Substance and void are the thematic poles of William Shakespeare’s King Lear. In the absence of discernable order in the universe, truth is the only source of worthwhile substance in life and enlightenment is intrinsically valuable. The opposite of truth, therefore, is the absence of substance; nothing. The further characters stray from truth, the closer they are to nothing. Artifice in the play is an agent for both truth and void, at times communicating truth, while at other times obscuring it. But the unjust ends met by most of the characters demonstrate that salvation does not go beyond truth in the absence of a benevolent god.
“As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods; they kill us for sport,” says Gloucester in Act 4. It’s little wonder; having had his eyes gouged out because of his illegitimate son’s treachery, the earl also must live with the knowledge that, for his folly, Edgar, his legitimate heir, has been banished. But the statement reflects much more of the play’s content than that; Lear loses everything for simply misjudging his daughters, Cordelia loses first her home and then her life simply for speaking the truth, and Edmund is denied legitimate claims to inheritance simply for having been born to a woman who was not married to his father. “Wherefore should I stand in the plague of custom,” says Edmund in Act 1, “and permit the curiosity of nations to deprive me, for that I am some twelve or fourteen moonshines lag of a brother? Why bastard? Wherefore base? When my dimensions are as well compact, my mind as generous and my shape as true as honest madam’s issue?” Though Edmund’s actions later prove his nature to be cruel and selfish, no rational mind can dispute this argument, particularly in light of the fact that it’s two of Lear’s quite legitimate daughters who blight his existence throughout the play.
So, there is tragedy evident in Edgar’s statement at the end of the play before he vanquishes Edmund; “The gods are just, and of our pleasant vices make instruments to plague us,” referring to the circumstances of Edmund’s birth. One might do well to recall a famous line from Julius Caesar, an earlier of Shakespeare’s plays; “The fault . . . is not in our stars but in ourselves.” This is the lesson Edgar misses by attempting to simplify complex and amoral reality into a battle of good versus evil, and here one might perceive Shakespeare illuminating the folly of contemporary inheritance traditions. That, in this case, Edgar was in the right does not prove the rule any more than Cordelia’s fate proves that honesty is bad. All that it proves is that the universe of King Lear does not reciprocate in proportion to what one deserves, and triumph does not imply lessons learned.
Attempts to communicate or reveal truth are both frustrated and enhanced by filtered perspectives. When Lear asks Cordelia to describe the greatness of her love for him after the manner of her sisters, Cordelia replies, “Good my lord, You have begot me, bred me, loved me; I return those duties back as are right fit, obey you, love you, and most honour you. Why have my sisters husbands, if they say they love you all? Haply, when I wed, that lord whose hand must take my plight shall carry half my love with him, half my care and duty.” Respect for her father will not allow Cordelia to speak to him with the hollow flattery demonstrated by her sisters, but this is lost on Lear. His perspective is filtered by his insecurity prompted by the impending distance of his daughters and station. “I loved her most, and thought to set my rest on her kind nursery,” says Lear of Cordelia, as though by her words it was she who was forsaking him. In fact, her statement, while less grandiose than her sisters’, did express love and devotion. Lear is brazenly contradicting the evident reality of just moments before for the inertia of his wrath. He runs on emotion without reflection, prompting his daughter Goneril to implore that he, “make use of that good wisdom whereof I know you are fraught, and put away these dispositions, that of late transform you from what you rightly are.”
Lear asks his men who he is if not Lear, to which his Fool replies that he is, “Lear’s shadow.” An appropriate appellation, as Lear’s behaviour seems to spring from an insubstantial, illusory personality. Again, Lear achieves that which he had previously ascribed to Cordelia. When she said she had “nothing” to say, he replied “Nothing will come of nothing.” So it is with Lear, as he proceeds on the spur of self-deception, on the stimulus of nothing that he construes as something, he finds himself without a roof over his head, without his most beloved companions, with nothing.
Yet, Shakespeare takes time to note that salvation may be achieved through deception or obfuscation, the most vivid example being Edgar’s prevention of his father’s suicide. Edgar describes to the blind Gloucester a creature leading him to the cliff’s edge, saying “his eyes were two full moons; he had a thousand noses, horns whelked and waved like the enraged sea: it was some fiend.” This fanciful, monstrous description is like a story, and perhaps one might here observe Shakespeare promoting the potential for enlightenment through artifice or art.
A plain, physical curtailing of the senses is ascribed value, too, as the very fact of Gloucester’s blindness is conveyed as an occasion for his enlightenment. “Your eyes are in a heavy case,” Lear says to him, “your purse in a light. Yet you see how this world goes.” To which Gloucester replies, “I see it feelingly.”
The final line of the play is one of Edgar’s and it encapsulates well the thesis of the work; “The weight of this sad time we must obey; speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.” If Edmund had been honest about his unhappiness in his position, things may have been different. Edmund’s behaviour may have been different if Gloucester had not abused him at the beginning of the play, despite not feeling any particular hatred for him. Cordelia’s fate might have been prevented if Lear had treated her in a manner reflecting the love he felt for her.
Edgar’s line concludes; “The oldest hath borne most; we that are young shall never see so much, nor live so long.” Even though Lear has learned from his errors, Cordelia still dies because of them. There is no god meting out appropriate rewards and punishment, so one needs to make valuable the finite amount of time one has.
Artifice through language or disguise might be seen broadly as the circumstance of human communication, and is not inherently good or evil. Illusion is merely a tool to reach truth or oblivion. Justice or injustice is conveyed by human action without assistance or hindrance from gods, so gods cannot be depended upon to deliver humans from misfortune. Each person has only the span of his or her lifetime to effect what he or she will, so King Lear is a plea for independent consideration of justice and well-being, and an argument against moral negligence and irrationality.