To what extent are Lear’s and Gloucester’s troubles brought on by “the surfeits of their own behaviour”

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Lear’s claim that he is “a man more sinned against that sinning” is undeniably true, but the pathos of his fall is elevated – made more profound and resonant – by the inescapable reality that much of his suffering is ultimately self-inflicted. As voiced by Bradley: “the storm which has overwhelmed him was liberated by his own deed”. Lear’s fall is a product of conflict – a conflict that is alternately embedded in philosophical differences and a clash of generations.

The most obvious generational conflict which exists in the play is that between Lear and his daughters Goneril and Regan. Nature is deeply rooted in the play (perhaps because it deals with a time before Christianity took a foothold in Britain) and is found both metaphorically and physically manifesting itself throughout: the main antagonism in the text comes in the shape of children (the natural preservation of oneself) doing something fundamentally unnatural (that being to turn against their own father).

Numerous characters comment on the stark savagery of this throughout the play including Edgar, Albany and of course Lear himself: “Tigers not daughters”, “Whose warped looks proclaim what store her heart is made on”, “Twas this flesh begot those pelican daughters”, “Ingratitude, thou marble hearted fiend, more hideous when thou show’st thee in a child, than in the sea-monster”, “You unnatural hags, I shall have such revenges on you both. ” These metaphors help emphasise that though it could well be considered inhuman it is normal in most species from rabbits to salmon for the parents to decline in order for their children to take their place.

It could be argued that the essential tragedy of the play is that Lear’s innate stubbornness is what prevents this changeover of generations from taking place. In the very first scene he announces that his purpose of the division of his kingdom is that he might “shake all cares and business from our age conferring them on younger strengths” yet he shows by his actions this is only half meant. He wishes to be rid of the responsibility of being King while maintaining the prestige of the station and the power over his life which only being an autocrat can bring.

He keeps himself an irrationally large entourage and is grievously offended when Oswald addresses him as “my lady’s father” seemingly angry that this is what he has demoted himself to having given up his crown. Lear makes the decision to give away his lands before his death without really considering the ramifications. It seems odd that a man who has summoned a meeting to announce the division of his kingdom, and the dilution of his power, holds on so tightly to that power when questioned. The use of the word ‘allegiance’ also shows the King holds this in high regard, and makes us question whether he is comfortable with his own decision. It is also ironic that the recipient of this rage is Kent, Lear’s most faithful Earl. ) He spends the rest of the play attempting to reverse his earlier mistake but is met at every junction with the harsh realisation that though his power was easily given up it cannot be easily regained. In this manner Shakespeare’s Lear become a metaphor for growing old in general. As children grow they take over the roles their parents used to have and the parents are forced to realise that that the flow of time only moves in one direction.

Lear attempts to oppose generational progress and he and all he cares for is destroyed in the attempt. This then gives rise to a philosophical conflict. It is perhaps best evidenced when Lear confronts Goneril and Regan in Gloucester Castle. He is so hurt that Goneril wishes him to half his retinue that Regan demanding that he quarter it stings him to his core. Favouring Goneril’s option as the best of a bad situation he cannot cope when they both continue to lower the total number of his allotted attendants until it has decreased from a hundred to none.

They suggest this is logical as there is no need for him to have his own forces when theirs can handle all his needs and moreover say a house with two commanders is never sensible. “What need you five-and-twenty, ten or five” / “What need one? ” Lear’s response to this attack of logic is typically impassioned “O! reason not the need. ” It would be simple to look harshly upon Goneril and Regan’s lack of empathy for their father and his emotions but it is illustrative that after this dialogue Lear explodes and rails against both Goneril and Regan after swearing that he would never do so against the latter because of her “tender hefted nature”.

This exemplifies Lear’s violent vacillations in temperament evident from the opening of the play. Lear acts with passion and emotion but often this leads to irrationality and outright childishness on his part. His daughters cruelly employ logic and rationality but this leads to them being cold, manipulative and treacherous: they are concerned only with their own interests. This is not a separation caused by the differences in ages but rather one based on a fundamental difference in outlook.

Lear underpins his demise through his own tendency for excess, encapsulated by the fondness for flattery he exhibits in the throne room scene. The scene he has meticulously contrived is pure indulgence (since the opening scene – showing Gloucester and Kent discussing the division of the kingdom – makes clear that Lear’s intentions are common knowledge among his attendants, and presumably throughout his court). Lear’s construction of this scenario is intended to provide a platform for affection, furnishing his daughters with the perfect opportunity to communicate their love for him.

In this way, Goneril and Regan are merely playing the tune Lear wishes to hear, softening the blow of his abdication through reinforcement of his standing as a loved father. Cordelia decides to “love and be silent” and in doing so hurts her father, stings him, cracks his heart through her refusal to put her feelings into words; by virtue of her position as Lear’s favourite, he surely expected hers to be the most loving, generous and praising speech. An objective witness – audience and readers, for example – might say he was wrong, mistaken, cruel to reject Cordelia after she offered him no flattery.

