King Lear

by: William Shakespeare

Point of View

By not having Lear himself deliver any soliloquies, King Lear subtly distances us from the point of view of the characters who suffer (like Lear, Cordelia, Gloucester, and Kent) while bringing us closer to evil characters. Lear is the only one of Shakespeare’s tragic heroes to have no soliloquies at all, which, along with the unflattering conversations other characters have about him, make it hard for the audience to sympathise with him. Shakespeare typically uses soliloquies to reveal the interior lives of his characters, but Lear is never revealed to us in this way. Instead, in the first half of the play, Lear’s most revealing speeches are his angry outbursts, which show us only the tyrannical and egotistical side of his character. The play’s other characters present Lear in an unsympathetic way as well. Kent accuses him of “hideous rashness” (I.i), Regan says that “he hath ever but slenderly known himself” (I.i) and the Fool says that Lear would “make a good fool,” (I.v) implying Lear is a bad king. Lear suffers terribly during the play, so the audience’s distance from his point of view forces us to think about how easily we can fail to empathise with even the worst suffering.

While denying us insight into the protagonist, King Lear encourages us to share the point of view of its most evil character, Edmund. He is the character who reveals the most about his motives through soliloquy. His obsession with his social status—“why brand they us/With base?” (I.ii)—helps us to understand why he wants to betray his father and brother. The way Gloucester treats Edmund also encourages us to sympathise with Edmund. When Edmund is introduced at the play’s opening, his father calls him a “knave” and a “whoreson” (I.i) right in front of him. Edmund is one of the play’s most active characters: he sets goals and makes plans, which invests the audience in wanting to see the outcome of his plans, even though his goals are evil. Although Edmund is the play’s most morally troubling character, he is also the character who is easiest to sympathise with, which suggests that in the world of King Lear, evil is ordinary, human and understandable.

While Lear is the main character of the play and gives his name to the title, King Lear has the most fully developed subplot of all of Shakespeare’s tragedies, which weakens the audience’s involvement in Lear’s suffering. Shakespeare’s subplots often develop the themes of the main plot, but the subplot of King Lear mirrors the main plot unusually closely. In both plots, an aging father banishes a child who loves him. In both plots the aging father is reduced to the status of a wandering beggar as a result. Because Gloucester is deliberately betrayed by his son Edmund, and loses his eyesight as well as his status, his suffering is actually in some ways worse than Lear’s. The fact that we first see Gloucester explaining himself to Kent onstage – and declaring that he loves Edmund as much as Edward, even though Edmund is illegitimate – makes him initially more sympathetic than Lear, who openly admits to loving Cordelia more than her sisters. The close mirroring of plots suggests that Lear’s suffering, far from being the unique fate of a tragic hero, is commonplace, and reinforces the idea that Lear is responsible for much of it.