Aristotle’s Poetics in Shakespeare’s King Lear

December 25, 2020 by Essay Writer

According to Aristotle in his book Poetics, the cathartic effects of a tragedy are its purpose, which is mediated through its form. An examination of Shakespeare’s King Lear in relation to the Aristotelian elements of tragedy – focusing on his compliance with Plot and inversion of Thought – will demonstrate how the playwright preserves the cathartic outcome despite the dramatically altered balance between pity and fear. Of the three Unities of Time, Place and Action, only the last can be directly attributed to Aristotle, who referred to it as the “principal of organic unity of literature.” In King Lear, Shakespeare abides by this principal, which states that the plot should have a beginning, middle and end, it should be the appropriate length for the believable unfolding of events, and the main character (since referred to as the tragic hero) should follow a specific dramatic process. He should be a man greater than ourselves who goes from fortune to misfortune (peripeteia) due to a flaw in his character (harmatia). This is followed by anagnorisis, enlightenment of his responsibility for the fall, yet the punishment still exceeds the crime. The prologue to King Lear combines exposition and action, giving the audience the necessary background information to contextualize the events about to unfold. It depicts King Lear as a virtuous man – above the average citizen – making a terrible error of judgment and displaying his extreme pride, thereby instigating the grotesque yet necessary downfall which follows. In the opening lines 1 – 30 Gloucester and Kent discuss Lear’s intention to divide his kingdom among his three daughters, and Gloucester’s son Edmund’s origins are explained. King Lear’s pride can be seen to motivate his first error of judgment; “Here I disclaim all my paternal care,” (1, 1,108) he tells the court, as he disowns his only loving daughter Cordelia for refusing to falsely flatter him in a bid for the largest third of his kingdom. He bestows the “sway, revenue, execution of the rest” (1,1,132) to his other two deceitful daughters and their husbands whilst expecting to retain “the name and all the additions to a king” (1,1,131). Here again, pride has led him to unrealistic expectations of retaining kingly status without kingly duties. Lastly, Lear banishes the trustworthy Kent for warning him of the danger of bowing to the power of “flattery” (1,1,143). Having surrounded himself with dishonest people and ill-treated those who genuinely love him, Lear has set the Peripeteia in motion. Lear’s anagnorisis is a gradual process that begins in Act 3 scene 2 as his “wits begin to turn” (3,2,66). He first considers the feelings of the fool and the nature of “necessities…That can make vile things precious”(3,2,69-70). Lear perceives the worth of this insight and the need for suffering to attain it. This is followed by recognition of his blind arrogance and its effect on the people of his kingdom:O, I have ta’en / Too little care of this!Take physic, pomp;Expose thyself to feel what wretches feel,That thou mayst shake the superflux to them (3,4,32-35). Lear equates his experience of suffering on the heath with medicine, inferring the awakening it has evoked. He also prescribes this to all other pompous people in a plea for a more just world. He admits negligence and shows remorse. He has become drastically more aware, considering others’ suffering for the first time amid his own anguish and the onset of madness. Because the suffering coincides with enlightenment, the audience’s admiration for Lear’s endurance is abundant and coupled with growing pity for his situation. He refers to his suffering as “Judicious punishment!” (3,4,71) as it was he that fathered the two daughters that have badly mistreated him. Yet there is still no reference to his cruel misjudgment of Cordelia or Kent. In Act 4, scene 6 Lear finally understands and accepts that he is a mere mortal “They told me I was everything; ’tis a lie, I am not ague-proof” (4,6,103-104), and attributes this self- awareness to the stripping he experienced during the storm. It isn’t until Act 4 scene7 that Lear’s anagnorisis is complete. He awakens to see Cordelia, humbly kneels before her, cannot associate with the Kingly robes he has been put in and refers to himself as a “very foolish fond old man” (4,7,61). At last, he accepts responsibility for the final instigating element of his downfall: If you have poison for me, I will drink it.I know you do not love me; for your sistersHave, as I do remember, done me wrong.You have some cause, they do not. (4,7,73-76) If the play ended here, it could be said to have conformed exactly to the Aristotelian idea of a tragic plot concluding on a note of hope and restoration for the future. However, it does not end here; although Aristotle did not stipulate that a good tragic plot should have a happy ending, he did say that the moral message must be implicit and evil must never be seen to triumph. This takes the discussion into the realm of what Aristotle called “Thought” and is the element of the tragic form with which Shakespeare takes the most liberties. Those who prosper on the world’s terms – which often include neglect or cruelty – will become hardened and blinded and are therefore the true fools. This moral message is embedded in King Lear. Cordelia demonstrates an understanding of this concept as she holds to her honesty despite Lear’s threat that “Nothing will come of nothing” (1.1.86). France reiterates the notion when he describes Cordelia as “most rich, being poor…” (1,1,246). Lear and Gloucester both discover that ironically, everything comes from nothing, truth and enlightenment are attained only when one is stripped of everything, for Lear that includes his sanity, for Gloucester, his sight. “I stumbled when I saw” (4,1,20). And just as Lear did in Act Three, Scene Two, Gloucester calls for the arrogant to be humbled and for wealth to be redistributed: “And each man have enough” (4,2,72). A central paradox to the play is that Lear and Gloucester could not have learned this moral message any other way. Lear’s Fool is crucial in highlighting this paradox. Beneath his seemingly innocent taunting, the Fool provides clarity of the character’s feelings and the events on stage. When