In King Lear Shakespeare creates a morally chaotic world. How far and in what ways do you agree with this statement? (with teacher's edits)

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‘In King Lear Shakespeare creates a morally chaotic world.’

How far and in what ways do you agree with this statement?

Shakespeare presents a variety of ways in which moral chaos is brought about, including the disruption of the natural order and the characters possession of typically corrupted morals, even going as far as questioning the morals of his own society. However, having different principles in a modern audience, we tend to have different interpretations of ‘moral chaos’ to that of a contemporary audience.

In king Lear, Shakespeare arguably does create a ‘morally chaotic world’, particularly trough the notion of the ‘natural order’ being disrupted. The betrayal of the children against their fathers illustrates a significant disruption of nature, as it was considered natural and necessary for children to have unfaltering obedience for their parents, particularly their fathers. When Cordelia publicly refuses to obey her father’s wishes, she goes against the true qualities of a 17th century daughter in the natural order and it is arguably this initial rebellion that causes the suffering and tragedy throughout the rest of the play. According to feminist critics, Cordelia’s refusal to flatter Lear can be interpreted as an opposition to Lear’s authority and thus a direct challenge to the natural patriarchal order of the seventeenth century, the short emphatic sentence ‘Nothing’ stressing this assertiveness. We also see this betrayal of the father in the character of Edmund. By claiming ‘’I find it not fit for your o’er looking’’, not only does Edmund feign innocence, but he also portrays himself with overt concern for his father, reinforcing his false virtue. Edmund’s initial silence makes his soliloquy in the next scene in which he exclaims ‘’Legitimate, Edgar. I must have your land’’ exciting and surprising to the audience. The audience is privy to the Edmund’s scheming which creates a sense of dramatic irony, however in most productions; the Machiavellian Edmund is played as a ‘suavely intelligent, rather dashing figure’, creating a paradox as he is clearly evil yet alluring to the audience at the same time. Illegitimates were problematic for the rigid early modern social structure and were viewed as ‘extras’ that society struggled to accommodate. Therefore to a contemporary audience, the poor treatment of Edmund would come as no surprise; however a modern audience would interpret such extreme views on illegitimacy as immoral. As modern critic Foakes comments, “Edmund is the most dangerous and treacherous of the characters. Yet, he begins from a cause that we cannot identify as unjust”, illustrating how to a modern audience, Shakespeare does create a morally chaotic world through the poor treatment of Edmund, as the seventeenth century societal norms are so foreign from that of ours. Lear’s abdication can also be viewed as morally chaotic, as it was strongly believed in Jacobean society that Kings were chosen by divine right. In Lear’s pledge to ‘’express our darker purpose’’ the use of the adjective ‘darker’ to describe his actions illustrates the unnatural nature of such a decision. In Jacobean society, a king was an agent of God, and so it was seen as God’s responsibility to decide when his reign should end. A king’s handing power down the throne was against the divine order, and it was believed that Satan, through various evil spirits, was responsible for all attacks on the divine order. In Macbeth, a similar play, when King Duncan is murdered, the natural order is breached and chaos ensues: the day becomes as dark as night, Duncan’s horses turn wild and eat each other and a civil war breaks out.  From a New Historicist stance, critics such as Tennenhouse argue that Shakespeare illustrates what happens when there is a ‘catastrophic redistribution of power’, therefore promoting the oppressive structures of the patriarchal hierarchy. However, other critics suggest that the tragedies occur because of society’s already ‘faulty ideological structure’, particularly emphasised in the David Farr production through the skewed girders, broken windows, sizzling strip-lighting and the eventual collapse of the flimsy kingdom walls.

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Moreover, Shakespeare appears to be presenting a morally chaotic world through the way in which the characters can be seen as possessing seen corrupted morals, motivated purely by materialism as opposed to moralistic values. We see this in the elegant and superficial speeches of Gonerill and Regan who claim to love Lear ‘Dearer than eyesight’, the hyperbole in these statements highlighting their manipulative nature and greed for worldly goods. Their actions throughout the rest of the play prove the fabrication of these initial promises. Johnson comments that King Lear is a play in which the ‘Wicked prosper and virtuous miscarry’. ...

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