The first scene is obviously important as it introduces all characters and their motivations. We learn that the two sisters. Goneril and Regan, are the antagonists (Along with Edmund). Lear gather’s all important people in the castle and we learn about his inheritance. The conversation between King Lear and his daughters shows their personalities as well as the tone of the play. We find out that the daughter who loves him most will inherit his fortune. Goneril and Regan shower him with fake love. Cordelia expressed genuine love that wan exaggerated. We also meet Edward, illegitimate son of Gloucester
King Lear begins with Lear offering to divide his kingdom between his three daughters. This situation positions Lear as a benevolent character, a caring father offering to pass his rule along to his daughters. However, before granting his daughters his kingdom, Lear proclaims, “Interest of territory, cares of state–/ Which of you shall we say doth love us most,/That we our largest bounty may extend” (I. i. 55-57). Thus, the story begins with Lear pitting his daughters against each other, as they compete to proclaim their love for him. It can also be inferred that this is not the first time in Goneril, Regan, and Cordelia’s lifetimes that he has forced competition between them. Goneril and Regan proclaim their love dutifully; however, it is revealed that even though they succeed when Cordelia refuses to compete at all, they were never meant to. Both profess their love for Lear, claiming that they love him more than their husbands, themselves, and everything else in the world. Yet, even before hearing Cordelia speak, Lear states “our joy [referring to Cordelia]…what can you say to draw/A third more opulent than your sisters?” (I. i. 91, 94-95). Then, Lear later tells Kent, “I loved her [Cordelia] most and thought to set my rest/On her kind nursery” (I. i. 137-138). It is clear that Lear never intended for Goneril and Regan to succeed, content with the idea of giving a greater portion of his kingdom to Cordelia. When Cordelia fails (twice, as Lear even gives her a second chance) and Lear’s narcissism forces him to exile her, Lear is left with Goneril and Regan as a second choice.
Now, we don’t know what Lear’s past with Goneril and Regan may be, but based on Lear’s actions in the first scene, it is likely the two grew up second best, neglected by Lear. Is it truly that surprising that two people who grew up in a household where they likely held little to no power immediately become power hungry when given the chance?
As the story continues, Goneril and Regan finally assume their long awaited positions of power. However, quickly into their reign, Lear makes clear that, though he has given them his kingdom, he will continue to rule over them as king and retain his power. This is not the deal Goneril and Regan were promised. Goneril asks the servant Oswald, “Did my father strike my gentleman for chiding his Fool?” to which Oswald replies, “Ay, madam” (I. ii. 1-3). In response, Goneril begins a small soliloquy, expressing that she is tired of her father’s subversions. While Goneril’s anger and treatment of Lear, are far from just, Lear refuses to compromise with her, exacerbating the situation. When Goneril offers him 50 knights as opposed to 100, he refuses, eventually resulting in Goneril and Regan revoking all of his knights (II. iv. 300-302). Lear’s unwillingness to compromise is eventually what results in him wandering around in the storm as Goneril and Regan offer him places to stay, but tell him he cannot bring his entourage. Instead of potentially compromising, or showing any willingness to work with them at all, Lear proclaims, “And let not women’s weapons, water drops/Stain my man’s cheeks./No, you unnatural hags,/I will have such revenges on you both” (II. iv. 318-320). And he heads into the storm.
As the story begins when the power struggle begins, it is difficult to truly assess the dynamics between Goneril, Regan, and Lear before the power struggle. Only the first act can really give insight into that. But, the first act tells us that Goneril and Regan are second best and thus less powerful than both Lear and presumably Cordelia. Then, the second act also allows us to infer that Goneril and Regan are not entirely ruthless. They do originally attempt a compromise regarding Lear’s knights, Lear just refuses to accept, behaving rather like a child in a grocery store. So, Goneril and Regan carry on with their lives and leave Lear behind in the storm. But, Lear could’ve stuck up his own bargain. As a matter of fact, especially as the parent in the dynamic, he should have been able to do so.
Later in the story, there are also parallels drawn between Goneril, Regan, and Edmund. As we know from Act 1, Edmund’s hatred towards his father stems primarily from his father’s mistreatment of him because he is a bastard child. Gloucester even refers to him as a “whoreson” (I. i. 24). Thus, perhaps this is another clue that like Edmund, Goneril and Regan also dislike their father due to mistreatment. While this doesn’t necessarily make their actions against Lear right, it explains some of their motives. As Lear is stubborn, power-hungry narcissistic, and easily driven to seek vengeance, the same things can be said about Goneril and Regan. They likely got a fair amount of their traits from Lear himself. Thus, though Goneril and Regan are flawed characters, they are as flawed as Lear himself. Though they are responsible for their own actions and certainly are not the heroes or idols of the story, Lear is hardly a hero either. Rather, Goneril and Regan are just representations of Lear’s failures as a king and as a father. Lear is who stands in his own way, both the protagonist and antagonist of the play.
Existentialism, the idea that every person has the power to determine what has importance in their life, because you are the person in power of your own choices and actions. Both King Lear and The Stranger dance around the subject of existentialism, but they both do it in different ways. Meursault’s approach to life is very different from Lear’s but they both went through a major change in terms of what concepts impact their lives. Lear’s identity crisis results in a total change of how he approaches life. The old Lear, naively believed in typical family hierarchy, placing himself at the top, and putting his daughters below. These ideals lead him to expect his daughters to listen and obey to all his commands. Once Lear discovers that his life will not play out how it does in his head, his existential crisis begins.
