I apologize for my lack of actual ‘Literary Criticism’ these past few weeks, I didn’t realise the bog standard of work I’d get caught up in. So, here’s another one of my shameful essays, but if you look at it, it is kind of criticism. If it is not, then enjoy reading the torture I’ve endured the past week just trying to make this half decent to hand in, I promise you soon, I’ll do some ‘hardcore’ criticism:
“The audience’s response is full of pity and fear” In your opinion, how does the dramatic effect of the play’s ending impact on the overall tragedy of King Lear?
Max: 1300 words
Shakespeare’s King Lear is often regarded as the most tragic play of all time. A dramatic genre full of tragedy with the potency to manifest feelings of pity and fear and bind the audience together in apprehension. Sheer terror arises through the distinct line of consciousness that runs throughout the play and allows us to focus upon human nature in an entirely different concept. The dramatic conclusion to this tragic drama allows us to question the morality of individualists, examine and evaluate the terrifying social consequences of actions derived from flawed caricatures and to which extent this hold has upon society. Through acknowledging Aristotle’s assertion that pity and fear are necessary emotions in tragedy, we can study whether the bleak ending of King Lear is really an apparently inevitable sequence to an ongoing catastrophe, additionally, why the play’s nihilist ending is perceived to reduce the audience to a state of startled fear and pity.
The finale concluding King Lear, Act V scene iii, revokes within the audience the astounding emotions of intense tragedy. The convulsion of human passion that is plagued throughout the play does not abruptly halt within the final scenes; it’s a continual penetrating pathos that riddles its way throughout the play. When Kent utters in the final scene ‘The wonder is he hath endured so long. He has but usurped his life” We must look to the previous acts to decipher Lear’s exposed characteristics’ and flaws to piece together where in King Lear tragedy was first awakened. Lear in Act I scene i was an egotistical, tyrannical patriarch, his constant error believing authority solely lay in him as the royal monarch. His continual use of the royal pronoun “we” showed his selfishness disdain, a sign of hypocrisy as he is only clothed in the riches and his fall from kingship leads him to strip off his garments, he vainly shouts “Off off! You lendings!” in Act III scene iv. The removal of garments is a serious portrayal of political madness in King Lear; it is Lear’s descent into political insanity through his moral blindness that we feel pity. His casting out of his daughter Cordelia within Act I of the play after she refused to participate in his ‘love test’ by humbly asserting to speak “nothing” ’is the fatal flaw Lear holds. His rashness of his cruel and unjust decision is the first sign of mental instability. Lear’s ideal of hamartia allowed his capricious division of power; to this degree will our pity and fear be modified accordingly.
However, it is not only the fall of Lear that awakens tragedy; Shakespeare uses the literary device of a sub-plot involving the Earl of Gloucester, his bastard son Edmund and his legitimate son Edgar to mirror and portray elements of the main plot. Politically, both King and Earl undergo the same mental and physical torture; both are rejected by their younger offspring as they sought to gain power. Edmund, Gloucester’s bastard son, tricks Gloucester into casting out legitimate Edgar; it is from Gloucester’s “failure to keep his house in order” that Edmund’s Machiavellian, unscrupulous methods thrive. It is this power that plays an extensive role throughout King Lear, the quest for power corrupts, but when absolute power is attained, treachery and deceit flourish.
Gloucester’s blinding in Act III scene vii is a pivotal scene in the play, it is here that we learn to forgive all of Gloucester’s other misfortunes, his exhausted pleas for his attackers to “do me no foul play friends” are given our utmost pity, we no longer see a rash, vengeful Earl, but a fearful, ageing man. It is a metaphoric sense of blindness though that grips King and Earl; Gloucester is transformed from a life of only crediting a social hierarchy to one of resignation. It is when they’ve both been subjected to humility and corruption that they learn of their flaws, Lear allows himself to be rid of his crown of “hardocks, hemlock, nettles…” His sanity is restored in Act IV scene vii when his clothes are; Lear no longer needs to wear the “idle weeds” as a symbol of his jarred senses. Meanwhile, Gloucester’s begs Edgar to be “Away, and let me die” But after his attempt to commit suicide fails, he decides to bear his affliction until the end. It is the afflictions both characters’ receive that allow us to learn the value of human life and compassion, which pity is often the spectacle of.
King Lear initiates two tragic characters, although ultimately ‘good’ prevails, madness and death lurks mysteriously in the darkness. Historic and Marxist Jacobean England critics state that the final moments of the play are remnants of an essentially corrupt and flawed political system, it is hard to distinguish whether justice or corruption triumphs. Lear’s initially established hierarchy is destroyed and disaster is enabled to engulf the realm. King Lear is a brutal play filled with human cruelty; we question whether there is any possibility of justice in this world. The final scene is where Lear endures his agony, he has spiritually grown, wanting to “pray and sing” passively, Lear remains calm but this is short-lived and fearfully torn away as Cordelia, the embedded symbol of human kindness, is savagely killed.
Cordelia’s death is the ultimate horrifying extent of Lear’s consequences, demonstrating man’s inhumanity towards man but also, Cordelia’s death was not the end usually coined by critics or expected by past literary and theatrical traditions. Critic Swinburne asserts that the moral injustice of this play is made more abundant by claiming words such as requital, redemption and mercy have no meaning within King Lear and Lear himself in Act V scene iii questions injustice himself shrieking “Why should a dog, a horse a rat have life/ And thou no breath at all? “ Old religious hierarchies and moral certainties have been stripped away. The old cheap Shakespeare moral that “Truth and Virtue shall at last succeed” are condemned to nothing more than false alterations and we condemn these feelings as we see the limits of suffering have gone far beyond the limits of endurance. The loss of faith is evident to see when people who believed in some futile shred of justice such as Cordelia, are mercilessly sacrificed. Some “brand from heaven” cannot be salvaged back and we condemn what A.C Bradley nobly motioned-that the play has some form of Christian redemption. It was considered to pitiful and gloomy in the 17th century by Tate that he decreed the play be re-wrote. The dramatic conclusion of King Lear allows the audience to fear their own individual fates, passions and how powers working beyond our physical control penetrate the imagination, leaving us pitying the feeblest of lives.
It is foolish to say it is only because of the immense scope of suffering Lear endures that moves the audience to pity, because in reality it is far more than these diminutive suggestions. Lear’s misfortunes are greater than his offences, but, because the audience members perceive that they too could behave similarly, pity is fumbled upon and is both magnified and mitigated. Lear’s downfall from power, his complete reverse from fortune strikes a chord within common human sympathy; the suffering and calamity experienced are exceptionally moving. We are deeply distressed when Lear compares his wits to those of hell “O let me not be mad, sweet heaven!” and we fear Lear’s mental instability. Naturally, we do pity those who’ve had the potential for greatness however, by being exigent, have sacrified it for the temptations of immediacy. The tragedy lies with Lear’s internal psychological conflict, the plays brutal ending juxtaposed with Lear’s caricature only mirrors the grotesque nature within us all. The rashness of human behaviour astounds pity and fear as we question the pre-determined extent of moral and the pre-manipulated freedom of will.
Word Count: 1303