King Lear: Division of the Country, Destruction of the Family
As Shakespeare’s King Lear opens, the political conditions in Britain are precarious. Lear is an aging king, ‘four score and upward’, with three daughters and no male heir. Sooner or later power must be transferred. Through no man’s fault, persons of extremely evil propensity were placed very close to power. This situation is an outer expression of the conditions of the social consciousness of the country. Until now Britain has been ruled by a powerful monarch who kept the country unified by his strength. There is no one of equal power to replace him. The solution which naturally suggests itself is a division into three parts, each to be ruled by a daughter and her husband and the national unity maintained by familial bonds. The change is necessitated by circumstance, but that circumstance reflects a compelling inner necessity. Something in the social consciousness is seeking to evolve beyond the limits of absolute power vested in a king. That evolution is what follows Lear’s renunciation of power. All the resistances it meets, all the destruction it releases are a preparation of the consciousness and a working out of that which opposes the social progress.
As King, Lear represents in himself the conditions of the country which identifies itself with him just as he identifies himself with it. He is a man of great vital power, a commander of men, not only by virtue of his position, but by his very nature. He is generous, open and unsuspicious, though too choleric, vain, obstinate, passionate and domineering to be simply called “good”. Beneath his vital personality of power lies an emotional …
… it is the plane of national life, therefore the intensity of consequences is very great.
Similarly Lear’s curse on Cordelia for refusing to flatter him is an unpardonable offense to the consciousness of family, human relations, the bonds between father and daughter. His curse and rejection of Cordelia cancels all family bonds, all effective protection and nurturance; for, to be effective, such bonds require reciprocity. Once he cancels them, Cordelia becomes helpless to support him despite her deep wish to do so. Lear repeats the same error in his curse of Goneril who subsequently becomes the chief instrument of his suffering. Likewise the rejection of Kent is a rejection of the bonds of devoted service. Kent continues to serve but his loyalty no longer has the power to save.