KING  LEAR : A Model Christian Tragedy

 Chanchal Chauhan

In the critical discourse on Shakespeare’s tragedies the theme of redemption does often come up for discussion. These plays are generally categorised as Christian tragedy. One eminent critic once posed a question, is tragedy possible in Christianity when ‘God’s in His heaven and all’s right with the world.’ He, then, himself suggested that the Christian tragedy is just like ‘divine comedy’, in which the protagonist commits a sin, then undergoes suffering  of an Inferno, purified by those sufferings in Purgatorio and by the end redeemed of his sin by death so as to enter into the realm of eternal peace of the Paradiso. This process takes place in almost all of the tragedies by Shakespeare. But his King Lear is the model among Christian tragedies just as Oedipus, the King is the model of the classical tragedy. Stanley Wells is right when he remarks”

The play recalls the literature as well as the forms of religion too, in its obvious concern with moral and ethical issues exemplified in its frequent use of moralising remarks, often proverbial in origin and structurally in its resemblances to morality plays.
                                                —Stanley Wells,    Shakespeare: The Poet and His Plays, p.266.
    Here it will not be out of place to compare and contrast Christian tragedy with classical tragedy. The thematic structure of classical tragedy was based on a kind of determinism that man could not transcend his limitations. All Greek myths of classical antiquity whether those were of Oedipus or Icarus or Prometheus conveyed the same message. (Epic heroes in Indian classicism too were created with the similar thematic structure based on determinism.) The ideology of determinism was the product of slavery system so as to keep slaves under domination by conveying through classical literary works this message that man could not transcend his limitations. Oedipus tried his best to undo what was destined to happen to him, but it did happen. Icarus tried to reach the sun by breaking the limit of human existence, he fell. Prometheus too tried to transcend human limitations, he was bound with rocks. It is, perhaps, this motive that under slavery system even Aristotle had to define the cathartic function of  tragedy that it aroused ‘pity and fear’.
    As against the classical tragedy, the Christian tragedy had to weave in its texture the concept of Original Sin committed by Adam and Eve. The Sin is redeemed by the sacrifice of some innocent Christ-like figure. This Christian consciousness operates in almost  all of Shakespearean tragedies. Desdemona, in Othello, Ophelia in Hamlet, Cleopatra in Antony and Cleopatra, and Cordelia  in King Lear are those innocent lives that are sacrificed to redeem the sin committed by the respective protagonists. The various elements of  the Christian tragedy in balanced proportion find place in King Lear, and, therefore, it may be considered as the model.
    Shakespeare in the very exposition of the plot of the play makes the protagonist commit a sin. In the opening Scene Gloucester expresses his love for Edmund, who is a son out of legal marriage, and tells Kent, ‘the whoreson must be acknowledged.’ And  then King Lear, the protagonist plans to divide his kingdom among his three daughters, Goneril, Regan and Cordelia on the basis of expression of the quantum in the words of their love for the king. First he asks Goneril to express her love. She takes recourse to hyperbole and untruth :

Sir, I love you more than word can wield the matter;
Dearer than eyesight, space and liberty;
Beyond what can be valued, rich or rare;
No less than life, with grace, health, beauty, honour…
                ( L.55-8, I,i)

King Lear is very much pleased with this kind of falsehood and allots her one third of his empire. And then asks Regan, the second daughter ‘dearest Regan’, who speaks:

I am made of that self metal as my sister,
And prize me at her worth.
I find she names my very deed of love;
Only she comes too short….            
            (L.70-3, I,i.)

King Lear is very much pleased with her false flattery and allots her also the one third of his kingdom. And then he asks Cordelia, ‘what can you say to draw/A third more opulent than your sisters?” Cordelia replies, ‘Nothing, my lord’. Lear is very much annoyed with her  and threatens her: ‘Nothing will come of nothing: speak again.’
    Cordelia in the play stands for truth. ‘I love your Majesty, /According to my bond; no more no less.’ When the King insists her to ‘mend your speech,’ she elaborates the truth and exposes the falsehood of her sisters. ‘Why have my sisters husbands, if they say/ They love you all?’ When King Lear comments on her behaviour, ‘So young, and so untender?’   Cordelia tells her father, ‘So young, my lord, and true.’  King Lear punishes her for speaking the truth:
Let it be so, thy truth then be thy dower…
Here I disclaim all my paternal care,
Propinquity, and property of blood,
And as a stranger to my heart and me
Hold thee from this for ever.            

He takes her truth as ‘pride’ ( a sin that he himself commits.). ‘Let pride, which she calls plainness, marry her.’(l.134,I,i)  When Kent tries to pacify the King, he too becomes the victim of his wrath and pride. The sane advice by Kent is also taken as’pride’ (l. 176, I,i) and then he too is asked to leave his kingdom after the grace period of five days. Cordelia, the ‘dowerless daughter’ is accepted by the king of France to be his Queen. Thus Kent and Cordelia who stand for truth leave king Lear. While taking leave of her sisters, Cordelia comments: ‘Time shall unfold what plighted cunning hides/Who cover fault, at last with shame derides.’ (L.297-8, I,i.)

