As flies to wanton boys, are we to the gods; / They kill us for their sport.
What comes from nothing?
The almost inevitable question that arises from the story of Lear is one of meaning. As we watch his life become more and more stripped of its material and personal worth, we become more and more anxious to see the hidden moral answer laid out before us, to be taught what is wrong and what is right and how to act to avoid a similar fate.
But this is not a morality play, at least not in the traditional sense. Shakespeare has no intention of satisfying this desire, in spite of the suggestive precedent set by many of his earlier plays. In the end we are seemingly left only with what was promised us by Lear himself in the opening scene. "Nothing will come of nothing," and indeed, this is what Lear is reduced to. Shakespeare, instead of exposing some particular point of human nature, has in fact posed an abstract question about life in King Lear. Can we find meaning in a universe so apparently filled with the kind of suffering endured by Lear? What possible reason could exist in the universe for such pain except lack of reason? However, Shakespeare has not completely deserted us in the pursuit of some sort of answer.
The search for meaning.
Many scholarly critics of Shakespeare believe they have found the clues that indicate Shakespeare's "personal" conclusion. Some say God is not absent from this story, but purposely withdrawn, as in the trial of Job, and that Lear is indeed just another moralist play. Some of the critics insist that the answer is in the very fact that Shakespeare has written the play to ask the question--anthropocentrically, the meaning of the universe is the search for that meaning. However, Lear himself dies with only one revelation, one clear meaning, one structuring principle to the short remainder of his life: the love he shares with his daughter, Cordelia.
What is this love worth? It can't simply be dismissed without consideration; it is the central focus of the play. But does it exist as a potential answer to the existential question Shakespeare is posing? In order to see this clearly, one has to first examine the inevitable crumbling of meaning that is initiated in the very first scene of the play. Lear starts with what one might easily accept as everything in his possession (especially when considered relatively in hindsight). He is in what appears to be comfortable control of a powerful kingdom, surrounded by a loyal court and three loving daughters. Lear has apparently decided to abdicate responsibility, and settle down to relax in the fruits of his labors. Unfortunately, he also decides to satisfy a petty, childish desire before his retirement. He wants his daughters to compete in a kind of contest to declare their adoration for him before they receive their inheritance. This is not, as in many popular fairy tales that bear striking resemblance to this scene, a true contest in that it will determine their shares of the kingdom, as the play's opening conversation between Kent and Gloucester reveals. No, it is pure vanity, or more pathetically, an old man's desire to be loved that leads him to conceive of this unnatural competition.
The descent into disorder
The unnaturalness of what he asks is key to understanding the huge problem it creates for Lear. "What can you say to draw a third more opulent than your sisters?" Lear demands of Cordelia, who unlike her sisters, refuses to flatter his vanity. "Nothing, my lord," she replies, not because she feels no love, as she is quick to point out, but in fact because of this love. Of course she will say nothing in order to obtain a greater inheritance; this would contradict the natural spirit of her feelings for her father. She objects, "I am sure my love's / More richer than my tongue." Sadly, Cordelia's sincerity of sentiment is not received as such by Lear, who obviously feels immensely humiliated before his court. Blinded by vanity, he rejects her pleading, as well as Kent's intervention on her behalf, and disinherits her and banishes Kent. This is the pivotal moment of the play, at least in terms of the potency of Lear's actions. This is the last time he will be making the decisions, and the two judgments he makes are abysmally poor. After Regan and Goneril reveal their evil intent at the close of the scene, we realize Lear has just banished the loyal part of his court, rejecting their natural, honest statements of devotion for the unnaturally exaggerated flattery of the worse half.
Thus Lear reveals his flaw of pride, and the direction of the tragedy becomes clear. Lear will be betrayed by the daughters he mistakenly believed superior in their willingness to commit an unnatural act. He will be stripped of crown and country, and eventually even his fool will desert him (with his sanity). Ironically, only Kent remains, who has returned to serve where he stands condemned in order to remain by his side. Evident here is Kent's loyalty to Lear not strictly as a king, but to the bond he feels to Lear as another human being. Kent doesn't care whether he serves the King or a pauper; he doesn't think in these terms, which are inherently temporary and fleeting as Lear proves. Kent only cares for the more natural, and more indestructible, love he has for Lear the man. Even in the face of Lear's ambivalence, Kent does not dessert even when both of the King's daughters become treasonous, though Kent may well have been able to regain his position at court.
Lear is driven to madness by the actions of his bad daughters and his guilt, but upon his reconciliation with Cordelia in the 4th act the Doctor declares him free of this madness. Shakespeare makes us believe in the power of this reconciliation; it is perhaps one of the most beautiful passages in all his plays. Perhaps not the most ostentatiously poetical of his verse, but the tone and simplicity reverse almost all of the building terror and confusion of the preceding four acts. Lear can barely believe his daughter still has love for him, but her heart is so full she can only speak in broken phrases. One can almost hear her crying the assurance that she has "No cause, no, cause" not to love Lear, or to do him wrong. Of course, vengeance has never entered her mind. And, as is customary to the nearly perfect character of Cordelia, she is speaking the truth, and not flattering him. The tragic events in the play up to this point are completely meaningless; her love for her father is untouched by any of them, and his love is, if any thing, brought into clearer focus. And so, the seemingly downward spiral of tragedy in the preceding four acts may have been meaningless, yes, but that only makes the relationships between the characters more real. In perspective, the disordered relationships were the only substantial cause for any destructive chaos, as the reordering of these relationships proved to be the cause for its reversal.
