Lear cannot distinguish between the false affection people show him because he’s powerful and the real affection Cordelia feels because she’s his daughter. Lear wants his daughters to publicly declare their love for him, and in exchange, he intends to give each daughter a share of his kingdom. He believes Cordelia loves him most, so he sets aside the largest third of his kingdom for her. However, the event does not go the way Lear planned. Cordelia does not make flattering speeches. Lear wants Cordelia to talk to him in the flattering way everyone else does, and when she refuses, he is angry. The extremity of his anger seems to surprise everyone, and his rage may be a sign that Lear is becoming senile or losing his mind.
When we first meet him, Edmund stands by while Gloucester calls him a “whoreson,” and jokes about the fact that Edmund is his illegitimate son. In addition to knowing Gloucester has no respect for him, Edmund knows that his illegitimate status means he stands no chance of inheriting his father’s position. Edmund is obsessed with the stigma of being a “bastard.” He repeats words relating to bastardy over and over again: “Why brand they us / With base? With baseness, bastardy? Base, base?” (I.ii). Edmund believes that he is as good or better than his legitimate brother Edgar, and he sets out to prove his worth, even if doing so means destroying his family. His success in this project suggests that Edmund may be right to think he is smarter and more ambitious than Edgar. Edmund comes close to becoming king, while Edgar is reluctant to rule when he is offered the chance at the end of the play.
When Edgar is forced to flee Gloucester’s house, he disguises himself as a mad beggar called “Poor Tom.” The character of “Poor Tom” may be more than just a disguise for Edgar. He really is homeless, and he doesn’t seem to have any plan to win his former status back. “Poor Tom” inspires genuine pity and disgust in the people he meets. Lear calls him a “poor, bare, forked animal” (III.iv.). Although Edgar eventually drops the disguise, he seems changed by the experience of playing “Poor Tom.” He behaves strangely for the rest of the play, working hard to trick Gloucester into believing he is committing suicide. Edgar never again returns to the sensible, happy young man he was before his banishment.
By sending Lear to Cordelia, who is technically a foreign invader, Gloucester may have committed treason against Regan, Goneril, and their husbands. If Gloucester is guilty of treason, he must be punished. The legal situation is complicated, however, and Gloucester has not had a trial. Cornwall admits he does not have the right to punish Gloucester, but says he is angry, wants to punish Gloucester, and knows he has the power to get away with the act. The blinding of Gloucester is one of the most cruel and violent scenes Shakespeare ever wrote. The act emphasizes that the world of King Lear is a cruel and violent place, as well as an unjust one.
At the end of King Lear, the audience is not clear on who will rule Britain. Lear has died and so have all his heirs. Albany is still the ruler of a portion of Britain, and he asks Edgar and Kent to help him rule. Kent refuses, and his response suggests that he is contemplating suicide: “I have a journey, sir, shortly to go” (V.iii.). Edgar doesn’t say whether he’ll rule or not, but his response is unenthusiastic: “The weight of this sad time we must obey” (V.iii.). Shakespeare’s audience would have recognized that the situation is very troubling. Britain might be on the brink of civil war or anarchy. The ending of King Lear suggests that when the social order breaks down, there is no guarantee that it will ever be repaired.
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