The Good, the Bad, and the Unwise in King Lear

After following Henry V with some of Shakespeare’s sonnets, we read King Lear in my class through Roman Roads Media. I was assigned a “reading response” to each of these—I’ve posted the one about Henry V. The guideline about length is to make our responses 400-500 words long, and I had a hard time bringing my piece about the sonnets up to that. Once I’d found my subject(s) about King Lear, though, I had the opposite problem… I had to keep pruning comments and quotes I wanted to include, and if you subtract the words counted for line citations and count words typed like “[S]erve” as one word, this comes to exactly 500 words!

Besides the Fool, whose task is providing pithy commentary, there are three types of significant characters in King Lear: the all-out good, such as Cordelia, Kent, and Edgar; the all-out evil, such as Edmund, Goneril, and Regan; and those who intend good but do not properly use authority and/or discernment – Lear, Albany, and Gloucester.

You cannot get rid of Cordelia, Kent, or Edgar, no matter how hard you try. Disown them. Dismiss them. Put bounties on their heads. They’re coming back. These characters are the Christ-figures in the play, people who come back to those whom they love, even after being rejected, as God keeps coming back to us. “[S]erve where thou dost stand condemn’d,” Kent tells himself, mentioning “thy master, whom thou lov’st.” (I.IV, 5,6)

Like Christ asking from the Cross for forgiveness for his persecutors, Kent and Cordelia leave court with wishes that Goneril and Regan may tend Lear well. Kent says:

“And your large speeches may your deeds approve,
That good effects may spring from words of love.”

I.I, 187-188

They use devious means to achieve their traitorous ends, but the antagonists in King Lear are, in their way, very simple. They might like reapplying a maxim from As You Like It: “to have is to have” – they wish to have, and have not, and therefore, as Edmund says, “Well, then, / Legitimate Edgar, I must have your land.” (I.II, 15-16)

Until Edmund reaches the last scene, these characters do not consider righteousness. They desire power, scorn weakness. Maybe Goneril and Regan never loved their father, but once he has given up his power, they scorn him. Mocking her father to her steward, Goneril says:

“Idle old man,
That still would manage those authorities
That he hath given away!”

I.III, 16-18

Lear, Gloucester, and Albany command our sympathy. It is easy to sympathize with Lear’s wish for retirement, and possible, less easily, to do so when he says “So young, and so untender?” (I.I, 108)

We can understand Gloucester’s horror at finding that Edgar, whom he loved, appears to have betrayed him. “My son Edgar! Had he a hand to write this? A heart and brain to breed it in?” (I.II, 61-62)

We commiserate with Albany’s appalled reaction to his wife’s monstrosity. “What have you done? Tigers, not daughters, what have you performed?” (IV.III, 39-40)

But something’s wrong with each. We sympathize, but we know that Cordelia is the good daughter, and that Lear once knew so. The same goes for Edgar. And… why is Albany so uninvolved in running his own dukedom? Lear makes, and Albany seems to have made, the mistake of giving away power they should rightfully use. This disrupts the chain of authority running from God through all creation and leads to tragic consequences. Lear and Gloucester make mistakes of discernment which remind me of the Professor’s question from The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe: “[D]oes your experience lead you to regard your brother or your sister as the more reliable?”

Sometimes authority cannot rightfully be given away. And always take context into account.