King Lear: Imprisonment
In the play King Lear, by William Shakespeare, the idea of imprisonment is a fundamental to the plot and central ideas. All characters are imprisoned, whether it is physically, socially or psychologically. Through their society and its’, as well as their own faults each character suffers ‘imprisonment’ in some form.
King Lear is one of the more caged characters of the play, he suffers both social and psychological incarceration and this is one the chief reasons for his descent into mental hell and inevitable downfall. Lear is imprisoned by the role he must play in society and by his own internal shackles. The abdication of the throne initiates the action in the play, through the consequent chain of events. However this indicates that Lear is imprisoned by his responsibility to society, he is bound by a social harness. He renounces the throne to lead the rest of his life in pleasure and in doing so he disrupts the Great Chain of Being, he challenges the position that he has been given and thus his family and indeed the entire nation, descend into disorder and chaos. The storm is symbolic of this occurrence, the weather imitates the state of men. “One minded like the weather,” the gentle man recognises the disquiet and unrest of the storm, as a manifestation of the turbulence in Society at the time. He is not only responsible for the harmony of a nation, as the father figure it is also his duty to maintain harmony in his house. This he does with little success when “bribes” his daughters to fuel his own ego. “Which of you shall we say doth love us most,/That we our largest bounty extend,” Lear is requesting his daughters to compete in a “game” of words, he does not really wish to know who loves him the most, he simply wishes to be flattered, through this he is rashly abandoning his responsibility as a parent and as the father figure. He is imprisoned by societies values, as a man and the King he has control, this he abuses, to his own demise.
Lear suffers psychological imprisonment, both through his societies ideals and his own blindness to the truth. He is psychologically imprisoned by his society, in that his mind cannot break free of the gender roles, he has certain expectations of women and when this mould is broken he is staggered. “Though women all above./But to the girdle do the Gods inherit;/Beneath is all the fiends,” this violent outburst is a reaction to the way his daughters, Goneril and Regan, have treated him. The patriarchy in which he lives requires women to be subservient and compliant to the man, however in this instance Lear has been completely dominated by both daughters and finds himself in the middle of a storm. This breaks the gender roles the he has set in his mind and thus he is shaken and curses women, for the prison of his mind, will not allow him to be free to see the true nature of his situation.
Ironically in the end, when Lear is free of his social and psychological fetters, he becomes literally imprisoned. “You must bear with me. Pray you now forget/And forgive. I am old and foolish,” right before Lear and Cordelia are captured he sees the error of his ways, his psychological restraints are broken and thus his social ones no longer matter. Paradoxically, he captured immediately and physically imprisoned. Come let’s away to prison./We two alone will sing like birds i’th’cage,” in previous scenes Lear would have acted outraged should he have been imprisoned but through his emotional journey and his release from his psychological and social manacles, he accepts this and is compliant. This breaks his gender role as a domineering male and truly serves to show how freed his mind has become, as he is lead away to prison. He also I able to perceive the hierarchy for what it is, he gains more knowledge and carrying for others through his mental freedom, and consequent physical imprisonment. “Poor fool and knave, I have one part in my heart/That’s sorry yet for thee,” in this line Lear acknowledges his fool and faithful servant, while these people are not as high on The Great Chain of Being, he understands that it does not matter. Through his suffering and stripping down on the heath he comes to comprehend that men without they’re title are merely men. Thus his mind is free from the imprisonment of another of society’s ideologies, yet his body is imprisoned. King Lear is a captive man throughout the play whether by his society, his mind, or his body.
The women of the play were all very imprisoned. The gender and role that they were intended to play in society made this inevitable. In the beginning, Goneril and Regan play Lear’s “game”, they gain land and wealth for their husbands, which as females, was their duty. Their minds and actions conform with the expectations of society, thus they are both psychologically and socially imprisoned. “How, how Cordelia? Mend your speech a little,/Lest you mar your fortunes,” Lear taken aback by Cordelia’s honesty, he expected to be flattered and told how much he was loved, he expected this because he was man and his daughter’s were women, who’s duty was to procure land for their husbands, through dowry. It was this attitude, assumed by the majority of men that imprisoned Goneril, Regan and Cordelia. Goneril and Regan’s initial compliance with their gender roles lead to their downfall through their gaining of power and subsequent inability to handle this newfound influence. When they comprehended the fact that with their father off the throne, they no longer had to comply with expectations, their anger at their father and society in general for their imprisonment, manifests to evil. “What need one?” Regan asks Lear, prior to her husband’s inheritance of land and the abdication of the throne by Lear, she would not dare have said something like this to her father, or indeed, any man. However she and Goneril break free of the gender roles placed upon them and as a result they discover they have been cheated and abuse their newfound power.
Cordelia, while she is a ‘lovable’ character, she never breaks free of the imprisonment of her gender and her mind. She always plays the dutiful daughter; she is honest and loyal to her father. “For the oppressèd king, I am cast down,” she, even in the face of imprisonment and death, remains devoted to her father and is prepared to do anything for him. Thus she is not free of her imprisonment, as she is not free of her role as the respectful daughter.
Edmond, the ‘villain’ of the play, is as oppressed as all the other characters. He is demoralized by his being a bastard and as a result rebels against the ideology. He is not psychologically bound, as he rejects the values of society and seeks to gain wealth, fortune and a title despite his place in the social order. Thou, Nature, art my goddess; to thy law/ my services are bound,” Edmond recognises that he, by law, is entitled to nothing and that he is only a product of nature, not of the law of man. “With ‘base’? with ‘baseness’? ‘bastardy’? ‘base, base’? he question why he is base and the answer he finds is because society says he is. He can already see, what Lear finds out later on, stripped down, men are men, no more, no less. Thus he reasoning and subsequent actions can be understood. If men are nothing but men, then he is as entitled to inheritance as his legitimate brother Edgar. Edmond is only imprisoned by an ideology the others cannot see.
In William Shakespeare’s, King Lear, the idea of imprisonment is presented and explored. Whether it be psychological, physical or social. Each character deals differently with their imprisonment and undergo a journey, where all incarcerated people are only free in their death.
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