How does the structure of King Lear add to the plays meaning?
im not looking to write an essay on it, i only need to give it lip service and i cant seem to find anything useful to help me. thanks
King Lear as an Allegory
I have been stressing the naturalistic elements of King Lear, and I began this lecture by reminding us that the most important thing about this play is that it is the story of the suffering of one particular old man. Thus, I am not encouraging a view which interprets this play primarily as an allegory, a vision in which the illumination of the clash of concepts is a more important issue than the particular human conflicts presented.
However, King Lear has attracted allegorical interpretations. And it is easy to see why. The fairy-tale nature of much of the story, the clearly positioned groups of “good” and “bad” people around Lear, and the constant reference to words like “bond,” “allegiance,” “nature,” and to questions of the self invite some consideration of allegorical possibilities.
For instance (and I am here looking very cursorily at some ideas suggested by J. F. Danby), if we choose (for the moment) to subordinate the particularity of the characters to the major conceptual concerns of the play, we can see here as a major component of the play at least two rival versions of human life working against each other. The one we might label the traditional communal Christian view, which stresses faith, hope, and charity (that is, mutual love) built upon the sense of a human society held together by “bonds.” A human life most fully realized lives up to the responsibilities of those bonds which tie together the family and the larger social group. Such a view stresses the essential roles of giving and receiving spontaneously and honestly and confers upon individuals a rich sense of a social identity where each person’s place in a hierarchical order is publicly recognized and honoured.
Over against this view is what we might call the new individualism manifested in Edmund, Regan, Goneril, and Cornwall. This sees the good life for human beings as principally a matter of shaping one’s future to fit one’s own sense of oneself. We need not rest on what the community tells us we are; instead, we may actively seek to change what we are by applying our wit to alter our given circumstances as opportunities arise.
The clash between these two groups hinges on the different interpretations of the word “nature.” For the first group, nature is an ordered moral construct in which the signs of the constellations and the actions of the heavens are manifestations of structure in which human societies participate. Its faith is based on an inherent divinely sanctioned system of meaning in the world (that sense of order which Ulysses appeals to in his speech on degree in Troilus and Cressida). The second sees no moral order in the world. What the world is will be what we make of it for ourselves. The first view sees the good life as essentially a matter of service to traditional ideals; the second sees the good life as an aggressive assertion of one’s own individuality.
It is possible to locate this debate historically. And some have argued that Shakespeare’s age, the early 17th century, was a time in which the rising energies of individualism and capitalism were challenging the older order in a contested vision of political and social life and that Shakespeare’s play is, in part, a debate between these two competing visions (between, if we wish to put names onto the debate, the rival visions of Hooker and Hobbes).
If we want to view the play in this manner, and the text of the play invites us to do so in part (how important we make this conceptual level of the play is open for debate), then we may well wonder about whether the play leads us to any firm conclusion. Does Shakespeare take sides in this dispute or resolve it in any firm way?
My sense from the text is that his treatment of such a thematic concern is part of the play’s power, especially the power of its bleaker possibilities. Even if we say, as we might, that there is a sense of nobility and traditional warmth in the vision of the old order, in its ceremonious affections and firm sense of community, it is clear here that the old order is insufficient because some of its most important members do not live up to its demands. They are blind (that central metaphor is, of course, crucial) to their own obligations, insensitive to the complex dynamics of human interaction, and tyrannically addicted to their own power. Gloucester can joke in public about the “sport” he had in conceiving a bastard son and talk about how he has kept him away from court life, and Lear can rage at Cordelia for not playing the role he has determined for her in his self-flattering game. Like Richard II before them, they have an insufficiently intelligent and sensitive appreciation for the demands of virtue on which the old order rests and thus inevitably contribute to fostering a situation in which that old order falls apart.
The new order, in its turn, once self-assertive individualism has room to maneuver, breaks all customary ties, creates temporary alliances for power, and ends up with everyone pursuing his or her own agenda. In the process, sisters murder sisters, sons betray their fathers, and the quest for power leads to its inevitable conclusion, self-destruction.
King Lear offers no sense of a permanently established natural order from which human beings can devise some sense of how they ought to behave towards each other, how they ought to live their lives. When Lear goes out to seek justice in the storm, nature answers with an unintelligible and threatening tempest, from which the only sane thing to do is to huddle down in the nearest hovel and pass the time playing absurd games. Unlike the power of nature in As You Like It, which offers a place full of sunshine and fertility where people can discover in a newly invigorating way who they really are and what relationships matter most to them, nature in King Lear is harsh and unresponsive to human beings’ search for a reassuring moral order. In the Forest of Ardenne, the courtiers, through conversation and song, repair themselves so that they can return to society to lead better lives. On the heath, where there is no conversation only howls of anger and pain, the only thing Lear learns is that life, reduced to its basic elements, is insane.
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