    Thus Shakespeare in King Lear shows in the opening scene itself the deadly sins being committed by the protagonist. He also juxtaposes Gloucester’s love for Edmund, ‘the whoreson’, and Lear’s disclaiming  Cordelia, his lawful daughter. Edmund conspires against his brother Edgar; Goneril and Regan conspire against their father and sister. The atmosphere of a sinful world is thus created in the beginning so as to prepare the background of a Christian tragedy. Just as Adam and Eve after committing the Original Sin lose their kingdom in the paradise, and lead a life of ‘woe’, so does Lear. Kent had warned King Lear in plain words, ‘ I’ll tell thee thou dost evil’ (l.173, I,i). Goneril and Regan, the satanic powers,  motivated by the greed for wealth  take over Lear’s kingdom, and throw the old king out of the palace. In the sub-plot Edmund represents the satanic power and does wrong to his father and brother. He does not believe in just God, he believes in Nature. He says, ‘Thou Nature, are my goddess; to thy law/My services are bound.’

    Goneril shows her true colours in the Scene III itself when she complains of her father to Oswald,  her steward :

By day and night, he wrongs me; every hour
He flashes into one gross crime or other
That sets us all at odds: I’ll not endure it.
                (L.4-6, I,iii)

She directs Oswald to disobey the king and advise his knights also to ignore his orders. Kent out of his love for the king, returns in disguise as a common man and requests the king to give him a chance to serve. The king is pleased with him and appoints him as a servant. Lear now enjoys the company of Kent in disguise and also of the Fool who entertains him with his rustic irony. He tells the king that he too is a fool now. Lear asks his Fool, ‘Dost thou call me fool, boy?,  the Fool tells him the truth:  ‘All thy other titles thou hast given away; that thou wast born with.’
    And then Goneril appears on the scene and accuses her father of keeping unruly and ill-mannered men in the court, ‘Men so disorder’d, so debosh’d, and bold, /That this our court, infected with their manners,/Shows like a riotous inn: epicurism and lust/ Makes it more like a tavern or a brothel/Than a grac’d palace.’ Lear now faces the reality, the reality of  ‘ingratitude’. He is enraged, and furious. His fifty followers are sacked.  He curses Goneril for showing her disrespect to her father. Shakespeare uses animal imagery in his depiction of Goneril. He calls her ‘detested kite’ and exclaims with agony, ‘How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is/To have a thankless child!’
    Lear hopes that Regan, his second daughter may treat him well. He wishes to go to her. The wise Fool tells him the truth that she too is like the first one. When Lear reaches Regan’s palace, she and her husband Cornwall pretend to be ill. But when he insists on seeing them, they appear before him. Regan advises Lear to go back to Goneril and ask her for forgiveness:  ‘…I pray you / That to our sister you do make return;/ Say you have wrong’d her.’  Lear tells Regan that Goneril ‘struck me with her tongue,/ Most serpent-like, upon the very heart…’. He still has the hope that Regan will support him. Goneril reaches the spot and again there is a quarrel between Lear and Goneril. Regan too stands firm with Goneril. She goes one step further, and tells her father that she could accommodate only twenty-five followers of the king and not even fifty. And then Goneril and Regan tell him in plain words that the king does not need any of those followers. They are not needed at all. And then there is storm outside. It coincides with the storm inside Lear’s mind. ‘O Fool ! I shall go mad.’  Doors of Regan’s house are also shut  and the king with his followers leaves for the wild forest in the stormy night.
    Thus Shakespeare dramatises in the first two acts the protagonist’s sin and then the Inferno through which he passes. The Act III may be taken as Purgatorio where his sins are purged. In the beginning of Act III Kent is informed by a Gentleman about the whereabouts of Lear who is ‘contending with the fretful elements’. The king has by his side only his Fool and no one else. Kent and the gentleman go inside the forest to find out Lear. In the Scene ii, we see Lear in his Purgatory. He invokes all elements of purgatory to strike and ‘singe my white head.’.

You cataracts and hurricanoes, spout
Till you have drench’d our steeples, drown’d the cocks!
You sulph’rous and thought-executing fires
Vaunt-couriers of oak-cleaving thunderbolts,
Singe my white head!                   
            (L.2-6, III,ii)

When Kent appears on the scene, he advises the king, ‘Love not such nights as these.’ But Lear is ready to undergo the sufferings in his purgatorio. In his ravings he confesses: ‘I am a man/ More sinn’d against than sinning.’
    This concept of sin is central to Christian tragedy and the playwright has put this confession structurally in the centre of the play. When Kent insists that Lear should go inside the hovel, he (Lear) refuses to obey him. He says, ‘I’ll pray, and then I’ll sleep.’  After this there is the famous speech in which King Lear empathises himself with the homeless, poorest of the poor and tells his own royal being:

Expose thyself to feel what wretches feel,
That thou mayst shake the superflux to them,
And show the Heavens more just.        
            (L.36-38, III,iv)      

When Edgar disguised as a beggar comes out of the hovel, Lear talks in his mad state to him and thinks that he too has given all his property to his daughters. Thus he justifies the punishment to his body and flesh in Christian terms:

Judicious punishment ! ‘t was this flesh begot
These pelican daughters.        

