King Lear’s Inability to Face the Truth

As King Lear begins, its seems that a partial explanation for the tragedy that quickly befalls King Lear and his daughters can be traced back to the corrupting quality of ceremony. As King of England, Lear has been used to playing his role as King, donning the elaborate attire that symbolizes his status and relying on the obsequiousness of his servants, knights and attendants. As an extension of this ritualized life, of an everyday “reality” that relies on the public display of deference for the King, King Lear similarly asks his daughters to profess their love for him in a public speech. However, as we see, public deference is often an illusion that masks the true feelings of the subjects, or in this case, his daughters, two of whom utilize ornate metaphors to describe their supposed love for their father that in reality they only express in order to gain the land that King Lear has promised to give them in exchange for their loyalty and love.
Thus, in the play’s initial scenes, Shakespeare portrays the importance that flattery holds in upholding the King’s sense of self . However, by showing how the King, though supposedly divinely chosen, in in essence, nothing without his landholdings, Shakespeare ultimately undermines the notion of divine right attributed to Kings. By showing how the King, in convincing himself of his divine status, in en effect, deluding himself, he not only looks foolish in the eyes of certain others, but he denies himself the ability to take part in honest human relationships. By mistaking Cordelia’s honesty for betrayal, he allows his irrationality most likely produced by the false sense of pride that being a King has given him, to banish the only daughter who truly loves him.
As the scenes progress, we get the sense that King Lear is beginning to understand how foolish his decision was to banish Cordelia, however we should continue to question his lucidity given his utterance in response to Goneril’s unabashed disrespect of him where after he exclaims to God, “Suspend they purpose, if thou didst intend/ To make this creature fruitful!/Into her womb convey sterility!” (1.4. 253-255). While it is expected that is daughter’s obvious betrayal will cause him sadness, his quickness to curse Goneril parallels his hastiness in banishing Cordelia. This irrationality therefore seems to be a symptom of his psyche’s inability to process the truth. When Cordelia states that, “Unhappy as I am, I cannot heave/ My heart into my mouth. I love your majesty/ According to my bond, no more nor less,” (1.1. 90-92) he responds rashly, and when Goneril expresses her true nature he is equally unable to respond calmly. In both cases he quickly curses his daughters, causing the reader to not only question King Lear’s state of mind, but the depth of his previously stated love for his daughters. It will be interesting to see how King Lear’s damaged psyche will respond in the coming scenes to what can only be predicted to include further tragedy.


3 thoughts on “King Lear’s Inability to Face the Truth

  1. Elaine L.

    I agree with most of the points brought up in your post, with the exception of Shakespeare’s undermining of the divine right of kings. I think that in this play (or at least in this first act), Shakespeare is focusing on how Kings take advantage of their rights. King Lear is is being highly irrational, enough that the men and women around him question it. The banishment of Kent and of his youngest daughter (who probably loved him best before his outburst) reveals that King Lear is not quite like the other kings. Think of King Richard and the Henry’s, even Claudius: they would not have acted as Lear does. His psyche appears more deranged. If anything, Shakespeare undermined the divine right of kings in Richard II more so than in King Lear.

  2. danielleadams

    I agree that the theme of the fallibility of the divine right of kings is perhaps more directly alluded to in Richard II, however I continue to believe that this theme is also addressed in King Lear. Instead of taking advantage of his rights, King Lear gives away his rights as King, and leaves himself in a subordinate position to that of his daughters Goneril and Regan who he must rely on for housing and monetary support. By showing us how foolish King Lear was in idealistically believing that he could give up his landholdings to his daughters and still maintain a position as the respected figurehead, Shakespeare shows how a King's power does not derive from his being divinely appointed, but by the wealth that he holds. Once King Lear gives over this wealth, he gives over his power and his ability to demand respect from his attendants. In my view, King Lear is a prime example of the effect that the illusion of divine right has on the psyche of Kings, who once they lose their power, are unable to reconcile themselves to believing that they are just human like the rest. If anything, this theme is addressed earlier on in this play than it is in Richard II, where Richard does not acknowledge his common humanity until the play nears its end and it is inevitable that Bolingbroke will assume the crown. In King Lear, it is already in 1.4 that, upon realizing Goneril's disloyalty, Lear exclaims, "It may be so, my lord/ Hear nature, hear! Dear goddess, hear!" (1.4. 152-153). By addressing "my lord" in the first line and "dear goddess" in the second line Lear conflates God with paganism as Shakespeare allows our attention to be directed towards the divine silence that follows his unanswered pleas.

  3. Cyrus Mulready

    Elaine and Danielle are tracing an interesting question here about Divine Right. I'll remain neutral, but it is interesting to connect our conversation on Tuesday about this point. In making Lear seem more "human" (showing us his desire for love, his weariness at rule, etc.) is he diminishing the image of the king?


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