Loyalty in Lear: notes and jottings

Following a discussion this morning, I have some bullet points to provoke discussion as the exams approach.

  • The theme of loyalty requires some identification of the message that Shakespeare might have been trying to get across rather than a list of loyal and disloyal characters or moments.  Context is useful here when one considers the quantity of shifts in loyalty required of the populace in the 16 and 17th centuries, from the fall of Richard 2 onwards and all documented by Shakespeare.  In recent time the loyalty of all to their God was challenged whether by Marian or Elisabethan puritanism and all would have been used to identifying these two strands of personal loyalty.
  • The play can be said to work on family/royal and cosmic levels.You might wish to explore the different levels with regards to loyalty.
  • Most “loyal” characters come to a bad end and there seems to be little to distinguish the loyal from the disloyal in terms of outcome.  Why might this be?  Does it link to the idea of speaking what one ought to say?  If loyalty is forced upon the subject, then their feelings and freedoms are denied by the very act of loyalty which is required.
  • Considering Act 1, the ambivalence is clear.  Which of the sisters is the most loyal?  I would argue certainly not “good” Cordelia who lets her King and father down at a public display of loyalty.  She is not lying,unlike her sisters, but this is a flagrant act of disloyalty in public at both family and royal levels.  Her subsequent banishment will allow her to reveal her deep loyalty in the inverted world which follows, yet she returns at the head of an army, loyal to Lear, which is in turn defeated.  It seems there is scant reward for loyalty.
  • Gloucester’s loyalty to Lear is similarly destructive.  His allegiance should have shifted once the abdication had taken place.  It did not transfer to Cornwall and his doom is sealed.  Again,.misplaced loyalty is punished.
  • The sisters show little loyalty to their father after Act 1.1, being left on stage in that scene to discuss how best to respond to the perceived threat of Lear/father.  Yet they also suffer within this framework.  Disloyal to their husbands, they pursue Edmund and die in a poison-fest of their own creation.
  • Edmund: why should he be loyal to anyone other than himself? Banished by his father  for 9 years and due to removed again, Edmund shows loyalty only to himself and is the mater of his own success and downfall.  His loyalty towards the new regime is amply rewarded, though based on a totally amoral world view.  His death in the duel seems like divine retribution, yet what code has he broken?  he is loyal to the rightful King once Lear has abdicated and owes no filial allegiance to his father.
  • This leaves Kent and Edgar as examples of loyalty.  Both show unbroken loyalty to their “master/father” and both suffer for it.  Yet both have the chance of survival.  Edgar may well become the ruler of the kingdom, but Kent chooses suicide and the continuation of loyalty beyond the grave.  What message is there here?  Should one be prepared to die rather than to change one’s allegiance?

Maybe the point is that in the utterly fractured 17th Century with a Kingdom riven with religious intolerance and now ruled by a foreign King to whom the English Lords must swear allegiance and who might be considering the division of the Kingdom himself, Shakespeare is musing on the purpose and significance of loyalty.  Only Kent seems genuinely loyal to the end.  Edgar’s final words might be used to suggest that “what we feel” could usher in an era devoid of blind loyalty and acceptance of the status quo.  It is clear that in this world, loyalty confers no favours over and above the disloyal.  A King, therefore, cannot expect and obtain loyalty simply because of his position-  the subjects get nothing from this.  Also if a King breaks the bond of loyalty to his subjects, he can expect no loyalty in return.

It’s all a little strange!