What then of the final scene? The death of Cordelia and Lear seems to be the immediate contradiction of the triumph achieved in the reconciliation of the two tragic relationships. Cordelia is snatched away just as she and Lear are reunited. Once again, divine presence is almost sardonically dismissed; and just as Albany prays that the Gods preserve Cordelia from harm, Lear enters with her dead in his arms. His heart broken, he laments over her body, before expiring himself. Although most readers of the play point this out as the ultimately tragic resolution, upon further relection one is forced to admit that the truly horrific disorder of the play has been alleviated by reconciliation. Even as a reader of the play is disappointed by the short period of time Lear and Cordelia have together being cut shorter, the fact is that the true horror of the play remains dispelled. Some critics, such as A.C. Bradley, were even of the view that Lear died in perfect ecstasy. He bases this theory on his last two lines:
Do you see this? Look on her, look, her lips, / Look there, look there!
We have no way of knowing Cordelia's mental state at the time of her death, but it is clear that it could at least be argued that Lear did not simply die of sadness, his heart was too twisted by his suffering to go on for another moment. Shakespeare includes at least the suggestion that Lear's state of mind might be slightly more complex. Perhaps he believed that Cordelia was still alive, as Bradley infers from Lear's exclamation. It is also possible that perhaps Lear, like Gloucester, died from a confliction of opposing emotions. Or maybe he was in fact perfectly content whether he believed Cordelia dead or not. In any case, Lear's cry of "her lips" is not without mystery, and as readers we may have to respect Lear's last moments with his daughter without completely understanding their meaning. The important point is that Shakespeare has not made tragedy explicit in this scene.
In examining all of the "good characters" in both plots (that of Lear and Cordelia as well as Gloucester and Edgar*), Enid Welsford pointed out that they all have "one striking quality in common, they have the capacity for 'fellow-feeling' highly developed." Cordelia is honestly devoted to her father, and Kent steps in to support her when no one else will, but returns to his "Enemy King, and did him service, / Improper for a slave." This statement is, of course, ironic; Kent never saw Lear as an enemy, he remained devoted to him regardless, as already discussed. As for Lear, at first he did "demand rather than give sympathy" as Welsford puts it. But the direction of the plot development clearly indicates that his redemption occurred precisely when he forsook his vanity and demanding nature and became willing to celebrate his natural relationship with his daughter for what it was. On the other hand, the development of "fellow-feeling" is almost totally absent in the "bad" characters; "they are no more anxious to receive sympathy than to give it." For Edmund, Goneril and Regan, the feelings or emotions of their fellow human beings are either obstacles to be brushed aside, or stepping-stones on their rise to personal gain and power. By the end, their three self-oriented interests collide, resulting in the destruction of all three. This is really all that could be said of their relationship with one another, mutually destructive, and fully without meaning or value by the end.
Shakespeare seems to have carefully constructed parallel stories of chaos and destruction, not meaningless, but corresponding to the amount that their human participants have lost a grip on their inherent interconnectedness. The play is, of course, a tragedy, and as readers of such we expect the deaths of characters with which we sympathize. At the least we foresee Lear's death from the very beginning of the play, when things seem to start crumbling inevitably towards chaos. And Gloucester's death is even more palatable. After all, he was instrumental in his own downfall even more directly than Lear. It is Cordelia's death, Cordelia the virtuous, alone untainted by insincerity or unnatural self-absorption, which throws the reader and conveys the image of a moral drought in this world. But is there no justice? R.W. Chambers observes, "so far is King Lear from being a play (as Dr. Johnson said) in which the wicked prosper, that by the end of the play the wicked not only are dead but already ceased to concern us." This, of course, is absolutely true. We don't notice what we take for granted; the deaths of Goneril and Regan are justice served, as is that of Edmund. What does absorb our attention is Edmund's repentance, Edgar's confirmation of his reunion with his father, and Lear's last moments with Cordelia's body. "Love alone matters," and the minds of the audience during the violent final scene is quieted by the image of Lear kneeled before the image of unconditional forgiveness in Cordelia, and the transcendent restoration of love as the most natural order of the universe, and of our lives.
* Homework that was noded - originally I also discussed the parallel plot between Gloucester and his sons, but I decided it did'nt add enough to this as a write up to merit inclusion. I would be happy to answer any questions resulting from confusion caused by its hasty removal.
Bradley, A.C. "King Lear." In Twentieth Century Interpretations of King Lear. Janet Adelman, editor. New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1978.
Shakespeare, William. King Lear. In The Norton Anthology of English Literature, Sixth Edition, Vol. 1. M. H. Abrams et al., editors. New York: Norton and Company, 1983.
Welsford, Enid. The Fool: His Social and Literary History. New York: Doubleday and Company, 1961.