she ‘speak again’. He views her taciturnity as an apparent defection: ‘I love you according to my bond nor more nor less’. He fails to discern her true character and her true love for him as oppose to the grandiose but fulsome declarations of love made by Goneril and Regan. Lear’s injudiciously responds to Cordelia’s apparent defection by heinously lacerating the ties that unite him and her as father and daughter:
“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.”
This act of paternal perfidy is an affront to the natural moral order. Cordelia, who was Lear’s ‘best object, the argument of [his] praise, the balm of his age’ becomes instantaneously an anathema, a thing that ‘better thou, not been born than not to have pleas’d [him] better’. Lear’s act of paternal perfidy has no grounds for justification whatsoever. It is a completely reprehensible act on Lear’s part and invites the forces of evil into the play. Lear’s injudicious abdication, allow Lear’s pernicious daughters, Goneril and Regan to orchestrate their unyielding campaign of denigration and subjugation of their gullible father.
These predacious ‘pelican daughters’ exploit their father mercilessly. Their filial perfidy goes completely against the ‘holy bonds’ of family. They are the embodiment of an atavistic savagery and barbarity that adheres only to one principle, that of self-interest. Their filial perfidy is conspicuously shown in their treatment of their father, their lascivious, almost incestuous dealings with Edmund, Goneril’s intended act of mariticide and sororicide, both acquiescently agree with Edmund’s intended regicide of Lear. All these act of treachery serve to illustrate their aberrant undermining of the natural ties of family.
This theme of paternal and filial perfidy is mirrored in the Gloucester story. The invertebral Gloucester has two sons, Edgar and Edmund. Though Edmund is illegitimate, Gloucester acknowledges albeit somewhat crudely, that he is his son ‘the whoreson must be acknowledged.’ He describes Edmund as a ‘knave’ who came ‘saucily into the world before he was sent for’. Edmund is held accountable by his father for the way in which he came into the world and abnegates any of his responsibility in the deed though he describes the ‘good sport at his making’. Edmund, like indeed everybody else has no say in the manner or circumstances in which one is born into.
Gloucester has committed an act of paternal perfidy by making his son Edmund the victim of circumstances since Edmund will not inherit his father’s fortune nor will he be recognised as his son legally because of the parochial views regarding illegitimacy characteristic of the Zeitgeist of the sixteenth century.
Gloucester has also committed an act of paternal perfidy against Edgar and his mother by having extramarital relations and thus trespassing against the ‘holy bonds’ of family. Like in the Lear story, the sins of father have negative ramifications for their children as Edmund decides to ‘top the legitimate’ Edgar and ‘stand up for bastards’. His penchant for devious subterfuge allows him to easily manipulate his father’s credulous nature. When Edmund informs Gloucester about the spurious claims that Edgar intends to kill him, Gloucester naively believes him: ‘Abhorred villain! Unnatural, detested, brutish villain! Worse than brutish!’ This is a heinous affront to the noble Edgar who is not even given the chance to defend himself or his good character.
It is interesting that Gloucester actually uses the word ‘unnatural’ since his behaviour is anything but. He demands that Edgar ‘fly far: Not in this land shall he remain uncaught; and found- dispatch’. Gloucester’s act of lacerating the ties that unite him and his son Edgar is unnatural and aberrant. It goes against the fundamental natural moral order as does Edmund’s filial perfidy. He maliciously sets up his innocent brother and laughs at the ease of doing so: ‘a credulous father and a brother noble whose nature is so far from doing harms that he suspects none’. He then sets about the ruination of his father by informing of his so called ‘treason’ to Lear’s ‘savage and unnatural’ daughters.
Like all good Machiavellian pragmatists, Goneril, Regan and Edmund ruthlessly exploit their fathers for their own self-seeking purposes and thereby assaulting the principle of familial harmony with their filial perfidy.
Another important theme of ‘King Lear’ is the theme of moral blindness and moral regeneration. Both fathers are blind to the errant ways of their ‘bold’ children and purblind to the true and noble natures of their ‘good’ children. Lear castigates Cordelia unfairly because of her apparent defection when she will not compromise her moral integrity to pander to his autocratic charade. He cannot see the fundamental goodness in her nature nor see pass the grandiose but ultimately fulsome declarations of love made by the sycophantic Goneril and Regan.
The ductile Gloucester likewise fails to see pass the malicious manipulations of Edmund and fails to ascertain the veracity of the letter with the hand that supposedly wrote it. He casts off his noble son and elevates his bastard son so that he will inherit his estate, all of which is based on the promptings one letter.
As a result, both blinded fathers are exploited ruthlessly by their predacious children who prey on their parents for their own gain and self-seeking purposes. All three incessantly set about a ruthless campaign of denigration and subjugation of their fathers. When Lear is banished from Regan’s castle, it is we are told one of the most inclement nights in memory. Unable to cope with the extent of his daughters’ ‘filial ingratitude’, Lear suffers from an identity crisis: ‘This is not Lear. Who is it that can tell me who I am?’. This is proceeded by his ontological crisis ‘is man no more than this?’ and ‘is there any cause in nature that makes these hard hearts?’ to his eventual descent into insanity.
