Morally chaotic world In King Lear

Category: King Lear, Morality, Virtue
Last Updated: 17 Apr 2020
Pages: 6 Views: 418

Shakespeare presents a variety of ways in which moral chaos is brought about, including the disruption of the natural order and the characters possession of typically corrupted morals, even going as far as questioning the morals of his own society. However, having different principles in a modern audience, we tend to have different interpretations of ‘moral chaos’ to that of a contemporary audience. In king Lear, Shakespeare arguably does create a ‘morally chaotic world’, particularly trough the notion of the ‘natural order’ being disrupted.

The betrayal of the children against their fathers illustrates a significant disruption of nature, as it was considered natural and necessary for children to have unfaltering obedience for their parents, particularly their fathers. When Cordelia publicly refuses to obey her father’s wishes, she goes against the true qualities of a 17th century daughter in the natural order and it is arguably this initial rebellion that causes the suffering and tragedy throughout the rest of the play.

According to feminist critics, Cordelia’s refusal to flatter Lear can be interpreted as an opposition to Lear’s authority and thus a direct challenge to the natural patriarchal order of the seventeenth century, the short emphatic sentence ‘Nothing’ stressing this assertiveness. We also see this betrayal of the father in the character of Edmund. By claiming ‘’I find it not fit for your o’er looking’’, not only does Edmund feign innocence, but he also portrays himself with overt concern for his father, reinforcing his false virtue.

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Edmund’s initial silence makes his soliloquy in the next scene in which he exclaims ‘’Legitimate, Edgar. I must have your land’’ exciting and surprising to the audience. The audience is privy to the Edmund’s scheming which creates a sense of dramatic irony, however in most productions; the Machiavellian Edmund is played as a ‘suavely intelligent, rather dashing figure’, creating a paradox as he is clearly evil yet alluring to the audience at the same time.

Illegitimates were problematic for the rigid early modern social structure and were viewed as ‘extras’ that society struggled to accommodate. Therefore to a contemporary audience, the poor treatment of Edmund would come as no surprise; however a modern audience would interpret such extreme views on illegitimacy as immoral. As modern critic Foakes comments, “Edmund is the most dangerous and treacherous of the characters.

Yet, he begins from a cause that we cannot identify as unjust”, illustrating how to a modern audience, Shakespeare does create a morally chaotic world through the poor treatment of Edmund, as the seventeenth century societal norms are so foreign from that of ours. Lear’s abdication can also be viewed as morally chaotic, as it was strongly believed in Jacobean society that Kings were chosen by divine right. In Lear’s pledge to ‘’express our darker purpose’’ the use of the adjective ‘darker’ to describe his actions illustrates the unnatural nature of such a decision.

In Jacobean society, a king was an agent of God, and so it was seen as God’s responsibility to decide when his reign should end. A king’s handing power down the throne was against the divine order, and it was believed that Satan, through various evil spirits, was responsible for all attacks on the divine order. In Macbeth, a similar play, when King Duncan is murdered, the natural order is breached and chaos ensues: the day becomes as dark as night, Duncan’s horses turn wild and eat each other and a civil war breaks out.

From a New Historicist stance, critics such as Tennenhouse argue that Shakespeare illustrates what happens when there is a ‘catastrophic redistribution of power’, therefore promoting the oppressive structures of the patriarchal hierarchy. However, other critics suggest that the tragedies occur because of society’s already ‘faulty ideological structure’, particularly emphasised in the David Farr production through the skewed girders, broken windows, sizzling strip-lighting and the eventual collapse of the flimsy kingdom walls.

Moreover, Shakespeare appears to be presenting a morally chaotic world through the way in which the characters can be seen as possessing seen corrupted morals, motivated purely by materialism as opposed to moralistic values. We see this in the elegant and superficial speeches of Gonerill and Regan who claim to love Lear ‘Dearer than eyesight’, the hyperbole in these statements highlighting their manipulative nature and greed for worldly goods. Their actions throughout the rest of the play prove the fabrication of these initial promises.

Johnson comments that King Lear is a play in which the ‘Wicked prosper and virtuous miscarry’. I find this view accurate as the audience can witness how the Machiavellian characters such as Gonerill and Regan are rewarded for their materialism, and given total rights over the kingdom, whereas the virtuous characters such as Cordelia and Kent are punished for their honesty and moralistic values, consequently demonstrating a world of chaotic morals.

Lear himself is presented as morally ambivalent, similar to Claudius in Hamlet, initially valuing riches and reputation, which were the very things that fuelled his disillusionment and moral blindness. The love test he uses to bribe his daughters with ‘the largest bounty’ can be seen as an obvious attempt to buy their love and consequently boost his self-image. His rash reaction to Cordelia’s refusal to perform, pledging to ‘disclaim all paternal care’ illustrates how his hubris stops him from being able to differentiate between his honest daughter and his deceitful daughters.

It also demonstrates the way in which the antagonists exploit the hamartia of the protagonist, heightening the tragic nature of the play. However, towards the end of the play, Lear’s character undergoes anagnorisis and so he comes to possess more virtuous principles. In Act 3, for the first time he recognises the plight of the ‘Poor naked wretches’ that are forced to ‘bide the pelting of [the]pitiless storm’, the alliteration in ‘pitiless’ and ‘pelting’ demonstrating the extreme suffering endured by those in poverty.

Through Shakespeare’s emotive lexis, Lear is presented as regretful, empathetic, and compassionate, which directly contrasts with his initial selfishness and fixation with worldly things, and it is this contrast that presents a sense of moral confusion. On the other hand, through employing moral characters that remain virtuous throughout the play, Shakespeare doesn’t present a completely morally chaotic world.

Cordelia’s character is the personification of virtue and morality, creating a direct juxtaposition with the immoral, Machiavellian characters such as Gonerill and Regan. When required to bargain her love for rights over the kingdom, she comments “I cannot heave my heart into my mouth”, portraying her honest nature. The idiom “heart in your mouth”, which suggests nervousness or fear, demonstrates that Cordelia does not see any reason to fear losing the land, emphasising her lack of materialism and strong moral compass.

Expanding on this, Lear later describes her tears as “The holy water from her heavenly eyes”, the alliteration of ‘holy’ and ‘heavenly’ stressing her virtue and linking her to the Gods. Foakes comments "The optimistic thrust of Edgar's moralizing hints at the possibility of a happy ending. ’’ The play concludes with the moralistic character Edgar reigning over England, and although good characters such as Cordelia die, (which wasn’t received well by Shakespeare’s original audience), evil is ultimately eradicated whilst good triumphs.

By the end of the play, Evil can even be seen to be eradicated by evil itself. Gonerill poisons Regan, and mentions in an aside after Regan feels the effects “If not I’ll ne’er trust medicine”, the secretive nature of this aside presenting her murderous and calculating nature. Shortly after, she commits suicide, which would have been seen as a great act of sin by a Jacobean audience, but ultimately evil defeats itself, evoking a rebalancing of morals and a move back towards the natural order.

The play clearly descends from the embodied values of medieval morality plays, which was a popular form of drama in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. These plays present a direct conflict between good and evil, and ultimately the evil and chaos must be destroyed, and a moral lesson is learned. Overall, there are many aspects of King Lear that evoke a seeming moral chaos, however by the end of the play, as in all morality plays, the chaos is removed and moral order is restored, resulting in catharsis for the audience.

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Morally chaotic world In King Lear. (2017, Jul 29). Retrieved from

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