Motifs and symbols are often used to enrich a literary text. Identify one or more symbols, motifs or strands of imagery and explore the role which they play in King Lear Shakespeare’s plays were written in the Elizabethan era, which profoundly influenced his writing. During the Elizabethan time, there was the idea that God had set a place for everything in the universe, in hierarchical order. The Elizabethan’s called this, The Great Chain of Being. During this time if someone were to step out of his or her place in this divine line, it would not only be extremely uncommon but it would be sinful, inhuman.
That power thirsty human would be succumbing to their inner animal, and therefore step down a rank on The Great Chain of Being. The Great Chain of Being influenced all beliefs throughout the Elizabethan era, and that is evident through Shakespeare’s writing. The symbols and motifs he used in his play King Lear, are undoubtedly connected to Elizabethan beliefs and views. Female sexuality (or the lack of it) is a motif Shakespeare uncovers multiple times throughout the play. Besides Lear’s three daughters Cordelia, Regan and Goneril there are no other women in the play. Gloucester, Lear and Kent are all unmarried.
Yet Lear has this obsession with women, or rather with the ungodliness he associates them with. Lear’s rage towards women begins when he demands for an undying confession of love from each of his daughters; the winner shall get the largest piece of land. His youngest daughter Cordelia proclaims to Lear “I love your majesty. According to my bond. No more nor less. ” (Act 1, Scene 1 lines 102-103) Cordelia speaks the truth. Whereas Goneril and Regan lie through their teeth, claiming things such as “Sir, I love you more than word can wield the matter; Dearer than eyesight, space and liberty. (Act 1, Scene 1, lines 81-82). Lear believes the untruthful words of Goneril and Regan, and he unleashes his anger upon Cordelia. As Ian Johnson said in his essay Speak What We Feel: An Introduction To King Lear, “The rage is the reflex power of a male ego that will not accept unwelcome responses from children, women or subordinates. ” During the Elizabethan time, King Lear was the highest on The Great Chain of Being, besides the Lord. The fact that someone below him, a woman (women at the time were considered more like pets, and less like human beings) below im on the great chain of being and someone who is of his own blood would challenge his authority is absolutely unacceptable. He banishes Cordelia, which begins to create chaos inside of his head, which he later releases in the form of a raging storm. Eyesight, in the right context can mean so much more than just the ability to see. Occasionally, it is used as a symbol to represent the inability to see, as it is in King Lear. Lear has eyesight and yet he is unable to see the truth.
His daughter Cordelia, and servant Kent are in fact the people who are loyal to him, yet Lear’s ego has clouded his metaphorical vision. We are aware that Goneril and Regan want to drive him into madness, yet this is out of Lear’s sight. Lear’s blindness to the truth sparks his decent into madness, and when he discovers the truth it is too late, his decent into madness has already begun. Gloucester becomes physically blind in Act 3, Scene 7. Gloucester realizes he has become blind because of his own inability, similarly to the inability of Lear, to see the truth.
He proclaims this in Act 3, Scene 7 through lines 64-64, “Because I would not see thy cruel nails. Pluck out his poor old eyes. ” He is referring to Edmund, leading him to believe that Edgar was in fact was plotting to kill him when in reality, it was Edmund the bastard. In Act four, Gloucester and Lear meet again for a final time. Gloucester has lost his ability to physically see and Lear has now become insane. Gloucester’s physical pain is the physical representation of Lear’s emotion pain, and his physical blindness also refers to metaphorical blindness that consumes both he and Lear.
It is only when Gloucester loses his ability to see, and Lear has become insane that they both realize the error of their ways. At the beginning of the novel, we are introduced to Lear as a rich and powerful man, we see that he values the appearance of being a king, but doesn’t want the responsibility that being a king entails. Throughout the play we begin to see his decent into madness, and how that ultimately transforms him. Lear’s decent into madness is sparked in the very first act, upon banishing Cordelia.
As Ian Johnston said in Speak What We Feel: An Introduction To King Lear, “”The extraordinary speed and violence of his response tell us at once we are witnessing here an enormously powerful ego which simply cannot accept an external check on his sense of how he should be treated because of who he is. ” Throughout the novel, Lear is not only fighting an internal power struggle by trying to overcome his madness, he is also battling with his two eldest daughters Goneril and Regan. He is fighting to keep his authority over them, while they fight back against him.
Lear’s blind to what would be considered an unnatural desire during the Elizabethan era that Goneril and Regan have, which is to step out of their place in The Great Chain of Being and to selfishly win power. Goneril and Regan question his power, and attempting to give Lear orders and by doing so they succeed and they are able to drive Lear into insanity. Unfortunately while doing so he releases his inner rage in the form of a storm. The storm is a symbol of nature, such as eyesight but it is also another physical representation that Shakespeare is using.
Yet this time, he is referring to the chaos inside Lear’s head. The timing of the storm coincides with Lear’s mental decline hitting its most powerful point. When Lear unleashes the chaos he cries at the natural elements “Blow, winds and crack your cheeks! Rage! Blow! ” (Act 3, Scene 2 line 1). As Lear begins to become angrier, the storm becomes wilder and wilder. Lear is hoping that the storm will wipe away the people who have betrayed him. He speaks of violent images, and blames female sexuality to be the root of all things evil.
He proclaims to Goneril “Suspend thy purpose, if thou didn’t intend to make this creature fruitful. Into her womb, convey sterility! Dry up in her organs of increase, and from her derogate body never spring. A babe to honour her! ” (Act 1, Scene 4, lines 269-274). This shows, once again the speed and violence in Lear’s reactions, caused by his ego and manhood. Lear is unable to see his place in society, and he is blind to his duties and responsibilities. Although Lear is aware that he made a mistake by letting Cordelia go, he doesn’t think he is deserving of all the betrayal his family has shown him.
Later on, during the storm he says to Kent “I am a man, more sinned against than sinning” (Act 3, Scene 2, lines 60-61). This demonstrates to us that even through Lear’s transformation, his decent into madness and his vision being cleared Lear is still unable to completely comprehend the consequences that his actions had. By stepping out of his position of power, and wanting to divide the kingdom he was giving up the power that God rightfully bestowed upon him, in the Great Chain of Being.
Lear only becomes truly aware of his mistakes, upon meeting with Cordelia a final time, where he too realizes the severity of his mistakes and would rather spend the rest of his life in prison with Cordelia, than have the appearance and authority of a King that he cherished so much at the beginning of the play. Upon hearing of Cordelia’s death sentence, the pain of living without his daughter becomes too great a pain to bear. When Cordelia dies, King Lear too dies of grief. The symbols and motif’s Shakespeare use throughout King Lear play an enormous role in conveying subtext and meaning to the audience.
The underlying motifs, use of nature and female sexuality help the audience to comprehend more about the Elizabethan era. Using all the different symbols Shakespeare incorporates into the play, he adds a layer of physical and metaphorical meaning to the fairly simple plot of King Lear. By using clever ambiguity Shakespeare subconsciously influences the audience to think, feel or react a certain way. Bibliography: Johnston, Ian, Speak What We Feel: An Introduction to King Lear, Malaspina-University College, Nanaimo, 1999, Public Domain Shakespeare, William, King Lear, International Thomson Publishing, 1998