What One Feels and What One Says

“The weight of this bad time we must obey;/Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.” (5.3 322-323)

This quote from the finally few lines of the play would seem to encapsulate one of the primary themes from the play. All of the troubles and tragedies that have just taken place were the result of characters using deceit in order to achieve their own personal goals at the expense of others. That deceit ultimately results in their downfall, as well as the downfall of more “innocent” characters (Lear and Gloucester both died as a result of their inability to detect the true intentions of their children, while Cordelia was also caught in the crossfire despite being one of the few characters decent enough to not take part in that sort of behavior). Still, the ultimate takeaway is a bit more complicated than the quote suggests, since the villains of the play are not the only ones guilty of deception. Both Kent and Edgar lie about their identities and motivations throughout the play as well; the difference is that they do aren’t doing it for their own selfish gain. Kent’s manipulation of Lear is done in order to make him understand the error of his ways, while Edgar does what he thinks is best in order to help his father deal with his grief. And these two, unlike the other characters in the play, are ultimately rewarded for their behavior, as the story ends with them being given the opportunity to take charge of the throne.

Shakespeare is making a point with the play about two-facedness and hypocrisy. But he also wants us to consider the underlying reasons behind a person’s actions and what those reasons say about them. It’s why we feel disgust at Lear’s desperate need for affection in the beginning of the play rather than pity that his daughter wouldn’t give it to him. It also provides an explanation for why Edmund was allowed a very brief moment of redemption before his death (his crimes, while still terrible, were the result of the way others had treated him throughout his life due to his status as a bastard, which makes him slightly more redeemable than Goneril and Regan, who were driven by nothing more than a lust for power). And it’s why Kent and Edgar are looked at with a great deal of respect at the end of the play. They committed their share of disingenuous behavior, but in doing so achieved a level of sincerity and morality that few of the other characters were ever able or willing to achieve. And that behavior ensured that they survived the events of the story, which cannot be said for someone like Cordelia, whose honesty didn’t save her from her fate. While the ultimate message of the play does resemble Edgar’s final quote, it is ultimately a bit grayer than it appears. Kent and Edgar both lied about their true intentions, just like the other characters in the story. But their lies were in the best interests of other, and those true intentions were selfless. What they said and what they felt were both relevant to their characters, and both were used in conjunction in order to serve the greater good. Their ability to do so is the larger element to take away from the play.

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One thought on “What One Feels and What One Says

  1. mahorsfall

    Michael, I enjoy the way you delineate the motivation behind each character’s actions, elaborating on the idea that morality is truly grey—while Kent and Edgar lied, they did so with goodness in their hearts. The way you identified why we felt indignant about Lear’s game of love at the onset of the play—and why Edmund is a character we do not thoroughly dislike—helped me understand the importance of intent, and the depth of the characters within the play. Shakespeare created a character [Edmund] that, despite his actions, we cannot entirely hold at fault.

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