Disruption of Order in King Lear and the Causes
Disorder in the Court
“Order from disorder sprung.” (Paradise Lost)
A kingdom without order is a kingdom in chaos (Bartelby.com). In Shakespeare’s tragic play, King Lear, the audience witnesses to the devastation of a great kingdom. Disorder engulfs the land once Lear transfers his power to his daughters, but as the great American writer, A.C. Bradley said, The ultimate power in the tragic world is a moral order (Shakespearean Tragedy). By examining the concept of order versus disorder in the setting, plot, and the character King Lear, Bradleys idea of moral order is clearly demonstrated by the outcome of the play.
“By removing a degree or not acting according to the natural social order, disorder and disharmony in the whole of the universe are inevitable” (Sarah Doncaster). Bradleys idea of moral order is evident from the setting of the play. An excellent example from the play would be that of the storms. By using the technique of pathetic fallacy, Shakespeare creates a storm raging in the sky to reflect the storm raging inside of Lear. Upon the heath, Shakespeare intertwines this idea of disorder in the universe and disorder within Lear. King Lear says,
Rumble they bellyful! Spit, fire! spout, rain!
Nor rain, wind
I tax you not, you elements, with unkindness;
I never gave you kingdom, call’d you children…
(3, ii, 14-17)
Lear’s feelings in this passage parallel the disorder of the storm. To bring order to the universe, Lear must start by bringing order to himself. This occurs when he becomes lawful and puts his daughters on trial. Soon after, Lear says, “When the rain came to wet me once and the wind to / make me chatter, when the thunder would not peace / at my bidding, there I found em, there I smelt em out” (4, vi, 100-102). Here, Lear explains how the storm actually helped him see the truth. Soon after this event occurs, the storm is no where to be found. Lear purges himself of his inner rage and thus calms both the inner storm and the storm raging on earth, and thus bringing order to the universe. This parallelism between the setting and the character bring out the idea that Bradley was trying to get across, that is, moral order will prevail.
Let us understand that the ultimate power or order is ‘moral’ to mean that it does not show itself indifferent to good and evil, but akin to good and alien from evil. (A.C. Bradley) The plot of the play, King Lear is primarily that of good versus evil. The first actions of the play show hierarchy broken and order imperilled. Lear abdicates, with evasive stipulations, and divides his kingdom. His youngest and fondest daughter, Cordelia asserts her will against his. In a tirade, Lear banishes her and his loyal follower, Kent, who had tried to stay his rashness. His two elder daughters, Regan and Goneril, now emboldened, conspire against him; and in the second scene, as if though a spell of corruption has fallen upon the kingdom, the Earl of Gloucester learns of the supposed treachery of his favourite son, Edgar. These disorderly events form the basis for chaotic happenings throughout the play. How is moral order to prevail over these actions? Those who become or who are already righteous shall prevail (though that does not necessarily mean that they will live). Firstly, through his madness and blindness, Lear finally realizes whom truly loves him and what mistakes he has made. Though he ultimately dies in the end, Lear does not pass away without knowing that he is still loved by his daughter Cordelia. As for Gloucester, though he is physically blinded by Cornwall, he is now able to “see” what is really going on. He recognizes that it is Edmund who is conspiring and Edgar who loved him. Those who remain immoral until the end (Edmund, through his conspiracy against his father and brother, Regan and Goneril through their treachery against the king) ultimately lead themselves to their own demise. Albany sums it up well when he says, “All friends shall taste / The wages of their virtue and all foes / The cup of their deservings” (5, iii, 301-303). Despite the fact that immorality and disorder are quite dominant throughout the play, when nearing the denouement, moral order seems to be restored.
Although the plot shows how order is disrupted and then restored, it is the characters that better personify Bradleys idea of moral order. The main character, Lear best exemplifies this idea. As the play proceeds, Regan and Goneril rise in status in the Kingdom, while Lear’s presence and authority as King becomes insignificant. This is an indication that order is disrupted because, traditionally the oldest person in the family is in control. Only when the King dies do his children take over his throne. Lear’s insignificance is shown in a conversation with Oswald, a servant to Goneril.
Lear: Who am I, sir?
Oswald: My Ladys father.
Lear: My Ladys father! My lords knave!
(1, iv, 74-76)
Lear is greatly insulted by that comment, as he is the King of England, not just his daughter’s father. Oswald’s comment suggests that Goneril has a higher rank than Lear. Lear’s insignificance is a result of his own actions. When he banished Cordelia and Kent, he made himself vulnerable to Goneril and Regan’s conspiracy, which was indicated in their conversation. Pray you let us hit together. If our father carry authority with such disposition as he bears, this last surrender of his will but offend us. (1, i, 322-324) Predicting that their father poses a possible threat to them, Goneril and Regan plot against their father so he becomes helpless like a young child. This reversal of characters, that is, Lear is now the child, and Regan and Goneril are now the rulers, is clearly disorder within the characters. How does Lear come to the realization that he is being duped by his daughters and that he must retain order within his family? As reiterated before, only in Lears madness can he see what is really going on. While in the farmhouse (Act 3, Sc 6), Lear puts his daughters on trial. Though he is on the brink of insanity, he is able to see what his daughters have been doing to him. However, Lear does not realize that he must retain order within the family, but in the end the wicked daughters are punished harshly for their actions and that Lear comes to some sort of inner peace. In a way, moral order was restored. Regan and Goneril are no longer in power and Lear dies knowing that Cordelia still loved him. The character, King Lear confirms Bradleys statement that, The ultimate power in the tragic world is a moral order.
If order is important to a Kingdom, so is the ability to maintain that order. As demonstrated in the play King Lear, the setting, the character Lear, and plot all contribute to Bradleys idea that moral order is supreme in the tragic world. Although one may argue that, King Lear cannot be used to justify Bradleys statement because of the innocent deaths, it is these innocent deaths which further support the fact that moral order is supreme. The Phrygian Stoic philosopher, Epictetus said it best, Since it is order which shapes and regulates all other things, it ought not itself to be left in disorder (Epictetus)
Bradley, A.C. Shakespearean Tragedy. London: Macmillan, 1905
Doe, John. Open Quote Bartelby.com http://www.bartleby.com/81/14917.html
Doncaster, Sarah. “Discuss the Representation of Nature in Shakespeare King Lear.” Shakespeare Online. http://www.shakespeare-online.com/essays/learandnature.asp 04 May. 2000
Epictetus. Discourses. Boston: Harvard University Press, 1928
Milton, John. Paradise Lost. Oregon: University of Oregon, 1997
Shakespeare, William. King Lear. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998