Parallel Plotting in King Lear

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William Shakespeare invokes masterful use of the technique of parallel plots to intensify the theme as well as the narrative of his tale of King Lear. In a very authentic fashion, King Lear is the story of not one, but two families torn apart by greed, treachery among siblings and the folly of foolish pride by fathers. So skillful is Shakespeare’s use of parallels plotting in the play that the device not only never feels like a gimmick or dramatic invention, but is actually worked so seamlessly into the forward thrust of the narrative that the play would seem hollow at its core without the many similarities drawn between the members of Lear’s family and those of Gloucester.

Perhaps it is Shakespeare’s decision to cast his subplot with a father whose fall from grace is the result of two sons rather than three daughters that keeps the parallels from ever seeming forced. The decision to avoid an exact duplication of the specifics of the main Learn story is a wise one regardless of the reasons. By casting a second story that invokes the idea of attaining insight through suffering that results in loss of sight with a good and evil pair of half-brothers, the result is a universalizing of the potential for all families to disintegrate that removes it from the real of tragedy belonging only to kings and rules. Lear own personal narrative of a kingdom coming undone as a result of a lack of communication among family members suffer from being a little to distanced from the realities of everyday life for the typical reader to connect with. Gloucester may be a member of the aristocracy, but in comparison to Lear and daughters who stand to inherit a kingdom, the family Gloucester’s more complicated and earthy bloodlines may seem more recognizable in the era of Jerry Springer and reality show melodrama. Indeed, one can almost imagine Lear appearing on a Shakespearean version of Jerry Springer when he voices an observation that could equally have come out of Gloucester’s mouth and binds both parallel plots to their source: How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is/To have a thankless child.’Away, away! (1.4.302-303)

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The extraordinary quality of how the subplot involving Gloucester’s thankless son binds to the main plot of Lear’s thankless daughters is how thoroughly the parallels connect the narrative of the stories or reflect upon recurring themes or imagery binding the two families together. Although the play opens without any indication of even the loosest connection tying Lear or Cordelia to Gloucester’s bastard son Edmund, by the play’s climax Edmund has become the master of their fate. Both Edmund and Lear’s daughter Goneril construct devious plots to realize their respective ambitions that are at the uncertain mercy of a letter. And, of course, the ultimate parallel is the tortuous path through blindness and suffering that both Lear and Gloucester must go through before attaining real insight and gaining the reward of redemption in exchange for a longer life.

The stories of both Lear and Gloucester can only maintain the momentum required to achieve that redemption as a result of foolish displays of unwise parenting and the effects of misplaced pride resulting from their metaphorical blindness. Both men are sent down their respective paths of suffering directly as a result of their incapacity to judge which of their offspring possesses true love and genuine caring for them. From such a perspective, both subplots are also driven by profound flaws existing within the protagonists of each parallel plot. At the same time, both Lear and Gloucester have their suffering relieved to some extent by those who have borne the brunt of their previous lack of good judgment of character.

A central element of the play as a whole and the parallel between the plots of Lear and Gloucester’s families being ripped apart is Shakespeare’s persistent invocation of literary irony which is characterized not as expressions of sarcastic detachment, but in the form of appearances being deceiving. As Cordelia wisely observes, ‘We are not the first/Who with best meaning have incurred the worst: (5.3.4-5). An ironic sense of dislocation in which the world seems to have turned inside out pervades throughout the narrative of King Lear. Lear believes that holding some kind of weirdly prideful contest to see which of his daughters love him the most will keep the kingdom from falling into chaos may see sensible, but winds up becoming a decision entirely lacking in any sense. Fathers mistake their devious children as being the sincere and loyal ones and punish the sincere and loyal ones for behaving deviously. Those with the ability to see remain blind to the stark reality around then and only become capable of seeing that the errors of their judgment when vision is taken from them.

That sense of irony reaches its apex in the most direct parallel between the children of Lear and Gloucester. How much deeper could the irony be among this cast of characters than the pairing of Goneril and Edmund as the two greatest examples of kids gone bad seeking revenge upon the sins of the fathers. Goneril has essentially given everything that a father could possibly give a child by Lear and yet the literal keys to the kingdom is still not enough. By any account imaginable, Goneril still proves to possess the blackest heart in the kingdom. By contrast, a definitely sense of irony seems to hover over the parallel with such unprovoked evil that Shakespeare makes of Edmund. Lear has effectively done nothing to deserve the treatment he receives at the hands of Goneril whereas Edmund has done absolutely nothing to deserve his treatment as the offspring of sin by his father.

The subplot of Gloucester’s downfall that results from his own lack of insight into how he treats his children runs precisely parallel to the main plot King Lear. The incorporation of this parallel subplot not only heightens the literary effects that apply to the main plot such as thematic concerns and imagery, it also seamlessly helps propel the narrative forward and ultimately impacts the very climax of the tragedy.

  • Greenblatt, Stephen, gen. ed.’The Norton Anthology of English Literature. 9th ed. Vol. A. New York: Norton, 2012. Print.

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