The act of creating and developing a character called characterization not only establishes a character, but serves as a means for the play write to reveal the themes of the play; “A literary character is the invention of the author, and often inventions are indebted to prior inventions”, (Kirsch). Therefore, through characterization many common themes repeat within an author’s literary collection. Shakespeare is the inventor of many characters and throughout his plays themes often reappear. Othello and King Lear, two of Shakespeare’s great tragedies, exemplify this technique explicitly.
The protagonists of these two plays, Othello and King Lear, by means of their actions, thoughts and words, reveal the same themes revolving around jealousy, hatred and madness, which stem from the corruptions of the time. In King Lear, Shakespeare introduces to us the story of an old man who moves from a position of encompassing enormous power, status, wealth, responsibility, social complexity, and security, step by step into a terrible isolation from his fellow human beings, his family, and nature itself, and suffers horribly from the stripping away of his entire identity.
He then goes mad as a result of his experience, recovers briefly, and then becomes insane again in the moment before his death. In no other work of fiction – not even in Oedipus – is this total transformation from such magnificence to total despair rendered with such emotional intensity. That intensity is heightened by the fact that Lear’s story is underscored throughout the play by the parallel experiences of the Duke of Gloucester. Othello is composed of an extraordinary mixture of antithetical states of feeling and being.
The extremes are literally and emblematically represented in Desdemona and lago, but they are most deeply incarnated in Othello himself, who moves from one to the other, from the transcendence and love celebrated in the first half of the play to the nearly utter disintegration and destructiveness that are dramatized in the second half. The contrast is so drastic that most critics find it insupportable. Othello is not the only Shakespearean tragedy to dramatize such oppositions, so is King Lear, but Othello poses a peculiar difficulty for critics because its preoccupations are so unremittingly sexual.
Along with their flawed appearances, both King Lear and Othello learn about man’s nobility. Over time critics have displayed Shakespeare’s Othello and King Lear as the most painful and exciting tragic deaths. Human flaws are portrayed through the main characters Othello and King Lear relating to today’s society. In these plays one experiences the failure of man’s nobility towards their leaders. Throughout the plays, both Othello and King Lear, experience similar hardships, which result in similar loss of social order and end in tragic deaths.
The metaphorical diseases in Shakespearian kingship always involve economics, pride, flattery and foolishness, which all lead to the eventual downfall of the protagonists. Throughout both plays, the corresponding themes of favouritism, affectation, political division and doubleness also play a role in steering the peaceful coexistence of characters into tragic fates, ultimately death. King Lear is another story of a soul in torment, a “purgatorial” story. Again the tragic writer internalizes a commonplace action, the facts of which are legendary and presumably known to Shakespeare’s audience.
At the start of the play, old King Lear, like the noble Othello, has a rich, powerful, and complex social identity. He is both king of his country and patriarch of his family, the lynch pin which holds together the structure of the society, which the opening scene presents to us in full formal splendour. Everyone looks to him as the source of order and meaning in the society. The opening scene of this play, like the opening scene in Othello, serves to give the reader a full visual symbol of the society united in a shared vision of what matters in the human community.
This is the only time in the play where such a vision of the human community stands in working order. Before the first scene is over, it already starts to fracture. Although King Lear and Othello consume much power they are still ridiculed by the theme of affectation. Lear is taunted by his relatives and close subjects because of old age. Many think that he is too old to rule. As a result his daughters Regan and Goneril take advantage of their fathers love, and old age, consequently stripping him off his integrity.
Goneril explains “Old fools are babies again, and must be used with checks as flatteries, when they are seen abused”. Goneril does not speak highly of her father. She has lost all respect for him therefore feeling no guilt towards her actions. H. B. Charlton states that because of Goneril and Regan, King Lear loses social order of family, human relationships and the beginning of all man. In the same way Desdemona’s elopement with a black Moor was an affront to the social consciousness of Venice which raised active resistance from that deeper level of life, resulting in her immediate departure from the country.
So also Lear’s action is violence against the consciousness of the country. By allowing pride and passion to take precedence over national interests, he has sacrificed the country and put it into the hands of destructive forces. In Shakespeare’s earlier tragedy, Othello, we also learn that a woman’s “honour is an essence that’s not seen”; and this idea refers back to St. Paul’s, “faith is the ground of things which are hoped for and the evidence of things which are not seen”.
Relating this to Lear, his initial problem was putting too much “faith” in what his senses told him were Goneril’s and Regan’s loves for him – and too little faith in Cordelia’s love. The final dialogue between the two evil sisters at the end of the scene expose that the both will become major villains in the play. But Shakespeare’s villains usually see quite clearly – especially into the weaknesses of others. Just as Iago sees the weaknesses of Othello, they too seem to know Lear better than he knows himself.
