Is King Lear Nihilistic or Hopeful?
Is King Lear nihilistic or hopeful? Satisfying, hopeful, and redemptive: some critics would say that these adjectives belong nowhere near a description of King Lear. One critic, Thomas Roche, even states that the play’s ending is “as bleak and unrewarding as man can reach outside the gates of hell” (164). Certainly, Roche’s pessimistic interpretation has merit; after all, Lear has seen nearly everyone he once cared for die before dying himself. Although this aspect of the play is true, agreeing with this negative view requires a person to believe that Lear learns nothing and that he suffers and dies in vain.
Indeed, this is exactly what Roche believes when he states that at the play’s end, “Lear still cannot tell good from evil . . . or true from false” (164). This nihilistic approach, however, not only disregards many of the play’s moments of philosophical insight, but it also completely misinterprets Shakespeare’s intent. That is not to say that Lear is without fault at the end of the play; as Shakespeare surely understood, Lear is still human, and as such, he is subject to human frailty. What is most important about Lear, however, is not that he dies a flawed man but that he dies an improved man.
Therefore, although King Lear might first appear “bleak,” Shakespeare suggests that Lear’s life, and human life in general, is worth all of its misery because it is often through suffering that people gain knowledge about the true nature of their individual selves and about the nature of all humanity (Roche 164). From the very beginning of the play, Shakespeare suggests that King Lear has much to learn. As Maynard Mack explains in his essay “Action and World in King Lear,” the reader/audience is immediately invited to sense that Lear is “too deeply . . . omfortable and secure in his ‘robes and furr’d gowns’, in his rituals of authority and deference . . . and in his childish charades” (170). In other words, there is an immediate sense that Lear is not truly aware of the harsh realities of human life. For instance, when Lear says that he has divided his kingdom into thirds for each daughter so that he can retire and “Unburthened crawl toward death,” he shows that he is completely lacking in common sense by assuming that his plan will go according to his will and that the transition of power will run smoothly (1. . 43). Almost instantly, Lear is proven foolish when Regan and Goneril “hit together” and agree to “do something, and in the heat” to strip their father of any power that he has remaining (1. 1. 306, 311). Mack calls this rapid string of events that follow Lear’s hasty abdication “the waiting coil of consequences [that] leaps into threatening life,” bringing with it the unmistakable message that Lear was terribly wrong in choosing to reward his false-flattering daughters with the gift of his kingdom (170).
Lear’s gift to Goneril and Regan, whose quick deception shows the falseness of their affections toward their father, proves that Lear is unable to see the love, or lack thereof, that others have for him. Likewise, when he becomes enraged at Cordelia after she refuses to flatter him, Lear reveals that he, like Goneril and Regan, is unable to have altruistic love for another person when he says to Cordelia that it would have been “Better thou/ Hadst not been born than not t’ have pleased me” (1. . 235-236). In essence, his “. . . power [and his love] to flattery bows” and he is only able to love another person when that person appeals to his sense of vanity, so when those who truly do love Lear, namely Cordelia and Kent, refuse to appease his vain nature, Lear banishes them, “Without grace . . . love . . . or benison” (1. 1. 149, 266). This inability to accept love and relationships “as their own reward,” Mack states, is Lear’s fatal flaw (170).
Mack argues that relationships can lead to happiness but that they lead to heartache and despair equally as often; in order to have any good relationships, then, a person must accept others for who they are, which is something that Lear is unable and unwilling to do (Mack 170). Indeed, Lear would have been very happy living his remaining years without any meaningful knowledge about love or relationships, surrounding himself in a “childish charade” of false love and false truth; from this point forward, however, Lear will have to learn the consequences of his blindingly ignorant actions (Mack 170).
The ignorance about life and human nature that Lear demonstrates in the play’s first scene, then, leads to his largest mistake, the mistake that serves as a turning point from which all other actions are the direct consequence. As Mack explains, because Shakespeare put the turning point at the beginning of the play, “The meaning of action [in Lear] lies rather in effects than in antecedents, and particularly in its capacity, as with Lear in the opening scene, to generate energies that will hurl themselves . . . in reverberations of disorder” (170). That is, because Lear’s fatal flaw resents itself early rather than later on in the play—as is customary for Shakespearean tragedy—the meanings and consequences of his actions, as well as Lear’s own thoughts/awareness, have a longer time to evolve. How the early turning point in Lear helps to emphasize Lear’s learning experience is clarified by comparing the play with another Shakespearean tragedy; the , for example, occurs in act 3, scene 3 when the seeds of jealousy that Iago has planted throughout the first three acts finally take root inside of Othello’s mind.
