Fate in Shakespeare's King Lear

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Fate in King Lear

 

        "There's a divinity that shapes our ends, rough hew them how we

will."  These words from Hamlet are echoed, even more pessimistically,  in

Shakespeare's play, The Tragedy of King Lear where Gloucester says:

"Like flies to wanton boys, are we to the gods, they kill us for their

sport".  In Lear, the characters are subjected to the various tragedies of

life over and over again.

 

        An abundance of cyclic imagery in Lear shows that good people are

abused and wronged  regardless of their own noble deeds or intentions.

Strapped to a wheel of fire, humans suffer and endure, prosper and decline,

their very existence imaged as a voyage out and a return.  The movement

from childhood to age and back again, the many references to fortune whose

wheel spins humans downward even as it lifts, the abundance of natural

cycles which are seen as controlling experience, even perhaps the movement

of play itself from order to chaos to restoration of order to division

again.

 

        Throughout the text, the movements of celestial bodies are used to

account for human action and misfortune.  Just as the stars in their

courses are fixed in the skies, so do the characters view their lives as

caught in a pattern they have no power to change.  Lear sets the play in

motion in banishing Cordelia when he swears "by all the operation of the

orbs from whom we exist and cease to be" that his decision "shall not be

revoked".  How like the scene in Julius Caesar wherein Caesar says "For I

am constant as the Northern star"   Lear vows to be resolute but dies

regretting his decision at the hands of his daughters who claim love him

"more than word can wield" and are "alone felicitate" in his presence.

 

        That Edmund disbelieves in the influence of the stars adds to the

play's recurring theme that part of our fate is our character; that we

choose  our lot in life by how we choose to act.  Similarly, in Lear

Gloucester's feelings predict what is to come when he says "These late

eclipses of the sun and moon portend no good..."     And because of this

Gloucester begins to envision a world where "Love cools, friendship falls

off, brothers divide..."   While his father misunderstands the importance

of the celestial bodies, his bastard son, Edmund denies the importance of

the movements of the heavenly bodies.  He calls it "an excellent foppery"

to "make guilty of our disasters the sun, the moon and stars."  (Just as in

Julius Caesar  we learn that "... The fault .

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.. lies not in our stars, but

in ourselves "),  Edmund in Lear  echoes this sentiment when he says "as if

we were villains by necessity, fools by compulsion."   But what he does not

seem to see is that by enacting his plot against his brother Edgar he

fulfills Gloucester's prediction and that "Machinations, hollowness,

treachery, and all ruinous disorders" must be soon to come.  And we see in

the play that these things do  come to pass, not because of the movements

of the planets, but because of the flaws in human nature.

 

        The stars are not the only things by which the characters believe

their lives to be governed.  Characters throughout the play talk of the

influence of fortune  on their lives.  When Cordelia is banished, she has

no "fortune", but is accepted by France.  Cordelia, with no wealth of her

own suddenly in France's eyes  she is "Most rich being poor, most choice

forsaken, most loved, despised" .

 

        Edmund too, seems to have no fortune of his own.  But this he

attributes to mere luck, and says that if all goes as he plans "The base

shall top the legitimate, I grow, I prosper" .   After Gloucester's speech

about the eclipses foretelling discord, Edmund twists his father's words

against Edgar when the bastard tells his brother "These eclipses portend ...

unnaturalness between child and parent, ...divisions in state...banishment

of friends ...and I know not what."

 

        The first rise of fortune in the play is when Lear prepares to

divide his kingdom among his daughters.  He puts them to the test, asking

them how much they love him.  The first two daughters flatter the old king

but Cordelia whose "love is richer then [her] tongue" can only say that she

loves her father as much as is her duty, no more nor less .  When her

portion of the kingdom is divided between her sisters, the two of them plot

to get rid of the king, because he is "full of the changes of age...".

Goneril suggests they conspire against him ("...let's hit together..."),

because she believes their  fortunes will be switched if they let him have

any authority ("...if our father carry authority with such dispositions as

he bears, this last surrender of his will but offend us.").  Thus as

Cordelia's fortune plummets -- so does Lear's, although he doesn't realise

it at first.  Indeed, the only one who seems to realize the gravity of

Lear's predicament is his fool.  The fool mocks Kent's devotion to the king,

warning him to "Let go thy hold"  because Lear is "a great wheel which

rolls down a hill" which will "break thy neck".

 

        Kent's "fortune" rises and falls throughout the play.  Before he

defends Cordelia to her father, he is an Earl.  Then, he is banished and

his lands are forfeit.  Then, he returns to Lear, incognito  and offers his

services to the king.  Later, as he defends Lear's honor, he is thrown into

thrown into the stocks by Regan and Cornwall, and he pleads  " Fortune ...

smile once more and turn thy wheel"  While in the stocks, he says good

night to  "fortune" and hopes for better luck the next day.  He is released

from the stocks only to be cast out into a terrible tempest.  Again fortune

is arbirtary only to the point to which

 

        Gloucester's fortunes fall in the play too.  He is betrayed by his

bastard son Edmund.  For his loyalty to the king he is stripped of his

title and his lands, his eyes are ripped from their sockets, and he is

thrown out "to smell his way to Dover".  Ironically, Gloucester, like Lear,

is led by one whom he hates yet fails to recognize: his son Edgar.

