I'm noding my homework in an attempt to help poor, struggling students like myself. This is an essay on King Lear which I wrote as part of my A level English Literature course. I got a mark of 28 out of 30 for it.
What important issues is Shakespeare able to illuminate and examine by means of the storm scenes of Act III; how effectively does he use this strategy?
Act III Scenes 1, 2, and 4 of King Lear are very different from those which precede and follow them. The main dramatic reason Shakespeare includes these scenes at this point in the play is in order to bring about an abrupt change. The characters are freed from the constraints of the court setting, where the emphasis was on people's relationships. The sudden transition to the wild heath with its raging natural storm is a big change for the audience. With the characters freed from the court they become full of raw emotion, which allows Shakespeare, and the audience, to focus on the abstract ideas and themes of King Lear.
The storm of these scenes has an important symbolic meaning. In Shakespeare's day a storm was a common metaphor for disruption and disquiet, and this can also be understood by a modern audience. In King Lear, the storm represents the chaos in Lear's head. His emotions are as violent as the tempest raging all around him. The ‘fretful elements' form an effective parallel with Lear's mental turmoil. The Gentleman gives a description of the storm, saying how it ‘tears Lear's white hair'. We cannot help but pity the old king. It is important to note that Lear is being overwhelmed by a natural force. Shakespeare is demonstrating that Nature is more powerful than even the strongest of men. The theme which runs throughout the play of nothing, and man being reduced to his ‘basest form' is also seen when we are told that the storm will ‘make nothing of' Lear. The Gentleman goes on to describe how Lear
"Strives in his little world of man to out-storm
The to-and-fro conflicting wind and rain"
These lines could equally be applied to humanity
's attempts to control Nature
or Lear's personal struggle with the elements
. The storm
is ‘eyeless' - it does not care that Lear happens to be the from highest category of man, just as the all-consuming madness
is indifferent to Lear's high station in life.
It is during the storm scenes that Lear's mental decline reaches its powerful and dramatic climax. In Act II Scene 4, Shakespeare has prepared us for Lear's mental state with Gloucester's words ‘The King is in high rage' and Lear's own worrying comment ‘O Fool, I shall go mad'. The audience is nevertheless taken aback by the sight of Lear in Act III Scene 2. With his very first words, Lear vividly portrays both the mental and physical storms which are engulfing him. Lear cries, ‘Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! Rage! Blow!'. He rants at the elements, hoping that the tempest will obliterate the world, destroying ‘ingrateful man'. He rages as the storm does, becoming wilder and wilder. We see that Lear is preoccupied with his daughters' betrayal, calling them ‘pernicious' and cries ‘O ho! ‘Tis foul!'. The amount of exclamation marks contained in Lear's three speeches at the start of Act III Scene 2 demonstrates how agitated he has become. His speech is broken and littered with punctuation. These speeches establish and reflect the properties of the storm. They are full of anger and distress, as the mad king moves swiftly from one topic to another. He employs violent images, talking of ‘high-engendered battles' and ‘crimes / Unwhipped of justice'. He fails to interact with two of his most loyal companions, Kent and the Fool, and this shows us just how isolated Lear has become in his insanity.
It seems to me that Lear's madness reaches its climax in Act III Scene 4, the hovel scene. Here, Shakespeare presents us with three forms of madness playing against each other on the stage. Lear is insane, the Fool is a child-like simpleton, and Edgar is pretending to be Poor Tom, a madman. The sane characters of Kent and Gloucester serve to illustrate the force of the others' madness. In this scene, Lear himself links the storm with his mental state. He refers to ‘this tempest in his mind', which he says makes the storm seem insignificant. Lear is tormented by thoughts of Gonerill and Regan's betrayal of him. It seems that this is what drives him totally mad. It is when he utters the words ‘Filial ingratitude!' that he loses control and his emotion rises to new heights of anguish. His attitude sways between resignation (‘Pour on; I will endure'), anger ('I will punish home'), and pathetic sadness (‘Your old kind father, whose frank heart gave all'). This inconsistency demonstrates just how irrational Lear's mind has become. The fact that Lear is in the company of two other insane figures means that he cannot maintain his last shreds of dignity and sanity. With Poor Tom ranting wildly - ‘Away! The foul fiend follows me', ‘Pillicock sat on Pillicock Hill. / Alow, alow, loo, loo!' etc - it is understandable that Lear too loses all control over his temper. The fact that the audience knows that Edgar is merely acting the role of a madman makes Lear's genuine insanity all the more tragic. The audience cannot help but feel intense pity for Lear as he addresses Poor Tom as if he were perfectly sane, saying ‘Noble philosopher, your company'. The Fool's desperate attempts to bring his master to his senses add to the confused mood of the scene. At times, however, the Fool is surprisingly lucid. He even seems wise when he says ‘This cold night will turn us all to fools and madmen'. And yet he continues to make saddeningly feeble attempts at amusing Lear, for example when he refers to Gloucester, carrying a torch, as ‘a walking fire'.
