Self- Discovery in King Lear
Although King Lear is an estimable monarch, as revealed by the devotion of men such as Kent, he has numerable character flaws. His power as king has encouraged him to be conceited and impulsive, as his oldest daughters Regan and Goneril reflect, "The best and soundest of his time hath been but rash..." and that "he hath ever but slenderly known himself” (Act 1 Scene 1). When Lear decides to divide his kingdom between his three daughters, Cordelia, Goneril, and Regan in order to have less responsibility in his old age, he creates a situation in which his eldest daughters gain authority and mistreat him, and his youngest is criticised for not accentuating her love. Lear is unable to cope with his loss of power and descends into madness. While the circumstances in which Lear finds himself are instrumental in the unfolding of this tragedy, it is ultimately not the circumstances themselves, but King Lear's rash reactions to them that lead to his downfall. In this downfall, Lear is forced to come to terms with himself as a nothing but a mortal man.
Through the course of the play, King Lear goes through a process of attaining self-knowledge, or true vision of one's self and the world. With this knowledge, he encounters a metamorphosis of person. In the beginning, King Lear's vanity, and the image and exercise of power dominate his person. But a series of losses (based on his own bad decisions), and the death of the one who truly loved him, clear his vision and allow him to see himself and the world as they truly are. The pain and suffering endured by Lear eventually tears down his strength and sanity.
In the first few scenes of the play, King Lear portrays his need for praise by choosing to divide his kingdom amongst his daughters. The girl, who accentuates their love for him to an extent that almost seems artificial, shall receive the largest area of land. This is evident as he gives each daughter her land before even hearing the next daughter's praise. It is because of his love for admiration that makes him react so strongly to Cordelia and Kent when they do not act, as he would wish them to. In the play, this is shown in his banishment of Cordelia and Kent. Kent is one of the most loyal people in Lear’s Kingdom, and it is Cordelia that truly does love Lear. Nevertheless, due to the fact that they choose not to contribute to the appraisal, they are banished. In fact, he threatens to kill Cordelia if she is found in ten days. Lear says,” Upon our kingdom; if, on the tenth day following, Thy banished trunk be found in our dominions, The moment of thy death. Away! By Jupiter,"
This shows that at the beginning of the play, King Lear feels that his image is more important than the life of a daughter. This hunger for image attributes is further shown when Kent presents himself to the King after being banished, but in disguise. Kent strives to gain employment as a servant to the Lear and therefore uses the King’s gullibility to praise in order to win the position. In this case, it's the image of authority that Kent appeals and longs to aspire to.
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King Lear continues to illustrate his need for a larger ego with his ‘keeping of a hundred knights’. These knights are hardly around for noble deeds as one might assume them to be doing. They are in fact merely Lear's fair-weathered friends who eat, drink, and go hunting with him. They provide a blanket of security, and offer him a chance to exercise command over. His need for them becomes more apparent when Goneril suggests to not keeping them. Lear becomes extremely angry with her, "Hear, Nature, hear! Dear goddess, hear! Suspend thy purpose, if thou dist intend to make this creature fruitful! Into her womb convey sterility. Dry up in her the organs of increase”. This is a rather unpleasant statement to say to your own daughter. In fact he continues to suggest that if she should have children, let them be ‘perverse and unnatural’.
The turning point for the King is when he is in the storm; this represents a pathetic fallacy as the disposition of Lear reflects the atrocious weather. It is through his anger over his last confrontation with his family that the power of the storm begins the process of transition within Lear. This change which at heart is a change of vision (this is true for most of the characters in this play). What must change is how Lear perceives himself, his children, and the society around him. At the beginning of Lear's period in the storm, he is identifying the treachery of his daughters Regan and Goneril. This creates the antagonism within him.
He expresses his anger by trying to coax the storm to be more ferocious to him. Lear says that since those who owe him everything are so harmful to him, why shouldn't the storm, which owes him nothing, be any less?
However it is also here that Lear begins to see himself not as the omnipotent king, but as a poor, infirm, weak, and despised old man. Though, he still believes himself to be not at fault in any way. This is especially shown when Lear states, " I am a man more sinned against than sinning." Following this Lear commences on another transition, placing others before himself. The first person to experience the conversion is the Fool. Lear worries that the Fool is cold out in the storm, and begins to see how precious necessities can be if you suddenly are without them. Lear now begins to contemplate humanity as a whole. He begins to think of the poor who brave storms like this with the little that they have, "Poor naked wretches, whereso'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"
Lear, then gains the self knowledge of how he has not assisted with the paupers needs. He says that he must be exposed to the same harshness they have endured. Furthermore, he believes this will be part of some heavenly justice. Continuing on the lines of humanity, Lear begins to see humans as no more than animals. Due to the fact that Lear has prided himself on his image; and clothes play a very important role in the visual image of royalty, this is a very important revelation for him. At this point though, his sanity takes yet another step away as he tries to take off his clothes to try to truly be the animal that he is. These steps continue as Lear holds a trial using the animals in the hovel to represent his daughters. In addition, even believing that his own dogs are in opposition to him. Though his sanity may be declining, his self-realization and true understanding of humanity seems to increase immensely.
Lear's journey of self-knowledge concludes with his faithful daughter, Cordelia. It is here that he is once again referred to as ‘King’ by one of his daughters; though his position is no longer that of a ruler. Upon waking to Cordelia's voice, Lear is in a state of delusion, and furthermore of great humility. He offers to drink poison if she so wishes it, for he knows he has punished the one sincere offspring when it was her sisters who were all along the conniving, selfish daughters. Lear portrays more of his meekness when he concludes the scene by pleading with his daughter Cordelia, “I am old and foolish." He continues to ask forgiveness when, as they are taken away as prisoners, he says,” When thou dost ask me blessing, I’ll kneel down, and ask of thee forgiveness."
Finally, when Lear returns carrying the body of Cordelia, there is another realization that he his just another animal in this toxic world, "Pray you, undo this button." This is a deliberate method of making this particular point as it ties together the end of a dramatic journey with the events in the storm. During Act 3 Scene 2, he had asked Kent, the Fool, and Edgar to "come unbutton here."
The self-discovery of Lear is not just the discovery of one man's self, but the discoveries of everyone down the chain. While Cordelia teaches her father a majestic lesson of unconditional and paternal love, his other daughters, Regan and Goneril, educate Lear about greed and the hunger for power. The Fool acts as the prodding, intuitive voice of reason, sparking the King to think critically of his own actions; yet the lessons Gloucester provides of arrogance quite closely parallel to the problems Lear sustains. Kent also plays a vital role in educating this former king in the disciplines of loyalty and respect, for he is the only character to stay by Lear's side, even if it means by death. These lessons are not new to Lear; it is obvious that these qualities have escaped him only after many years of rule. Nonetheless, Lear finds himself reduced to a mere man and who is yearning to get back in touch with his sanity. It is the subordinate characters in King Lear that assist with the extensive subject of self- discovery.
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