Symbols and Motifs in King Lear

The issue of blindness is associated most obviously with Gloucester, who is blinded in the course of the play. It is peculiarly right for Gloucester’s eyes to be the organs through which he is tortured.   Gloucester thought he saw the truth about his sons, but was in fact blind.  With his eyes put out he does indeed see the truth. “Gloucester before he lost his eyes was spiritually blind, and could not tell the difference between a good son and a bad” (Muir, lx). It is this physical suffering that brings out the long debilitated moral stamina that has underlain his sympathy. Losing his eyes enables him to reach heroic and tragic proportions. He surely has the right to say, “All dark and comfortless” (III, vii, 84).  There is no irritating shadow of egotism on his accounts of his predicament. And when he learns that Edmund has betrayed him, his response is astonishing and wonderful: “O my follies!  Then Edgar was abused. / Kind gods, forgive me that and prosper him (III, vii, 90-1).  He knows that his injury to Edgar can never be forgiven:

You cannot see your way.

I have no way, and therefore want no eyes;

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Gloucester’s blindness is also a reflection of the unreformed Lear’s arrogant folly, and his inability to tell a good daughter from a bad, until he has been through his own ordeal.

The Storm

In III, i, the Gentleman gives us an account of Lear’s behaviour which shows him as, in a way, indulging in a sort of theatrical display, enjoying the spectacle of himself suffering in the storm.  The storm seems to appeal to Lear as a sort of melodramatic setting for a display of what is at this point his martyr-like self-pity. “tears his white hair…/ Strives in his little world of man to out-storm / The to-and-fro-conflicting wind and rain” (III, i, 6-10).  But Lear has not yet reached the truth about himself.  This is important because it is tempting to see the storm as a symbolic event, and Lear as man in the abstract contending with the forces of evil.  Shakespeare makes us stand back from Lear still, and not identify with him. The real meaning of the storm lies in the thought that it was inhumanly cruel of the daughters to shut him out on such a night.

Certainly Kent’s description of the peculiar severity of the storm prompts one to see it as more than just a physical event. He has never in his life seen “such sheets of fire, such bursts of horrid thunder” (III, ii, 46) etc., and the implication is that the storm has more than natural causes.  This leads Lear to his reflection on the power of the storm to purge evil and crime:  “Let the Great Gods, / That keep this dreadful pudder o’er our heads, / Find out their enemies now…” (IV, ii, 49-51). His growing madness takes the form an obsessive interpretation of all ills in terms of his own personal sufferings.  Shakespeare makes sure we see the point: “this tempest in my mind / Doth from my senses take all feeling else / Save what beats there” (III, iv, 12-14).

It is the internal tempest that matters in the drama, and the way it brings Lear to some sort of wisdom. The wildness of the elements leads him to a great advance when he sees Edgar as elemental man. Here real truth starts to appear to him: “Is man no more than this?… unaccommodated man is no more but such a poor, bare, forked animal as thou art” (III, iv, 105-111).   He sees, for the first time, beyond the surface of things, and understands the folly of snobbery and blind selfishness in human life. His own trappings of pomp are vain, he sees himself as deluded, and Edgar as the truth.

Madness

Lear’s collapse into madness is his way to transformation.  One of his mad notions is to imagine the mock trial of the sisters.  The symbolic force of this is evident:

(To Edgar)  Thou, robed man of justice, take thy place.

(To the Fool)  And thou, his yoke fellow of equity,

Bench by his side.  (To Kent)  You are o’th’commission;

Sit you too. (III, vi, 37-40).

Here is a Christian inversion of the social order; a mad beggar, a fool, and an exiled man are set up over the mighty to sit in judgement on them.  It is a mad fancy of Lear’s, but it has a deep significance in the criticism of false sophistication that the play poses.  An unjust society has helped Lear to be an egotist and to do evil, as Kent said in the first scene.  Now Lear is learning and regrets his own “sophistication” in the face of Edgar, “the thing itself”.  What he is learning is the need for humility, and respect for others, and the importance of setting one’s eyes on the real truths of human existence if one is to live decently and with meaning. The knowledge Lear gains is percolated through his madness.