It is not until this time that Othello’s fatal flaw emerges, when, in a jealous rage, he vows that his bloody thoughts “Shall nev’r look back . . . / Till a capable and wide revenge / Swallow them [Desdemona and Cassio] up” (3. 3. 454-457). The play is already half over before Shakespeare reveals Othello’s fatal flaw, and it is not until the final scene that Othello learns how gullible he has been. In essence, Othello learns nothing from his experience; he dies in vain, humiliated and heartbroken.
In Lear, on the other hand, the main action throughout the entire play revolves around Lear’s painful suffering and his purgatorial learning experience, all stemming, of course, from his rash, ignorant behavior in the first act. In order for Lear to learn from his selfish and ignorant ways, he must first realize that he has been blind to the truth. Lear is served a cold dish of reality when Goneril and Regan disrespectfully refuse to allow their father the privilege of his noble knights, which of course, are the last symbol of his past authority and his kingly pride: GONERIL. Hear me, my lord.
What needs you five and twenty? Ten? Or five? To follow in a house where twice so many Have a command to tend you? REGAN. What need one? (2. 4. 259-263) Not only do these lines represent how Lear’s daughters have contemptuously taken away his remaining power, but they also represent the loss of Lear’s dignity by leaving him a shell of his former self, without a single conciliatory knight left to appease his sense of self-importance. Once this happens, Lear is left enraged and desperate, pridefully stating that even “our basest beggars / Are in the poorest superfluous” and that he needs “. . . ore than nature needs,” else “Man’s life is cheap as beast’s” (2. 4. 263-266). In other words, Lear feels that his daughters are treating him like an animal by depriving him of his royal train. Clearly, Lear still clings to the pompous supposition that his needs are above the needs of the “basest beggar”’ and he still feels like the innocent victim of his daughters’ cruel behavior (2. 4. 263). Even with all of Lear’s continuing faults, however, the seeds of knowledge are beginning to grab hold; it has been painful, but he finally sees that Goneril and Regan’s false tongues had blinded him from their true, unloving natures.
That is, when he calls them “unnatural hags” and “. . . a disease that’s in my flesh,” he finally sees what love is not (2. 4. 277, 221). In this way, Lear has had his idealized vision of the truth—one where he is flattered, pampered, and adored—painfully stripped away from him; even still, it will take a purgatorial storm and subsequent repentance before Lear learns what the true meaning of love is. Fittingly, as Lear storms out of the castle and into the harsh weather, Regan states that “the injuries” that “willful men” do “themselves procure / Must be their own schoolmasters” (2. . 301-303). What Regan means by this is that the storm will teach Lear that he must swallow his pride, but the statement also foreshadows how Lear will learn something much more important about human nature while he suffers from the elements. In fact, it is in the rage of the storm, interspersed with his own rage, that Lear has his first unselfish thoughts, as is evident when he asks the Fool “How dost my boy? Art cold? ” and he (Lear) says to him “Poor Fool and knave, I have one part in my heart / That’s sorry for you yet” (3. 2. 68, 72-73).
Lear further portrays the empathy that he has for others when he stands alone on the heath and, in a moment of heartfelt lucidness, laments over the houseless masses: Poor naked wretches, wheresoe’er you are, That bide the pelting of this pitiless storm, How shall your houseless heads and unfed sides, Your looped and windowed raggedness, defend you From seasons such as these? (3. 4. 28-33) Not only does Lear express sincere concern for others during this soliloquy, but he also expresses regret for the way that he has treated his subjects when he says that “O, I have ta’en / Too little care of this! (3. 4. 33-34). Indeed, this is the first time in the play that Lear admits any kind of wrongdoing, and as such, it is the first time that he looks inside himself at his own soul and sees that it, like his eldest daughters’ souls, is far from spotless. Following Lear’s profound insight on the heath, he moves into the hovel where, after meeting Edgar, who is disguised as the beggar Poor Tom, he begins to question the nature of all humanity.
