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Wednesday, April 20, 2011

The desire for power as the most destructive vice for the character in King Lear

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Desire is a quality inherent to every human being. Each person possesses within themselves certain cravings, whether they be good or bad, saintly or malicious, frivolous or practical. In fact, the play King Lear clearly states that the desire for something greater than basic needs is what separates man from beast. While most people attempt to protect themselves from being overcome with their own greed and desire, some simply give into this deadly vice. They allow their lives to become focused solely upon the quest for money, status, influence, love, or whatever satiates their longing. For many of the characters in King Lear, the desire for power became their most destructive vice and eventually led to ruin, betrayal and death.


In the opening scene of the play, Goneril and Regan, the two eldest daughters of the aging King Lear, are seen contending for their father’s inheritance. At Lear’s request, they engage in a sort-of contest where they each express why they love him the most. In both of their flamboyantly flattering speeches, they profess undying love to their father who sits by and watches this sickening spectacle. The two sisters, clearly vying for a more lavish part of the inheritance, engage in shameless flattery in an obvious struggle for power (in the form of land). By stating, “I love you more than the world can wield,” and “I find myself felicitate in your dear Highness’ love,” the girls clearly show their brazenness toward their aging father. The comments of Cordelia do much to solidify their falsity as she states, “…I am sure my love is more ponderous than my tongue.” When she refuses to take the same path of extravagant compliments as her sisters, it shows that, because Lear favors her the most, her intentions were the most genuine. Thus the play shows that virtue is placed on the one who does not covet greater power.


The desire for power further manifests itself in the sisters even after they gain their respective inheritances. The two, nearly overwhelmed with power and responsibility, still feel the need to manipulate the people around them, namely those who remain loyal to their father. They are under the impression that the Earl of Kent, Lear’s most loyal supporter, has been exiled and thus turn their wrath toward the Earl of Gloucester. They know that he maintained allegiance to their father, and took advantage of his weakened state which resulted from his manipulation at the hands of his son. In the most gruesome scene of the play, Regan and her equally power-hungry husband, the Duke of Cornwall, engage in gouging out Gloucester’s eyes for aiding her father on his way to Dover. This brutal act epitomizes Regan’s struggle for power as she ignores any sense of decency while torturing an old man for looking out for her father. She even goes so far as to reveal Edmund’s treachery against him, information she knew would destroy the aged Earl. She does not exercise the slightest amount of mercy in revealing his son as she states that “thou call’st on him that hates thee.” By this time, it is obvious that the girls, especially Regan, are completely consumed with the desire for power.


Within that gruesome scene, however, appears a character who exemplifies the antithesis of this struggle for power. The only person in the room during Regan and Cornwall’s torture of Gloucester who spoke up against their brutality was the servant of Cornwall. Without doubt, this virtuous man possessed no desire for power or self-advancement, and instead acted based upon his own morals and values. In his plea to Cornwall, he stated that, “I have served you ever since I was a child; But better service I have never done you Than now to bid you hold.” Then, when Cornwall refuses to yield, the two fight and Regan, in a fit of rage, stabs the servant. This demonstrates well the infectious and destructive nature of the desire for power as it seemingly triumphs over virtue and humility.


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Another character who embodies the want for authority is the bastard son of Gloucester, Edmund. From the very beginning, Edmund is introduced as different from his brother, Edgar. In the opening scene, Gloucester goes out of his way to label Edmund as a bastard, although he does have feelings of affection for the young man. Perhaps it is this separation that triggers Edmund’s feelings of hatred toward his father and his half brother, Edgar, who is Gloucester’s legitimate son and heir to his fortune. In his first soliloquy, Edmund reveals his disgust in Gloucester’s love for Edgar and his intention to bring him down and win the love of their father.


“Legitimate Edgar, I must have your land [16]


Our fathers love is to the bastard Edmund


As to the legitimate fine word,--legitimate!


Well, my legitimate, if this letter speed,


And my invention thrive, Edmund the base [0]


Shall top the legitimate. I grow; I prosper


Now, gods, stand up for bastards!”


Paralleling the filial infidelity of Regan and Goneril, he too takes advantage of his trusting father and also seeks to destroy his brother. The two plots are very similar, both incorporating the fall of one character and the rise of another. Unfortunately for the risen, they are all eventually brought down; By the end, Edgar himself states that, “The wheel is come full circle I am here.” By this he means that he has risen, as if on a wheel, and inevitably descended back to his rightful place.


Finally, the two parallel plots come together at the end as the two sisters battle for the hand of Edmund in order to complete their scope of power. It becomes obvious that Goneril has already established a relationship with Edmund, despite her marriage to the Duke of Albany. And, after Cornwall is slain by his servant, Regan announces her intention to seek the hand of Edmund. The sisters are obviously drawn to Edmund’s recent acquisition of Gloucester’s inheritance and aim to expand their own holdings by marrying him. Goneril’s betrayal of her living husband, though, appears far more scandalous than Regan’s intentions of marrying Edmund. Once again, they both show their shamelessness in seeking whatever will further their personal gains. Unfortunately, this struggle would turn the two against each other, as their desires once again overcame familial loyalty. In the final scene, after Edmund has been revealed, and in an ironic turn of events, a gentleman enters and announces to the Duke of Albany that, “Your lady, sir, your lady [is dead] and her sister by her is poisoned; she confesses it.” In the end, the common desire that the two shared destroyed them both, as well as destroying Edmund, the object of their yearning. And Albany, who is the voice of reason in this scene, says, “This judgement of the heavens, that makes us tremble, touches us not with pity,” because he knows that they all faced the fate to which they had been prescribed. Their actions came full circle and they were destroyed by the vices that they so emphatically embraced.


At the conclusion of this play, the resulting carnage allows the reader to see just how deadly the vice of desire was for the characters. The bodies of Regan, Goneril, Cordelia, Gloucester, Lear and Edmund plainly show the result of striving for power. Lear himself eventually regretted the loss of power, but only because he finally realized what good he could have done with it. Cordelia, like the servant, represented virtue as her loyalty to Lear endured through her exile to France. Unfortunately for her, as well as Gloucester, their loyalty was not rewarded. Gloucester, though, did die happy when he realized that Poor Tom was his true, loving son, Edgar.


Even more than jealousy, ignorance, lust or pride, desire led to the downfall of these characters. Some were the innocent victims, while some were the purveyors of this deadly vice. In the end, though, it was so strong that it mastered all loyalty and love. It ripped apart families, caused murder, suicide and madness. However, the surviving characters learned a valuable lesson. They learned that power does not lead to happiness and that one’s family should be the recipient of all loyalty. In one of Albany’s final addresses, he states very simply that, “All friends shall taste/The wages of their virtue and all foes/The cup of their deservings.” And he was correct the lives of the ones who gave into power were eventually shattered, as well as the lives of the ones they loved.





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