In Shakespeare’s tragedy of King Lear, there is a bulk of characters who take on multiple roles in the play. Lear, Gloucester, Goneril, Regan, Edmund are all examples of multidimensional characters. In the storyline, their characters evolve and change rapidly, which brings forth the struggle and complication of identity. One of Shakespeare’s many dramatic elements in King Lear is the dynamic portrayal of characters in different settings that makes a profound statement of the human condition. Humans, in their own distinct lives, have the capacity to change and showcase themselves differently according to the situation for better or worse. There is flexibility and agency in identity.
Lear and Gloucester bear the brunt of betrayal in the play. Both of them as fathers, men, and men of power share similarities in their struggle. They symbolize royalty, but also embody the height of manhood and what it means to be a parental figure in the scope of that manhood. Lear and Gloucester are overtaken by their children and the impact on them reflects their multifaceted identities. Lear and Gloucester are utterly blindsided by the schemes of their children because Lear and Gloucester are used to being entitled to respect and reverence, especially Lear. The lines get blurred because Lear and Gloucester fail to separate fatherhood and their roles in society as men of power. As a result, their children treat them and overthrow them as if they were distant roles of power because there lacks a parent/child relationship. On the other hand, it’s not completely nonexistent because you see instances where Goneril, Regan, and Edmund do recognize Lear and Gloucester as fathers. Similarly, Lear and Gloucester tend to remind their children and the audience of their fatherly role.
As full of grief as age, wretched in both.
If it be you that stirs these daughters’ hearts
Against their father, fool me not so much(II.iv.314-316) Lear
All dark and comfortless! Where’s my son
Edmund, enkindle all the sparks of nature(III.vii.103-105) Gloucester
Goneril, Regan, and Edmund are most complex because they test the fluidity of identity in order to fulfill their personal agendas. Goneril and Regan are representative of being women, sisters, daughters, wives, and mistresses. They both exercise these different roles to their advantage to get what they want. Although they seem heartless to the characters and audience, what makes Goneril and Regan strong is their sisterhood. It’s strong enough that even their own husbands fall victim to their alliance when they both set their eyes on Edmund. This alliance is dismantled at the end of the story since they turn on each other because of Edmund, but it still speaks about their greed and malicious intentions. Not to mention, gender is a major factor in why Goneril and Regan are viewed as vicious. They act out of character for a typical female role because of their aggressive and cutthroat nature. Additionally, the father-daughter relationship is usually an adored one, but here Goneril and Regan flip that narrative to heighten the drama. Edmund is a man, a bastard, a brother, a son, and most of all a player. His entire scheme is for the purpose of defying his social standing as “bastard.” To contradict being considered base, he gets in Albany’s good graces and Regan and Goneril’s too because he knows they have power. He betrays his brother and father as acts of jealousy and envy because his goal is to take what he feels he deserves. Along the way, Edmund also deceives Goneril and Regan just because he can. For Edmund, it’s about breaking free from the title he feels has been holding him back.
Pray you, let us sit
together. If our father carry authority with such
disposition as he bears, this last surrender of his will
but offend us.(I.ii.350-353) Goneril to Regan
Lag of a brother? Why ‘bastard’? Wherefore ‘base,’
When my dimensions are as well compact,
My mind as generous and my shape as true(I.ii.6-8) Edmund
Ultimately, these characters highlight fluidity in identity and emulate the idea that you can be whoever you choose to be. The use of various personas is proven to be a tool and a weapon for the characters in King Lear.
One thought on “The Complexity of Identity Among Characters”
I thought the point about Gloucester and Lear being connected through their misunderstanding of power was really interesting. I didn’t really consider how both seemed to be confused as to how fatherhood may come at the expense of their power and vice versa. Lear isn’t owed his daughter’s love and isn’t promised his kingdom’s loyalty but by thinking he does, he makes himself an easy target. Gloucester does the same. So while of course Goneril, Regan, and Edmund are the villains, how much blame should the two men bear?