Table of contents
2. Brief summary
3. Analysis of the main plot and the subplot
3.1 Good versus evil
3.2 Greed for power
3.3 Sight and Blindness
4. Findings: Why two plots?
I write this essay within the scope of the seminar „Shakespeare’s King Lear” where I have dealt with the topic on several different levels. I got insight into aspects such as madness, cruelty, the role of nature within the play as well as the different versions of King Lear. All these topics were quite fascinating, but as I heard a lot about them in the course of the semester, I decided to pick up a different one in my term paper: Obviously in King Lear we have to deal with a double plot, a main plot and a fully developed subplot, which share important features, but also differ to some extent. I find it interesting to take a closer look on the dynamic relation between the two plots and analyse if and in how far our meaning and understanding of the play is influenced by the mesh between the two plots.
As a first step I want to start with a brief summary of the play, presenting the main characters of the two plots. This way we get a rough impression about the protagonists’ involvement in the play and have a basis for the further analysis. Then I want to go deeper and point out how the two stories connect to each other, using some chosen scenes as examples. As a next step I will utilise the results of my analysis and come up with suggestions relating to the intention Shakespeare might have had in mind when he decided to put two plots in the centre of attention.
Finally I want to take a critical look on my findings and come up with my own conclusion.
2. Brief Summary
In Shakespeare’s King Lear there are two plots, each one with its own set of characters: the main plot deals with Lear, King of Britain and his three daughters Cordelia, Regan and Goneril. The tragedy begins when Lear hands over his kingdom to Regan and Goneril whom he believes sincerely love him - in contrast to Cordelia whom he banishes, falsely assuming that she has a lack of devotion for him. The King of France, who sees her true worth, wants to marry Cordelia and takes her to live with him. Soon Lear has to realise that he made a wrong decision in handing over his throne to Regan and Goneril. Eventually he has to face that his daughters only abused him to take over his power. Outraged by their cruel behaviour, he rushes out into a violent storm. As a result of the anguish he suffers at the hands of his daughters and the exposure to the elements of nature, Lear slowly starts going mad.
Parallel to King Lear and his situation we get to know the Earl of Gloucester, who is the head of another family and the focus of the subplot. Similar to the main plot, the subplot revolves round the parent - child relationship between Gloucester and his two sons Edgar and Edmund. Edgar is Gloucester’s older and legitimate son and Edmund is his younger bastard son, who works out a plot against his brother by misleading both his father as well as Edgar in order to inherit his father’s estate. As the play moves on the two plots become one: Edgar, who fears to be killed, disguises himself as a poor beggar and accompanies Lear on his way through the heath. Meanwhile Gloucester is betrayed by Edmund and handed over to Regan and her husband Cornwall. Those two torture Gloucester by gouging out his eyes. The blinded Gloucester is sent out into the storm where he is soon discovered by the disguised Edgar, who leads him to Dover.
After reaching Dover, Cordelia helps to restore Lear’s sanity. Soon a battle is fought between the French and the British, which is lost by the French army. As a result Lear and Cordelia are taken prisoners. The tragedy reaches its climax when Edmund is mortally wounded by his brother; Goneril poisons Regan and kills herself and finally also Cordelia dies due to Edmund’s secret order. Lear weeps for her, carrying his dead daughter in his arms. Eventually Edgar and Albany are left to restore order in England.
3. Analysis of the main plot and the subplot
As the two plots are skilfully intertwined, it is difficult to make a clear cut. In order to analyse their relation most effectively I’m going to proceed as follows: Obviously throughout the play there are some reoccurring motifs. The thread running through the story is the theme of good versus evil. The motif of power is also a predominant one and closely linked to the first. Last but not least the motif of sight and blindness or, in other words, perception and truth plays a crucial role. In the following I want to use these three motifs as the starting point of my analysis and see how they make their way through the play, relating the two plots to each other.