The title character in Shakespeare’s Tragedy of King Lear gets many of the best scenes in the play, not to mention most of the audience’s sympathy, but he is just one of the bad dads who get a shot a redemption in the drama. In the hands of just about any other dramatist, the fall of the house of the Gloucester would be the main plot and some other lesser subplot would exist to provide a comparison or contrast. In the hands of Shakespeare, however, even one of his greatest villains, Edmund, typically falls under the enormous shadow cast by the sad, pathetic king who is after his own bit of redemption for being a bad. Reading King Lear offers the opportunity to delve deeper into one of the most fascinating cast of supporting characters in Shakespeare’s canon in a way that watching a performance dominated by a strong actor playing Lear cannot. Upon taking advantage of this opportunity, a closer inspection of the story of the Gloucester family’s breakdown enhances a deeper appreciation and understanding of Lear’s torment while shedding light on the play’s seemingly fairy tale world that divides people into heroes and villains.
For instance, a running theme throughout the play is that true sight can only be gained through the loss of vision. Since he is the star of his tale, Lear’s eventual ability finally gain insight his failings as the father he was the beginning of the play by literally losing his sight toward the end hardly comes as a surprise. What is more surprising is how Shakespeare works the theme of metaphorical blindness into so many other characters who do not find redemption and the ability to see the error of their ways. This ability to connect characters so that they intertwine effortlessly together to advance the narrative is an exemplary showcase of Shakespeare’s adherence to Aristotle’s importance of character as a necessary device for tragedy.
These characters who remain in a perpetual state of darkness and ignorance are foreshadowed in the very first scene of the play with Goneril irony eventually proven to be lost not only on her father but herself as well when she claims “Sir, I love you more than words can wield the matter, Dearer than eyesight, space, and liberty” (I. i. 55-56). Lear’s blindness to his scheming daughter’s flattery will pay off in the short run for Goneril, but she proves to be far too lost in the darkness to every work her way out and get anywhere near the redemption her father will briefly enjoy. A little later in Act One, Goneril will once again speak words that foreshadow the tragic future of not only her father, but Gloucester as well. As for Goneril herself, she will remain forever incapable of seeing the irony that awaits her when she drops such pearls of wisdom as “Old fools are babes again, and must be us’d / With checks as flatteries, when they are seen abus’d” (I. iii. 524-525).
Goneril’s doppelganger over amongst the twisted Gloucester family tree is the infinitely more charismatic, clever and fascinating little bastard known as Edmund. While both Goneril and Edmund exhibit depths of greed and capacities for familial treachery that reaches breathtaking levels, they differ substantially in one respect. Goneril is from the beginning quite repulsive with seeming inability to hide her true nature from anyone but her father already caught in the throes of dementia. Edmund acts as Goneril’s mirror image in the subplot surrounding his grab for his family’s ancestral due, but where Goneril never convinces the reader she is anything but a petty, landgrabbing witch, Edmund is actually rather successful in making his case.
This divergence between two characters that Shakespeare quite obviously intended to serve in the same role in his two parallel stories of bad dads blindly making their way through purgatory on the way to redemption is perhaps the most useful pairing between the families Lear and Gloucester when it comes to heightening the aspect of Lear as a tragic hero. Goneril is essentially given everything by a father who is more generous than she deserves, yet still proves to possess the most villainous heart in the kingdom. By contrast, Gloucester’s treatment of Edmund actually serves to endow him with a level of sympathy that Goneril can only hope for.
Actually, there is another significantly stark contrast between Goneril and Edmund that may also serve to distance her emotionally as a villain while bringing the audience closer to viewing Edmund heroically. Edmund is the only member of Shakespeare’s cast of wicked sons and daughters who is allowed to directly address the audience and explain his motives. The effect upon the audience that his long soliloquy which serves to open the second act of the play strongly indicates that Shakespeare also found Edmund’s motivation for humiliating his father and staking a claim to his land infinitely less sinister than Goneril’s desire to do the same to her father. This particular contrast between the two otherwise similar children of men suffering from a significant depletion in the ability to see the potential long-term damage resulting from their lack of strong parenting skills is made all the more concrete by their choice of parting words following their respective scenes that reveal their evil plans.
Goneril’s response to her sister Regan’s suggestion to practice patience and think further on their plans is countered by Goneril’s “We must do something, and i’ th’ heat” (I. i. 331). Goneril’s ambition is already so blinding that she is incapable of even taking the time to stop and look for danger ahead. That blindness to future consequences resulting from a chronic impulsivity will lead not to insight and redemption, but toward the blackening blindness of eternity courtesy of the death that is payment for nesting with vipers just like herself. While it is true that Edmund also dies, his astonishing rise to prominence that successfully bypasses the restrictive British system of primogeniture is a direct result of his far more astute embrace of the patience that is lacking in Goneril. By play’s end, it becomes clear that whatever was done in the heat was hardly worth the rush to Goneril, whereas Edmund’s resolve to grow and prosper nearly exceeded his skills at prophecy and even allowed him a small measure of redemption denied to Goneril.
With both bad dads in King Lear also sharing small bites of the large pie of redemption served in the play’s final minutes, the twin narratives of families torn apart by misunderstandings and the negative effects of genetic inheritance come to a close in the same emotional places. Those families ripped asunder are briefly rejoined and the subsequent healing allows order to be remade from the chaos that has marked all the previous events.
- Greenblatt, Stephen, gen. ed. The Norton Anthology of English Literature. 9th ed. Vol.
A. New York: Norton, 2012. Print.