King Lear: Is Lear a bleak, nihilistic play, or a hopeful one?
The play King Lear can easily be portrayed as one that is bleak, and nihilistic but this in not the case. Many people interpret the play to be about the wrongful acts of others and the effects that they cause. That is not the case. The truth is that the play King Lear is quite opposite of this and is actually about the loyalty, nobility and helpful acts by others in order to give hope. This is the plays primary message. Although the play King Lear seems like a bleak nihilistic play it is actually one that can teach us about hope and loyalty.
Throughout the play Lear's dominant trait is that he is metaphorically blind. Lear is also very materialistic, and even though he is old, he is not wise. Lear's stupidity causes him to publicly humiliate two of his most loyal people.
Cordelia and Kent are both publicly humiliated, and banished from Lear's kingdom. Cordelia is Lear's youngest and noblest daughter and the most saint like character in the play. Cordelia always acts with kindness, and even though her father horribly mistreats her she still remains loyal to her him, and even comes back to defend him with her husband, France. Kent was once Lear's noble servant but after he argues that Lear had made an error by banishing Cordelia, Lear gets enraged and banishes Kent as well. After the king's overreaction, Kent is
driven out of the kingdom. Although it would be normal for Kent to react in a furious rage against the king, he decides to help Lear. In order to stay with the king, Kent disguises himself as a peasant showing how loyal and willing he is to help. Both Cordelia and Kent remain loyal and even risk their lives for Lear even though it would have been easier to watch Lear wither away through his own misfortunes.
Furthermore as the play continues, Gloucester is betrayed by his bastard son Edmund. Because of this Gloucester faces some serious consequences of being tortured by Regan and Cornwall. Gloucester gets tortured for helping Lear, and having knowledge of the French invasion over the now corrupt Britain. Regan and Cornwall torment Gloucester and take out his eyes. One of Gloucester's servants witnesses this heinous act happening to Gloucester in his own home, and he decides to defend the helpless old man. The servant fights Cornwall knowing that the consequences will not be good for him. Although the servant gets killed, he dies with honor knowing that he has helped his master. When Gloucester is released, many of his former servants see him struggle so they bandage him up. Gloucester also receives help from his legitimate son Edgar who is disguised as poor Tom. Edgar should be angry with his father but instead he is rather happy to see him alive, and doesn't even take pleasure in Gloucester's pain and misfortunes. These incidents that Gloucester has survived from teach him a valuable lesson. Gloucester now
knows that he still has many people who are still loyal to him even in his worst of times.
Moreover the play's antagonist, Edmund, is looked at as the most diabolical character in the play. Edmund commits selfish acts and masterminds evil plots for his goal for world domination. Edmund creates tension between his family saying that his brother Edgar is plotting to kill his father. Edmund has even signed a letter sentencing Lear and Cordelia to death. Edmund is clearly the most evil character in the play yet there is hope that even he can change. When Edmund is on his deathbed, he has an epiphany: " Some good I need to do, despite mine own nature." This quote is showing that Edmund now realizes that his actions affect others, and his evil deeds hurt everyone else. Edmund's character is changing and even though he is evil he wants to die with some nobility in him. This leads us back to believing that there is always hope no matter how bad a situation.
The play of King Lear, could easily be interpreted as a bleak nihilistic play because of all the betrayal and malice that many of the characters show, but this is just a disguise for the play's true meaning that no matter how bad the circumstance there is always hope.