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King Lear Essay

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King Lear Essay

        The presence and importance of good deeds have been prevalent throughout several pieces of historic literature including the morality play, Everyman, and Ben Jonson’s play, Volpone; The importance of good deeds is not excluded from William Shakespeare’s tragedy, King Lear. Arguably more important in Shakespeare’s King Lear, however, is knowledge, and more specifically, differences in character and audience knowledge. Through Shakespeare’s use of literary devices, the audience achieves a higher understanding and level of knowledge than the characters of the play, regarding good deeds. Throughout the play, good deeds are misinterpreted and misunderstood by characters due to a lack of knowledge. In William Shakespeare’s tragedy, King Lear, differences in character and audience knowledge impact the overall understanding of good deeds which is shown through literary devices including the manipulation of language, foreshadowing, and dramatic irony.

        Through the manipulation of language, Shakespeare stratifies audience and character knowledge which impacts the understanding of good deeds. Within the first several lines of the play, when asked to profess her love in return for the “largest bounty” (1256), Cordelia, chooses to forgo flattery and tell her father, King Lear, that she “[loves his] majesty according to [her] bond” (1257). When asked what she had to say, she replies with the infamous line “Nothing” (1257). Though the audience is able to understand that Cordelia’s reply is well intended in comparison to her sisters’, who professed their flattery in pursuit of said “largest bounty” (1256), Lear mistakes her honesty and lack of speech for, instead, a lack of caring.

The difference between the audience’s knowledge and Lear’s knowledge parallels the audience’s recognition of Cordelia’s honesty as a good deed and Lear’s misinterpretation of her honesty. Shakespeare’s deliberate manipulation of language causes Lear’s misunderstanding and therefore, lack of recognition of Cordelia’s honesty as a good deed. Lear thought that Cordelia’s statement of “nothing” meant that she did not love him as much as her sisters do; The audience, however, understands that Cordelia cannot put her love into words and, unlike her sisters, does not emit flattery in pursuit of power.

        Audience and character knowledge differ further through the literary device, foreshadowing. Shakespeare sprinkles foreshadowing throughout the entire play, leaving the audience to sit back and enjoy their knowledge as they watch the characters stumble through each scene blindly. In response to Cordelia’s expression of the word “nothing”, Lear states that “nothing will come of nothing…” (1257). Later, when speaking to Lear, the Fool states that he is better off than Lear is because “[he] is a fool, [Lear] art nothing” (1272). It can be argued that Lear’s statement of “nothing will come of nothing” foreshadows his own fate (1257); After Cordelia says “nothing” and Lear gives his crown and power to Goneril and Regan, he becomes nothing, and as the Fool expressed, is nothing without his former power. Through this foreshadowing, the audience has a higher level of understanding of the course of the play and can anticipate Lear’s fate. Because of Lear’s lack of knowledge, he misinterprets good deeds and through foreshadowing, the audience understands the importance of good deeds and the impact that Lear’s misunderstanding has on his fate.

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