Shakespeare uses the freedom granted by the natural setting of the storm scenes to explore three themes key to King Lear. The idea of ‘unaccommodated man' is illuminated. Shakespeare is interested to know what it means to be a man. The storm scenes provide the perfect opportunity to do this, as they present us with men free from the constraints of society - men in the ‘basest' sense. In Act III Scene 1 Lear refers to himself as a ‘poor, infirm, weak, and despised old man'. He is as far-removed from the powerful king of Act I as one can imagine. He is interested in man in his most stripped-down, basic form. He talks of the ‘Poor naked wretches' of the world, saying what little defence from the storm their ‘raggedness' must offer. It seems that Lear is encouraged in this train of thought by the sight of ragged Poor Tom. He asks desperately, ‘Is man no more than this?'. He decides, in a moment of lucidity amidst his madness, that man is ‘a poor, bare, forked animal' just like the ‘Tom o' Bedlam' before him. Lear suddenly ‘tears off his clothes'; the trappings of man's false view of himself as superior to animals.
Also explored is the question, what does it mean to be a king? It is interesting that it is only now that Lear has lost his high rank that he becomes interested in this question. Only once his madness has reached its peak does Lear show some consideration for others, and the effects which his actions have on them. Lear's tender concern for the Fool in Act III Scene 2 is the first sign we have that ‘the old man' may be regaining some control over his wits, even though he is still far from sane. He affectionately asks the Fool ‘How dost my boy? Art cold?'. He says, ‘I have one part in my heart / That's sorry yet for thee'. Even before Lear lost his sanity we did not hear him speak so lovingly to anyone around him. I suggest that it has taken a severe mental upheaval for Lear to feel concern for others. Only now he has lost his position of power does he begin to show signs of responsibility, a fact which is deeply ironic. In Act I Scene 1, when Lear was at the height of his power and had full control over his mind, he spoke with a commanding tone, giving orders such as ‘Know that we have divided / In three our kingdom...'. His condescending use of the royal ‘we' is in contrast to the ‘I' he employs in Act III Scene 2 when he confides ‘I am cold myself'. This phrase shows that Lear no longer sees himself as superior to those around him. I believe that this acknowledgement that he too is only human would make Lear a much better king.
What preoccupies Lear's confused mind most throughout the storm scenes is the idea of justice. He is obsessed with his daughters' treachery, and he thinks constantly of revenge. Lear's anger is voiced in his many anguished speeches, for example in Act III Scene 2, where he warns,
"Tremble, thou wretch
That hast within thee undivulgèd crimes
Unwhipped of justice."
At the time, Lear is being punish
ed for fault
s of his own, and this irony
adds to the impact of his words. He feels himself to be ‘More sinned against than sinning
', a view which I share. However, Lear is a strong believer in punishment
for wrongdoing - he swears that he ‘will punish home'. In Act III Scene 4, we see Lear act out a mock trial
of his daughters, so plagued is he by thoughts of their ‘filial ingratitude'. He calls for ‘Judicious punishment!' for his ‘unkind daughters'. Lear dishes out the punishment he sees fitting, motivated largely by self-pity
. He counts himself among the ‘discarded fathers', and wallows in self-absorption.
The storm scenes are more than merely a dramatic spectacle, although they do provide an effective change of dramatic mood. More importantly, Shakespeare uses these scenes to free the action of the play from the court setting of the first two acts. He thereby allows himself the space to develop ideas and themes crucial to the play, as well as forwarding the play's action.
Thanks to good old Mrs. Swigg, my good old English teacher.