In Shakespeare’s King Lear there is a definite element of the grotesque as seen in Lear’s own personality, and the other main characters in how they treat Lear. Thus the grotesque in Shakespeare’s play is manifested through power. The grotesque theme of Shakespeare’s play will be examined in this essay as it pertains to King Lear’s hate of his daughters, and the way in which he treats them before his death.
Blindness is a recognition in the play of Lear’s grotesque nature or his need for power over others and how he cannot stand to see the world, or kingdom he created at the end of the play (Friedlander paragraph two). In King Lear’s distrust of his daughters he one by one makes himself disowned by them as can be deciphered in this speech,
I prithee, daughter, do not make me mad. I will not trouble thee, my child; farewell. We’ll no more meet, no more see one another. But yet thou art my flesh, my blood, my daughter; Or rather a disease that’s in my flesh, Which I must needs call mine. Thou art a boil, A plague sore, an embossed carbuncle In my corrupted blood. But I’ll not chide thee. Let shame come when it will, I do not call it. I do not bid the Thunder-bearer shoot Nor tell tales of thee to high-judging Jove. Mend when thou canst; be better at thy leisure; I can be patient, I can stay with Regan, I and my hundred knights.” ( Shakespeare II.iv.1514).
The parallels of father-child relationships are shown in how Lear’s daughter, Cordelia, parallels to Gloucester’s son Edgar; both Cordelia and Edgar are loyal to their fathers to the end, and Cordelia is banished while Edgar is forced into hiding both actions are pertaining to the manifestation of the grotesque in King Lear (Friedlander paragraph two). King Lear’s other two daughters, Goneril and Regan, parallel with Gloucester’s son Edmund. Goneril and Regan flatter Lear, “Sir, I love you more than words can wield the matter” (Shakespeare I. 1. 53-54).
The parallels in the deaths of Lear and Gloucester are seen in how both die in the presence of their loyal children; Lear dies with Cordelia in his arms, and Gloucester dies after Edgar has revealed himself as the Duke’s son; thus, although Shakespeare has written the grotesque in the play, he also allows his protagonists a chance of redemption.
Moreover, Lear and Gloucester both die in “extremes of passion.” Lear dies of a broken heart. “Break heart, I prithee break!”, and Gloucester’s “flaw’d heart” bursts of “joy and grief” after his reunion with Edgar (Shakespeare). As well both die with renewed insight: Gloucester needs to be blinded before he can see Edmund’s deceit and Edgar’s loyalty. Lear needs to suffer the rejection of his older daughters before he can see Cordelia’s loyalty, and men of power find that the loss of title and position humbles them; therefore the grotesque found in King Lear is eventually “overcome through love” (Doran 141).
Shakespeare’s play is based on Briton’s own King Leir, a tragic story of a king and his relationship with his family. The tragic element of the play harkens to the reality of the time of the writing as well as its history involved in Britain (Friedlander paragraph one). In the quote previously states (“I prithee daughter”- Shakespeare) there is a strong element of pride, lack of hope, and disease is mentioned.
The disease mentioned could be a remark on the overpowering plagues occurring in Britain as well as famine. Thus, the stress in a family relationship would be counted more stressful because of the environmental factors involved in the play’s setting. In fact, the theme of hunger, either of love, hope, pride, or greed, runs strong through the entire play, and this is the reason the first quote is so important, it highlights these human elements in the play (West 57).
Although the theme of marriage is not as strong in this play there are other themes which comprise the progression of the plot. The theme in King Lear subsists with the child-parent relationship which further develops with Lear’s three daughters, their submissiveness or lack of submissiveness with their father. In this play the focus of the married daughters who are proven to be evil and usurpers of their fathers power while the younger daughter, the innocent unmarried one proves to be the only supporter King Lear has although he blindingly distrusts her from act one. The theme of King Lear is suitably that of loyalty from the female caste whether in faithfulness or disloyalty.
The parallels of greed in political power (another form of the grotesque in Shakespeare’s play) are presented in how Goneril and Regan seek political power by their ability to strip the King of all his train of followers, by rejecting the King’s title, and turning him out into the storm, “…entreat him by no means to stay” (Shakespeare III. 1. 297). Also, Edmund has high political aspirations by allowing Gloucester to be blinded for his own political gain, “Hang him instantly [Regan]…Pluck out his eyes [Goneril]” (Shakespeare III. 7. 4-5), and he usurps Edgar’s legitimate title as the future Earl of Gloucester. Furthermore, Kent and Edgar both lose their nobility, the Earl of Kent is banished for his honest defense of Cordelia, and Edgar loses his claim to nobility through the deceit and trickery of Edmund.
The combination between the sub-plot and the main-plot in King Lear comprises of thematically similar plots. Shakespeare has used the characters and themes of the subplot to amplify the drama and calamity of the main plot. With two plots, perfectly intertwined and yet offering parallel lessons, Shakespeare is able to heighten the emotional effect of the tragedy. In conclusion, the subplot intensifies the emotional impact of the main plot in the areas of child-parent relationships, the corruption of political power, and the death of the protagonist (West 58).
In the perception of identity and love in that identity King Lear is redemptive but full of blame, and still hanging onto pride which presents the issue of love for a woman, albeit a daughter, has not persuasion over self-loathing (Doran 152). Here Shakespeare’s design in the play portends of how innocence as with Cordelia when followed is prophetic but when love is denied in Shakespeare’s plays the consequences are dire. In King Lear’s age he sees himself as beyond the measure of blame because his life is already lived, his deeds are already accomplished. It is with the hope of redemption through love that the play ends; King Lear states,
Hear me, recreant! On thine allegiance, hear me! Since thou hast sought to make us break our vow- Which we durst never yet- and with strain’d pride To come between our sentence and our power,- Which nor our nature nor our place can bear,- Our potency made good, take thy reward. Five days we do allot thee for provision To shield thee from diseases of the world, And on the sixth to turn thy hated back Upon our kingdom. If, on the tenth day following, Thy banish’d trunk be found in our dominions, The moment is thy death. Away! By Jupiter, This shall not be revok’d (ShakespeareI.i.178ff).
It is only with the hope of love, that these characters can be redeemed, and the nature of the grotesque in the play may be wiped out.
This essay has delved into the plays inner workings of plot, and sub plot and how each character seems to represent a certain element of the grotesque in human nature through greed, political power, and lack of faith (West 57). It is only through King Lear’s blindness that this grotesque nature is truly seen since the reason for his blindness is because he cannot bear to see the world he created through his own grotesque nature beginning with doubt of his daughter’s love.
Doran, M. The Quarto of “King Lear” and Bright’s Shorthand. Modern Philology, Vol. 33, No. 2 (Nov., 1935), pp. 139-157
Friedlander, E. Enjoying King Lear. 2005. Online. Retrieved 22 November 2007.
Shakespeare. King Lear. Penguin Classic. 1998.
Theatre History. King Lear. 2002. Online. Retrieved 22 November 2007.
West, R. Sex and Pessimism in King Lear. Shakespeare Quarterly, Vol. 11, No. 1. (Winter, 1960), pp. 55-60.