William Shakespeare’s King Lear is a timeless play whose textual integrity lends itself to a variety of interpretations and in exploring the human condition the text remains relevant across a wide range of contexts. It is possible to present the text as exploring and affirming the human condition, where humanity is defined as the ability to love and empathise. However, in the same instance, a nihilist perspective, such as Peter Brooke’s 1971 production of King Lear, challenges this by outlining that humanity as an imaginary ideal.
The notion that humanity is possessed only by those who understand and perceive the basic human condition can be seen to be explored in King Lear. Lear’s advancing madness allows him to perceive reality once he is stripped of his title and reduced to “nothing” during the storm scene; that is, that man is merely a “poor, bare, forked animal” and that he, for all his royalty, is “no more than this”. Imagery is utilised to affirm his epiphany and accept his insignificance as a mere mortal.
In his humility, Lear is able to understand the values of humanity, demonstrated when he bids Cordelia not to resist being jailed, an indication that he has discovered that true filial love is more important than fighting for the material concepts of rank, property and power. However, this play could be just as readily interpreted by Nihilism to be an indication of the fundamental nothingness that the world consists of, where Lear is portrayed as accepting the notion that there is nothing but the cold, harsh, bleak world represented by the empty frosted landscape in Peter Brooke’s production.
The logical sanity of the antagonists, Gonerill, Regan and Edmond, belie their “base” tendencies, as represented through animal imagery such as “pelican daughters” and “toad spotted traitor”. Regan exposes sadistic tendencies and a lust for bloodshed and violence during Gloucester’s blinding, though her speech is consistently rational and lacking in flourishing imagery, thus suggesting a “deliberate and conscious manner”. The juxtaposing of characters, where Lear’s madness results in humanity and the antagonists’ rationale results in violence, subverts madness and sanity.
This may then suggest that there is no such thing as humanity; that it is merely a constructed facade that humans rely upon to distinguish them as superior to “base animals. ” It could, however, be suggested that the dilemmas that result from Lear’s folly are necessary for his self-growth. When Cordelia proclaims she will speak “nothing”, he replies with, “Nothing will come of nothing”, highlighting his materialistic nature and inability to discern between humanity and superficiality.
This theme throughout the play represents the changing values held by the tragic hero. In this, Lear values the material possessions and power that he is offering to his daughter, who claims she shall be “richer” for not responding with fickle declarations and public humiliation. Through the asides Cordelia undertakes, it is evident that she deems material wealth to be worth “nothing”. Her character contrasts her sisters’ in their desire for material prestige for which they abandon their filial duties to achieve.
Consequently, it could be suggested that Lear is able to realise his fundamental humanity through Cordelia and the faith she places in him, highlighting the notion that humanity is inerasable regardless of the difficulties that plague and hinder it. Alternatively, a nihilist perspective may focus on his dependency on material goods as the initiator of his tragedy. This is readily demonstrated when he rewards his children through material means, indicating his superficial perception of reality.
This is emphasised when Gonerill and Regan question him about his train, to which he responds with, “Reason not the need! ” This shows that Lear believes it is what he possesses that determines who he is, demonstrating his misguided value judgements. In Brooke’s production, the camera is then seen to spiral around Lear, reflecting his emotions in relation to the betrayal of his daughters. However, during the storm scene, he relinquishes material possessions, crying, “Off, off, you lendings! ” denoting his understanding that material possessions are without value.
As a result, in the removal of his material possessions, a nihilist perception would interpret this as his acceptance of the worthlessness of all that originally embodied him, further suggesting that he has forsaken his ego and resigned himself to the belief that he, like the rest of the world, will be fundamentally reduced to nothing. Deception occurs throughout the play and catalyses the understanding of the human condition. Both Gloucester and Lear are egocentric and succumb to flattery. Dramatic irony features, where Gloucester must lose his sight in order to perceive “how this world goes”, announcing, “I stumbled when I saw. Similarly, Lear becomes mad upon discovering his daughters’ false love and discovers humanity in his madness. It could be suggested it is the devastation that they undergo through their children’s’ deception that catalyse their self-realisation, outlining that humanity is eventually achieved despite the pain that life brings to hinder it. As following the conventions of a tragedy, peace must be restored. The antagonists are slain, allowing the three to “marry in an instant”, but the repercussions do not end there, and instead extends to the death of Cordelia.
Lear is deceived of his daughters’ love for him, and the eventual outcome is that Cordelia must suffer for it. The death of an innocent represents the inability of one to control fate and divinity, and Kent questions, “Is this the promise end? ” Consequently, the text suggests that, there will always be an unabated cruelty in the natural world that dominates humanity and renders everything insignificant and devoid of meaning, epitomising the nihilist perspective. King Lear explores the concept of humanity and human nature.
Through his antagonists, Shakespeare is able to portray the deceptive, animalistic behaviour that human nature is capable of, thus rendering the idea of humanity entirely futile and presenting a nihilistic perspective of the play. Comparatively, through characters such as Edgar and Cordelia, he is able to show the reverse and demonstrate the epitome of what humanity could be and how it remains steadfast despite the difficulties it encounters. Consequently, it is evident that King Lear possesses textual integrity in that every aspect of it can be utilised in order to produce an interpretation that is relevant to any particular context.