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Self-discovery in King Lear
Through the course of the play, King Lear goes through a process of
attaining self-knowledge, or true vision of one's self and the world. With this
knowledge, he goes through a change of person, much like a caterpillar into a
butterfly. In the beginning, King Lear's vanity, and the image and exercise of
power dominate his person. But a series of losses (based on his own bad
decisions), a "fool" of a conscious, a powerful storm, a "supposed" crazy man,
and the death of the one who truly loved him, clear his vision and allow him to
see the himself and the world as they truly are. The pain and suffering endured
by Lear eventually tears down his strength and sanity. Lear is not as strong,
arrogant, and filled with pride as he was in the beginning of the play instead
he is weak, scared, and a confused old man. At the end of the play Lear has
completely lost his sanity with the loss of his daughter Cordelia and this is
the thing that breaks Lear and leads to his death.
In the beginning, King Lear shows his need for praise is how he chooses
to divide his kingdom among his daughters. The one who praises him with the most
"gusto" shall receive the largest area of land. This is even more evident when
you consider that he already has divided up the kingdom before the praising even
begins. As evident as he gives each daughter her land before hearing the next
daughter's praise. Thus the who thing is just a show and an ego boost to himself.
It is because of his love for praise that makes him react so strongly to
Cordelia and Kent when they do not act as he would like them to. It could be
said he is like a child who doesn't remember all that his family has done for
them, but only sees them saying no to a piece of candy. In the play, this is
shown in his banishment of Cordelia and Kent. Kent is probably one of the most
loyal people in the room (not to mention his kingdom), and it is Cordelia that
truly does love Lear. But because they choose not to contribute to this "ego
trip", they are banished. In fact, he threatens to kill Cordelia if she is found
in ten days. Lear says,
"Upon our kingdom; if, on the tenth day following,
Thy banished trunk be found in our dominions,
The moment of thy death.
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This shows that at the beginning of the play, King Lear feels that his image is
more important than the life of his favorite daughter. This hunger for "image
attributes" is further shown when Kent presents himself to King Lear after being
banished, but in disguise. Kent wants to gain employment as a servant to the
King uses Lear's gullability to praise in order to win the position. In this
case, it's the image of autority that Kent appeals to. The dialog is as follows:
Lear: Does thou know me, fellow?
Kent: No, sir; but you have that in your countenance which
I would fain call master.
Lear: What's that?
As with many of today's corporate jobs, saying the right things to those in
charge can get you many things regardless of your qualifications. Because Kent
tells Lear that he "radiates" authority, Lear gives him a chance to serve him.
"King" Lear continues to show his need for "ego reinforcement" with his
keeping of a hundred "knights". These "knights" are hardly around for noble
deeds as one might assume knights to be doing. They are in fact are merely
Lear's fair-weathered friends who eat, drink, and go hunting with him. They
provide a blanket of security by always praising Lear, and leaving him someone
he can exercise command over. His need for them becomes more apparent when
Goneril suggests that not keep them. Lear becomes extremely angry with her which
is shown when he asks the gods to render Goneril unable to bare children. Lear
"Hear, Nature, hear! Dear goddess, hear!
Suspend thy purpose, if thou dist intend
to make this creature fruitful!
Into her womb convey sterility!
Dry up in her the organs of increase;
This is a rather unpleasant thing to say to your own daughter, not to mention
one you just gave half your kingdom to, just for suggesting you don't keep a
band of hoodlums around. In fact he continues to suggest that if she should have
children, let them be perverse and unnatural. Though this appears to happen in
nature, I feel it's a rather poor choice of outcome for one's grandchildren.
The turning point for Lear is when he is outside in the storm. After
unhappily leaving Gloucester's castle, Lear and the Fool find themselves outside
in a fierce storm. It is through his anger over his last confrontation with his
"family" and the power of the storm that begin the process of change within Lear.
This change which at it's heart is a change of vision (this is true for most of
the characters in this play). What must change is how Lear sees himself, his
children, and the world around. At the beginning of Lear's time in the storm, he
is seeing the treachery of his daughters Regan and Goneril. This truly creates
the anger within him. He expresses his anger at the storm by trying to coax the
storm to be even more fierce to him. Lear says that since those who owe him
everything are so harmful to him, why shouldn't the storm which owes him nothing
be any less?
But it is also here that Lear begins to see himself not as the "Almighty
King", but as "a poor, infirm, weak, and despised old man." Though he still
believes himself to be not at fault in any way. This is especially shown when
Lear says, " I am a man more sinned against than sinning."
After this though Lear begins another change, and that is thinking of
others instead of just himself. This first person, is the Fool. Lear worries if
the fool is cold out in the storm, and begins to see how precious necessities
can be if you suddenly are without them. This caring for others continues just
before entering the hovel. Lear know begins to just think of those around him,
but humanity as a whole. He begins to think of the poor who brave storms like
this with the little that they have. Lear says,
"Poor naked wretches, whereso'er you are,
That bide the pelting of this pitiless storm,
How shall your houseless heads and unfed sides,
Your looped and windowed raggedness, defend you"
Lear, then gains the self knowledge of how he has not helped the poor. He says
that he must be exposed to the same harshness they have endured. He believes
this will be part of some heavenly justice.
Continuing on the lines of humanity, Lear begins to see humans as no
more than animals, except that we where clothes. Because Lear has prided
himself on his image, and clothes play a very important in the visual image of
kingship, this is a very important revelation for Lear. At this point though,
his sanity takes yet another step away as he tries to take off his clothes to
try to truly be the animal that he is. These "steps" continue as Lear holds a
trial using the animals in the hovel to represent his daughters. He even
believes that his own dogs are against him. Though his sanity may be decreasing,
his self realization and true understanding of people seems to increase.
The final leg of Lear's journey of self-knowledge is taken with his
"true" daughter, Cornelia. It is here that he is once again referred to ask
"King" by one of his daughters. Though is standing is no longer that of ruler.
Upon waking to Cordelia's voice, Lear is in a state of dillusion, but also of
great humility. He offers to drink poison if she so wishes it, for he knows he
has punished her when it was her sisters who should have been. Lear show more
of his humility when he ends the scene asking his daughter cordelia to "forget
and forgive. I am old and foolish." He continues to ask forgiveness when, as
they are taken away as prisoners, he says,
"When thou dost ask me blessing, Ill kneel down,
And ask of thee forgiveness."
Finally, when Lear returns carrying the body of Cordelia, he once again
realizes that he his just another animal on the planet. He does this very subtly
when he says, "Pray you, undo this button." This is a brilliant way of making
that point because it ties together the end with the time in the storm. During
the storm, he had asked Kent, the Fool, and Edgar to "come unbutton here."
The self-discovery of Lear is not just the discovery of one man's self,
but the discoveries of everyone down the chain. Gloucester loses his status and
eyes but learns the truth about Edgar and Edmond, Cordelia and Kent banished,
and Albany realizing his wife's true heart. Everything that happened to these
characters are affected by Lear in one way or another and that if Lear had not
banished Cordelia and Kent then the two sisters would not be able to plot
against their father. Without the plot of the two sisters then Gloucester would
not of lost his eyes to Cornwall and his status because he was guilty of treason.
But if non of these events had taken place, than none of them would have gained
the knowledge of themselves or of each other. Though most eventually paid for
this knowledge with their lives, what would their lives have been without it?