Kent claims that the Fool’s words are entirely foolish, the Fool replies; No, faith, lords and great men will not let me; if I had a monopoly out, they would have part on’t. And ladies too, they will not let me have all the fool to myself; they’ll be snatching. Give me an egg, nuncle, and I’ll give thee two crowns (1,4,137-141). The fool’s speech here encapsulates the moral message with reference to all lords being foolish, and provides direct comment on Lear’s foolishness in trying to divide up his kingdom between deceitful women. In this way, Shakespeare has taken the classical device of a chorus and ironically embodied it within the court jester. If the cruel and prosperous are the real fools, then Justice is an essential factor in the portrayal of good versus evil. Here is where Shakespeare injects ambiguity into his drama. Justice, like wisdom, family loyalty, and obedience, are inverted throughout the play. In Act Three, justice can be identified in two contrasting scenes. In scene six, Lear tries Goneril and Regan for filial ingratitude in an imagined trial. The outward appearance of justice is absurd and pathetic. Earthly justice is determined and ministered by a madman, a disguised madman and a fool. Yet true justice is presented here. In stark contrast to this is scene seven, whereby Cornwall goes through the motions of trying Gloucester for treason. Outwardly this trial appears correct, as Cornwall possesses the power to try subjects and he goes through the motions of interrogation. However, the outcome was predetermined and there is no trace of real justice in the horrific punishment. The appearance and the reality of justice have exchanged places (as do wisdom and folly, blindness and sight, and poverty and riches), and evil is undoubtedly prospering. All of Shakespeare’s value inversions in this play are encapsulated within the term ‘natural.’ Edmund is the ‘natural’ son of Gloucester and represents a violation of traditional moral order. His concept of Nature and what is natural is Darwinian and animalistic rejecting religion, astrology social order and morality “Thou, nature, art my goddess…Wherefore should I Stand in the plague of custom” (1,2,1-3). To him, ‘unnatural’ means exactly what ‘natural’ means to Lear and Gloucester – the orderly structure and cycles of the natural world and man on earth are intrinsically linked and astrology is a clear indication of the events on earth, e.g. “These late eclipses…” (1,2,96). Thus the moral question permeating the drama is: ‘Which concept of Natural is true? If the heavens exist and manipulate human lives than will Edmund, Goneril and Reagan get away with their evil or will there be divine retribution? The answer to this question is far from implicit, and it certainly defies Aristotle’s notion that evil should never be seen to triumph. Evil triumphs throughout most of King Lear, and the acts of goodness are single acts of human decency that are often too late to yield any real improvement to the situation. Consider Cornwall’s servant, who avenges Gloucester’s cruelty in Act Three scene seven. His intervention fails to improve Gloucester’s condition. Likewise, Kent and Edgar taking up disguises enable them to guide the old men through their suffering and deliver a letter to Cordelia, but none of this prevents the death or anguish of Gloucester, Lear and his virtuous daughter. Albany resolves to restore Lear to King and Kent to his honorable position, but this occurs far too late as Lear dies and Kent passes away. Lastly, Edmund’s dying wish to save Cordelia from death is a spark of human decency in a predominantly evil character which raises hope in the audience, but this gesture is also too little, too late, and the audience’s hopes are quickly dashed. If the gods are responsible for ministering punishment and justice, then Cordelia’s death is unexplainable. If human decency, on the other hand, is credited with the administration of justice, then it can be argued that human decency was overcome by negative human emotions such as greed, pride and selfishness, which led to acts of cruelty. Those few characters with integrity and courage to act upon it were far too fragmented and delayed to triumph over evil. The perspective one takes on the ending of King Lear is entirely her own. Shakespeare has the Fool exit the play in Act Three, scene four, line 80, and the audience members are left to infer what meanings they will from the rest of the play. This conclusion is in direct opposition to Aristotle’s conception of “Character” as well as “Thought.” Homogeny is necessary to contribute to the plausibility of the play. The thought should be implicit, and the characters should be consistent, appropriate to their type, and reveal a moral purpose. The characters in King Lear do tend to be appropriately matched to their type – e.g. the old men with old world values seeming foolish to youth and arrogant about their status. Loyal servants, greedy spoiled women and power hungry young men all conform to stereotypes. Through the device of disguise, however, Shakespeare adds irony and intrigue that defies the conventional matching of character to type. It is also significant in relation to Shakespeare’s manipulation of the ‘thought’ that many of the characters in King Lear reveal an immoral rather than a moral purpose. It is evident then, by looking closely at Shakespeare’s treatment of Aristotle’s elements of Plot and Thought, that Shakespeare achieves catharsis in King Lear by conforming to the element which Aristotle deemed most important: plot. Specifically, the dramatic process of the ‘tragic hero’ unfolds according to Aristotle’s perception, yielding immense pity and fear, yet extends beyond it to add ambiguity and thereby affect the notion of Thought. Thought and Character are clearly adapted from the Classical idea but transformed to suit Shakespeare’s purpose, leaving the audience with the privilege of deciding for themselves what they think and how they feel. BIBLIOGRAPHYCraig, H. & Bevington, D. (ed) (1973) “The Complete Works of Shakespeare” Brighton; Scott, Foresman and Company. Patterson, M. (1996) Studying Drama, in Bradford, R. (ed) “Introducing Literary Studies”. London; Pearson Education Ltd. Shakespeare, W. (1974) “King Lear” Essex; Longman Group Ltd.

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