The eponymous protagonist is presented as a deeply flawed character in act one scene one. The overflowing cornucopia of vices in the character of Lear is trenchantly impressed upon us- Lear’s implacability, his peremptory nature, his narcissistic egocentrism to name but a few. He is very much the architect of his demise. He is the author of evil in the play unleashing the forces of evil in the play. His hamartia is his ‘hideous rashness’ is deleteriously instrumental in bringing about not only his death but the deaths of others.
In act one scene one, Lear commits three heinously pervasive acts assaulting the natural moral order. These acts include this aberrant abdication, his deliberate lacerations of the ties that unite him and Cordelia and his jettisoning of his loyal friend, Kent. These acts are of equal gravity and would have been viewed by a sixteenth century audience as indicative of the moral depravity and profligacy of Lear. Lear’s abdication would have been viewed as a nefarious act, almost bordering on treasonous, since the king would have been viewed as God’s representative on earth. To renege on this responsibility would have been viewed as blasphemous because it made the kingdom inevitably susceptible and vulnerable to invasion and attack. Also Lear’s act of paternal perfidy would have been viewed as equally pervasive to the natural moral order as would the lacerations of the ties of friendship between himself and Kent, his loyal achates who followed unremittingly his master’s ‘sad steps’.
Lear’s evil deeds are portentous to the inauspicious dénouement. Lear’s extemporaneous deeds of evil are portentous to the unleashing of the forces of evil in the play. Lear’s evil deeds set in motion the cogs of misery and tragedy in the play. In Act one scene one, we are also presented with Goneril and Regan, Lear’s obsequious sycophantic daughters. They make grandiose but fulsome declarations of love to Lear in exchange for material gain: ‘I love you more than words can wield the matter’
“I am made of that self metal as my sister, and prize me at her worth. In my true heart I find that she names my very deed of love only she comes too short”
Before the end of Act one we are made privy to the chicanery and subterfuge of these two pernicious daughters, especially the incendiary Goneril: ‘Pray you, let us hit together’/‘We must do something and i’ the heat’. Both Goneril and Regan mordaciously vilify their father and king: ‘The best and soundest of his time hath been but rash’/ ‘Tis the infirmity of his age; yet he had ever but slenderly known himself’.
This vitriolic abasement of Lear is furthered by the carefully orchestrated denigration of Lear by Goneril and Regan. Goneril vilifies her father mordaciously: ‘Pray you father, being weak seem so’. She informs Oswald to ‘put on what weary negligence you please’. Regan denigrates her father by stating vitriolically: ‘All’s not offence that indiscretion finds and dotage terms so’. Evil is conspicuously conveyed in Regan’s insouciant response to her father’s pitiful predicament: ‘Wilful men/The injuries that they themselves procure/Must be their schoolmasters’.
The progressive moral degeneration of Goneril and Regan never swerves in its arrow-straight course to perdition. The licentiousness of Goneril and Regan in their lascivious dealings with Edmund even though both of them are married, is indicative of their moral depravity. Goneril and Regan are the embodiment of an atavistic barbarity and savagery. They conform to a Hobbesian view of humanity in that all life forms compete against each other. Life is solitary, nasty, brutish and short. It is every man or in this case every woman for themselves. It is no coincidence that both Goneril and Regan align themselves with the Machiavellian pragmatist Edmund because they think its in their best interests to do so.
Another example of Regan’s unscrupulous behaviour is delineated in her sadistic delight in schadenfreude. She is exhilarated by the gorging out of Gloucester’s eyes. Not satisfied with the gorging out of one eye, the sanguinary Regan demands: ‘One side will mock another, the other too.’
When Cornwall demands that Kent remain in the stocks ‘till noon,’ Regan is not satisfied by this punishment, and malevolently orders that he stays there ‘all night too’. Likewise Goneril’s moral depravity is conspicuously delineated in her plot ‘upon her virtuous husband’s life’. Despite the rivalry between the two sisters in matters relating to Edmund, Goneril is unscrupulous in her realignment with the forces of Regan in the face of the threat posed by the forces of Goneril and Regan. Life for Goneril and Regan is a sort of Darwinian struggle for survival whereby only ‘the fit’ will survive. ‘The fit’ in Goneril and Regan’s mind those who will do absolutely anything in order to satisfy their desires. Goneril succeeds in getting rid of the competition by poisoning her sister. When she sees through the falsehood of Edmund, she commits suicide.
The acquiescence of both Goneril and Regan in relation to Edmund’s planned regicide and ?????????????? is equally heinous and disturbingly frightening. The debauchery of Goneril and Regan is reinforced through the bestial imagery: ‘detested-kite’, ‘tigers not daughters’, ‘glided serpent’, ‘dog-hearted daughters’. Their humanity is progressively diminished as they become sub-human and are animalised in a dog-eat-dog world.
The egregious Edmund is another evil character of the play. He is ruthlessly ambitious and like Goneril, could be described as a Machiavellian pragmatist in that he makes things happen for him. He makes his own luck. His licence in relation to the norms and conventions of society in relation to bastardy is somewhat heroic. However, whilst Edmund is morally culpable for the despicable behaviour inflicted on both Gloucester and Edgar, Edmund stands aloof from the ‘pelican daughters’ of Lear in his attempt to undo the evil emanating from his hands: ‘Some good I mean to do, despite mine own nature’.
Another interesting aspect to how evil is presented in the play is the need to have apotropaic forces in the play that counteract the evil in the play. These apotropaic forces are embodied in the persons of Cordelia, Edgar and Albany. They are antithetical to Goneril, Regan and Edmund.
Cordelia is viewed in a soteriological or redemptive light in that she seeks to give ‘remedies their losses’ and ‘Restoration hang thy medicine on my lips; and let thy kiss repair those violent harms that my two sisters have in thy reverence made’. Edgar too is presented as the antithesis of the egregious Edmund. We are told that Edgar’s speech moves Edmund so much so that it ‘perchance do good’. Albany, we are told will play an important role in the eradication of the evil of the ‘gored state’. Albany is seen as the nemesis of the play’s evil characters:
‘All friends shall taste the wages of their wages and all foes the cup of their deservings’.
In conclusion to my essay, evil is a ubiquitous force in the play ‘King Lear’. The play is an exploration into evil. It presents us with characters that are deeply flawed but essentially good, who commit heinously evil deeds assaulting the natural moral order. It also presents us with characters who embodied an atavistic barbarity and savagery and traces their moral degeneration and perdition. ‘King Lear’ also presents us with characters that function as counterpoising forces against evil unleashed by the ‘hideous rashness’ of the eponymous protagonist.