As Kent comments his “power to flattery bows”; but Lear is a man in decline, acknowledging his weakness and descent from power – and he finds that the daughter he loved most, the daughter he was depending on for dotage and utter affection, is unwilling to indulge him. Lear’s pride – another of his fallibilities – makes it expected for him to cast out Kent when he opposes the King. Goneril and Regan’s ingratiating appeasement is illusionary and vacant; but Kent and Cordelia’s sincerity is brutal for Lear to face – thought morally purer, it provides no sympathy for Lear, a man now as much in decline as when he is later wandering the fields.

Cordelia and Kent would rather be blunt than false; they would rather hurt Lear than lie to him. Refusal of obedience – even emotional – is unknown to Lear: “A long life of absolute power, in which he has been flattered to the top of his bent, has produced in him that blindness to human limitations” (Bradley). The roots of Lear’s disintegration lie deeper beneath still, and he must still assume traces of responsibility. Lear must combine love and justice in the face of his daughter’s insurrection, and his failure to make a mark of moral virtue on his children is perhaps what led to this situation.

To cultivate these virtues, however, they must be prevalent within the parent (it is this that makes this facet of the play one which is attributable to many families). The seeming antipathy the two daughters have towards Lear is almost surely borne of an indifferent father now extending the olive branch of love to his children. But it would seem Goneril and Regan are too old to now appreciate Lear’s gesture. It must be asked, however, if Goneril and Regan truly owe Lear the gratitude he believes should be his.

By asking the question ‘which of you doth love me most’, the king betrays his past relationship with his children to the reader. We can assume the three women have lived their lives in the wake of Lear’s and presumably receiving little attention, so how much of their time should the daughters expire on Lear? In the instance of Lear, the parent also wishes to abandon all responsibilities; there is an expectation for the daughters to shoulder this new duty completely and without compunction. This situation is one many families ay find themselves in, and also raises questions about just how much we owe to our parents – should we comply regardless of how they treated us, or should the scales balance? Lear’s stance on this is made clear in Act 3 scene 4: “Judicious punishment! ’twas this flesh begot those pelican daughters” and “Is it not as this mouth should tear this hand For lifting food to’t? ” Clearly the King feels betrayed. But does he have a right to, or should this behaviour have been expected given Lear’s (apparent) previous actions?

Lear displays inconsiderable perspicacity first in rashly dividing his kingdom, then in misjudging the truer intents of his three daughters, and once more when he fails to see that Goneril and Regan are the same; both treacherous, both loveless for Lear. His scathing anger overrides his judgement: he, like Othello, is ruled by his passion and emotion: rather than applying cold, clinical, empirical logic to the situations and problems he is faced with, Lear’s blood warms and his rationality is lost within it. His eagerness to be flattered results in the ridiculous throne room scene where he asks his children to quantify their love for him.

He can be said to display inadequacies as a father through lack of knowledge concerning the true characters of all his daughters, and as a King through the sudden dividing of his land. There are parallels between Lear’s plight and Gloucester’s: their similarities in appearance (although Lear is the more physically dominant figure of the two, they are both old and declining) extend to their characters (Gloucester’s reason is also easily displaced by anger and he places his trust in the wrong people) and their predicaments (both find their souls twisted and distressed by the children they have put favour in).

Gloucester’s problems are also underpinned by his excesses. His past pursuit of pleasure led to Edmund’s birth, and Gloucester’s frivolous reference to this in the opening scene of the play confirms it as pure indulgence. As the first scene opens we find Gloucester speaking very candidly to Kent about Edmund’s mother. He says that he loves his illegitimate son as much as Edgar however it can hardly be considered tactful that he comments on how “there was good sport at his making” within earshot of his son.

This, we learn is the root of Edmund’s major malfunction; that he is jealous of his brother who by no fault of either is considered by law to be greater than him because of being born in wedlock. Another of his traits that undermines him and contributes to his demise is his superstitious nature: this is a weakness exploited by Edmund (“here stood he in the dark… mumbling of wicked charms, conjuring the moon”).

Edmund’s betrayal of Edgar (their similar names confirm the notion that they are alike in ability, intelligence and blood; their only difference being a question of legitimacy and a question of integrity) and his father is of course a parallel for Lear’s own dealings with his daughters, a fact which the King comments on when he and Gloucester finally meet up saying that the Earl’s illegitimate son was more true than his own legitimate daughters which of course is incorrect.

If Lear’s folly is engendered by his waning mind then Gloucester’s is caused simply by his inability to see the true nature of his sons until its too late – which of course the plucking out of his eyes by Cornwall because of Edmunds treachery is a cruel and ironic metaphor of. The fact that Edgar does not confront Gloucester about Edmund’s lies suggests that he is willing to accept his father’s decree because he believes he deserves the castigation and judgement. By mortifying his appearance Edgar perhaps betrays deep self doubt, which would explain why he accepts events as he does.

This is doubtless a scenario familiar to many modern families, in which children go to great lengths to satiate the hopes their parents have for them. This is also attributable to Lear’s daughters – if they have received no attention or support from Lear, then we can assume they in turn have no desire to support their father and owe him no devotion. The generational clashes – originating through Lear’s and Gloucester’s twin surfeits and superfluities – in King Lear demonstrate that familial conflicts are timeless (but so are familial joys, as evidenced by the reconciliation between Lear and Cordelia).

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