King Lear [William Shakespeare]: Essay Five [41 out of 50, 2001/2002]

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Chris Larham’s essays on King Lear (20 out of 25, 21 out of 25 [41 out of 50], 2001/2002) can be opened in a print-friendly text document format here
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Remind yourself of Edmund’s speeches in Act 1 Scene 2, lines 1-22, and Act 1 Scene 2, lines 124-144: “This is the excellent foppery of the world” to “Fa, sol, la, mi”.

(a) What do you learn about Edmund’s own beliefs and his attitude to the beliefs of others in these extracts?
(b) How does Shakespeare explore attitudes to divine intervention elsewhere in the play?

Include in your responses an evaluation of the literary and linguistic approaches that have been most useful to you in analysing Edmund’s attitudes in his soliloquies and in analysing other attitudes to divine intervention in the play.

(a) What do you learn about Edmund’s own beliefs and his attitude to the beliefs of others in these extracts?

{Essay one CONTENTS: Verse form – conveying passion; Belief in natural world; Rhetorical question & existentialism; Control of destiny & familial contempt; Prose form – conveying cynicism; Dismissive of others’ beliefs; Mockery of differing belief systems; Conclusion.}
{Skip to essay two}

Edmund’s first soliloquy, “Thou Nature art… for Bastards”, is worded using a verse form; a form suitable for conveying Edmund’s passionate, personal beliefs.[^]

From the very beginning, it is clear that Edmund is a firm believer in the natural world, “Thou Nature art my Goddess”. He prefers the ‘every man for himself’ attitude of the natural world to conventional, less mercenary religions – he takes a pre-Darwinian “Survival of the fittest” view.[^]

The rhetorical question, “wherefore Should I/ Stand in the plague of custom… to deprive me?”, highlights Edmund’s existentialist philosophy – he will be whoever he wants, not whatever society wants. His use of the damning pre-modifier – “plague” – shows his scorn for tradition and expectations.[^]

Edmund believes that he is equal to his brother – “my dimensions are as well compact,/ My mind as generous… honest madam’s issue?” In his eyes, this means he’s entitled to Edgar’s “land” and “Our father’s love”. By beginning to plot against Edgar, Edmund shows he believes that he can control his own destiny – and those of others -, as well as highlighting his low opinion of familial bonds.[^]

Edmund’s second soliloquy comes across in a prose form, underlining a contrast in the attitudes expressed in his two reflections. This soliloquy conveys his cynicism towards the beliefs of others.[^]

A good example of Edmund’s dismissal of others’ beliefs is shown when he says, “that when we are sick in fortune… spherical predominance.” Here he implies that others place their fate – and blame for their woes – at the choices of the ‘stars’, the ‘moon’, and ‘the sun’ – thus, they aren’t in control themselves. For somebody with such a clear outlook on how their life will develop – such as Edmund – this notion appears preposterous.[^]

Edmund KNOWS that people don’t become thieves/villains/fools/knaves/‘treacherous’ by heavenly compulsion. Similarly, he believes that he would still have been a ‘lecherous’ bastard even if a pure, virginal star twinkled upon Gloucester and his mistress’ sordid conception. As someone with a strong belief system, Edmund mocks those who cannot see so clearly – they must be foolish, in his eyes.[^]

In evaluation, a linguistic approach to analysing these extracts is most helpful, focussing mainly on lexical choices which Edmund chooses. Shakespeare carefully uses modifiers and lexical sets – the lexical set of ‘bastardy’, and Edmund’s expressed exasperation at such a concept – to relate Edmund’s beliefs. Examining Edmunds’s perpetual use of rhetorical questions also sheds light on his existentialist beliefs, “Why bastard? Wherefore base?… Why brand they us/ With base? With baseness bastardy?” Through such analysis, it is clear that Edmund is his own man – he will better his lot at the expense of others if they stand in his way; they will blame the stars, the moon, and the sun: a lexical set of the highest natural objects, used in a mocking fashion.[^]

(b) How does Shakespeare explore attitudes to divine intervention elsewhere in the play?[^]

{Essay two CONTENTS: King Lear’s conflicting attitudes; Lear’s belief that Gods are against him; Pathetic fallacy and divine intervention; Gloucester – suicidal AND god-fearing; Edgar as instrument of the Gods; Gloucester’s faith restored; Goneril and Regan – similarities to Edmund; Evaluation.}

King Lear – a man of strong opinions – expresses conflicting attitudes towards ‘you Gods’, as his personality fragments under the pressure of life’s treatment, mainly due to Goneril and Regan’s deceitful and unjust actions towards him.[^]

Lear suspects that the Gods might not be on his side when he says, “If it be you that stirs these daughters’ hearts/Against their father…” The impersonal determiner, “these”, used to describe his own flesh and blood, shows he believes that something must be compelling his daughters to act in this way – humans would have more heart.[^]

The pathetic fallacy of the storm – mirroring the ‘tempest’ in Lear’s mind – could be seen as divine intervention, because Lear’s prepared to take on such elements, as he’s lost faith in his Gods. The ‘Gods’ could be trying to show him that nature is more powerful than one man – Lear couldn’t command the storm to stop, even if he wanted to.[^]

Gloucester is portrayed as a suicidal, but still god-fearing, old man towards the end of Act Four, Scene One, “There is a cliff, whose high and bending head/ Looks fearfully in the confined deep:… from that place,/ I shall no leading need.” As suicide was considered a devilish act, ‘the confined deep’ could be a reference to his jump into hell.[^]

Edgar – who leads Gloucester to Dover – takes Gloucester to a safe sand dune for his suicide attempt. The fact that Edgar trifles ‘thus with his despair’, and ultimately saves him, could be seen in terms of Edgar being used to avert Gloucester’s intentions by the Gods – divine intervention.[^]

To add credence to his story – as somebody who happened to be taking a stroll on the beach when he saw Gloucester fall – Edgar suggests that the ‘poor unfortunate beggar’ who led Gloucester to the ‘crown o’ th’ cliff’, was in fact a ‘Horns whelked…Fiend’. This appeals to Gloucester’s beliefs – the devil took him to the cliff, the Gods saved him -, who promptly decides, “henceforth I’ll bear/ Affliction, till it do cry out itself/ Enough, enough, and die.” His faith is restored.[^]

Goneril and Regans’s attitudes to life are comparable to those of Edmund’s: the only ‘intervention’ in our destiny comes from ourselves, not from any ‘divine’, celestial beings. This is highlighted when they fall over each other to win Edmund’s affections in Act 5, Scene 3 – Goneril poisoning Regan, “If not, I’ll n’er trust medicine”, despite the fact that she’s married to the ‘lily-livered’ Albany. This shows that Goneril in particular effects change in the immediate physical world and doesn’t rely on the ‘Gods’.[^]

In evaluation, a literary approach is most useful in analysing Shakespeare’s exploration of attitudes to divine intervention elsewhere in the play. The pathetic fallacy of the storm to show Lear’s shaken beliefs, and the suspension of disbelief employed when Gloucester believes a sand dune is a mighty cliff – before his faith is restored by Edgar’s allusions to a ‘Fiend’ having led him to this place-, are literary methods used effectively to convey attitudes to divine intervention.[^]

Copyright 2016-present day sharedsapience.info. Permission to use quotations from this English essay is granted subject to appropriate credit being given to Chris Larham and sharedsapience.info as authorial and website sources, respectively.

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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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