Role and function the Gloucester subplot in King Lear

In King Lear we discover the presence of two parallel plots: Gloucester story intensifies our experience of the central action by supplying sequence of parallel, impressed upon us by frequent commentary by the characters themselves. The sub-plot simplifies the central action of Lear and his daughters, translating its verbal and visual patterns. it also pictorializes the main action, supplying interpreted visual emblems for some of the play’s important themes. The clarity of the subplot and its didacticism are related, furthermore, to the old fashioned literary form like the morality play, but the verbal and visual simplifications of sub-plot do not simply provide a contrast with what goes on elsewhere in the play; they help to reveal the nature of Lear’s experience by being so obviously inadequate to it. Lear’s sufferings are heroic because they cannot be accommodated by traditional formulas, moral or literary and thee sub-plot exists partly to establish that fact.

The simplification of the sub-plot can be seen first of all in its method of defining character. The behaviour of Edmund, the bastard, for example, is more comprehensible than that of Lear’s bad daughters. The contrast is between Edmund’s conventionally explicable villainy and the seemingly incomprehensible evil Goneril and Regan. The two daughters, who have been given “All”, must remain the subject of unanswered question about what in nature breeds such “hard-hearts”. Elizabethans believed that illegitimacy of birth was itself a cause evil. Lear attempts to explain his daughters’ nature on the grounds of their bastardy, which like Edmund signifies a lack of kinship with Lear’s goodness that is reflected also in Cordelia. Thus Kent says:

“The stars above us, govern our conditions;

Else oneself mate and make could not beget,

Such different issues.” (Act IV, sc. iii)

Again the sub-plot often provides emblem or pictures with clearly stated meanings. The appearance of Edgar on the heath as a poor and naked Bedlam beggar supplies the physical actuality of poverty and nakedness that preoccupy Lear, stripped off his retinue and position:

“Is man no more than this?

Consider him well.”

In Lear’s remarks such as this Edgar is projected as a subject for meditation and consequently of his own poverty. Gloucester’s entrance with the torch immediately afterwards inspires the Fool to similar emblematic imagination on a different subject:

“Now a little fire in a wild field were like an old lecher’s heart.”

The association of fire to heart’s lechery is, in fact, emblematic and points to the root of moral chaos not only in Gloucester’s life but also in the world of Lear’s daughters. Such emblems in the sub-plot portray the obsessive moral imagination of the character who creates them but at the same time they provide physical analogue for some of the play’s important themes—nakedness, sexual appetite and injustice.

Lear’s mad visions differ substantively and in a contrasted form from Edgar’s ‘lunacy’ in the sub-plot, as well as from Gloucester’s sanity. Contrary to the formal structure of Edgar’s references to animals’ lechery Lear’s hypothetical statement of animal’s coupling do not merely satirise the sin of adultery. They are animated sources of his visions:

“Thou shalt not die: die for adultery! No.

The wren goes to’t, and the small gilded fly

Does lecher in my sight.” (Act IV, sc. vi)

Gloucester’s most striking simile about his sufferings,

“As flies to wanton boys, are we to the gods,

They kill us for their sport.” (Act IV, sc i)

offers another kind of contrast with Lear’s mad language. Gloucester’s figure of speech sets up an exact proportion between the terms of comparison, that is, between himself and the gods. Lear’s language does the opposite, stressing the personal motivation behind each generalisation and therefore, exceed the limits of conventional figure of speech.

The thematic function of the sub-plot becomes most explicit perhaps in the scene in which we witness Gloucester’s abortive leap from the cliff. Levin has observed that Gloucester’s fall suggests the fall of man or the kind of the fall even may be seen as a rendering of “fortunate fall”, the Christian paradox, whereby man’s Original Fall was interpreted as happy because it enabled him to receive more grace and be redeemed. Gloucester’s attempt to kill himself is deflected by Edgar. Gloucester’s fall is interpreted by Edgar as miraculous:

“Thy life’s a miracle.” (Act IV, sc. vi)

At the end of the play we see how Edgar, who exhorted his blind father to look after his fall is unable to change anything in case of a king. Lear’s sufferings outweigh any optimistic or encouraging words, whether Edgar’s or Albany’s, and they are told by Kent that pain should be allowed in death. Lear’s experience cannot be accounted for in the way that of Gloucester’s is. He is more sinned against than sinning; he and Cordelia are those “who with best meaning have incurr’d the worst”. (Act V, sc iii).

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