When Lear sees Edgar’s cold, shivering, and “uncovered body,” he asks the eternal question “Is man no more than this? ” (3. 4. 105). When Lear says that “The unaccomodated man is no more / but such a poor, bare, forked animal,” he is essentially saying that human beings, like their naked bodies, are pitiable creatures (3. 4. 109-110). Likewise, when he proceeds to strip of his garments, he is making the symbolic gesture that he is no better than Poor Tom; that is, he realizes that he, too, is pitiable.
Lear’s recognition that his own body is pathetic, the literary critic Paul Jorgensen argues in his book Lear’s Self-Discovery, is Lear’s first insight. Jorgensen argues, “self-knowledge means understanding the vileness of the flesh”; in order to attain wisdom, he asserts, people must be willing to recognize that they “are born of the seed of Adam” and as such, are “impure . . . and abominable before God” (26). Shakespeare, however, does not suggest that Lear is necessarily doomed because he is the Son of Adam.
Rather, the episode with Poor Tom in the hovel simply suggests that all of humanity, including its royalty, is flawed; using Lear’s insight as an example, Shakespeare suggests that in order for people to be redeemed by God, they must first realize humankind’s shortcomings and learn to pity one and all. Lear’s compassion toward Edgar’s frailty and his insistence that he have the company of the naked, “noble philosopher” proves that he has learned more than just empathy and self-awareness; he has also learned to value his relationships with people despite their flaws, regardless of what he might gain from these relationships (3. . 175). Another example of Lear learning altruistic acceptance comes from his relationship with the Fool, who, as A. C. Bradley explains, makes “incessant and cutting reminders of [Lear’s] folly and wrong”; indeed, Lear gets nothing from the Fool other than insults, such as when the Fool suggests that Lear has “a little tiny wit” (Bradley 24; 3. 2. 74). Yet despite his lack of reward, Bradley argues, “Lear comes in his affliction to think of others first, and to seek, in tender solicitude for his ‘poor boy,’ the shelter he scorns for his own bare head” (24).
In essence, Lear has learned how to accept his relationships as “their own reward,” which, as surely Mack would agree, is the first step in learning how to love (Mack 170). Clearly, the relationship that Lear has with his Fool is unusual; in fact, the Fool’s role in the play is so unusual that one critic, Jan Kott, argues in his essay “King Lear, or Endgame” that the Fool’s character represents the theme of the entire play, namely, “the decay and fall of the world” (152).
In an absurd world where no action has any real meaning, Kott states, the Fool is the only character to realize that “the only true madness is to regard this world as rational” (167). Certainly, what Kott says about the Fool is correct, to a point. The soliloquy he gives while in the hovel in which he prophesizes that “the realm of Albion” will “come to great confusion” certainly proves that the Fool does represent an absurdist viewpoint, but Kott misinterprets Shakespeare’s intent when he states that the play is itself absurd (3. 2. 91-92). One must remember that Shakespeare makes the Fool disappear at the end of act 3 for a reason.
Surely, life is meaningless during the first half of the play when Lear blindly lives his life without truly learning anything about the nature of humanity, but as Lear suffers in the third act, he also learns how to feel for the weak and houseless poor, to “discern the falseness of flattery and the brutality of authority,” and to “pierce through rank and raiment to the common humanity beneath” (Bradley 24). As a result of learning, Shakespeare suggests, the world—and Lear’s part in it—ceases to be absurd; consequently, the Fool, and his philosophy, quietly disappear.
It is by no coincidence that Lear’s suffering and subsequent learning in the third act occur during a miserable storm. In fact, Shakespeare uses the storm as a physical representation of the raging storm of emotions that occurs in Lear’s mind; that is, the “contentious storm” symbolizes and embellishes what Lear himself calls “The tempest in my mind” (3. 4. 6,12). Likewise, it is by no coincidence that Goneril, Regan and Cornwall grow worse from their success; they all remain warm, dry, and comfortable during the storm and they have all gained great power, but not one of them learns anything during the course of the play.