The condition of poor Edgar reminds Lear that ‘unaccommodated man is no more but such a poor bare, forked animal as thou art...’ Then he becomes naked to punish that flesh. At this stage Gloucester appears on the scene and he also speaks in Christian terms, ‘Our flesh and blood, my Lord, is grown so vile, that it doth hate what gets it.’ Edgar in his concocted madness talks of ‘fiend’ (Satan) again and again. ‘Pray, innocent, and Beware the foul fiend.’. ‘ The foul fiend bites my back.’ ‘The foul fiend haunts poor Tom in the voice of a nightingale.’. All these dialogues contain Christian overtones. And then Gloucester informs Kent that the life of Lear and his supporters is in danger. All of them should go towards Dover to save themselves. Gloucester is taken prisoner for this and treated as traitor by Regan and Cornwall,  Edmund gave her husband the information about him. Gloucester’s eyes are destroyed by Cornwall and he reveals what Edmund did to him. Gloucester, now blind,  also repents, ‘O my follies! The Edgar was abus’d./ Kind Gods forgive me that, and prosper him.’ He repents before Edgar also. And with his help proceeds towards Dover.

    Albany, Goneril’s husband does not support his wife and condemns her for her vileness. He asks Goneril, ‘What have you done?/ Tigers, not daughters, what have perform’d!’  He calls them ‘most barbarous, most degenerate’. And Goneril retorts by addressing him as a ‘moral fool’ Albany exclaims with anguish, ‘See thyself, devil !/ Proper deformity shows not in the fiend/ So horrid as in woman.’  He again and again calls Goneril as ‘fiend’.The imagery used to depict the character of villains in the play denotes Christian metaphors.

    Scene III of Act IV shows us the personality of Cordelia as reported to  Kent by the gentleman who delivered his letter to her. If we scrutinise closely the poetic language used by Shakespeare, we may have no doubt how he is creating a mini-Christ in the figure of Cordelia. The Gentleman reports to Kent Cordelia’s reaction to the letter describing the condition of her father and ill-treatment meted out to him by Goneril and Regan:    ‘Not to rage; patience and sorrow strove/Who should express her goodliest..’  ‘…once or twice she heav’d the name of ‘father’..’

There she shook
The holy water from her heavenly eyes,
And clamour moisten’d , then away she started
To deal with grief alone.           
            (L.29-33, IV.iii)

Cordelia moves out along with a doctor to search for her ailing father in the forest to provide him treatment. She is informed that the British troops march to invade France. She is not disturbed and tells the messenger in her composed mood that she knew about the imminent invasion. France was in readiness to face the invasion. But again we find Christ-like qualities in her character that it was not her ambition to expand the French empire, but she was prepared to fight for saving her father from the deprivation of his right that .

No blown ambition doth our arms incite
But love, dear love, and our ag’d father’s right      
            (L.27-28, IV,iv)

She searches for her father, who is passing through his Inferno and Purgatory. In his madness, he says:

…There ‘s hell, there’s darkness,
There is the sulphurious pit – burning, scalding,      
                       (L.125-6, IV,vi)

A Gentleman who also searches for Lear finds him in that mad condition, burning his soul in the purgatorio. L.C.Knights too remarks on this scene almost in the similar terms: ‘This suggests purgatory rather than hell: the shame is ‘burning’…(‘King Lear: And the Great Tradition’, in The Age of Shakespeare, p.238). The Gentleman in the play tells the mad king that the redemption is not too far:

Thou hast one daughter,
Who redeems nature from the general curse
Which twain have brought her to    
            (L.201-3, IV, vi)

The dialogue is loaded with double meaning, it places Cordelia in the category of the Christ-figure, ‘general curse’ may be interpreted as ‘original sin’ and ‘twain’ as Adam and Eve also. In the play, they appear to be related to Goneril and Regan, but Shakespeare uses ambiguity in the language. Similarly, when Lear gets treatment and recovers, he speaks of Cordelia as ‘a soul in bliss’. He repents and says: ‘Pray you now, forget and forgive: I am old and foolish.’  This journey from falsehood and pride to truth and humility leads him into the state of Paradiso. But for his redemption the Christ-like figure has to be sacrificed.
    In the final Act, France loses the battle, Cordelia and Lear are taken prisoners. But even under that condition Lear is happy in the company of his Cordelia. Lear tells Cordelia,’Upon such sacrifices, my Cordelia/The Gods themselves throw incense.’ Edgar, ‘the fiend’ and arch-villain in the play hatches a plan to get Lear and Cordelia killed in the prison. But his conspiratorial acts are exposed by Edgar in the end of the play and then he confesses his sins also before his own end. However, the life of Cordelia cannot be saved. She is killed in the prison. And Lear appears on the stage with the dead body of Cordelia and becomes mad again: ‘And my poor fool is hang’d ! No, no, no life!’ If he lives, his life will be hell without Cordelia. He dies of the shock. And that is his redemption.
    King Lear is thus justified to be a model Christian tragedy.