They plan to teach the old man a lesson, make Lear “taste his folly. The real cause of the sequence of events which leads ultimately to Lear’s death is his own inability to tolerate any view of him except the one he himself has, just as Othello does his self-destruction. It is important to note that he quarrels with Cordelia for spoiling his self-flattering court pageant with extraordinary speed and violence, through which his response tells the audience at once that we are witnessing here an enormously powerful ego which simply cannot accept any external check on his sense of how he should be treated because of who he is.
Similar is the case to Othello, whose rash attitude towards Desdemona’s loss of his handkerchief transforms the order into complete disorder. Stanley Cavell, former Shakespearean critic, suggested that all of Lear’s actions, from the very opening to the end of the play, stem from a desire to avoid shame, to avoid accepting the world rather than demanding it answer to him, because accepting the world would mean that he would have to allow the world to recognize him for who he is.
Lear’s persistent refusal to express love and let others, especially Cordelia, express their love openly and honestly stems from something he senses about himself and does not wish to reveal to the world. Again, once Iago manipulates Othello against Desdemona’s disloyalty, he sees her plea as a futile attempt to lure him, just as Lear misinterprets Cordelia. An association between Cordelia and death in the opening scene of the play is comprehensible even on a literal level.
Freud contends that her silence directly connotes death, as muteness does in dreams. But Cordelia also speaks in the scene, and what she says indicates clearly enough that Lear’s rejection of her is precisely his denial of the impending death that he ostensively acknowledges in the very act of dividing the kingdom and in his explicit statement that he wishes “to shake all cares and business from our age” and “unburdened crawl toward death”. Cordelia tells her father that she loves him “According to my bond, no more nor less. ”
The play, explores the normality or, one might say, the banality of goodness, by which the opposition to evil comes from recognizably normal sources all around us. In Cordelia is a symbol of traditional goodness, unambiguously and clearly presented to the audience. As in his portrayal of Desdemona, here too Shakespeare has presented a woman of beauty and culture. Her demeanour is gentle and refined though not lacking in strength or determination. Her emotions are deep, pure, loyal and enduring. Her mind is clear and idealistic.
Desdemona is more of the heart, softer and more graceful, while Cordelia combines emotional goodness with a stoical will and courage born of idealism. Desdemona inherited from her father certain narrowness and rigidity of mental outlook and an inability to see how others are affected by her actions. Likewise Cordelia has inherited from her father, who is a far more powerful figure than Brabantio, a very limited mental outlook which expresses itself because of her goodness as doctrinaire idealism and an inflexible will functioning in accordance with those ideals.
Her name and some of her utterances, suggest that she is the purest form of Christian love in action. She loves her father unreservedly and acts immediately to relieve his suffering, an action which costs her life. In that sense, King Lear offers a vision of traditional goodness as an ideal, based on a firm acknowledgment of the essential bonding between human beings, especially between parents and children. She is the same moral realm what Desdemona is in Othello. Like Desdemona, she is one of nature’s higher creations – both embody a high degree of emotional and mental purity.
Born into a society far less cultured and pure, an atmosphere of low consciousness where evil has substantial scope for expression. Life moves to stifle the budding perfection in her nature and it does so by acting on the small grain of impurity in her otherwise sparkling character. What Bradley calls fate is the activity of life forces at this one vulnerable point, the pride she inherited from her father. Cordelia’s assertion of divided duty and Lear’s assertion demanding professions of affection are the same trait. The movement that arises to destroy him touches her also, for her act of relating to it by assertion.
Because she takes the initiative to speak arrogantly and advance the movement instead of cancelling it, she loses the capacity to save her father later on. As critical analyst, Granville Barker points out, Cordelia possesses the same pride and obstinacy we find in Lear, only her emotions are purer, more cultured and refined than his. Lear’s response was rejecting and cursing his best loved daughter. In eloping with Othello, Desdemona infuriated her father to the point where he refused to have her re-enter his home and died of grief shortly thereafter.
Though her intention was never to hurt him it comes as a mortal blow. Desdemona is only following the promptings of her heart and mind. When Cordelia refuses to make public protestations of love to her father, she too is only following the promptings of her heart and mind – not to use her genuine affection for her father to win any worldly gain. The deeper emotions rebel at the very thought of public demonstration. To her the truest thing is not to speak, rather than flatter even by saying what is true.
Lear is proud and vain despite Cordelia’s compelled manner to satisfy his vanity in front of the entire court. By remaining silent and then speaking only a dry mental platitude about divided duty to father and husband, surely Cordelia does not express the truth. For the truth is that she feels deep affection for her father but resents hypocrisy and mercenary professions. She acts on principle, a fixed narrow principle, but beneath the principle is the pride of one who refuses to have her emotions commanded and who clings unbendingly to her sense of personal dignity.