In Shakespeare's King Lear, the actions of King Lear and of his daughters bring ruin and chaos to England. Social structures crumble, foreign invaders threaten the land, and, in a distinctly non-Hollywood ending, almost everyone dies tragically. The outlook is very bleak, as many of the problems are left unresolved at the end of the play: There is no one in line to assume sovereignty, and justice and virtue have not been restored to their proper places in the country's structure. All of these problems are catalogued by Edmund early in the play:
Unnaturalness between the child and the parent; death, dearth, dissolutions of ancient amities; divisions in state, menaces and malediction against king and nobles; needless diffidences, banishment of friends, dissipation of cohorts, nuptial breaches, and I know not what. (King Lear, I.ii.120-123)
Each of these comes to pass, in some way or another, during the course of the play. Later on, Lear's fool adds to the list of woes: priests who do not practice what they preach, brewers who water down their beer, nobles practicing common occupations, people burned for expressing their sexuality, and many others besides. (King Lear, III.ii.76-89) Unlike Edmund's list of problems, the fulfillment of these is not specifically detailed in the text of the play, but this second catalogue adds to the general feeling of the dissolution of society that runs throughout the drama.
All of these problems can be traced (directly or indirectly) to Lear's abdication of the throne. Although Lear had no thought for the problems it might cause, the abandonment of the royal throne by the king had struck at the very heart of the social order that the Englishme...
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...rried and made compelling by the larger-than-life drama which operates beyond any particular political situation in Shakespeare's contemporary world. The dramatic interaction of characters whose motivations are shrouded add a mythic quality to the actions of the play that only accentuates the wrong that Lear does to his society. In this context, the expulsion of the good Kent from England seems almost a reversal of the expulsion of Adam and Eve from paradise, for instance. The veiled characters make the play understandable and captivating to audiences of any era.
Introduction to Shakespeare's King Lear in The Norton Anthology of English Literature. Ed. M.H. Abrams. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1993.
Shakespeare, William. King Lear in The Norton Anthology of English Literature. Ed. M.H. Abrams. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1993.
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