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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
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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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
"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
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.