Human Nature, Nihilism and the Truth in King Lear

“Great texts have the power to resonate with people across different time periods.”

King Lear (2018) - Rotten Tomatoes

It has been exhibited in history that when a well written text resonates with the masses it is treasured because they can relate to what they are reading. Literary works that are able to sustain their textual integrity throughout different time periods preserve their place in the literary canon where they are analysed and scrutinised for meaning and purpose. Writers intricately hide messages and ideas that revolutionize how people think as collective societies, as well as individuals. The revolution effect of the messages and ideas that are delivered by texts and books to the minds of people give them the power to act on the truth. The Shakespearean canon, which King Lear is a part of, has set the standards of writing literary texts in the modern world. King Lear, which is in the format of a five-act structure, includes universal themes that carry the play through the voyage of time, and is able to withstand the heavy storms and battles of human judgement and severe critical analysis, navigating through the adversity to sail out unscathed. King Lear is a tragedy about an aging monarch who abdicates his throne and bequeaths his power to his three daughters on the condition that they declare their love and praise him. However, his youngest daughter, Cordelia refuses and she doesn’t get any of his land, nor his blessing of marriage and is banished. From that moment on, chaos ensues as the great chain of being is disrupted, resulting in Lear’s and Cordelia’s hamartia. Human nature, nihilism, and truth are universal themes that are presented in the text. Dramatic language devices such as hamartia, catharsis, foil, and allusion give further depth to the characters in King Lear. Thus, great texts such as Shakespeare’s King Lear hold the power to resonate to humans across different time periods.

Nihilism is the idea and belief that life is meaningless and therefore values are baseless. It is a motif presented in King Lear that rejects the idea of universal moralities in human nature and denies the absence of moral truths. In King Lear, nihilism presents itself in the first act where Cordelia will not praise her father. Lear says, ‘nothing can be made out of nothing’. Lear repeats the phase when he meets the fool. This proves that Lear did not want to follow the rules or principles of authority and the hierarchical structure of the Great Chain of Being, even when he was the most authoritative man in Britain. He denied his divine right of king. The audience receives false hope when Lear and Cordelia are reunited, because they both die in the end, so their efforts become meaningless. Cordelia dies for no reason, and Edmund the man who orders her death changes his mind, but it is too late. Lear dies of grief, seeing his beloved daughter dead. Their hamartia is that they are both very stubborn. Another mention of nihilism in the play is when The Duke of Cornwall says, ‘Though well we may not pass upon his life/ Without the form of justice, ye our power/Shall do a curtsy to our wrath, which men/May blame but not control’. In Cornwall’s soliloquy he is abusing his power and accepting the idea that he can do whatever he wants because he doesn’t believe in being morally just. In the modern world, nihilism is presented through the Russian Nihilist Movement. The Russian Nihilist Movement was an evolutionary cultural and philosophical movement in the Russian Empire from 1860–1917. Therefore, it is clear that nihilism is depicted in the Shakespearean drama, King Lear.

Human nature is a broad concept that presents itself as a social construct. It is an umbrella term for the common traits, morals, and characteristics that humankind share and is how they think, feel and act collectively. Human nature is a universal theme and universal themes such as loyalty are a part of human nature. In King Lear, The Earl of Kent is loyal to Lear throughout the play. When Lear banished him, Kent returned to him disguised as a poor man, wanting to be in Lear’s service. At the beginning of the play Kent says ‘My life I never held but as a pawn/To wage against thy enemies, nor fear to lose it,/Thy safety being motive.’ The metaphor used indicates that Kent had no issue or problem being used as a chess piece for the safety and security of Lear. He was loyal to Lear because they were friends and he dearly loved Lear like a brother. ‘If thou canst serve where thou dost stand condemned,/So may it come thy master, whom thou lovest,’. Kent is so loyal to Lear that even when Lear banishes him, he still returns to Lear. It is a paradox because in order for Kent to serve Lear, he has to hide his name and identity from him. The universal theme of loyalty has been presented throughout the history of human civilization and will continue until the end of human civilization. Therefore, it is evident that human nature is portrayed in Shakespeare’s King Lear through the use of loyalty.

When a person tells the truth, they are able to face reality. They accept it and will try to change it if they believe it is the right thing to do. Lies are used to escape reality, which no one can do because they will have to face it someday. Small lies are like small weeds. As the weed grows, it becomes an obstacle in a person’s path. They cannot stop there, they have to kill the weed in order to continue their journey in order to live. To cower behind a lie is like bringing a knife to a gunfight. The truth holds power, it makes a person’s life more meaningful because they know what they are saying is the morally right thing to do. In King Lear the truth is presented through Lear’s fool. He is a symbol representing the truth.  “Truth’s a dog must to kennel; he must be whipped out when the Lady’s Brach may stand by th’fire and stink.” The fool’s analogy means that it is wrong to accept lies even if they are preferred. If everyone accepted lies then they would be living in their own fantasies. When the fool is speaking his mind, he is telling the truth because he is saying what he believes in. The fool is bringing Lear to the reality. ‘That sir which serves and seeks for gain,/And follows but for form,/Will pack when it begins to rain.’ The rhyming diction of the fool indicates that he is entertaining Lear while telling the reality of how men behave. Therefore, it is clear that truth is portrayed in the Shakespearean play of King Lear.

It is made evident that the Shakespearean drama King Lear has the power to resonate with humans across different time periods. King Lear has sustained its textual integrity across different time periods as it is able to stay relevant through the use of universal themes. Nihilism, human nature and the truth are themes that has remained conspicuous throughout the history of time and will remain relevant until the end of the end of the world.

Author: Zayna