King Lear Sample Essay: Honour, Loyalty, Brutality and Viciousness

The 2010 Leaving Certificate Higher Level English Paper II asked:

“In King Lear honour and loyalty triumph over brutality and viciousness.” Write your response to this statement supporting your answer with suitable reference to the text.

Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.
 - Edgar

The themes of honour and loyalty as well as brutality and viciousness are profoundly explored in this Shakespearean tragedy. While it is fair to say that honour and loyalty are reinstated as governing forces in the finale, they come at an enormous cost with deaths of innocent and honourable characters. It is hardly a triumph.

Cordelia appears to be the beacon of honour and loyalty in King Lear. You have begot me, bred me, loved me. I return those duties back as are right fit: Obey you, love you, and most honor you, she says to Lear. A narcissistic, domineering King Lear wishes to only be surrounded by yes-men and prefers the gratification of vacant flattery above innocent and truthful feelings. This is part of the reason he ostracises Cordelia, or one might even argue, viciously betrays her: Thy truth then be thy dower. 

Triumph is a strong word...
It's never black and white with Shakespeare, however. Cordelia refused to participate in the demeaning contest of proclaiming her love. A certain pride and superiority inherent in Lear's personality are echoed in Cordelia's decision. It wouldn't be dishonourable to reassure a needy father. Perhaps it was her distant resemblance to her father that exposed his brutality.

Duke of Burgundy loses interest in Cordelia once she has been disinherited: a display of pragmatism rather than loyalty. In contrast, King of France remains loyal to Cordelia throughout the play. 

Kent is loyal to Lear and Cordelia as he tries to inspire Lear to reconsider a rash decision: Thy youngest daughter does not love thee least, nor are those empty-hearted whose low sound reverb no hollowness. Again, Lear isn't interested in non-conformity, regardless of its merits.

Goneril and Regan as well as Edmund, on the other hand, seem be preoccupied with their own interests at any cost. Each one of them betrays their respective fathers and siblings. Goneril's vicious feelings about Lear contrast with her love songs earlier in the play: Old fools are babes again and must be used with checks as flatteries, when they are seen abused. Regan brutally throws Lear out of her house into the storm and righteously declares that he has nobody to blame but himself: to wilful men the injuries that they themselves procure must be their schoolmasters. Shut up your doors.

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Empowered by Edmund's betrayal of his father, Cornwall and Regan and not just vicious but also physically brutal to Gloucester: See't shalt thou never. Fellows, hold the chair. Upon these eyes of thine I'll set my foot. They seem less interested in the future of the kingdom and more interested in their own power within it.They have the audacity to accuse him of hypocrisy and treason: So white, and such a traitor! 

Shakespeare demonstrates that Gloucester didn't just fall into being loyal; he knew of the great the cost of loyalty: If I die for it, as no less is threatened me, the king my old master must be relieved.  

Gloucester's blindness is Shakespeare's hint at the metaphorical blindness of both forsaken fathers, Lear and Goucester, at the brutal and vicious nature of their respective dishonorable children, Goneril and Regan, and Edmund. It comes as no surprise then that the three characters subsequently  betray each other too.

Edmund, a truly Machiavellian character, knows no honour. He plays anybody who comes in his way to achieve his ends: Which of them shall I take? Both? One? Or neither? Neither can be enjoyed. If both remain alive, he says about Goneril and Regan whom he manipulated. His cynicism is so pure, he almost has integrity. He is almost triumphant in his villainous ways. His vicious lines, That which my father loses: no less than all; the younger rises when the old doth fall have an uncanny nursery rhyme quality to them. Neglected and insecure, he will make sure to climb to the top regardless of the cost: Edmund the base shall top th' legitimate. I grow, I prosper. While he hints at his atheism at the beginning of the play, he later admits deference to fate: The wheel has turned full circle. I am here. Again, it's not all black and white. He repents, albeit, too late, and tries to save Lear and Cordelia. A battle of honour and brutality is going on beneath the surface. Albeit illegitimacy is a somewhat contrived concept, it could be argued that Edmund's existence is a testament to Gloucester's lack of loyalty.

Lear's wandering in a brutal storm through Act 3 is symbolic of the emotional and cognitive chaos he is going through. A natural disaster, it serves as pathetic fallacy to emphasise the viciousness and treachery reigning in what was once his kingdom. As far as Lear is concerned, a veil has finally fallen and exposed his own poor judgement and ultimate powerlessness in the face of the dishonorable nature of his daughters: here I stand, your slave, a poor, infirm, weak, and despised old man... you... with two pernicious daughters join'd your high engender'd battles 'gainst a head so old and white as this. O! O! 'tis foul! It's much too late to change anything. Indeed, Lear loses his mind and, in a grotesquely shallow manner, he becomes preoccupied with vicious filial ingratitude. Ironically, the only character who was able to speak the truth to Lear without having to disguise his identity or suffering from his rashness was the Fool. Perhaps Shakespeare is hinting that only a fool can afford to be honourable with this kind of king; in other words, it is virtually impossible.

Edgar is an honourable hero and poetic justice is served to vindicate him in the finale. He shows true empathy towards his father, in excess of that shown by any other character including Cordelia. He shows an appreciation for Kent's selfless loyalty to Lear: Kent, sir, the banished Kent, who in disguise followed his enemy king, and did him service improper for a slave. Kent continues to be loyal to Lear even after Lear's death: I have a journey, sir, shortly to go. My master calls me; I must not say no.
In Edgar's words, the gods are just. He believes that honour will prevail. In Gloucester's words, as flies to wanton boys are we to the gods; they kill us for their sport, there doesn't seem to be a natural triumph of honour over brutality. Shakespeare leaves us haunted with an Pietà-like image of a senile Lear with breathless Cordelia in his hands: a testament to injustice and brutality.

  • In King Lear the villainous characters hold more fascination for the audience than the virtuous ones;
  • In the play, King Lear, the stories of Lear and Gloucester mirror one another in interesting ways;
  • Reading or seeing King Lear is a horrifying as well as an uplifting experience.

Comparative | King Lear | Cultural Context, Literary Genre, General Vision and Viewpoint
King Lear Sample Answer: Imagery, Characters and Themes

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Best of luck!

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