RE-EDUCATING A KING: KING LEAR’S SELF-AWARENESS




Halfway down
Hangs one that gathers samphire, dreadful trade!
Methinks he seems no bigger than his head:
The fisherman that walk along the beach
Appear like mice.

Although this quote from Shakespeare’s King Lear is made by Poor Tom to his unknowing father Gloucester about the terrain far below them, it accurately summarizes the plight of the mad king. Lear is out of touch with his surroundings, riding high upon the wave of power associated with the monarchy: even those closest to him are out of reach, viewed with a distorted lens. It is through this lens of madness that Lear views his friends and family, and thus he is stripped of everything before he can realize the folly of his judgment. Reduced to a simple man, Lear is forced to learn the lessons that God’s anointed is already supposed to know. This is the purpose of the secondary characters of King Lear; they serve to show the many complex facets of Lear’s complex personality, as they force him to finally get in touch with his self-conscious.

For example, the Fool, oddly enough, acts as the voice of reason for the out-of -touch King. He views events critically and thus seems to foreshadow situations that an ignorant Lear is completely oblivious to. This is evident in act 1, scene 1, when a prodding Fool asks the king if he knows the difference between a bitter fool and a sweet fool. When Lear admits that he does not, the Fool attempts to lay it all out in front of him:

That lord which councelled thee
To give away thy land,
Come place him here by me;
Do thou for him stand.
The sweet and bitter fool
Will presently appear;
The one in motley here,
The other found out there.

The Fool attempts to show the king the folly of his ways. He is essentially calling Lear a bitter fool, insinuating that his foolishness will be the cause of such bitterness. This comment is taken lightly, but only because the Fool is a satire of the king himself, and thus is the only one allowed to criticize him. Lear has a preconceived notion that he will be able to give up all of his land and his throne, and yet still somehow hold on to the power that he is so accustomed to.

Alas, the king does not listen. He continues to believe he still has the power that he has long since conceded. He does not believe that by deviding the kingdom he has lost both his political and personal power in one fell swoop. It is not until he is thrown out into the storm that Lear comes in touch with reality: he realizes the poetic justice of his words "Nothing will come of nothing", for now he has nothing; he has systemically been stripped of his power.

GLOUCESTER: O, let me kiss that hand!
LEAR: Let me wipe it first; it smells of mortality.

It is apparent that Lear is no longer king. He has abandoned logic, thus he can no longer consider himself God’s anointed. He has finally given up on his hopes for a world in which he will still be respected after giving away his money and power; a world where everyone would continue to admire and obey him as Gloucester does, simply due to the authority that is prevalent in Lear himself, and not his crown.

Cordelia serves as a reminder to Lear of true love. She takes the abuse of her shallow father, who banishes her for not being able to flatter him as her sisters do. It is quite obvious that Lear is most fond of Cordelia, yet he seems shocked when she cannot speak as daintily as Goneril and Regan. Had Lear been in a proper state of mind, he would have known that Cordelia would answer as she did, yet when she cannot elevate him upon a platform for all the others to see, he banishes her out of humiliation. Nonetheless, she stays true to her father, not once denouncing him for his foolish actions. Even though she is somewhat aware of her sisters’ intentions, she wishes them well, without incident.

Time shall unfold what plighted cunning hides
Who covers faults at last with shame derides.
Well