Some reflections about King Lear

God the Creator
Godlike Lear splits the cosmic egg in two, and the action begins.

This blog is not intended to be a full analysis of the play, but is limited to aspects of the play that I find most interesting.

In the opening scene, Lear divides his kingdom like god splitting the cosmic egg to take early retirement; disregarding the precedent that popes and kings die in harness. This rash actions upsets the natural order of England and begins the tragedy that will unfold of its own accord. Lear resigns  his  responsibility to govern both his country and himself, giving way to the impulses of infancy.

O you kind gods,
Cure this great breach in his abused nature!
The untuned and jarring senses, O, wind up
Of this child-changed father!

Three Women

The three daughters are reflections of mythic icons. First, the three Fates: in Greek mythology, the Moiri: Clotho (spinner), Lachesis (allotter) and Atropos(cutter). Parcae in Roman mythology, and Sudice in Slavic mythology.  Unlike the Fates they do not control the action of the drama but like the three Graces, they are the conduit of the action, but in a chaotic way. The three sisters are somewhat like the three Graces made dysfunctional by their father's unnatural behavior.


The Graces: Aglia (she who gives love), Euphrosyne, (she who receives love), and Thalia (she who returns love)

The Graces' delicate dance of love keeps the world in rhythm.  This natural rhythm is rudely disrupted by Lear when he abdicates his responsibility of maintaining  an orderly garden (or state). 

 The icon of three maidens brings to mind another set beings and another disruption; one that will lead to the Trojan War. Helen, the daughter of Zeus, is married to Menelaus of Sparta.  So when Paris of Troy wins her in a beauty contest, the destruction begins. The problem began when the goddess Eris  (Strife) rolled a golden apple inscribed "to the fairest"  into the midst of the feat of the gods at the wedding of Peleus and Thetis, setting off a vanity filled dispute among  the three goddesses.


judgement of paris
Aphrodite promises Paris the most beautiful girl in the world if he will choose her beauty over Hera and Athena. Paris does and gets Helen, who is already married. Ooops.



There are other sets of three in literature who emerged from  primordial levels : the Three Witches in Macbeth, represent darkness, chaos, and conflict; the Graeae whose names mean 'alarm', 'dread' and 'horror'; the Erinyes or avengers who punish offenders. Robert Graves, the English writer, describes the triple goddess as: Maiden  represents enchantment, the promise of new beginnings, birth, youth and youthful enthusiasm -represented by the waxing moon; Mother represents ripeness, fertility, sexuality, fulfillment, stability, power and life - represented by the full moon; and Crone represents wisdom, repose, death, and endings - represented by the waning moon.

Finally, in the play, a mother figure is missing and  some analysis connect  Cordelia with the Crone (wisdom and death), thus the other two sisters are both in the maiden phase. 


Gustav Freytag wrote Die Technik des Dramas, a study of the 5-act dramatic structure of drama (know as Freytag's pyramid).  Under Freytag's pyramid, the plot of a story consists of five parts:  exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, and dénouement (a conclusion).  The tragedy ends with a catastrophe, in which the anprotagonist is worse off than at the beginning of the narrative and the protagonist  is better off and, I might add, everybody else is either blind or dead.


During Shakespeare’s time there was a debate about the meaning of Nature. This debate is given symbolic expression in Lear’s changing attitude to Thunder, as well as others:

Kent; Such sheets of fire, such bursts of horrid thunder,
Such groans of roaring wind and rain, I never
Remember to have heard: man's nature cannot carry
The affliction nor the fear.

 It must be noted that in Oedipus at Colonus, Oedipus interprets the thunderstorm as a sign from  Zeus of his impending death. Below is one of Lear's rants at Nature:

 Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! rage! blow!
You cataracts and hurricanoes, spout
Till you have drench'd our steeples, drown'd the cocks!
You sulphurous and thought-executing fires,
Vaunt-couriers to oak-cleaving thunderbolts,
Singe my white head! And thou, all-shaking thunder,
Smite flat the thick rotundity o' the world!
Crack nature's moulds, an germens spill at once,
That make ingrateful man!

Along with the various views of Nature, the play contains two views of reason, brought out in Gloucester and Edmund’s speeches on astrology (1.2 below). The rationality of the Edmund view is one a modern audience can identify. But the Edmund position carries bold rationalism to such extremes that it becomes madness: a madness-in-reason, the ironic counterpart of Lear’s reason-in-madness and the Fool’s wisdom-in-folly. This betrayal of reason lies behind the play’s later emphasis on feeling.


"Evil is committed without effort, naturally, fatally; goodness is always the product of some art."
                                                                                                          -Charles Baudelaire

Jean-Paul Sartre was once asked if he exchanged views with American philosophers. He answered negatively, saying he had nothing to discuss with them as they did not believe in evil. American liberalism holds that institutions are to blame for social ills, while the sociopath is taken to be a victim. Shakespeare clearly announces the presence of evil, both in Iago* and in Edmund.

This is the excellent foppery of the world, that,
when we are sick in fortune,--often the surfeit
of our own behavior,--we make guilty of our
disasters the sun, the moon, and the stars: as
if we were villains by necessity; fools by
heavenly compulsion; knaves, thieves, and
treachers, by spherical predominance; drunkards,
liars, and adulterers, by an enforced obedience of
planetary influence; and all that we are evil in,
by a divine thrusting on: an admirable evasion
of whoremaster man, to lay his goatish
disposition to the charge of a star! My
father compounded with my mother under the
dragon's tail; and my nativity was under Ursa
major; so that it follows, I am rough and
lecherous. Tut, I should have been that I am,
had the maidenliest star in the firmament
twinkled on my bastardizing. Edgar--


And pat he comes like the catastrophe of the old
comedy: my cue is villanous melancholy, with a
sigh like Tom o' Bedlam. O, these eclipses do
portend these divisions! fa, sol, la, mi.
Nature vs. Nuture

Individuals are foolish, when we are having bad luck we blame fate, we blame nature as if it were responsible for our bad attitude. I would be as I am no matter when and where I was born.  I am evil and the heavens predict the division of good and evil in the world.  fa, sole, la, mi - "Leave me alone." or the modern "Get outta here."                                                                            

Freud made much of Lear to support his theories and there is ample evidence in the play to support Freud's view. For example:

I have used it, nuncle, ever since thou madest thy
daughters thy mothers: for when thou gavest them
the rod, and put'st down thine own breeches....

But a Freudian interpretation alone is loud voice, silencing other more nuanced voices. A Jungian approach, although less scientific, is subtle and much more interesting.



Lear with dead Cordelia
In the final scene a howling Lear with the body of Cordelia. Here is a synopsis of the play: King Lear

At the end of  Jean Anouilh's version of Antigone, the chorus says:

And there we are. All those who were meant to die, have died; those who believed one thing, those who believed the contrary thing, and those who believed nothing at all, yet were caught up in the web without knowing why, all dead; useless, rotting.



Heaven is my judge, not I for love and duty,
But seeming so, for my peculiar end:
For when my outward action doth demonstrate
The native act and figure of my heart
In compliment extern, 'tis not long after
But I will wear my heart upon my sleeve
For daws to peck at: I am not what I am.