With a play as complex and multi – leveled as King Lear, it is very difficult to assess whether Shakespeare’s view of life is either pessimistic or optimistic. Without a doubt, there are many good arguments supporting both sides. Because there are such an array of forces at work on the character in Lear, as well as so many separate and interrelated themes, one can not help but wonder whether it was even Shakespeare’s intention to express a strictly pessimistic or optimistic view. Perhaps Shakespeare was alluding to something which, although encompassing both opimism and pessimism, transcended them both. He was explaining what it was to be human.
Through this perception of King Lear, we can say that the play is both bleak and hopeful, because it asserts that there is no meaning in life but puts man as the master of the world, instead of omnipotent justice dispensing ‘higher powers’. King Lear gives the reader a bleak and lonely impression. People suffer unjustly and are killed by heartbreak. Albany points out that if left alone by the gods, “Humanity must perforce prey on itself / like monsters of the deep,” expressing that justice and humanity do not house comfortably together.
And how can there be meaning or purpose in life if there is no justice? Lear himself alludes poetically to this when upon Cordelia’s death he asks, “Why should a dog, a horse, a rat have life / And thou no breath at all?” He also realizes that “I am a man more sinned against than sinning” when it is made obvious that the punishment for his mistake in scene one is harsher than it should be, making it unjust. There seems no end to unjust punishment – Lear is cast out into he storm and made to witness the death of Cordelia, Gloucester’s eyes are put out by guests in his own castle. Where are the gods or omnipotent forces during all of this? Gloucester states, in a flash of brilliance that, “As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods / They kill us for their sport,” showing us that even if there were higher powers than man, they do not act justly, making them as susceptible to evil as humanity. In King Lear, there is no guiding force which the characters must follow, no justice (except perhaps for the slaying of Edmund by Edgar) and until after the storm has passed, very little hope. This seems to prove that Shakespeare was being quite pessimistic in writing his play. But as before stated, King Lear is a complex and intricately woven work.
To say simply ‘the play is pessimistic’ is in itself an injustice. Through all of the suffering endured by Lear, Gloucester and Edgar, there is a strain of hope – the horrible events in King Lear allow us to see man as he truly is, stripped bare. For centuries Western thought imagined the universe to be set up in hierarchidcal order – God, man, animal; bonds of state, bonds of family, bonds of individual reason. Shakespeare has decided in his play to strip away this order, to break down the hierarchy and show man in his true form. That is why the disrobing of Lear is so symbolic.
Having seen his bonds of family collapse (the cruelty of Goneril and Regan) and having lost his reason of insanity, Lear finds himself face to face with this true man. In a previous scene he comments that without those ‘superfluous’ bonds, “Man’s life is as cheap as beast’s,” and now he realizes how much this is true. Lear looks upon the miserable, haggard Edgar and realizes that, “Unacommodated man is no more but such a poor, bare, forked animal.” His sufferings bring about his enlightment – he realizes his mistake and is shown the truth about man, that there is more to him than mere state, family and reason. There is soul. Gloucester goes through a similar transformation, realizing that “I stumbled when I saw,” and becoming generous.
The gods have not brought them to their revelations, it is important to note, but man himself. It is also important to note how easily these bonds fell away from Lear and Gloucester. In one act the whole disintegration of order into chaos has begun. Lear admits near the end of the play that, being a sort of representative of this order, “I am not ague – proof.” Man is vulnerable, susceptible and capable of great evils, having no higher power to guide him or grant him justice. A question now arises: What, then, does guide mankind? Is the reader to assume that Shakespeare meant to show man as an evil creature lacking in any grace whatsoever? The answer to this question is that man guides himself.
Since there is no justice and meaning in life, to be happy man must create justice and meaning. He must create happiness. Once re – united with his banished daughter Cordelia, Lear expresses this notion. “We will sing like birds i’ the cage” is a very powerful and poetic line. It shows that although humanity has a propensity for evil and sheer personal gain, the only way he can rise above this is by his own efforts to make life happy. Like “bird i’ the cage,” trapped on earth, man must make the best of his existence.
Nowhere in the play is there a stronger message of hope – amidst all of the suffering and chaos in the world, Lear and Cordelia will sing. This is why, perhaps, Shakespeare wrote Lear’s death the way he did – the fallen king dies thinking that maybe, just maybe, his beautiful daughter has life. King Lear shows us, rather than expressing a stauchly pessimistic or optimistic opinion of life, that man can order his life in any way he chooses, for better or for worse. Since there are no guiding gods or prevailing justice in man’s cruel existence, the only thing he can do is hope. For if he realizes that hs is in control of his own destiny, perhaps he will be able to change his life for the better, and make it worth dying for.