Shakespeare as usual did not invent the stories of Lear and Gloucester but borrowed them from old sources. The story of Lear was an ancient one coming down from the Latin tale of Geoffrey of Monmouth to Spenser’s Faerie Queene via the chronicles of Holinshed. As Shakespeare thought that the animals of this ancient tradition did not suffice for his avowed dramatic purpose of presenting a universal tragedy, he sought to supplement the main action by resort to another source found by him in Sidney’s Arcadia which told the fateful tale of Gloucester. A mingling of the two tales running parallel and delineating simultaneously the same theme of parent-children relationship in a savage wicked world appeared to him most likely to lend to the tragedy a universal significance much above the personal and domestic aspects involved in the tales. It is to be examined whether he was successful in his bold venture of introducing double action in a tragedy for which in all Shakespeare’s King Lear remains the only specimen.
In unfolding the theme, the interrelation between the two plots is used with superb artistic skill and dexterity to focus most forcefully on the fundamental theme and feeling of the play. The double-action is allowed to develop simultaneously. While the main plot centers round Lear‘s folly in dividing his kingdom between his two sinister daughters, Goneril and Regan, and disowning his true loving child, Cordelia, the sub-plot brings forth the folly of Gloucester and its fatal consequences in trusting the wicked bastard son of an Edmund in preference to the noble legitimate child of an Edgar. Shakespeare adds his original touch here in cleverly contriving Gloucester’s compassion for Lear to provide means to Edmund to undo his father (Gloucester ) while ingeniously inventing the double passion of Goneril and Regan for Edmund—a passionate episode in which is writ large the terrible results involving the mutual destruction of the sinister sisters. The consummate interfusion of the two plots and double-action gratifies the imagination by a variety of circumstances and characters while the unity of action and effect is maintained throughout by a splendid skill. The unity arises from the general parallelism of the two plots, the stories for which emanate from the same fundamental domestic relationship but their development is achieved through such diverse incidents and circumstances as to avoid any traits of monotony that may mar the total effect. The two plots cross and re-cross each other at different points of contact only to reinforce and heighten the tragic effect.
The perfect Lear-symphony from contrasted strands of music of two tales and planes of double action is achieved by certain Shakespearean devices executed with great subtlety and dexterity of the master craftsman of English literature. Firstly there is the question of moral disequilibrium in both the stories where a wrong is committed against the natural order, which order again reasserts itself heaping horrible consequences upon the wrong-doer. King Lear sins both as a king and as a father and his sins visit him accordingly. His desire to enjoy kingly power after his abdication and his disowning of his true loving child militate against the natural order of things and accordingly he suffers till his terrible madness is ended in pathetic death. Regan and Goneril sin both as daughters and wives and are quickly overtaken by Nemesis, as the price of their particular sins. The sub-plot similarly shows Gloucester violating the natural order by believing his bastard traitor of a son, Edmund, and disowning the noble loving Edgar with the terrible consequences which include his horrible blinding when his two eyes are physically taken out of his sockets. Secondly, the two stories run parallel closely to each other even in matters of details thus reinforcing and heightening the effect of each other. The under-plot is but the main plot duplicated over again. The main plot shows a daughter who has received nothing but undeserved harm from his father trying to save that very same father from the claws of her sinister sisters who most profited by the father’s arbitrary and impetuous decision. The sub-plot has similarly a noble son unjustly disowned by a father whose destruction is sought by the bastard son favored by the father. As the main plot and under-plot thus proceed hand in hand acting and reacting on each other, we feel in the words of Moulton a contrast which “is like the reversing of the original subject in music”. And Moulton continues ; “Again, as the main plot consisted in the initiation of a problem and its solution, so the under-plot consists in the development of an intrigue and its consequences.’ Thus does Shakespeare achieve a complete unity of purpose and design and asymmetry of action handling superbly the complicated and varied materials furnished by his sources, The third device is his creation of parallelism and contrast in characters and sometimes by a judicious mixture of the two. The characters of the play, in fact, are capable of being grouped on the basis of contrast and similarity. Thus Cordelia and Edgar are a good pair while at the same time Cordelia contrasts with Goneril and Regan and Edgar with Edmund. Honest and loyal Kent is similar to Oswald who is also loyal to his mistress but while the former ( Kent ) is virtuous and noble, the latter (Oswald) is wicked and ignoble. Here is a case of a dramatically effective mixture of similarity and contrast. Weak but well-intentioned Albany is contrasted to cruel and violent Cornwall. Weak and ineffective Gloucester contrasts sharply with the imperious and majestic Lear, every inch a King even after he abdicates. Fourthly, in order to bolster up the theme, Shakespeare supplies a wonderful link between the two levels through the agencies of Gloucester, Edmund, and Edgar, the three characters who are closely inter-related with the characters and action in the main plot. Gloucester furnishes a very important link as he is not only an office-holder in Lear’s court but, also in some way, a subordinate to Cornwall. It is his castle again which is the venue for important events and assemblage of principal characters. Then there is Edmund walking between the two worlds, intriguing incessantly and getting involved in the double passions of the sinister sisters (Goneril and Regan) and bringing about disaster for all three. It is he who is responsible for the death of Cordelia. Edgar also plays the link role wonderfully. His feigned madness accentuates madness in Lear. He is again his philosopher and his justicer in the mock trial of the sinister daughters conducted by mad Lear. Later, he kills Oswald and exposes Goneril’s intrigue with Edmund to her husband bringing about her destruction. He brings the main plot to its catastrophe and survives along with Albany to look after the gored state.
The introduction of double action in a tragedy has disadvantages, which even Shakespeare could not avoid. As Bradley points out, the result is overcrowding-affecting to strain the reader by the multiplicity of its essential characters and the complexity of actions and movements. It may be intellectually confusing and emotionally fatiguing; at least this appears to be the case at the end when the stage remains crowded in the last scene even. It has also been pointed out that the dramatist’s concern about bis abundant materials in two plots is responsible for the lack of information and peculiar unconcern about the fate of the fool. We do not think, however, that this is a serious lapse for perhaps Shakespeare intended to keep his fool wrapped in mystery-at least it does not affect the play theatrically. Some improbabilities in the play are also pointed out by Bradley as he says, for example, (a) that Edgar would be unlikely to write to Edmund when he could speak with him, (b) that Gloucester had no need to move to Dover for his attempted suicide. We may only say that the many improbabilities mentioned by Bradley are not very much noticed in the theatre and the piece, despite its variants and complexities, becomes finally in the words of Verity “a single organism”. conveying the universal significance of a great commotion in the moral world of men.