Essay for the English literature course at the University of Kent.
Question: King Lear is responsible for his own death. Do you agree?
by Randa Saab
Some critics may argue that King Lear was responsible for his own death due to his decision to split the kingdom, to his lack of judgement, and to his unawareness of his people’s concerns. Other critics, including me, believe that despite this, Lear was not responsible for his own death, because his intentions were good, and that the sequence of events involving the evil intentions and actions of his eldest daughters; especially Goneril, and Edmund of Gloucester, point the finger of accusation towards them. Lear was indeed sinned against more than sinning.
Critics who argue that Lear was responsible for his own death, base this on his decision to split the kingdom amongst his daughters whose character and feelings he could not detect. “Know that we have divided in three our kingdom; and ‘tis our fast intent, to shake all cares and business from our age, conferring them on younger strengths, while we unburthened crawl toward death.” (Act1, scene1, 36) Lear may have realised that his capabilities and his strength are weakening, “crawl(ing) toward death” metaphorically described; crawl close to the ground, on four limbs or on the belly, showing weakness and closeness to death. Thus, Lear wanted the kingdom to be looked after by his young people’s strength. The metaphor used reveal the cares and the business as a burden that got heavy with age, that Lear wanted to shake off. Lear metaphorically used “younger strengths” to refer to his daughters and husbands. He may not have seen the decision as breaking the kingdom since it is all still within the family. He saw himself as doing an act of kindness “O Regan, Goneril! Your old kind father, whose frank heart gave all”. (Act3, scene4, 18) So, Lear’s intentions in dividing the kingdom were good expressed by the metaphor “frank heart”. His lack of judgement may be related to his old age as described by Goneril addressing Regan: “You see how full of changes his age is… and with what poor judgement he hath now cast her off (Cordelia) appears too grossly. (Act1 scene1, 287). The metaphor used “changes in his age” to mean the changes of Lear himself due to his age, this was used for emphasis.
It is true that Lear was not able to detect the evil nature of his eldest daughters; Goneril and Regan, which was clear to his daughter Cordelia who addressed her sisters: “Time shall unfold what plighted cunning hides; who covers faults, at last with shame derides.” The reader becomes aware that Cordelia knows more about her sisters that was concealed behind their flattery and their exaggerated expression of love to their father. Cordelia warns the reader of the cunning of her sisters that conceals shameful sins and which will only be unfolded in time. These two verses are in iambic pentameter, because Shakespeare intended those words to act as a universal and a timeless statement. He used personification for “Time” and “cunning”. Cunning hides, yet Time unfolds the acts of cunning. Moreover, although Cordelia was his favourite, he acted in good will towards his other daughter in giving them a share of the kingdom. On the other hand, Goneril and Regan were plotting against Lear from the very start. Goneril said: “If our father carry authority with such disposition as he bear, … we must do something, and I’th’heat”. (Act1, scene1, 304-307) Metaphorically comparing hitting the iron when it is still hot, informed the reader of the urgency that Goneril gives to this matter. Then Goneril advised Oswald to ignore Lear “Put on what weary negligence you please… let his knights have colder looks among you…I’ll write to my sister to hold my course.” (Act1, scene3, 13-27) Goneril metaphorically represented negligence as a robe to wear, personifying negligence as being tired to exaggerate the look of negligence and how badly her father should be ignored. “Looks” were given the property of the weather to give the impact of coldness. Goneril and Regan angered Lear’s heart and drove him to madness by their disrespect and resentment to his needs: “I’ll not weep: I have full cause of weeping, but this heart shall break into a hundred thousand flaws… I shall go mad” (Act2, scene4, 282). The metaphor of Lear’s heart breaking into thousand pieces is to magnify his sorrow. Then Regan ordered the door to be shut in his face in the storm (Act2 , scene4, 307)
It is true that Lear was not aware of his people’s concerns and conditions. This was not intentional; his discovery of his people’s misery filled him with regret. “Poor naked wretches, …, how shall your houseless heads and unfed sides, your looped and windowed raggedness, defend you from seasons such as these? O! I have ta’en too little care of this… Expose thyself to feel what wretches feel, that thou mayst shake the superflux to them, and show the Heavens more just.” (Act3, Scene4, 30) The tone in this passage reveals penance (expose thyself to feel..)The moment Lear became aware of the misery, he was eager to address them and to help the wretched, to experience their pain and to distribute superfluous possessions to them (shake the superflux to them). He achieved realisation that he was unintentionally unjust, but was so willing to change the bad conditions to help his subjects, (show the Heavens more just). To emphasise poverty, hunger and homelessness, Shakespeare used strong adjectives such as: houseless heads, unfed sides, windowed raggedness to create the image of extreme destitute.