Out on the heath against the raging elements, Lear begins the long and arduous journey from an egocentric narcissist to a more altruistic magnanimous human being. His moral regeneration is not instant. He paradoxically achieves ‘reason in madness’ and gains insight into human suffering. The oppression of physical elements helped relieve his mental scotoma, and the mental blind spot of Act I is cured. He is able to see that in relation Cordelia ‘I did her wrong’.
He begins to see that he is not the omphalos of the universe around which everything gyrates. He is not the cynosure of life and there are other people in the world who have real needs and worries. Through the characters of Poor Tom and the Fool, Lear learns to develop his capacity for empathy with others:
- Lear to Edgar (Poor Tom) How dost, my boy? Art cold”
- Lear to the Fool: “Poor fool and knave, I have one part in my heart/That’s sorry yet for thee”
- Lear to Edgar: “Prithee, go in thyself; seek thine own ease”
- Lear to the Fool: “In boy; go first
Like Lear, Gloucester suffered a kind of metaphorical blindness in Act I scene II and failed his son Edgar. It is only when Gloucester learns of Edmund’s treachery that he exclaims: ‘Then Edgar was abus’d; kind gods forgive me that, and prosper him!
When he becomes physically blinded and in need of care and solicitude, Edgar fulfils this role graciously. Through physical blindness, Gloucester gains moral vision and insight instantaneously: ‘I stumbled when I saw’.
The theme of suffering as ennobling is another salient theme reflected in the main plot and again in the sub-plot. Both protagonists gain moral vision and insight as a direct result of suffering. Suffering is seen to be heuristic in that one learns through discovery, through journeying, patience and forbearance. Both men though not evil characters at the beginning of the play, were presented to us as deeply flawed men. However suffering seems to have smoothed over the edges of these flawed characters, so to speak and made both these men into magnanimous social prophets who possess a great social acumen in relation to the evils of society.
Lear’s indictment of the abuses, hypocrisy and corruption within society is extremely potent because of his awareness of his own failure to be an efficient leader: ‘O! I have ta’en too little care of this’. He portrays vividly the moral and social gulf between what Disraeli called the ‘Two Nations’, between those who are rich and those who are poor, those who have and those who have not, the one kind of justice for the rich and the other kind of justice for the poor. He demands that we should:
‘Take physic pomp; expose thyself to feel what wretches feel that thou mayest shake the superflux to them and show the heavens more just’.
This is not just another ostentatious show as he rips at his clothes in an act of solidarity with the ‘poor naked wretches’:
Poor naked wretches, wheresoe’ver you are,
That bide the pelting of this pitiless storm
How shall your houseless heads and unfed sides
Your loop’d and window’d raggedness, defend you
From seasons such as these?
Similarly, Gloucester becomes a social prophet echoing Lear’s sentiments ‘distribution should undo excess and each man have enough’. Gloucester speaks of ‘the superfluous and lust-dieted man……………..that will not see because he doth not feel’. This is redolent of Lear’s ‘through tattered clothes small vices doth appear; robes and furred gowns hide all; Plate sin with gold’.
Both of social prophets are indicting all the pretentiousness of life, the avarice, the power, the egocentrism. It all basically means nothing as man is ‘no more than a poor, bare, folked animal’.
Another important theme is that of redemption and forgiveness. In both stories, Lear and Gloucester are redeemed and forgiven by the child that they had banished from their families. It is the familial pariah who brings redemption. Cordelia’s steadfast loyalty is evident throughout the play. Despite being banished from Lear’s presence, Cordelia with her husband France and his army sought to ‘save’ Lear from the snares of Goneril and Regan. Cordelia hopes that ‘restoration’ will ‘hang thy medicine on [her] lips’. Motivated by love, Edgar in disguise followed his blinded father to Dover in order to rid him of his despair and suicidal thoughts: ‘Why I do trifle thus with his despair is done is cure it’. Both Cordelia and Edgar’s cathartic presence helps heal their fathers.
Both Lear and Gloucester suffer pyrrhically before they die, experiencing extreme joy and grief before they die. Lear’s intense joy that he has been reconciled with Cordelia is very moving: ‘Come, let’s away to prison; we too alone will sing like birds i’ the cage’. Lear’s ululation after he enters the stage carrying the dead body of his ‘poor fool’ is extremely poignant and he dies brokenheartedly. Like Lear, Gloucester’s dies, ‘his flawed heart’ unable to take the shock of Edgar’s revelation about his true identity.
In conclusion to my essay, the sub-plot not only mirrors the main plot but helps to reflect and reinforce the universality of major themes and concepts in ‘King Lear’ such as the themes of paternal and filial perfidy, moral blindness and moral regeneration, suffering as something positive and ennobling, social corruption and redemption. By having two similar plots in the one play, Shakespeare is emphasising the perennial significance of such themes. The universality of these themes, transcend cultures, history, socio-economics and specific traditions and therefore this play is a play that has contemporary relevance and universal significance.