“King Lear”

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From the initial study of the first two acts, it is evident to see that Shakespeare is presenting his audience with a variety of personalities, many of which we, as an audience are actively encouraged to dislike. A Major theme within “King Lear” is the force of Good opposing Evil, so therefore it makes sense to suggest the presence of those perhaps stereotypical “Evil” characters causing trouble, whilst disrupting and shaping the course of the play.

Throughout this essay, I hope to show and account for the reasons behind how some characters are portrayed very differently from other characters, and how this effects an audiences’ interpretation of them. Whilst studying the play, we should be aware that Shakespeare manipulates events and prose, using various techniques in order to fulfil a certain purpose. Shakespeare moulds his plays in order to have a certain and very predictable effect upon an audience. His use of language that is used by individual characters and the sequence of events that take place throughout the play is by no means coincidental.

Shakespeare in actual fact had a very clear purpose when writing his plays. The way in which the play is written serves to guarantee that his audience, ultimately, in light of the evidence shown to them on stage, are able to extract the true and relevant intentions of, and from these, draw accurate conclusions from the characters shown to them, which would essentially lead to a more accurate understanding of the events which occur during the course of the play, and perhaps even the reasons behind them.

In this essay, I will identify and explore such methods in which Shakespeare adopts in order to create a certain type of character- the characters the audience are encouraged to dislike. Such techniques used within the first two acts ensure that the true nature and intentions of certain characters are obtained, by the way in which they are characterised and portrayed.

Through the course of this essay, I will examine the various techniques present during the first two Acts in certain characters’ dialogue, and the language they use generally and when placed in different situations, how their actions and decisions effect the audiences’ interpretation of their character, the way in which they interact with other characters and how certain interactions will ultimately be perceived by a Shakespearian audience.

This will explain, due to the methods Shakespeare adopts in his characterisation, why ultimately, certain characters are perceived in different ways to other characters. From the moment the play commences, nearly at once is the initial perceived character of Lear established, and he himself is the first character that the audience is encouraged to dislike. The audience is faced with the infamous “Love Test” ceremony of Act 1 Scene 1, and so soon into the play has a lot of events to take into account.

They witness the unusual method in which this supposedly “wise” King is adopting in order to divide up his Kingdom after he retires from his throne. What should essentially be a difficult task, in order to determine those to whom the land will be best governed under is seemingly disregarded, as the King favours a more “ego friendly” method. The audience learns in actual fact, in order to do this, the King is conducting a “Love Test” whereby his three daughters are expected to proclaim their love to their father, attempting to out-do the others in the hopes of obtaining the larger proportion of land.

This suggests instantly the interpretation of Lear as an egotistical old fool for even considering deciding the fate of his Kingdom on the basis of a ceremony concerned with flattering his own ego, not on political status of the contenders involved nor the reliability of their character. Such a method would alarm the audience- this is certainly not the actions of a responsible ruler.

At once the audience would look upon this pompous, grand, Royal and exaggerated ceremony with distaste for the character of Lear and perceive him as an egotistical Ruler, too immersed in his own importance and power to consider any consequences in dividing up his Kingdom in such a way. This perception is reinforced by the fact that the audience learn, in actual fact, Lear had already decided upon how the land was to be divided between the daughters anyway, and that the entire point of the ceremony is to publically command his daughters to profess their love for him and in doing so, flatter his own ego.

Lear is seen as judgemental and narrow minded. He is fooled by Goneril and Regans’ superficial and elegant speeches and loses his temper when contradicted by his favourite daughter, Cordelia, who refuses to take part in her fathers “contest” and says she has “nothing” to say, except that she loves “Lear as her duty instructs her. ” His actions create a sense of falseness, whereby Lear is all too apt to take things by face value, all too ready to judge on appearances, which would indicate he is naiive and irrational, adding to Shakespeares desired perception of the early character of Lear.

Lear loses his temper and behaves like a tyrant as he has been embarrassed in public and does not know how to cope, behaving absurdly, arrogantly and irrationally by losing control and banishing not only Cordelia his favourite, and ironically the only daughter who holds any genuine love and compassion for him, but also Kent, his most loyal, trusted and previously most highly esteemed servant, in favour of those characters the audience can see, are so obviously corrupt.

It is evident to the audience that Kent is behaving rationally from the calmness of his speech in contrast with Lears’ ludicrous ravings. They see clearly that Kent is trying to protect Lear, by the way in which he conducts himself throughout the scene. Kent’s dialogue in Act 1 Scene 1 is more informal and friendly, indicating Kent and Lear perhaps have a stronger relationship than that of ruler and subject, that they are more likened to friends.

Kent uses terms such as “old man” which serves to make the conversation more personal and to show the audience they have a certain bond, that Kent has genuine affection and love for Lear. Kent’s speech differs tremendously from Lear’s raving speech in that Kent is calm and controlled, with his speech full of insight, warning and wisdom, which serves to contrast and to highlight even more the absurdity of Lear’s rage.

Lear’s speech is rash, harsh and full of exaggeration which conveys well his temper “Come not between the dragon and his wrath! ” His speech is also punctuated with insults for Kent, who is evidently seeking only the best for his friend “O Vassal! Miscreant! ” and to really emphasise Lear’s lack of control, Shakespeare includes one of the very few stage directions into the scene, whereby Lear actually lays his hand upon his sword when arguing with Kent.

Therefore, we get a very strong essence of the early characterization of Lear. It is obvious Shakespeare established the character of Lear in such a way, to guarantee the understanding of future events which take place throughout the play. Actively, from the beginning, the audience are encouraged to dislike Lear. Shakespeare exaggerates events to the extreme during this scene in order to make it blindingly obvious in what way the character of Lear should be perceived.

