King Lear’s Universe
These late eclipses in the sun and moon portend no good to us. Though the wisdom of Nature can reason it thus and thus, yet Nature finds itself scourged by the sequent effects. Love cools, friendship falls off, brothers divide. In cities, mutinies; in countries, discord; in palaces, treason; and the bond cracked ‘twixt son and father. This villain of mine comes under the prediction, there’s son against father; the King falls from bias of nature, there’s father against child. We have seen the best of our time. Machinations, hollowness, treachery, and all ruinous disorders follow us disquietly to our graves. Find out this villain, Edmund. It shall loose thee nothing. Do it carefully. And the noble and true-hearted Kent banished; his offence: honesty. ’Tis strange.
These lines, spoken in act 1, scene 2, by Gloucester, after his bastard son Edmond tricked him into thinking his son Edgar was planning to kill him, show the relationship between the plot and subplot of King Lear. The main plot of King Lear is the tragedy of Lear: he is tricked by his two eldest daughters’ lies, and does not believe his truthful youngest daughter, Cornelia; he banishes her, and is then betrayed by his two eldest daughters, Goneril and Regan. This is a tragedy because it drives Lear mad and Lear carries the weight of the play: when Lear’s life is out of order, the entire universe of the play is out of order. We see this here, as the focus shifts from Lear and his daughters to Gloucester and his sons, and Gloucester is tricked by Edmond as Lear was tricked by Goneril and Regan. Even though Gloucester sees that things are out of order because of Lear’s poor decision – “And the noble and true-hearted Kent banished; his offence: honesty. ’Tis strange” – he makes the same poor decision by believing Edmond. Thus both plots we see are immediately swept away with Lear’s actions, and the universe of the play corresponds to his condition throughout. The condition of Gloucester’s castle (the sub-plot), heightens the feeling of tragedy in the condition of Lear’s mind (the main plot). The subplot parallels the main plot closely to show that every action in the universe of the play is depends on Lear’s mental condition, showing us the importance Lear has in the universe of the play.
Lear’s first mistake in the play is not seeing the power in his youngest, most loyal daughter’s words, “I love your Majesty/according to my bond, no more, no less. (1.1 94-5)” Following dutiful bonds such as this, turns out to be the redeeming quality of every loyal character in the play, which every disloyal character lacks. Lear does not perceive this. Instead, he falls for the verbose speeches of Goneril and Regan. Lear’s most loyal subject, Kent, sticks up for Cordelia when Lear chastises her, attesting for her loyalty; but Lear is firm in his decision, “Nothing. I have sworn. I am firm. (1.1 247)” He then bans Kent from his kingdom and marries Cordelia to France with no bounty, sealing his fate. We see this as Goneril and Regan plot to usurp their father as soon as Cordelia and Lear have departed.
In the next scene, the sub-plot of Gloucester’s castle reflects the degeneration of Lear’s mind when Edmond begins to plot against his father. “Thou, Nature, art my goddess; to thy law/my services art bound. Wherefore should I/stand in the plague of custom. (2.1 1-3)” Edmond has a disloyal nature, but Gloucester chooses to believe him over his loyal son, because, as he says, “Nature finds itself scourged by the sequent events.” As Lear has allowed poor nature to rule his mind, poor nature is coming to rule the universe of the play.
Kent and the Fool are loyal subjects to Lear in the second act of the play: Kent returns to his duty in disguise, because he simply can’t do anything but serve Lear; and the Fool persists in trying to sway Lear from his stubbornness in his folly, “For you know, Nuncle,/The hedge sparrow fed the cuckoo so long/That it had it head bit off by it young./So out went the candle and we were left darkling. (1.4 220-4)” Even though both of them warn him of Goneril and Regan’s ill intentions, Lear does not believe them quickly enough. Goneril comes into the scene and tells Lear that she has taken half of his men from him, causing him to rush to find Regan.
Regan is at the castle of Gloucester, where events are still degenerating parallel with Lear’s mind: Edmond convinces Edgar that Gloucester is angry with him, then when Gloucester nears, Edmond says he must draw swords against Edgar to maintain loyalty in the eyes of their father. Edmond chases Edgar out of the castle, then wounds himself and says Edgar cut him because he would not join in Edgar’s disloyalty. This causes Gloucester to fully believe his disloyal son, and rage against his loyal son.