Lear put so much blind faith into things like family, power, and wealth, that he structured his whole identity around it. This is similar to how characters in The Stranger were comforted by similar concepts. Marie’s fixation with finding love, the prisoner’s hold in religion, and Salamano’s use of friendship. When Lear lost everything that identified him, he was lost. He realized that ”Man’s life is cheap as beast’s” (2.4.307), marking the start of his character change. Out in the storm he felt that he lost everything that was important to him, so he felt he had lost who he was as a person. As his journey went on, he learned to prioritize other things.
While Lear did not come to the same conclusion as Meursault, he does grow as a person, his priorities shift, he starts to care about others, he cries “O, I have ta’en/Too little care of this” (3.4.37-38) when talking about the poor, homeless people he encounters once banished from his home. Where Meursault came to believe that everyone is born to die, so nothing in life really matters. Lear grows to think that these man made ideas are not always the things that should take priority in our lives. Lear acknowledges that, “The art of our necessities is strange/And can make vile things precious” (3.2.76-77). Emphasizing that everyone’s life is different, and everyone is in control of what gives their life meaning.
Lear goes through a transformation from King Lear, the narcissistic, power hungry man to Lear, a man who puts others before himself, and cares for those who he deems deserve it. After his existential crisis, he no longer identifies himself based off of what he has, but who he surrounds himself with. Lear gave his life a new meaning, and it turned him into a better person.
Throughout King Lear, there is a motif of blindness that can be interpreted in many different ways. There are instances where blindness is figurative, such as when King Lear and Gloucester misjudge their children and are failing to see what they are doing for them, but there are also instances when blindness is literal, such as when Gloucester’s eyes are gouged out.
In terms of the figurative blindness main characters such as Lear face, this theme can be tied into others, including power and madness. In act 1, Lear’s daughters are trying to prove their love to him in order to inherit the best part of the kingdom and Lear’s power. However, once Lear gives up his power and has nothing left considering he gave it to his daughters, he feels that they are now blind to him and don’t care about him. This is captured when Lear states “Fathers that wear rags/Do make their children blind” (page 101). Lear expresses his feelings of betrayal caused by his daughters. He gave them everything, and the power they now hold is causing them to be blind to their father and his well-being, leaving him in the dust. In terms of madness, in act 3, Lear and Kent come across a terrible storm. King Lear has gone so mad because of his loss of power and being betrayed by his daughters that he becomes blind to what is best for him. He states “When the mind’s free,/The body’s delicate” (page 137), meaning that his mind is so consumed by his daughters betraying him that he is unaffected by the physical effects of the storm, or he’s blind to the elements.
Now for Gloucester’s blindness. There is some irony in this blindness motif. Throughout the entire play, Gloucester is blind to which one of his sons is loyal to him. Edgar has to go so far as to disguise himself to earn even a little respect from his father. Even though Edmund is out to get Gloucester, he has created this elaborate lie about how it’s truly Edgar who is out to get him, which is why Edgar must disguise himself and flee. What’s ironic about this whole situation is that after Gloucester is literally blinded when his eyes are gouged out, it is then that he can see which one of his sons is loyal. In act 4, Gloucester explains that he could not see clearly when he had eyes, saying “I stumbled when I saw. Full oft ’tis seen,/Our means secure us and our mere defects/Prove our commodities” (page 173). Gloucester is apologizing to Edgar here, saying that now he sees the situation even more clearly than when he did have his eyesight, and that sometimes having things makes us spoiled but not having them makes us better people.
Overall in this novel, the motif of blindness presents characters with a new and often wiser outlook on situations, which is an ironic way to incorporate this motif. However, it conveys the importance of trust.
In the play King Lear, gender roles are a concurrent issue or theme that takes place within the play as Shakespeare believes that women are completely incapable of achieving power and they display power that is eventually turned into a judgement that’s corrupt. Initially, Shakespeare alters society by giving Lear’s daughters equal distribution of his power as he can no longer control the kingdom smoothly. Whilst challenging gender roles in society, Shakespeare makes their failure under power almost immediate as he believes women can’t control large quantities of power without guaranteed corruption of some sort. When Goneril reduces the quantity of knights Lear can uphold at once Lear states in a tone of complaint “I’ll tell thee. To Goneril. Life and death! I am ashamed That thou hast power to shake my manhood thus, That these hot tears, which break from me perforce, Should make thee worth them. Blasts and fogs upon thee! Th’ untented woundings of a father’s curse Pierce every sense about thee!” (1.4.311-318).” This part of the act exemplifies the despair in King Lear’s mind after his own daughters took his own power to use against him which also shows Goneril losing morals in her blood lust hunt for power. More so than Goneril, Regan through time actually grows more off the ledge as her abuse towards her power is more frequent such as when she ordered for Kent to be put in stocks to reduce the power of her growing mentally ill father in order to overrule and destroy him. All in all the gender roles that Shakespeare uses in the play go against society as females are the head of the house or the castle. With this, Shakespeare believes that with all this enormous power distributed to the daughters, the sisters lose a sense of their own morals, striving for more power than they need which then leads to eventual corruption and destruction of the kingdom and the characters themselves. Shakespeare believed that a quantity of power distributed within a world where gender roles differ from societies, that chaos is created with time, as he believes that too much power can conflict a women’s mental and causes nothing but their own individual downfall.