King Lear, like many of Shakespeare’s tragedies, revolves around the disruption of the great chain of being. In the great chain of being, every man, whether he be a king or a peasant, has his role to fill, and the success of the entire structure depends on how well everyone fulfills their respective role. In King Lear, Lear’s pride clouds his judgment, causing him to break this chain. It is in this way that Lear’s pride becomes his nemesis. Shakespeare uses nemesis to tell a moral tale about pride.
Lear’s pride is apparent in the first scene of the play. “Since now we will divest us both of rule, [i]nterest of territory, cares of state, [w]hich of you shall we say doth love us most?” (1.1.45-47). Here, it is inferred that the division of his kingdom is dependant on the quality of his daughters’ answers, though it is evident that the division has, in fact, already been made. (If he truly intends to base his final decision on the quality of their answers, he might more appropriately wait until he has heard from the other two daughters, before giving a third of his kingdom to the first.) It seems that he is getting his daughters to express their love for him verbally, largely as a superficial show of power.
Cordelia’s inability to wax eloquent about her love, or perhaps her desire not to cheapen her feelings with words, wounds Lear’s pride, and causes him to abuse his power during the final moments in which he retains them. In a rage, Lear casts out the two people who actually seem to love him best, Cordelia, and also Kent, for trying to speak out on her behalf.
Lear’s mistake here is that he has somehow confused frivolous formality with love, basing his decisions on hollow words, rather than deeds. His eldest daughters do not love him; they love his power, but Lear’s pride does not allow him to see this. The lesson is vocalized later by the fool, when he says, “fathers that bear bags, [s]hall see their children kind” (2.4.48-49). Friends are in greater abundance when one’s fortunes are high.
In act two, Lear continues to give undue levity to the frivolous things that his daughters deny him. It doesn’t seem to occur to him that he has given his power willingly away, and that now, he has to live with the consequences.
Still, he confuses the issue. “O, reason not the need” (2.4.258), he says, arrogantly clinging to his frivolous, self-indulging comforts. No one needs one hundred knights, particularly not when they do absolutely nothing but eat and abuse the staff. This is not an efficient way to run a kingdom.
In act three, Lear’s pride has diminished substantially, and he no longer concerns himself with the trifles that his daughters have denied him. For the first time, he seems to have genuine concerns for others. “How dost, my boy? Art cold?” (3.2.66).
The very act of giving his kingdom away disrupts the great chain of being. A king’s first duty is to his kingdom, and giving it away is not congruent with that duty.
His eyes open to the harsh elements of the world. He sees what he has truly lost, not only by giving away his kingdom, but by failing addressing its issues of poverty during his reign. “O, I have ta’en [t]oo little care of this” (3.4.33-34). Lear sees now that his pride had made him blind to the needs of his kingdom. Unfortunately, by this point, the seeds of his pride have already been sewn, and he can do little now but reflect on what he has done.
This sentiment is perhaps best mirrored by
When Lear is reunited with Cordelia, his ordeal has finally given him the scope to appreciate her. Before this, he had not suffered enough to understand what is truly important to him. Once again, the fool, who acts as a mouthpiece for Shakespeare, says it best. “Thou shouldst not have been old till thou hadst been wise” (1.5.38).
It is important to note that, in many other versions of the Lear legend, whether written before or after Shakespeare’s adaptation, Cordelia is not slain in front of Lear. This is a portion of the story that is unique to Shakespeare’s adaptation, and is very much in tune with the concept of nemesis.
In the final act, Lear and his daughter are finally reunited, and it seems that Lear finally understands and appreciates the one truly important thing: a reciprocated love from his daughter. “Come, let’s away to prison. We two alone will sing like birds i’ the cage” (5.3.8-9). This is meant to pull at the heartstrings of the audience, and Lear’s consequent entrance with the deceased Cordelia in his arms would have devastated Shakespeare’s audience.
“Why should a dog, a horse, a rat, have life, [a]nd thou no breath at all?” (5.3.306-07). This question is perhaps best answered by referring back to the great chain of being. Animals, being lowly creatures, can live about their lives humbly while when a king falters, it comes at a high price, which in this case, is the life of his precious daughter.
The moral that Shakespeare intended to hammer home in King Lear is clear; Lear wastes his life in pursuit of superficial self-affirmations, and neglects his important duties as a king, and perhaps more importantly, (in terms of delivering a moral message to the masses), as a father. Lear’s nemesis, a force which he cannot overcome until it is too late, is his pride.
Shakespeare, William. King Lear. The Norton Anthology of English Literature. Ed. Meyer Howard Abrams et al.