Gloucester at the center of the play learns of Edmund's treachery when his

eyes are put out, and the fourth and fifth acts  bring with them for him a

descent into despair and an achievement of hope and reconciliation.  It is

mainly in terms of this plot that the time-honoured image of orderly

reversal, the slow inexorable turning of the wheel, is used as the dying

Edmund says, "The wheel has come full circle".  Edgar to whom he speaks has

concurrently risen to a share in the government of the island.

 

        The Gloucester family, it seems, thinks in terms of the wheel-the

natural course of events, the cycle of nature, the wheel of fortune.

Edgar sees not worldly fortune but happiness and misery in the same image:

"The lamentable change is from the best. The worst returns to laughter."

and again      O world! But that thy strange mutations make us hate thee,

Life would not yield to age.  A moment later, his blinded father appears

before him, Edgar exclaims: "The worst is not So long as we can say 'this

is the worst'".

 

        The wheel is greater than he had thought and in it's revolution has

deeper yet to go.  Gloucester himself perhaps thinks of himself as falling

from the wheel of fortune is that grotesque act of despair (in the very

presence of grace), in which he blesses Edgar as if he were absent, and

finds out in the most physical way on Dover cliff that he has nowhere to

fall or fall from but his son's care.  'Thy life's a miracle,' Edgar says,

on two levels of meaning, and Gloucester resolves:"Henceforth I'll bear

Affliction till it do cry out itself 'Enough, enough', and die".  From that

point affliction ends for him; for him are Edgar's words spoken of a

auspicious cycle:

 

        "Men must endure Their going hence even as their coming hither:

        Ripeness is all."

 

        In the last scene of the play,  however, Lear is is reunited with

Cordelia.  Although the two are about to be taken to prison Lear swears his

devotion to Cordelia by another celestial globe.  Comforting Cordellia, he

says that he and she will watch the changes of the court, see "Who's in,

Who's out"  but they  will outlast  the various "... great ones that ebb

and flow by the moon".  In Lear, the death of hubris that gives rise to the

humility of love This is as much a cycle in most of literature, Lear

included, as is birth to death. In short death of the old precedes birth of

the new. For Lear, it is a death of self-ignorance that gives rise to the

birth of self knowledge.

 

        As the play progresses, it becomes more and more clear that all the

smaller cycles point towards a big one.  This cycle's images are seen again

and again throughout the play.  The images are those of "nurseries" and old

men.  Here "fathers are as wards to the sons" and old men "Crawl towards

death" like newborn babes.  This is the aging cycle.  It's cyclic images

show us King Lear reduced to the role of child, helpless and dependent on

his two wicked daughters.

 

        Then as now, when Lear, the symbol for the oldest generation, gives

his power to his daughters (the younger generation) they immediately begin

to treat him as if he  were the child and they the parents.   Within the

first month of his decision, Goneril has begun to refer to him as being in

his  "dotage", that "old fools are babes again"     Regan, too after

receiving her inheritance says [aside] of her father, "Tis the infirmity of

age:"

 

        The relationship between the father and child is perverted in the

Gloucester family , as well just as Lear's daughters deceive him with good

intentions, so too does Edmund deceive his father.    Edmund, stepping into

his father's rights and title says 'the younger rises when the old doth

fall".  Like Lear's daughters, Edmund conspires against his father and his

brother to steal his father's land and his brother's inheritance,

exclaiming:  "let me if not by birth, have lands by wit."

 

        As the play progresses, we see more and more images of Lear as a

child rather than an old man.  In his daughter Goneril's house Lear's fool

tells him he has "Made thy daughters thy mothers" and that now he has only

"that [he] was born with".  Rather than being obedient, Lear's children use

their newly-won powers to make of him "an obedient father".  Lear quickly

realizes this and his mistake.  But having given away his power, Lear is as

helpless as a child.  Perhaps Regan says it best when she says

 

        "O sir, you are old,Nature in you stands on the very verge of his

        confine." You should be ruled, and led."

 

        Some people choose to live within the cycles in the world, some

choose to deny them.  Those who choose to live within them are stretched

out on the rack of the world.  They suffer for no reason and die needlessly.

   Those who deny them die too. But we see that they have lived without

virtue.  King Lear begins the play acting more like a child than a man,

much less a king.  As the play progresses and Lear's suffering increases,

we see him reaching out more and more to others.    

 

Necessity changes the evil things into good ones, but we are

witnessing a heavenlier transformation in Lear's charitable concern for his

fellow creature. People rebel against greed. The stars aren't responsible

for what happens to us.  Luck doesn't cause good or bad things to happen to

us but the fault, the tragedy of human existence and even the brief moments

of love and beauty that we experience lie not in the stars but in ourselves.

 

 


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