King Lear symbolises first and foremost vastness. It is not intricate like Hamlet or deep like Macbeth or intense like Othello. And because it is vast and expansive, it yields itself to be viewed from many angles, not the least of which is the domestic angle; for is it not a domestic play like Othello or Hamlet involving as it does the age-old problem of parent-children relationship?
The problem of this filial relation is an old one receiving as is does due and dominating delineation in the ancient Greek drama. Biologically also it holds its sway over generations of men. Shakespeare’s other tragedies like Hamlet or Othello and more so his historical plays deal with this perennial problem with the hope of a solution in due degree and order. The problem also reflects the impact of the past over the present, the parents representing the past while the children stand in the present. There is sometimes what we now call a generation gap and then the battle between the past and the present assumes a fierce from till synthesis is born in a glorious future. Viewed as such, it becomes a dialectical approach in the Hegelian pattern unraveling the essential contradictions of the situation.
This domestic theme has been handled by Shakespeare before with much depth and intensity and intricacy; here he explores it in extensive giving an impression of incomparable vastness and extending in the expansive process the royally domestic theme to the whole of humanity considered as a single-family living under the same brooding stars. and swept away at times by the same howling winds. There are some of the basic assumptions and contradictions which appear to emerge from a study of the domestic tragedies and an examination of the theme of parent-children relationship is bound to uphold this pattern in King Lear as well.
We have şeen what happens from submission to father symbolizing authority and tradition ( representing the past ) in the destinies of Romeo, Henry or Hamlet. Cordelia in King Lear shows the outcome of a refusal to obey that same authority embodied in the father-figure of Lear, reminding us of the destinies of Juliet and Desdemona in Romeo and Juliet and Othello respectively. To sum up, disaster is the result of all these cases except for Henry V.
In this filial relationship, Cordelia among the heroines appears diviner than others and seems to attract our sympathy most by virtue of her unmerited suffering and the divine quality of her love. Desdemona too is divine but a little different, her rebellious spirit freeing herself from the domination of the older generation represented in her father, Brabantio. In fact, Othello in this respect stands midway in these father plays while two extreme ends are bodied forth in Hamlet and King Lear. In the former play (Hamlet) the son is converted to the code of his father with due acceptance of blood and revenge while in the latter ( King Lear) the father is won back by his child ( Cordelia ) as Lear expresses his longing to pass the remainder of his life in the blissful company of his tender loving daughter.
The sub-plot in the tragedy also shows the same question of filial relationship producing the same impression of a convulsing family world. Gloucester’s life is sought by the child he favors, the bastard Edmund while he is finally healed under the protecting care of the son he has wronged, namely, Edgar. The profound antinomies of the play are spelled out clearly by the dramatist solving in his own dialectical way the inherent contradictions. Cordelia’s love is an expression of order; Gloucester’s love a flaunting of anarchy; while the professed love of sinister Regan and Goneril is only the facade that merely hides the face of hate. Lear prefers flattering profession to sincere but silent devotion expressing in this the primeval fatherly instinct that loves domination and unrestrained authority over children and family. Lear here is the grand archetypal patriarch.
Where instinct dominates and it dominates so often as Man’s biological inheritance, judgment is a poor victim of circumstances. Both Lear and Gloucester, following their dominant father-instincts, judge falsely among their children-one disowns the one good daughter and the other wrongs the good son-and thus suffer terribly in the process. It is to be marked here that in the under-plot, the agent of inequity is a bastard driving home the universal lesson that the principle of evil is active in every household of all degrées, legitimate or illegitimate.
The tragedy exposes the ill-will that Goneril, Regan, and Edmund bear towards their fathers. It is difficult to call it unnatural for this is the common situation in the world. The clash of the older generation with the succeeding one occurs chiefly in the material plane and over material issues–it is by and large a clash of selfish interest. The finer spiritual issues also engender a clash and make victims of Cordelia’s and Desdemonas of the world. They, however, do not die but carry the tradition beyond their deaths encompassing the past and the present and the future. Cordelia does it so here, as she takes Lear out of the purgatory of suffering to her paradise of loving peace. And in doing so, she perhaps reveals another very fundamental trait in a filial relationship. It is the mother instinct of the daughter for the father that comes to be revealed through an ineffable Cordelia-a Cordelia again who has no child and whose old father has entered his second childhood. It is a profound subject and Lear is just the occasion for Cordelia, a pretext to the daughter to serve as a support to the ineffable divine creation that is Cordelia. The chaotic universe of crimes, manias, miseries, follies, and vices find its virtuous justification in the shining vision of Shakespeare who like a God creates this tragedy bearing the tender motherly Cordelia in his brain. Amidst all the gloom, we are relieved to see Cordelia tending her helpless old child-like father, Cordelia with the young white breast near the old foolish father’s white beard. “There is no holier sight !” exclaims Victor Hugo for “such a filial breast is Cordelia’s”.