Nihilism

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  • Created by: Pip Dan
  • Created on: 20-09-17 16:46

In contrast to a redemptive reading, some critics have looked at 'King Lear' and argue that the play supports a nihilistic worldview, that there is no point to life and that humankind is innately cruel. It is Gloucester which seems to channel this view the most when he is blind

Chaos in society

As the play follows the regression of Lear, Shakespeare is keen to show of the breakdown of a leader can impact on their kingdom. He encompasses the entire social order from King Lear all the way down to Poor Tom to exemplify how society can break down due to incorrect leadership.

The storm scene in particular explores the relationship between these two social extremes as Lear comes face to face with poverty and suffering. In the storm, for the first time in the play, Lear becomes aware of the suffering of others and perhaps the chaos in society, which he previously has not experienced, as he asks 'How dost my boy? Art cold?'. Although Lear begins to realize the suffering of many in society, he fails to accept the extent of their suffering, as he is in a state of self-pity, suggesting that nothing can be as bad as what he's going through - 'Nothing could have subdued nature to such a lowness but his unkind daughters.' Whilst Marxist critics often point out Lear's realization that 'I have ta'en too little care of this', this is only fleeting and he does nothing substantial to rectify his past mistakes. To add to this idea of nihilism in the storm scene, Lear begins to question 'is man no more than this?' an idea key to nihilistic interpretations.

The chaos in society is further increased by the confusion of roles which the characters have. This constantly changing nature of character's social positions perhaps serves as a symbol of the fleeting nature of life and how they could be irrelevant:

  • King Lear's loss of position is perhaps the most focused on as he falls from King to just another victimized person and later a prisoner
  • Kent remains Lear's loyal servant but only through disguising himself and taking up a different identity
  • Goneril and Regan both become elevated to rulers of their own kingdom but only to lose trust of each other because of Edmund
  • Albany and Cornwall both also become elevated to rulers but the former has a break down in his relationship with his wife
  • Cordelia goes from Princess, to disowned, to Queen before becoming a prisoner
  • Like Lear, Gloucester falls from his position to become another misfortunate old man
  • Edgar also falls down the social ladder to the very bottom when he becomes Poor Tom but unlike his father Edgar does get restored to his previous position
  • Edmund directly attempts to change his social position as he becomes the Earl of Gloucester but ultimately his high position has little meaning at his death

Perhaps this breakdown in society's roles is described by Gloucester, who says 'Tis the time's plague…

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