Opposites and Paradoxes in King Lear
The sequence of oppositional characters and motifs in the play bring about in the audience a sense of the corruption of principles that beset the protagonists of the play. With this sense of opposition comes a strong sense of the duality within the play seemingly centred on the Epodoclean theory of a “world governed by the contrary forces of love and hate. Though this is not unusual for a stage production, McAlindon believes that when the bond of opposites that constitutes the natural order of “revolt against limit and fly to extremes. ” This can be seen in the characters foremost as the sons of Gloucester as well as the daughters of Lear are directly opposed to each other. Indeed it is in the internal nature of Lear that this is focused most powerfully as his beliefs in love and kindnesses are offset by the egocentric and chloric feelings that dwell within his heart.
It is mainly from the character and fate of Lear that the true extent of the breakdown of nature can be seen as within the space of two weeks he has sunk from kingship to a world of destitution and poverty as he suffers at “th’ extreme verge” in his relationship with his family. What is most tragic in relation to Lear though is his rediscovery of Cordelia before the heart wrenching death she endures as he is thrown from the heights of grief before his heart gives way under the strain of ecstatic joy.
But while the emotional converses that Lear endures are tremendously powerful they are not the only matters in opposition throughout the play. There can be seen in the various settings of the play a number of thematic oppositions, with the most apparent being the contrast between the nocturnal and gloomy castle of Gloucester as opposed to the serene Dover fields where Father and daughter are reunited, where love opposes strife. Indeed there are a great number of inversions that apply a new number of possible thoughts to the understanding of the play.
Lear’s sufferings are completely opposed to the more typical tragedies of the Shakespearean era where there was a distinct separation between the suffering of the social elite and “the low and the ludicrous” in the principal of the Senecan school of thought. In King Lear though it would appear to be the Saturnalism theories that prevail as the positions of the lowest are inverted with those of the highest, as Lear takes the place of his fool in declaring the unpalatable truths of the world in his madness, adopting a sense of tragedy in the manner in which this is done.
There are none more demonstrative of inversions than the antonymic nominalism that occupy the play with the most pathetic being Gloucester’s praise of Goneril and Cornwall, whereby his loyalty to the king becomes “treason” whereas Edmund’s betrayal is described as a show of “loyalty. ” But more than this it is a key illustration of the wickedness of protagonist such as Goneril who condemn “harmful mildness. ” This sense of paradox is prevalent mostly in the evil party where it comes to signify a moral and social inversion of a rational order of things.
In contrast to this a positive paradox comes to represent a renewal through destruction and a discovery though loss, most notably seen in the increase of France’s attraction for Cordelia following her rejection by Lear as she becomes an “unprized precious maid,” becoming “most choice, forsaken” as the isolation of “forsaken” seemingly highlighting the paradox. What is more is that a sense of pathos is granted through this as Lear’s misinterpretation of each one of his daughters and his reliance of the “wolfish” Regan and Goneril, as well as Gloucester’s miscomprehension of Edmund as being a “loyal and natural boy. The twin paradoxes that appear in the discovery of madness, characterised by Lear, and the discovery of vision in blindness are the most powerful in the development dignity undertaken by Lear and to an extent Gloucester in this play. McAlindon believes that of all the paradoxes it is the fact that the tragedy develops around an inability “to contain the worst effects of a terrible eruption in nature,” and none is more terrible than the progressive failing of family links. The typical familial bond of mutual love and affection that is the ornerstone of most families is shockingly absent in King Lear though it is desperately craved by Lear himself. McAlindon believes that this style of bond involves love and justice as well as that it “predicates a glad and spontaneous performance of offices and responsibilities. ” It is therefore bewildering that Edmund would break such a bond in such an anti-familial manner, undermining civilised society in the process, and comparisons can be drawn between him and Iago in his mistreatment of Claudius in Othello.
Gloucester, however, can be seen to be as equally to blame for Edmund’s waywardness as his dreadful mistreatment of him, whose breeding is only acknowledged as Gloucester “often blushed,” and seems to be a victim of tragic causality as Edmund comes to believe that he owes everything to himself. The ancient Greek writers Plato and Aristotle believe that love creates emotional awareness and allows for the creation of just law.
With this in mind the manner with which Lear treats the link between him and his daughters in such a material way shatters any sense of order or responsibility in his court with the dismissal of Cordelia and Kent becoming a satire of what passes for justice in society. If Plato’s theories are developed then it would seem that the main cause for injustice is a loss of human kindness and sympathy, explaining fully Edmund’s pathological hardness as his bastardy alienates him.
In the same manner in which Edmund suffers a lack of acknowledgement, so too does Lear suffer the same fate, it is only through his mistreatment on the familial ties. McAlindon believes that Lear holds a heavy “dependence of personal identity on the bond” and it is his reliance on the bond as a material tie makes him a nobody after he divulges himself from his power and estate resulting in one of the most pathetic lines “I gave you all” separated from the cruelty of Regan.
The greatest dignity is then conveyed onto those around him who still perceive the bond to be a union through love, and therefore still hold the same respect for Lear despite his failure to recognise them. The importance of a character understanding the treatment of time plays an integral part in the possibility of them being seen as a tragic figure. King Lear is a tragedy characteristic of its age, a tragedy of extreme and terrible violence, as there is a sense of the untimeliness of violence and destruction that rashness and impatience bring about.
Most characteristic of this flaw is Lear as his kingdom implodes through his “hideous rashness” as he signals the unleashing of pitiless violence that culminates in the utterly pathetic death of Cordelia. He is ironically guilty too of being overly patient as there is an almost comic stichomythia between him and Kent portraying his unwillingness to accept facts. A parallel can be drawn with Gloucester in this as his impatience regarding the supposed traitor Edgar is both unjust and demonstrative of the nexus between time and justice as well as injustice and haste.
Calculated swiftness becomes characteristic with the actions of the evil party and can be seen by Edmunds manipulation of Gloucester under the pretence of judicial behaviour as well as that of his brother as he acts “in cunning” and its placement a the beginning of the line illuminates its two meanings. In an extreme contrast the good party align themselves with time, adopting a policy of patience that is both dignified and tragic. Edgar is keen to wait for “the mature time” whilst Kent waits for the perfect moment to reveal himself to his master, however, it is his own personal tragedy that he never finds the right moment.
This can be seen as a demonstration of a true heart as this is a play that appeals profoundly to the heart as much as it does to the mind. Emblematic of a noble heart is the manner in which a protagonist empathises and treats those around them and powerful contrasts can be seen between characters and their counterparts. Indeed the most powerful of these contrasts is between the “dog-hearted daughters” of Lear and Cordelia with the scenic juxtaposition of tranquil Dover and the castles and courts of Regan and Goneril a clear demonstration of this.
To be truly tragic in King Lear a character possess a good heart and this is perfectly shown by the “marble hearted sisters” as opposed to Kent’s whose own heart is pierced by Lear’s rejection of Cordelia. Alongside the good characters Lear’s heart is true in its nature, though he seems to suffer the promethean anguish, with his heart replacing the traditional liver, culminating in his death which must be presumed as being from a broken heart. Compassionate love is the supreme value in the play and as discussed above beliefs and social morals come from love and therefore the heart.
Conversely though a slighted heart can produce the most devastating fury and hatred through grief as not only does the heart present the duality of nature with the possibility for disunity and anarchy but in this same manner emphasizing the importance of patience. Therefore the presence of all the aforementioned undertones and subtle themes tragedy is both made distinctly more unattainable as well as becoming much more powerful in its nature, with pathos coming to play a key role in its development.