Deception and the Deceived

King Lear, like many other people, has difficulty deciphering between people that are being truly honest with him from the people who are playing him. For example, he disregards and becomes angry with his most honest daughter for not trying to pull the wool past his eyes, yet is eager to immediately take Edmund’s contrived process of deception as truth. A manipulative person such as Edmund knows how to convince others he is being honest, while the honest Cordelia is ignored. Kent attempts to persuade Lear of Cordelia’s just and honest, unembellished declaration of love, and is banished himself. It is a sign of Lear’s pride and desire for attention, whether beneficial in the end or not.

Many people find themselves in situations as these—willing to take the word of a less-close individual because they are hearing what they want to hear and caught up in the moment. For Lear, once he deceives himself, he cannot help to continue hearing what he wants to hear, and people take advantage of this. He then begins to see what they want him to see and what he unconsciously wants to see as well as he is enveloped in the surrounding deception that layers on itself. Kent, after banishment, accepts Lear’s outburst and then warns the other two daughters of karma’s know-all tendency:

And your large speeches may your deeds approve,

That good effects may spring from words of love.

Thus Kent, O princes, bids you all adieu;

He’ll shape his old course in a country new.

He acknowledges the possibility that a new truth can spring from an exaggerated claim of love, but it takes effort. The other daughters will need to work to earn the land and power their words will bring about. In this same sense, the suitor who rejects Cordelia because she will no longer receive land or power is straightforward—nobody is deceived of his reasoning for cutting off the potential engagement. It is clear that gain of power was all the motivation needed.

Edmund’s deception of Lear is well-staged and manipulative—he has found another way to get his message across to King Lear besides the use of words. Upon pressing the use of the letter with supplementary words, King Lear immediately takes his rash, angry stance seen in the discard of Cordelia and the banishment of Kent: “O villain, villain! His very opinion in the letter! Abhorred villain! Unnatural, detested, brutish villain! worse than brutish! Go, sirrah, seek him. I’ll apprehend him. Abominable villain! Where is he?” (1.2.71-74). Quickness to anger is the prime key to deceive somebody—once an idea riles said person up, they will be jumping at the chance to accept a new idea and unable to stop and think. Lear needs to relax somehow for his own good; if he were less reactive, he would not so easily take on the first and best/most dramatic thing he hears. It looks as though, in one act, it is beginning to dig him into some deep, unthought-out situations.

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2 thoughts on “Deception and the Deceived

  1. lizvanburen

    I really like your point about Lear's reaction and how he simply just wants to hear what he WANTS; I hadn't thought of it like that. Actually, his exaggerated reaction to Cordelia makes a little more sense in that light. At first, I wasn't sure why he would be so hasty to disregard the honesty of his favorite child all because she wasn't kissing his ass. But to say that he'd rather ignore the notion that his other two daughters are playing him for a fool is an interesting explanation. Good post!

    Reply
  2. Cyrus Mulready

    This is very well thought and written, Kyle, and I think you successfully point to a key dynamic in the play–that of trust and to whom we will listen. You also raise a larger question (though not directly) about characters in criticism. Should we look at Shakespeare's characters as real people (hims and hers with brains, motivations, etc.)? Should we view them more as artistic creations?

    Reply

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