King Lear Task: Choose a play in which an important theme is effectively highlighted by one specific scene or incident.
One of the most prominent themes in King Lear is the conflict between appearance and reality and this is demonstrated in Act 1 of the play.
Throughout the play, the theme of appearance and reality is explored through many central characters. For example, the Fool appears to be a simple character with his silly clothes and cox comb, but in fact he himself to be an insightful character that is perhaps the only character who speaks the complete. Also Edgar, initially a quiet character who is manipulated by Edmund, turns out to be the noblest character and one of the only ones that lives at the end. King Lear’s reality is another character whose reality belies their appearance and this is emphasised in Act 1.
Upon his entrance, King Lear displays all the regal characteristics you would expect of such a high ranking official. As the king, he is on top of the social ladder and has the most wealth and servants. His use of the “royal we” and the size of his entourage further emphasises that King Lear is a character that demands respect. However, over the course of Act 1, he makes a lot of unwise decisions that contradict his appearance. The first example of this is when he decides to divide his kingdom between his 3 daughters, depending on how much they say they love him. This shows he is an egotistical person as he just wants to hear his daughter flatter him:
“Which of you shall we say doth love us most?”
This quotation is not an example of how a king should act and he can not expect an honest answer from such a stupid question. This is in Act 1, so Shakespeare is trying to portray Lear as an unworthy king to the audience right from the beginning. This lack of judgement emphasises the theme of appearance and reality and how they conflict, in Act 1 of the play.
The audience can see the contrast in Lear’s behaviour as by Act 3 he has started to change. He has suffered greatly at the hands of his daughters and he has realised what it its like to go through what normal people go through. Because of his status, Lear has been detached from normal life and after experiencing it, he is shocked.
thou art. Off, off, you lendings! Come; unbutton here”
Lear has finally realised that everyone is equal and beneath all the royal clothes and regal persona he is, in fact, just a man. His clothes (or “lendings”) symbolise the gap between his royal life and normal life and when he removes these, he is equal to every other man. The theme of the conflict between appearance and reality is still explored here, as Lear feels he needs to remove his clothes to confirm that underneath all his trappings, he has realised he is just a man. In Act 1 Lear values appearance, highlighting the theme, but by the end of Act 3 he has a completely changed his view.
Edmund is the bastard son of the Earl of Gloucester and, despite his father’s position, is at the bottom of social class. Gloucester talks unashamedly about Edmund, calling him names such as “the whoreson” which Edmund seems to just take. This makes the audience feel sympathy towards Edmund as he has done nothing to deserve such harsh treatment. We see him as a victim and a shy one at that. His low rank would lead the audience to believe he is an unimportant character with low intelligence but in Act 1 Scene 2 Shakespeare changes that view:
“Edmund the base shall top th’legitimate - : I grow,
In Act 1 Scene 2 Shakespeare gives Edmund a soliloquy which shows us he is in fact an important character. In his soliloquy, Edmund shows us what he really feels about how he is treated and his hate for his father. Shakespeare also uses dramatic irony when Edmund tells the audience of his scheme to overturn his father. Edmund reveals himself to be an intelligent character and one with which the audience connects with – gaining him sympathy and admiration. Shakespeare uses Act 1 to show that someone of Edmunds low rank can be an intelligent character thus emphasising the theme that appearance can contrast with the underlying reality.
From humble beginnings, Edmund grows into being one of the most important characters in the play. He earns the affection of both Regan and Goneril, the 2 highest ranked people in the country, which shows how far he has come from being the shunned bastard. The audiences’ opinion of Edmund also changes greatly throughout the play and completely turns around by Act 3 Scene 6:
“This is the letter he spoke of, which approves
him an intelligent party to advantages of France”
In this quotation, Edmund betrays his father to Cornwall. Any sympathy the audience had left for Edmund has surely gone as he has become so drunk with revenge that he has become evil, a victimiser and manipulative which is exactly what Edmund felt his father was. He is no longer a victim in the audiences’ eyes and has become one of the most important people in the royal court. The fact that he is important, intelligent and scheming clearly emphasises the huge difference between his appearance and his actual personality.
The theme of appearance and the contrasting reality is explored throughout the play of King Lear and is effectively highlighted in Act 1.