Indeed, as Bradley explains, “The warm castle becomes a room in hell and the storm swept heath a sanctuary” (33). The power of comfort to corrupt is apparent several times during the play, but it is perhaps most shocking when Cornwall gouges out Gloucester’s eyes and proceeds to stomp on them, telling the old man that “Upon these eyes of thine I’ll set my foot” (3. 7. 69). It is in these lines that the reader/audience sees how powerful, and indeed untouchable, people feel when they have all of the comforts of the world to support them (3. . 69). Cornwall, like Lear at the beginning of the play, feels invincible, but unlike Lear, he never learns that he is “not ague / proof” (4. 6. 105-106). Therefore, by contrasting Cornwall, and the other “bad” characters, to Lear, Shakespeare not only reinforces the idea that knowledge and redemption come to those who suffer through physical and emotional storms, but he also suggests that people who have power and comfort often feel that they are superhuman and have nothing left to learn (Bradley 33).
Of course, the eventual demise of all of the wickedly comfortable proves otherwise. In addition to the evil characters acting as foils to Lear, Gloucester’s symbolic blindness and subsequent literal blindness also help to emphasize how Lear gains knowledge through suffering. Indeed, Gloucester acts as a foil to Lear throughout the play: both are initially blind to the actions of their wicked children, both disown their loyal children, and, in turn, both learn the truth in very painful ways.
Until his blinding, Gloucester believes that Edgar is a “strange and fastened villain” who has betrayed him and that Edmund is a “loyal . . . boy,” but the quickness with which Gloucester realizes Edmund’s true intent after Cornwall has blinded him, screaming “O my follies! Then Edgar was abused” strongly implies that, like Lear, Gloucester had to suffer in order to see the light (2. 1. 79-86; 3. 7. 92-93). In this way, Shakespeare uses irony to reinforce the idea that those who have eyes are often blind to the truth and those who suffer often see more truth than their bodies and minds can handle.
Yet another person one might compare Lear to is his loving and loyal daughter, Cordelia, who is so angelic that her tears are like “holy water” that from “heavenly eyes” flow (4. 3. 31). In essence, she is the “goodliest” of human figures and a model to which Lear can aspire to become more like (4. 3. 17). Indeed, Lear shows that he has become more like his blessed daughter after he reconciles with her and tells her that “When thou dost ask me blessing, I’ll kneel down / And ask of thee forgiveness . . .” (5. 3. 10-11).
This humble, indeed shameful statement seems not to have come from the same selfish, egotistical king who banishes his daughter for not proving her love to him, and in fact, it does not. Lear is a changed man. What his purgatory has prepared him for, his reunion with Cordelia, the play’s Christ-figure, has set in stone. Lear has finally and completely learned how to love, and for that, he is forgiven and completely redeemed. There are some critics, of course, who believe that Lear does not learn how to love, or learn anything else for that matter.
In his essay “‘Nothing Almost Sees Miracles’: Tragic Knowledge in King Lear,” Roche even argues that Shakespeare intended Lear to be a “total failure, in fact and in vision” (168). Roche continues by stating that at the end of the play, Lear “sees nothing” because “every gesture of his love is countered by an equal and opposite gesture of hatred” (164). Indeed, Roche is correct when he states that Lear is still flawed at the end of the play.
After all, he still feels like a victim to Goneril and Regan’s cruel behavior and he is still vengeful, as is evident when he proudly states to Cordelia’s corpse that “I killed the slave that was a-hanging thee” (5. 3. 276). Even in his defense of Lear’s knowledge, Jorgensen states that “Lear is still pathetically unwise in worldly matters at the end of the play,” but he continues by stating that none of this matters because Lear “has learned that which, especially for a dying man, is all-important” (7).
That is, Lear has learned about the meaning of love, the pitiable frailty of the human form, and the miseries of the unfortunate. In essence, he has learned what it means to be a human instead of a king. Therefore, it does not matter that Lear still has faults because his suffering has taught him eternal truths—truths that are worthy of his redemption. In the end, King Lear almost ceases to be tragic (Bradley 32). Certainly, Lear’s suffering is severe, but Shakespeare shows that it is Lear’s suffering that leads to his learning and his subsequent redemption.
Prior to Lear’s painful banishment, he is a pampered, flattered king living a false life, full of false love. It is excruciating for Lear to face that his life has been 80 years of lies, but in order to learn the truth, he must first suffer through the pain, and as Shakespeare clearly shows, it is better to learn through suffering than to remain comfortable and ignorant. Therefore, Lear’s life is worth all of the agonies it incurs; after all, it is only after Lear begins to suffer that he truly begins to live.