The tragedy ‘King Lear’ by William Shakespeare, although written about quite remote epoch and unusual (in terms of our contemporary world) settings, raises vital philosophical, social and psychological themes, which are unlikely to become outdated. The most abstractive philosophical issue, described in ‘King Lear’ is the peculiarity of human fate and each person’s unique cycle of life. The paper is intended to analyze the meaning of cyclic imagery in social and philosophical contexts of the play.
Cyclic images are extremely notable in ‘King Lear’: two major passages that point to the finiteness of human life are Edgar’s expressions of the idea of life as gradual approach to its logical ending. First of all, Edgar suggests that “ripeness is all” (Act 5, Scene 2, l. 12), which in broader interpretation means: human being matures in order to prepare themselves for passing away. Another important idea is expressed in Act 5, Scene 3: “who loses and who wins; who’s in, who’s out – and take upon’s thee mystery of things, as if we were God’s spies.
And we wear out, in a walled prison, packs and sects of great ones that ebb and flow by the moon” (l. 16-20). As one can understand, any power and glory is not endless, and those of great influence and wealth are equal to the weakest and the most miserable at the certain time, more precisely, when they fade and encounter the sign of physical disappearance, or their own death; first of all – because it is impossible to take one’s possessions, material goods and brilliant social reputation to the ‘other kingdom’, where death brings individuals.
Moreover, they are also equal against divine justice, as it takes into consideration no social, political or military merits, but merely the person’s motives and motivations for their actions. Is human existence in vain therefore? This question can be answered only through exploring the interrelation between the theme of parental responsibility, blindness and the finiteness of human existence, brilliantly depicted in the play.
Due to the fact that human fate is described as a cycle (“By all the operations of the orbs/From whome we do exist and cease to be” (Act 1, scene 1, l.113-14)), individuals are capable of getting a rebirth in their own children. This rebirth indicates not merely natural reproduction, but also a chance to leave one’s trace in this world, especially putting the soul into the appropriate moral upbringing of the offspring.
This small particle of parental soul will grow within the descendant, so that the latter to some extent continues the parent’s existence: as King Lear says about Cordelia, “ I loved her the most and though to set my rest/Oh her kind nursery” (Act 1 Scene 1, l. 124-125) . In this narrow connotation, King Lear’s and Gloucester’s doom infers merely their inability to nurture virtues in their children: Lear to great extent overlooks moral ‘education’ for Regan and Gonoril, whereas Gloucester pays no attention to his extramarital son Edmund, so that, in accordance with cyclical laws, the descendants grow into adults and repay their parents with base ingratitude: “sons at perfect age and fathers declined, the father should be as ward to the son and the son manage his revenue” (Act 1, Scene 2, l. 72-4).
In spite of the lack of care for children, the noblemen nevertheless have excessively strong love for them, as the tragedy suggests, their feeling is destructive rather than constructive: King Lear blindly believes his older daughters and mistreats Cordelia, who is in reality among the most conscientious characters; by analogy, Gloucester appears incredibly gullible in his relationship with Edmund and easily betrays Edgar, his flesh and blood. Both political leaders are therefore punished for their own narrow-mindedness and finally fail to continue the cycle of their spiritual existence to the next generations.
Another visible dimension of cyclic imagery in the tragedy is dedicated to depicting human fate in the context of global injustice, under which even the most righteous persons with noble aspirations are crushed by the merciless wheel of fortune.
Throughout the play, the movements of stars are utilized to explain the adversities encountered by the characters; for instance Gloucester claims: “These late eclipses in the sun and moon portend no good to us” (Act 1, Scene 2, l. 104-5) and later Edmund wisely notes: “we make guilty for our disaster the sun, the moon and the stars, as if we were villains by necessity, fools by heavenly compulsion, knaves, thieves and treachers by spherical predominance; drunkards, liars and adulterers by an enforced obedience of planetary influence..” (Act 1, Scene 2, l. 119-125).
On the one hand, human fate is already predetermined, as these citations about the supernatural forces suggest. On the other hand, humans tend to shift their own accountability to unfortunate positions of celestial bodies, instead of struggling with the problem face-to-face.
To sum up, the central theme, supported by cyclic imagery is human fate and personal powerlessness against and vulnerability to the whims of fortune. On the other hand, analyzing the issue more profoundly, one can conclude that the author incorporates more ‘earthy’ meaning into the ‘supernatural’ imagery and metaphors: individuals have a tendency to avoiding responsibility of any kind – either parental, or social, and therefore refer to stars and deities as to the last resort. Figuratively speaking, individuals stare up in attempt to look to the future instead of looking around and focusing on their current obligations. In this sense, human “ripeness” has merely physical connotation, whereas cognitive and spiritual wisdom are unattainable to those, who are able to struggle on the battlefield, but incapable of defeating their personal weakness and moral blindness.
Shakespeare, William. King Lear. Available online at: http://shakespeare.mit.edu/lear/, 2002.