The Play “King Lear” by William Shakespeare
King Lear is a play written by William Shakespeare and originally published in 1606. It is the story of the old king of Britain who needed to give up his power to his daughters. Having no experience identifying people’s true beliefs, he is deceived by the hypocritical praise of his two sisters – Goneril and Regan. At the same time, the youngest of the sisters, Cordelia, describes her love for her father honestly. It results in King Lear being very angry about the youngest sister’s behavior and deciding to give power to the other sisters. The whole subsequent story shows the impact of his decision. This storyline helps readers understand many philosophical themes of Shakespeare’s thought. In King Lear, Shakespeare provides bright insights into the human condition by using bright dichotomies between polar aspects, such as nature and society, divine and human, natural and unnatural, evil and virtue, and some other binaries.
Nature vs. Society
This story takes place in ancient Britain, where the principles of life were rooted in brute force and despotism. Lear’s family is an example of the contrast between moods that were present in society. King Lear is the true representative of traditional monarchical notions of power-sharing in society. He cannot give up his power to his daughter, of whom he is unsure. Edmund is another crucial actor in these ages who seeks his share of power. His philosophy is built on the notions of competition, striving for power, and deception. In some sense, he shares a Hobbesian understanding of human nature based on the assumption that the war all against all is inevitable in the case of anarchy. Therefore, for Edmund, all means justify the ends, so he was ready to use tricks and fakes to display Edgar from his legitimate place. Therefore, the society in this tragedy is depicted as opposed to the natural flow of things which is stable and based on natural rules. Instead, these individuals can act unfairly and despotically in their strive for power.
As for the natural aspect of Shakespeare’s text, there is a struggle between what is really natural and what wants to be natural. The evil Edward implicates the change of the natural status quo. Nevertheless, it seems that the true nature is accumulated in Cordelia, Edgar, and Kent. These people can be naturally loving, loyal, and fair. They represent the natural order that combats Edmund’s Mackevialean actions and the inner evilness of Goneril and Regan.
Divine vs. Human
In the society of King Lear’s rule, religion plays a significant role in people’s life. However, what is divine and what true religion means have different interpretations throughout the text. In other words, the actions of some actors show that good cannot triumph on its own, so divine justice cannot control human relations. The justification of this assumption is the final episode of the play when all good characters – Lear, who changed his mind, Cordelia, and Gloucester – die. Divine justice is definitely lacking its power to punish evil and reward good. In this respect, the binary opposites met in the battle between Edmund and Edgar, evil and good sides, respectively. The ultimate victory of Edgar manifests the victory of divine justice over evil, but the other events of killing innocent Gordelia raise questions about its inclusiveness.
Therefore, the most logical conclusion from Shakespeare’s text is that people should behave in the same way if there were divine justice. Social scientists will definitely find here the roots of fundamental human rights in the modern world. Besides, good forces should always protect this divine justice against the evil part of humanity. Only protecting divine and sacred principles can save the world from anarchy and destruction.
Natural vs. Unnatural
Another important topic in the text is Shakespeare’s reflection on what consider natural and unnatural. It seems that it is incorrect to think about natural as related to the environment and the biological world. Instead, Shakespeare raises the discussion about human nature, the key theme in political philosophy. The first type of human nature is replicated in Goneril, Regan, and Edward. Their moral is inherently evil; they strive for despotical power and glory. Shakespeare considers this branch as unnatural and dangerous but recognizes that it is becoming more powerful and widespread. The other branch is a natural one implicated in King Lear and Cordelia. Cordelia is not corrupted by the power exercise like her father, so her thoughts and intentions are honorable and honest. Her father also has a clear heart but the time spent being a despotic King made him detached from reality. Only the real-life experience of betrayal and evilness changed his mind and cleaned his Reason from wrong thoughts. Therefore, the dichotomy between natural and unnatural is the discussion between two branches of discussion of human nature. One is similar to Hobbes’s theorization, while King Lear’s case related to the philosophy of Rousseau about the corruption of human nature by society.
Evil vs. Virtue
The presence of virtue and evil in Shakespeare’s world replicates the same meanings as other discussed binaries. Cordelia is a clear example of virtue; she is a bright sunbeam in the world of deception and evilness. The mindset of people was so changed by evil influences that no one cannot recognize Cordelia’s virtue. At the end of the King’s struggles, he realizes that Cordelia expressed only true loyalty. It is seen in the dialogue scene between Cordelia and King Lear when she heads the invading army to England. She says: “O dear father, It is thy business that I go about” (Shakespeare, 2005, p. 215). Here, she shows loyalty to his father after he denies her as the heiress. Thus, evil and virtue are in constant struggle: through the dialogues, characters’ characteristics, and other literary devices, the reader realizes the danger of evil forces to the existing virtue.
Order vs. Chaos
In King Lear, some characters want chaotic arrangements, while others are accustomed to order and tradition. Edward is a clear example of chaotic tendencies in power-sharing and political competition. He recognizes that social interaction is chaos where everything is allowed. Lies, betrayal, and deception are excellent means to achieve anarchy, in which it is easier for this type of character to take their piece of the pie from power. Another branch is King Lear, who extremely got used to the customs and traditions of his monarchical rule, so he is easily deceived by the new Machiavellian-type figures. These debates bring to the deep meanings of change from tradition to the chaos that Shakespeare experienced. He calls for the evaluation of these tendencies through juxtaposing binary opposites in his tragedy.
Thus, the main idea of this dichotomy between order and chaos is that the political realm is easily disturbed by chaos if the ruler does not recognize the true feelings from the false ones. By the decision to give power to Goneril and Regan, King Lear destroyed not only his rule but the institute of stable monarchy in the country. The order immediately became the political turmoil where evil interests prevailed over good intentions.
Pride vs. Humility
The final binary opposition in this paper is between pride and humility. Pride may be considered a key factor in the demise of Lear’s monarchical power. When King Lear chooses the sister for the inheritance, he said, “which of you shall we say doth love us most” (Shakespeare, 2005, p. 102). It means that his pride prevailed over his sincere decision of choosing the heiress. Lear welcomed superficial recognition of love because he could not follow God’s orders. The pride cannot recognize the true humility because the shadows of false and egoistical love make the Reason being deceived by the praise. Thus, pride was the catalyst in a series of tragic events that led to the takeover of power by insincere daughters.
To sum up, Shakespeare’s plays can be considered a moral compass for understanding what is good and what is bad. The text, written at the beginning of the 17th century, has its relevance to this day, as the moral code of mankind continues to have a similar form. The most effective technique chosen by Shakespeare in King Lear is the use of opposing concepts and phenomena to draw a clear picture of what constitutes good and evil in the modern world.
Shakespeare, W. (2005). The tragedy of King Lear. Cambridge University Press.