Lear is a man ‘more sinned against than sinning.’ Discuss this view with reference to the play
King Lear is a play of extreme characters; the battle lines are quickly drawn between the forces of good and evil and there isn’t a huge amount of room for ambiguity around whether most characters are on one side of the divide or the other. Clearly Lear himself eventually resides on the good side, but his journey towards redemption is a long and arduous one. By the end he is almost unrecognisable from the ‘dragon’ of the opening act. He is a man who has certainly made many foolish and terrible mistakes, but ultimately I do believe that he was ‘more sinned against than sinning.’
The opening scenes of the play introduce us to man who is clearly extremely foolish. Foolishness in itself is hardly a sin but in Lear’s case there are tragic consequences for his stupidity. Rarely have I ever encountered a scheme as ridiculous as Lear’s love test. It would be a naïve and bizarre enough idea even if it was purely being used as a means to gauge his children’s love for him. However, Lear has the bright idea of using this arbitrary test as a method of dividing the kingdom of Britain, one of the most significant kingdoms in the world at that time, ‘our largest bounty’ as Lear himself refers to it. This hare-brained – and obviously dangerous scheme – immediately gave me the impression of a man whose ‘wits are gone’ long before his madness becomes obvious on the heath.
The other aspect of Lear’s personality that gives a sense of a man who is guilty of considerable ‘sinning’ is his overwhelming arrogance. The love test itself suggests a man with a completely oversized ego that ultimately leads both him and his kingdom towards chaos. Refusing to take guidance from a trusted advisor like Kent is damaging enough but the rage and implied threat when he warns ‘come not between the dragon and his wrath’ makes it clear that for Lear his monstrous ego comes before everything else. It is not surprising then when we discover later that Lear’s reign as king has shown little consideration for the poorest members of his kingdom. He is forced to admit upon seeing Poor Tom that ‘I have taken too little care of this.’ This sign of a newly developed streak of empathy gives the impression that Lear is finally moving past his unbearable ego and the previous sins that he has committed.
Another particularly unfortunate trait of Lear’s that leads him to make a number of damaging decisions is his rashness. His reaction to the daughter that loves him, for daring to speak the truth, is to severely punish her. I felt for poor Cordelia as he suddenly declares that ‘I disclaim all my paternal care’ to her. I felt that this incredibly rash reaction was as brutal as it was undeserving. The fact that Lear pays so heavily for this impulsive and ignorant decision is small consolation. His rejection of Cordelia is the worst of his sins and clearly shows that Goneril in fact has a much greater level of insight when she tells Regan that ‘the best and soundest of his time hath been but rash.’ This kind of foolish impulsiveness is a particularly dangerous trait given the extreme power that comes with his position.
To be fair to Lear, regardless of his own particular sins, in the end he is also considerably ‘sinned against’. He is desperately foolish to place his trust (and his country) in his ‘pelican daughters’ but the price he pays for this mistake is a disproportionately heavy one. These sisters are so evil that I was genuinely shocked by how callously they treated this man who, despite his many flaws, had given them everything. From almost the moment when he foolishly hands over power they begin a process of stripping away his dignity in a cruel and ‘unnatural’ way. They seem to almost compete with each other to see who can humiliate him the most, culminating in Regan’s instruction that the servants in Gloucester’s castle should ‘shut up your doors’ leaving their poor father out in the storm at the mercy of the elements. I don’t believe that any man, no matter how foolish, or poor a father, could possibly deserve the ‘unnatural behaviour’ of these ‘marble-hearted’ ‘hags.’
There is no doubt that his ‘pernicious daughters’ are only a part of the forces of evil that align themselves against the foolish former king. Cornwall in particular proves himself to be a shockingly vicious and cruel individual; and these traits really come to the fore once he gets his hands on the levers of power. His treatment of Gloucester is particularly disturbing. The scene where Cornwall eagerly takes his wife’s advice to ‘pluck out his eyes’ is one that will forever stick in my mind. Goneril’s cruel and goading jibe ‘that one side will mock the other’ shows that in many ways they were a perfect couple, matching each other in their viciousness. The wanton cruelty of this sadistic pair really highlighted for me the extent of evil that Lear was up against. At least the brave servant’s fatal wounding of Cornwall offered some sort of divine justice for this act of despicable evil. Edmund too, through his heartlessness, emphasises the depth of evil that Lear and his comrades are faced with.
There is no doubt that Lear is guilty of a multitude of sins. He is rash and foolish, and his monstrous ego seems to dictate all his thoughts and actions. In the early stages of the play, he is a character that is particularly difficult to like. Ironically though, as we observe the dire consequences of his ‘sinning,’ we also witness the terrible punishment he serves for his foolishness. As he becomes like the ‘poor, bare, forked animals,’ stripped of prestige, position and even dignity, I found myself increasingly sympathetic to this most famous of literary Kings. He may have made many terrible and even fatal mistakes, but ultimately the fact that he is suffers such a terrible fate at the hands of these genuine forces of evil convinced me that he is in fact ‘more sinned against than sinning.’