KING LEAR [William Shakespeare]: Essay One [‘B++’-grading, 2001/2002]

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Choose TWO of the following: Lear; Kent; France; Goneril or Regan; Cordelia.

Examine the ways in which Shakespeare establishes the characters, attitudes and values of two of the characters in the opening scene of ‘King Lear’

Consider their treatment of and by others, the strengths and weaknesses you observe in them and the ways in which they contribute to the themes emerging in the scene. Include close analysis of key speeches, employing the literary and linguistic concepts you have learnt. Remember that it is important to use brief, frequent quotation.

{CONTENTS: King Lear’s imperative tone; King Lear’s long speeches and egocentrism; King Lear’s choice of address towards his daughters; King Lear – manipulation and ego; King Lear’s fickle nature; King Lear’s savage nature; King Lear’s tunnel vision; King Lear’s core personality; Cordelia’s helplessness; Cordelia’s emotional richness; Cordelia and bathos; Cordelia’s honesty and sincerity; Cordelia’s perceptive nature; Cordelia’s view of sisters; Summary of Cordelia’s character.}

The first sentence we hear from King Lear is, “Attend the Lords of France and Burgundy, Gloucester.” This expectant imperative sets the tone for his contribution to the following discourse, and hints at his strong feeling of self-importance.[^]

Long speeches in which he declares what will happen show him to be somebody who likes to have control of the situation. This is highlighted when he decides which third of the kingdom his three daughters shall receive upon his abdication – he has no divine right to do so. Lear comes across as egocentric because of this, deciding both the fates of his daughters and the kingdom.[^]

Lear’s preferences regarding his daughters are evident in the manner with which he addresses them: “Goneril,/Our eldest-born {cold}, speak first”; “…Our dearest {warmer} Regan, wife of Cornwall”; and – to Cordelia – the more involved “…our joy, {feeling}/Although our last, and least…vines of France and milk of Burgundy/Strive to be interess’d…A third more opulent than your sisters? Speak.”[^]

Lear appears to be manipulative, as he chooses the order in which the daughters speak, and the part of the kingdom for which they speak. He is also looking for an easy ego-boost, as their speech must impress him enough to warrant a certain part of the kingdom. Goneril and Regan’s speeches meet his criteria.[^]

When, however, Cordelia doesn’t take the easy option of fatherly flattery – even after he gives her ample chances to “Mend your speech a little” – he flies into a rage, disclaiming “…all my paternal care,/Propinquity and property of blood”. Thus, Lear can be said to be fickle, as years of love and happiness can be revoked by one ‘inadequate’ speech. Shakespeare has employed parallelism here between Lear’s abdication and his disclamation – he hasn’t really got the power to do either.[^]

It could be argued that Shakespeare has employed parallelism between Lear and the ‘Scythians’ of which Lear speaks in disclaiming Cordelia – they both appear to live savage lives.[^]

When he has decided upon something, Lear seems to have total tunnel vision; he is single-minded and stubborn, unopen to change. This is evident in his subsequent banishment of Kent from the kingdom when he tries to change Lear’s “hideous rashness”.[^]

In conclusion, Lear is a single-minded, equivocal, domineering, and power-hungry character, susceptible to seemingly uncontrollable mood changes when things don’t go to plan.

His attitude is very much one of “I want”, and he becomes frustrated when life isn’t perfect. He doesn’t show other people much respect, nor does he listen to – or accommodate – their ideas.

Lear’s core values appear to be security, wealth, regular ego-massaging, and single-minded determination. He knows what he wants, and if he doesn’t get it somebody will have to suffer the consequences.[^]

Cordelia’s first aside, “What shall Cordelia speak? Love, and be/ silent”, highlights her inner helplessness and the sensation that she is trapped. This foregrounding of insecurity builds up the tension and the atmosphere. The “Love, and be silent” statement suggests that she believes true love doesn’t need elaborate articulation. The fact that she utters this ‘aside’ sets her aside from the others; it appears to reveal her as a quieter, genuine character.[^]

Her second aside, “Then poor Cordelia!/ And yet not so; since I am sure my love’s/ More ponderous than my tongue”, reiterates the feeling that love comes from the heart, not the mouth. The ‘poor’ could refer to her impending poverty, or it could mean that she is feeling sorry. She seems to be verbally poor but emotionally rich.[^]

Shakespeare employs bathos in Cordelia’s anti-climatic, “Nothing, my lord”, reply to Lear’s, “…what can you say to draw/ A third more opulent than your sisters?” question. Cordelia appears to demonstrate a resigned, defeated attitude – probably because she knows that she cannot better the speeches of Goneril and Regan, nor does she want to.[^]

Cordelia shows honesty and sincerity when saying, “I love your Majesty/ According to my bond; nor more nor less.” Neither of her sisters demonstrates these values, as they both heap compliment after compliment upon Lear in their search for self-gratification. She goes on to say that she has repaid the duties he carried out for her as a father (“begot me, bred me, lov’d me”) “as are right fit” (“Obey you, love you, and most honour you.”). Furthermore, she says that when she gets married, half of her love will go with her ‘lord’ – she “shall never marry like my sisters,/ To love my father all.”[^]

Cordelia is very perceptive, quickly seeing through the thin veneer of her sisters’ speeches. “I know you what you are” she says to her two sisters, seeing them though “wash’d eyes” (perhaps a ‘double entendre’, as it could either refer to her crying or the fact that she can see what her father can’t).[^]

In calling her sisters “jewels”, Cordelia might be using a sarcastic metaphor, as jewels are showy, hard, cold, pretty, and have many faces.[^]

To conclude, Cordelia comes across as a genuine character; someone who has integrity and self-respect. She will not conform to ways of thinking/acting if she doesn’t believe them to be correct – she would rather be true to herself.[^]

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34-year-old father of three wonderful children [William, Seth, and Alyssa]. Works as an Assistant Technical Officer in the Sterile Services Department of Treliske Hospital, Cornwall. Enjoys jogging, web design, being a bit of a geek, and supporting Arsenal FC. Obtained a BA degree in English from the University of Bolton in 2008, and has continued to gain qualifications in a diverse range of subjects thereafter.

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Posted in A Level English [A2]

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