Appraisals of characters in Shakespeare's King Lear 

Profiles of Lear 'good' characters

Category

Edgar

Kent

Cordelia

Albany

Appearance

not flash, younger, not as confident as might be, sensitive

shabby, older, gaunt

plain, slight, maidish, low of voice, alert

avuncular, poised,

Characteristics,
temperament

gentle, easily led,

to get things right, to teach restraint, aware of the error of excess

not boastful, careful of exaggeration, few words, a natural goodness, not wimpy.

calm, patient, slow to anger, not devious, knowledgeable

Motivations

caring, loyal, honest

loyalty, devotion, honesty

love, justice, tragic

justice, balance, pity

Appraisal

misunderstands Edmund, weak?, untested, driven by care and pity, endures hardship for his father

unable to be diplomatic, free of anything underhand, predictable to a fault

hides her goodness = (expects it to be enough?), accepts fate, strong devotion to the truth as only guide to life

respected by Lear, strong in himself, puzzle what he saw in Goneril to marry her

G. Smith 1999

Profiles of Lear 'bad' characters:

Category

Edmund

Goneril

Oswald

Cornwall

Appearance

lusty, young, dark,

'wolfish visage', late 30s

foppish, weasel, oleaginous

sly, like Regan

Characteristics,
temperament

ambitious, hungry, self- important, cagey, manipulative

aggressive, manipulative,

sycophantic, unscrupulous, ambitious

ambitious, untrustworthy

Motivations

power-hungry, cruel, deceitful

gain, greed, self-seeking, hard, pitiless

gain, opportunist,

opportunist

Appraisal

unscrupulous

to be feared

repugnant

conspirator

G. Smith 24/4/1999

Lear  |tall, proud, energetic, bearded, ageing| choleric, mercurial, irascible, bullying, cruel, blind to others' goodness| foolish, unpitying, loveless, excess, self-pity| tragic


Sketch of a Eulogy for Cordelia by Lear
Here lies my dearest daughter, the only one who truly loved me and I did not see it. How wretched I am! O my blindness! I was blinded by self-will while she was powerless to cure it. She knew she could not change me - only time and events could do that. Cordelia, you believed in the heart, not empty words. When I wanted false praise, you could not mouth it. I was fooled by the wild phonic stuff of words alone.
O Cordelia, fruit of my tired loins but the gods' best gift to me! Cordelia, you did not deserve me. France deserved you and I rue the day I exiled you. O Cordelia, I have ta'en too little care of you (pace III.iv.32). Cordelia, most noble and just princess.
Cordelia, you believed in truth and peace. You thought people listened to the truth. You were so free of guile, ambition and greed. You valued me but I did not value you! You were so strong in your love, you believed in the power of love in the end but it did not save you.
Now in despair and grief, I kneel down and ask of thee forgiveness (V.iii.9)."Upon such sacrifices, my Cordelia, the gods themselves throw incense" (V.iii.20).G. Smith


An outline of Edmund

Edmund, the bastard son of Gloucester, presents an interesting counterpoint to Edgar and a study in a major theme of the play. He presents himself unashamedly as the illegitimate son at his solo entry I.ii.1-23: "Thou Nature art my goddess. . . Now gods stand up for bastards." His blatantly lies to his father: "I dare pawn down my life for him"(89). His solo comments on the eclipses and current evils and blaming Nature or the stars (I.ii.123-139) he calls "an admirable evasion" of responsibility. He celebrates his bastardry and finds in it an impetus to connive to outwit Edgar for his inheritance. He derides his brother's credulity and naiveté as "foolish honesty" (1.ii.187). He embodies the prototypical Cain and Abel myth again.

As events unfold for Lear, he shows his opportunism at news of the wars between princes: "This weaves itself perforce into my business" (II.i.15) and in identifying his cue for parricide: "The younger rises when the old doth fail" (III.iii.25). He finds an ally in Cornwall and opens Act V with collusion with Regan and ends Scene i.56-70 with his delight in having to choose which troth he'll honour. He throws down his gauntlet to oppose Albany V.iii.98. He fatally wounds Edgar. His dying wish to short-circuit the order for Cordelia's hanging: "Some good I mean to do despite of mine own nature" (V.iii.246) seems lame and insufficient to redeem him in our eyes. This note of chivalry in his dying repentance is yet another unsettling incongruity in the play. His role is quite stereotyped; he refers to his own nature and bastardry as both as his cause celebre and raison d'être.

Terms to describe Edmund might include lusty, young, dark, ambitious, hungry, self-important, cagey, manipulative, calculating, power-hungry, cruel, deceitful, and unscrupulous. He typifies the Hobbsean world where the only ties are those of self interest. Bradley identifies four major themes in the play and Edmund plays an active part in portraying all of them: exposure, vivisection, punishment, concealment. He is the agent provocateur par excellence. No wonder Wilson Knight calls him "that wittiest and most attractive of villains." Neither is he a model of the new Renaissance man, free of the shackles of religion either. For through him, the good suffer more than the evil and love becomes a synonym for suffering.

325 words Posted 7/5/99


Profile of Gloucester

· representative of the old regime: weak, elderly, inert, credulous
· tortured for his belonging to Lear (not for his active loyalty)
· his faults are writ large:
· his infidelity (Edmund)
· his cowardice
· his worthless existence (unresolved death)
 
· failed in his suicide
· failed to trust Edgar and stand up to Edmund
· his end is as grey, ignoble, unresolved as his life.
 
Dramatic role
· to head up the minor plot
· his fate mirrors Lear's
· companion for Lear in widower's grief
· not a companion for Edgar in his.
 
Historically
· represents mindless continuity,
· end of an era inertia,
· lacking backbone, insight or survival skills
· as helpless as all of Lear's court (except Kent)
· as helpless as Lear's errant Knights
· as unhappy as England was (with the strife of the Partition).
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