‘The play, King Lear, presents us with a very bleak view of humanity.’ Discuss this view with reference to the play.
It’s certainly the case that the play King Lear challenges the emotions of the viewer. It is a play where physical and emotional turmoil are never far from the centre of the action. It is a tale of dysfunction and destitution, where betrayal and brutality form key elements. I don’t think that there can be any doubt that a play that opines that ‘when we are born, we cry that we are come to this great stage of fools’ is one that presents a very bleak view of humanity. However, I also believe that beneath the undeniably disturbing perspectives on the very darkest aspects of humanity that Shakespeare presents us with in the play, lays several countering parts that highlight the decency and goodness that humanity ultimately is capable of.
At the heart of the play lies the idea of filial ingratitude and the bleak consequences of that betrayal. The concept of blind loyalty to parents is so embedded in so many different cultures throughout history that the idea of going against it is practically a taboo subject. As a result, I was shocked by the ability of the ‘unnatural’ Goneril and Regan, not to mention the ruthless Edmund, to manage it without thought; their cold indifference to their fathers’ welfare was for me one of the most disturbingly memorable aspects of the play. In the opening scene we see both Goneril and Regan easily fool the credulous Lear with their ‘glib and oily art’. This great king who Goneril astutely observes only ‘slenderly’ knows ‘himself’ doesn’t know his daughters very well either, and soon he is stripped of his servants and cast aside by the heartless pair. Edmund’s betrayal of both his brother and his father was even more disturbing to me, given the direct and bloody consequences for the unfortunate Gloucester. The terrible consequences of the filial ingratitude of these offspring present a particularly dark view of humanity.
A central theme of the play and one that certainly contributes to its bleak view of humanity is greed. The lust for position and power that drive on Goneril and Regan is a very disturbing sight. I was horrified by the way that they simply cast their father aside once he’d handed over the reins of power to these ‘tigers, not daughters.’ They are prepared to cause personal and political chaos in their quest to seize full control of the throne. Britain is dragged into an unnecessary war with the French while the actions of the evil sisters – with Edmund’s assistance – leads the play to a bloody climax, something that only fully hit me when I witnessed the play come to life via the Second Age production at the Helix in Dublin. Their vicious quest for power is accompanied by extreme heartlessness and an almost casual brutality. The only redeeming aspect of the all-consuming greed shown by the’ gilded serpents’ and the power-hungry Edmund is that in the end it is their greed that destroys them. The sisters want Edmund so badly that they inevitably turn on each other, their lives ending in bitterness and recrimination. For me, this miserable ending for these nasty women lifted some of the gloom of the play and seemed to show that sometimes ‘divine justice’ does appear to intervene in a positive way.
Accompanying this awful greed was a lot of disturbing and unnecessary cruelty, something which certainly presented a very dark side of humanity. That fact that they are prepared to cast their father out into the storm and to ‘shut up your doors’ after him, leaving him at the mercy of the elements where logic would suggest he will meet a miserable and bleak and miserable fate, shocked me deeply. However this was quickly superseded by the cruel betrayal of Gloucester by his son Edmund, culminating in a scene that was one of the most disturbin I have ever encountered in any narrative. Goneril and Regan’s brutality towards the unfortunate Gloucester was truly shocking as Cornwall is urged by Regan to ‘pluck out his eyes’ while Regan demands that he ‘hang him instantly.’ The senseless violence of the scene, finishing with Regan ordering that the bloody and blind Gloucester be thrown out so he can ‘smell his way to Dover’ presented a shockingly bleak view of humanity.
However, beneath the cruelty and the violence in the play, I believe that there are a lot of positive aspects of humanity also highlighted by Shakespeare. Central to that viewpoint is the incredible loyalty shown at times in the narrative…………………………………………………………………………….. (CONTINUED)* *See plan