Edmund and Goneril ordered Cordelia’s hanging which thus caused Lear’s death from a broken heart. The order that Edmund gave to the captain carried an element of grave mystery, suspecting the worse for Cordelia and the King. Edmund hands a note to the captain “Come, hither, captain; hark, take thou this note, go follow them to prison. One step I have advanced thee, thou dost make thy way to noble fortunes,… men are as time is; to be tender-minded, does not become a sword; thy great employment will not bear question; either say thou’lt do’t, or thrive by other means. Officer: I’ll do it”. (Act 5, scene 3, line 27) The reader is alarmed at the danger that may involve Cordelia and her father. This is because Edmund seemed to be promising the captain fortunes for doing a bad and a cruel deed, as he is urging him not to be “tender-minded”. This combined word emphasised the mood of a person which would stop him from committing an action of cruelty just before taking the action. The urgent nature and the strong tone of the threat of cutting the captain out of Edmund’s service emphasised the dangerous nature of the instruction. “This does not become a sword” was used to indicate that the job of carrying a sword will be lost if he was “tender-minded” and did not do it, By saying : ”Men are as time is”, Edmund indicated that whatever the instruction was, it was against the normal norm at normal times.
Upon Edmund’s defeat by Edgar (Act 5, scene3, line 252), Edmund confessed to Albany: “He (the captain) hath commission from thy wife (Goneril) and me, to hang Cordelia in the prison, and to lay the blame upon her own despair, that she fordid herself.” The instruction in the note clarified what had happened and confirmed that Edmund, as agreed with Goneril, ordered Cordelia’s hanging and to make it look like a suicide due to Cordelia’s state of despair.
It is not strange that King Lear, in his rage, behaved like a mad man. Lear has been tormented by his daughters. He was stripped of his royal privileges, disrespected, banished to the cold, and finally captured and imprisoned by Edmund of Gloucester who staged the hanging of Lear’s favourite daughter; Cordelia. Lear admitted his mistakes when he said: “I am a man more sinned against than sinning” (Act3, Scene2, 59), however, he had no evil intentions, and is an innocent soul compared to the evil character and deeds of Goneril, Regan and Edmund. He finds that the treatment he received, far outweighs his mistakes. On this subject, and in her article, Sue Doss wrote and summarised: “Lear is by no means a pathetic old man crushed by events over which he had no control… here is a man with whom we identify, whose passing we do indeed mourn, but whose triumph of self-awakening we celebrate.” (Doss, E. Sue, 1972)
Having had to endure much agony, Cordelia’s murder was the last straw that caused King Lear’s death. Despite his wrong decisions, foolishness and lack of judgement, it was the sequence of events involving Edmund of Gloucester and Goneril who staged Cordelia’s hanging, which consequently lead to Lear’s death. Thus, Lear could not have been responsible for his own death.
Doss, E. Sue. (1972, Winter). “More Sinned Against than Sinning”. The South Central Bulletin, Volume 32 (No. 4), pp 200-201. The John Hopkins University Press. Retrieved March 1, 2015, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/3186969