Then, disloyal group joins with disloyal group as Regan and her husband Cornwall side with Edmond over Edgar, with Cornwall saying, “If he be taken, he shall never more/be feared
of doing harm. Make your own purpose,/how in my strength shall please. For you, Edmond,/Whose virtue and obedience doth this instant/So much commend itself, you shall be ours./Natures of such deep trust we shall much need;/You we first seize on. (2.1 113-9)” These disloyal subjects then find Kent fighting their subject Oswald, and they put Kent in stocks for it. Here, Gloucester shows himself to be loyal to Lear by having pity for Kent, “I am sorry for thee, friend. ‘Tis the duke’s/ pleasure. (2.2 154-5)”
When Lear comes across Kent in the stocks (who he thinks is a new loyal subject of his), it enrages him, and in this state he confronts Regan and finds out that the Fool and Kent were right about his daughters. This drives him over the edge into madness, “I will do such things -/What they are, yet I know not, but they shall be/The terrors of the earth, (2.4 279-81)” and he runs into the storm.
In the storm he falls even further into madness. When he meets Edgar, who is dressed as a madman, he can only imagine that Edgar would be mad because Edgar has suffered the same plight as he, “What! Have his daughters brought him to this pass? Coud’st thou save nothing? Did’st thou give them all? (3.4 63-4)” and in the madman he sees his truest self, “Thou art the thing itself; unaccommodated man is no more but such a poor, bare, forked animal as thou art. Off, off, you lendings! Come, unbutton here. (3.4 108-11)”
This complete wreck of Lear’s mind is reflected in the whole universe of the play, as we see in Gloucester’s castle, where the guests rise up against the host, and Regan and Cornwall cut out the eyes of Gloucester, with Cornwall saying, “Out vile jelly, where is thy luster now. (3.7 84-5)” Ironically, just after Gloucester looses his sight, he sees Edmond for what he is:
Gloucester: All dark and comfortless. Where’s my son Edmond?
Edmond, enkindle all the sparks of nature
To quit this horrid act.
Regan: Out, treacherous villain,
Thou call’st on him that hates thee. It was he
That made the overture of thy treasons to us.
This cutting out of Gloucester’s eyes is symbolic of the blindness that Gloucester and Lear had to the loyalty of their subjects in the beginning of the play, and recalls Kent’s earlier lines, “See better, Lear, and let me still remain/The true blank of thine eye. (1.1 160-1)” The inability of these rulers to distinguish loyalty from disloyalty caused their demise. Now, with Gloucester’s literal lack of sight, both of them loose their figurative blindness: Gloucester is lead by his loyal son as Lear seeks out his loyal daughter to help him. With this, the universe of the play begins to come to order: Albany, who has been blind to the disloyal actions of his wife and her conspirators shows himself to be a loyal subject of the king, “Tigers, not daughters, what have you performed? (4.2 40)” and the most disloyal characters of the play – Edmond, Regan, and Goneril – come together in a strange bond with each other, with Edmond saying, “To both these sisters have I sworn my love;/Each jealous of the other, as the stung/Are of the adder. Which of them shall I take?/Both? One? Or neither? Neither can be enjoyed,/If both remain alive. (5.2 55-9)”
When Lear can see who his loyal subjects are, the characters of the play can see it too, and Lear, Cordelia, Kent, Edgar, and Albany are set against Goneril, Regan, Edmond, Cornwall, and Oswald. After Lear and Cordelia are taken captive and sent to be put to death, Edgar, Albany, and Kent defeat the disloyal subjects. This makes sense because the whole universe of the play depends on Lear’s state of mind, and Lear’s state of mind is clear at this point. As Kent believes the movement of the stars dictates every action in the universe, “It is the stars,/The stars above us, govern our conditions, (4.3 33-4)” the condition of the Lear’s mind dictates every action in the universe of the play. However, even though Lear’s mind is clear at the end, and the loyal subjects defeat the disloyal subjects, Cordelia and Lear die.
Before Edmond dies, he sends a note to stop Lear and Cordelia’s executions. The note arrives too late, and Lear enters the scene holding Cordelia’s dead body, fully showing us how much the play depends on Lear’s condition.
Cordelia’s death is the only way for us to feel the full importance of Lear in the universe of the play. The universe of the play depends on Lear being a faultless king so much, that his folly puts the entire play into motion, causing Lear’s kingdom and Gloucester’s castle to fall into disorder, Lear to loose his mind and find himself again in a madman, Gloucester’s guests to rise against him and put out his eyes, and the loyal to separate from the disloyal and battle. His folly causes the subplot to parallel the treachery of the main plot, and the only way the treachery can end is with Cordelia’s death. After this, Lear himself dies from the exhausting motion of the play, because even he cannot stop the powerful ramifications of his initial folly.