In his King Lear, Shakespeare creates a main plot and a subplot that are intricately interwoven and which complement each other in a number of various aspects involving events and characterization. The main plot involves that of King Lear and those connected to him. It opens as his highness is preparing to divide his kingdom between his three daughters, Goneril, Regan, and Cordelia, and continues with the chain of events that arise from this occurrence. The subplot whose events reinforce those of the main plot concerns the Earl of Gloucester and the matters that he deals with involving his sons Edgar and Edmund.
The first connection between the plots is shown by the two fathers, Lear and Gloucester, who are oblivious to the truth and mistakenly place high levels of power into the hands of their evil children while exiling the good. Lear banishes Cordelia after his forced test of love in which Goneril and Regan exhibit a “hypocritical and rhetorical exce! ss” (Greg 890) of disguised truth while Cordelia states simply “I love your majesty according to my bond; nor more nor less” (Greg 893). This is a rather disappointing statement in the eyes of the King, as he is immediately surprised and infuriated with rage.
Edgar is then disowned by Gloucester after Edmund dupes him out of paternal inheritance by way of a forged letter. His father is fooled in the same type of manner as Lear, each tricked by the cunning children that are concocting evil plots against their aging fathers and their saintly siblings. These events clearly display the ways in which the two fathers make rash decisions due to their entirely ignorant manners regarding their own offspring’s nature. They blame the children who truly love them while placing dangerous control and massive fortune into the hands of those who do not.
Next we see how the evil children each betray their fathers. Goneril and Regan plot together to extract all power from their father by reducing his number of followers and treating him like a decrepit old man, while Edmund takes a letter (in confidence) from his father that is damaging to Cornwall (Regan’s husband) and goes straight back to the Duke to tell of Gloucester’s unfaithfulness. We also observe the way in which both “aged patriarchs” (Greg 889) are blinded; Lear is “blinded” by his senility and by political issues. His mental state becomes progressively worse as onditions in the play do the same.
He is unable to “understand himself, his daughters, and the condition of the poor wretches of the world until he is stripped of everything” (Greg 890). Gloucester is literally blinded in a horrific torture scene involving all of the bastard children. His eyes are gouged out for his betrayal of them; they have now successfully taken over his estate as they have with Lear’s. As both old men have exiled their good children, they in turn are exiled out into nature, unwelcome in their own dwellings since their own tyrannous progenies have grasped all control.
We are shown the images of both wanderers, each with no place to go and nothing to believe in. They have sacrificed everything due to their extreme naivety–their power, material possessions, and mental stability. Shakespeare depicts Lear with his crown of weeds and Gloucester with his bandaged eyes, both in tattered clothes and dirty faces, having no shelter and almost no hope. In their times of despair, both Gloucester and Lear have a small handful of people on which they can depend upon. Kent, Lear’s banished loyal follower in disguise, provides support whenever the King needs anything.
The Fool performs foolishness in a role he plays to protect and encourage Lear. Edgar plays the same role of providing protection and encouragement to Gloucester by performing madness as Poor Tom, the beggar possessed by demons. These three loyal subjects interact both with each other and with the shunned duo. They play a key part in transferring vital messages between Lear, Gloucester, and their group of children. By way of Kent, Cordelia discovers the trials that her father has endured. She comes to the King’s rescue, the French troops following closely behind to aid her in retaining Lear’s power.
When she finds er father in a field murmuring nonsense and decorating himself with weeds, she is filled with sympathy and pity for the deteriorating King. Edmund also has a similar encounter with Gloucester. He comes upon his blinded father (still disguised as Poor Tom) and leads Gloucester to Dover Cliffs, where the old man plans on committing suicide. Edgar then persuades the Earl that he has somehow miraculously survived the fall and that the demons have been exorcised from his soul. Both men, “the mad Lear and the blind Gloucester, become as children tended by the good children they wrongfully banished” (Greg 889).
Both Cordelia and Edgar exhibit a kind of selflessness and goodness through nurturing love and undemanded forgiveness that is “redemptive and restorative” (Greg 889) ! for each of their fathers. Meanwhile, the cruel siblings are forgetting their main tasks due to complicated feelings and desires within the group. They are getting frustrated because of unforeseen complications in their plot and they begin taking their anger out on each other. Goneril and Regan begin fighting over Edmund and ultimately the entire love triangle is terminated.
Edgar mortally wounds Edmund in a duel, while Goneril ills herself after admitting to poisoning Regan because of competition and jealousy. After all is said and done, both the King and the Earl die of broken hearts. Gloucester’s heart bursts after the emotional strain of joy and grief proves too much to handle as Edgar revealed his identity to him and asked for his blessing. The King dies as he cries out in anguish over the only daughter who truly loved him–Cordelia. She was executed in the gallows after she was arrested for helping Lear, something the old king simply could not handle in his state of insanity.
The way the two plots are structured, they are intertwined to demonstrate the hard learning processes each men go through by reflecting the trials that occur in each case. Each storyline focuses on the relationship between a father and his children and the way in which each old man is blinded by arrogance and pride. These negative attributes lead them to their downfalls from great stature and wealth to misery and ultimately death, with all of the correlating events woven into the play. Both gain the insight and wisdom of the human condition that they so desperately needed.
Lear goes mad and gains a “reason in madness” (Greg 951) while Gloucester is literally blinded and can finally see the relationship between himself and his sons; he “stumbled when he saw” (Greg 940) the truth. Finally, when each man is educated, it is too late. Everything they ever possessed, mental, physical, emotional, and spiritual, is essentially lost. A dramatic, tragic lesson is learned by all! and Shakespeare’s intricate structure of the two parallel plots helps to convey the messages by sending them twice over–a great effect coupled with his use of irony and characterization.