The extreme foolishness the audience can see in the division of the kingdom upon the basis of a love test, the fact that the exaggerated, elevated, so obviously insincere speeches of Goneril and Regan succeed over the true sentiments of Cordelia, the extent to which Lear loses his temper with his previously favourite daughter in that he would go so far as to disown her and banish her to France, and also the fact that he banishes not one obviously sincere, sensible and rational character, but two, creates a definite intended perception of Lear.

In this first scene, it is true that the audience is encouraged to dislike Lear, however, as the play progresses, this dislike gradually and totally turns to the audience feeling pathos towards the character of Lear, and the way In which he is portrayed shifts significantly, with the “true” evil characters beginning to surface and shape the events. When viewing and studying the play, it is obvious that the characters of Goneril and Regan conform to and take on the conventional “evil” roles.

Shakespeare creates this desired perception by the way in which he characterises them, portrayed by their attitudes generally, the way in which they express themselves and how they behave. Throughout the first two Acts, it is evident that an audience should dislike the characters of Goneril and Regan. They share many character traits, both cold and calculating, with a great sense of personal ambition.

A good example of this nature can be seen in Act 1 Scene 1 whereby they, unlike their sister who shows initiative and integrity, do in fact concede to Lear’s Love Test game and their profession of love is so obviously insincere and rehearsed to the audience, by the way in which it is expressed in such an exaggerated manner, we see this ludicrous exaggeration as almost mocking of Lear, a deplorable action.

Lear who naiive, egotistical and bad tempered as he is, should nonetheless, still warrant a great amount of respect. Not only their Father, he is their King, a role seen in Elizabethan times as having been ordained by God Himself. Such mockery of the Head of State and the embodiment of “Gods will on earth” would have provoked outrage and shock within such a society. Goneril and Regan contrast astonishingly with the character of Cordelia, who can be seen as a trustworthy character.

Early on she gains the trust of the audience and even though her actions may be perceived as rude, even to the extent of being disrespectful, the audience are in no doubt of her sincerity and her genuine love for her father, through the fact that rather than partake in what could have been an easy way to keep the affections of her father whilst looking after her own interests, she in fact chose the more difficult option, and for her, the morally correct route of not participating.

The audience would be encouraged to admire that quality and believe her take on things more readily than the Sister’s who show none of the same admirable characteristics and who have lost the audience’s trust so early on by demonstrating just how easily they can lie. Therefore, Cordelia’s asides serve to give an added insight of the sisters’ true intentions, and as she has already won the audience’s trust and respect, they are more apt to take her word on the true nature of her sisters’ characters. Similarly, before her departure, Cordelia gives warnings of their true intentions “Time shall unfold what plighted cunning hides! which indicates to the audience the Sisters are not to be trusted. In this way, Shakespeare has manipulated events in order to make the audience aware of Regan and Goneril’s nature, and so prepare them to expect something more sinister from the Sisters through the course of the play. At the end of the first scene, Shakespeare leaves the audience in no doubt as to the true intentions of Goneril and Regan, whereby a private conversation is shown between them, which discusses their plans for their father now they have got what they wanted from him – their inheritance.

The grand language which was previously used before, in the presence of other people has been dropped completely and we are now under the impression that it was all an act on their part, and that they are apt liars. Gone are the speeches, now the sisters adopt prose dialogue, which is simple, plain and to the point, the type of dialogue generally reserved within the works of Shakespeare for those untrustworthy characters. The use of such common speech is designed to reflect the Sisters true personalities and intentions, neither of which is high nor admirable.

By speaking so plainly, immediately their status has been reduced as they discuss their scheming plans and true opinions of their father, demonstrating to the audience how superficial their love professions actually were. This is a very effective method Shakespeare has adopted as it evokes the instant dislike and even repulsion for the Sisters, whereby only now they are alone and in private, they can speak openly of their true feelings and opinions on their father, using cold insulting language, devoid of any sort of regard or love for their him “Tis the infirmity of his age. This conversation plays a key role when assessing Shakespeare’s intentions for the characters of Goneril and Regan. Such brutal and distasteful talk with reference to the superior father figure, especially in Elizabethan times, would have been sure to have provoked shock and disgust at the lack of respect for an elder family member, from whose care they essentially owe their very existence to. This shock would have been all the more prominent by the fact that Lear was not only their father, their authoritarian, but also their King and head of state.

What makes it worse is the fact that these are women undermining the authority of the King, whose authority has been ordained by God Himself. Therefore such attacks on Lear can be interpreted as the attempted usurpation of God’s own authority. What makes it all the more unfortunate is now the Kings fate seems to be in the hands of two conniving women- “the weaker sex” as they would have been seen at this period, the scandalous element being that it is his own flesh and blood talking so acting so ruthlessly and detachedly.

Therefore this sends out a very clear message with regards to the Sisters and the way in which Shakespeare has presented us with them. We do not like nor trust them and we are gradually building an insight to their true characters. We can see that the sisters are conniving and devious, in that they have been scheming the downfall of their Father and anticipating their own triumph for a long time. We are shocked at the audacity of the sisters, who are portrayed to be very much a partnership. At the end of Act 1 Scene 1, Goneril states “Pray you, lets hit together. We get a strong sense of their falseness and deviousness, in that they would willingly manipulate family members and events in order to gain personally. The casual way in which they rationalize away their neglect of their Father speaks volumes. They set their own interests above anyone else’s, including their own family. They are power hungry, and all too eager to manipulate that newly acquired power to satisfy their own self interests. None of these are attractive qualities and so encourage a strong dislike for their characters.

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