But Gloucester does not go mad.  He endures everything.  As he learns from Edgar’s lesson on the “cliff”, it is not man’s right to choose his end. The point of that strange scene seems to be summarised at the end by Gloucester’s description of their relative fates:

The King is mad: how stiff is my vile sense

That I stand up, and have ingenious feeling

Of my huge sorrows!  Better I were distract:

So should my thoughts be sever’d from my griefs,

And woes by wrong imaginations lose

The knowledge of themselves. (IV, vi, 28106)

 “I suggest that through him we grasp the central thread, which has to do with love and suffering and sticking it out to the end… Lear is spared the worst. Gloucester gets it” (Mason, 1970, p.200).

In Lear’s crazed mind all authority is in the hands of those who are unworthy.  It is only their established power, their rank and ceremonial clothes that distinguish the judges from the accused.  Morality is cynically ignored.  Only selfishness rules.  “Let copulation thrive” – and the world in Lear’s distorted mind looks very like that presupposed by Edmund’s view of nature, a sort of jungle of self-interest, power and lust.

Betrayal

When Cordelia refuses to do what her foolish father wants in the first scene she invokes the idea of the bond. “I love your majesty / According to my bond” (I, i, 92-3) And by “bond” she means something quite different from the “bondage” that he interprets it as.  The question of the bonds of human relationships is central to the play; why human beings fail in their bonds, as the daughters do with Lear, and Edmund does with his father is the horrific mystery that Shakespeare cannot solve.  Cordelia goes on to spell out, in an embarrassed way – she had always thought it was obvious – what she means by “bond”.

It is the natural range of duties and affection that exist between children and parents.  Kent too speaks of another bond, the sacred responsibilities of service. “Royal Lear, / Whom I have ever honour’d  as my King, / Lov’d as my father, as my master follow’d…” (I, i, 139-141).  It is the betrayal of these bonds that causes such chaos in the moral world of King Lear, of which Jan Kott says “There is neither Christian heaven, nor the heaven predicted by humanists.  King Lear makes a tragic mockery of all eschatologies” (Kott, 1967, p.116).

Edmund’s speech in I, ii is plain because his thought is plain.  There is no hesitation in him because there are no doubts, and no traces of decent feeling in him at all.  He is utterly conscienceless.  Nothing in him works to check the urge of ruthlessness. His closeness to the sisters is clear.  His “Nature”, it is pretty obvious, is a different concept from that assumed in Cordelia’s definition of the natural “bonds” of feeling and duty which underlie decent society.  It is, for him, nature as expressed in the law of the jungle – naked self-interest and the pursuit of power.  He is appalling in his plainness.  The sisters are equally ready to betray normal ties. It is astonishing to hear Regan’s total failure to respond to Lear’s appeals for sympathy.  After all, however absurd his selfishness, he is her father.  But she responds, as does Goneril, like a machine, with an icy formality of tone which is the voice of cold reason.

O, Sir! you are old,

Nature in you stands on the very verge

Of her confine: you should be rul’d and led

By some discretion that discerns your state

Better then you yourself. (II, iv, 147-151).

We might be tempted to agree with Bradley that “in that dark cold world some fateful malignant influence is abroad, turning the hearts of the fathers against their children and of the children against their fathers” (Bradley, 214). But the bonds are not always betrayed. A notable incident  in III, vii, the scene in which Gloucester is blinded, is the intervention of the servant. He acts purely on a humane instinct of decency, knowing in his soul that such conduct as Cornwall’s is not tolerable in a human world. He invokes the sacred bond of service, just as Kent did to Lear :“Hold your hand, my lord! /  I have served you ever since I was a child; / But better service have I never done you /  Than now to bid you hold” (III, vii, 71-4). The point here – the infinitely blessed and optimistic point – is that this man is not a hero, but simply a decent human being.  But he is ready to die in defense of a tolerable world

Works Cited

Bradley, A.C.  Shakespearean Tragedy.  London: Macmillan, Second edition, 1905.

Kott, Jan, Shakespeare Our Contemporary, translated by Boleslaw Taborski, London, Methuen, 2nd edition 1967.

Mason, H.A., Shakespeare’s Tragedies of Love, London, Chatto and Windus, 1970.

Shakespeare, W.  The Arden Shakespeare: King Lear. Ed. Kenneth Muir. London: Methuen, 1980.

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