Since the publication of Bradley’s Shakespearean Tragedy: lectures on Hamlet, Othello, King Lear and Macbeth, the critical tradition on King Lear has payed special attention to the issue of the subplot. Critics offer a varied range of arguments against as well as in favor of the use of the subplot. The general opinion among the critics is that the subplot generalise and intensify the main plot. However, in more specific aspects, not all of them give the subplot the same value.
According to A. C. Bradley, the subplot should not be valued only as a ramatic device, since it is a mere repetition of the main plot. In both plots, we have a father deceived by his daughter, King Lear in the main plot, or by his son, Gloucester in the subplot. We also have the villain daughters, Regan and Goneril in the main plot and Edmond in the subplot, together with the truthfully loving children, who are Cordelia in the main plot and Edgar in the subplot. The latest ones are mistreated by the parents because of the manipulation of the villain siblings.
Cordelia is disinherited by King Lear and Edgar is chased to be punished by Gloucester. However, a more interesting point in Bradley’s essay is that the subplot can be considered as a device to ‘provide a most effective contrast between its personages and those of the main plot’. This idea is also supported by Robert B. Helman, and according to him, the main contrast between the characters in the play is that established between King Lear and Gloucester.
Though both are victims of a lie and both have made an ‘error of understanding’ when interpreting their daughters and son’s behaviours, they follow very different patterns. While Lear imposes tragedy on his life, since he decides to divide his kingdom, Gloucester rather accepts the tragedy, he just believes what Edmond tells him about Edgar. Not simply at this level can we notice this contrast between imposition and acceptance.
This aspect is extended to their behaviour in general. In fact, King Lear imposes his will upon other [I. v. 36-39], while Gloucester accepts the will of others [II. ii. 130-139]. To this opposition between King Lear and Gloucester, many critics add the idea of Gloucester’s superiority over King Lear. Regarding to this line of criticism, I find several examples in which we can notice that Gloucester is even more worthy of audience or readers’ sympathy. In the act III, King Lear and Gloucester’s roles change dramatically. King Lear falls into madness and becomes a victim of his misfortune without taking any action to solve his problems.
He just wanders around the forest crying in rage and madness. However, Gloucester, though still is manipulated by Edmond, takes a more active role in the play. He decides to help King Lear ithout taking into account Regan and her husband’s orders. Gloucester’s heroism is clearly superior to that of King Lear. Both are tragic heroes, who achieved wisdom and humanity after suffering, but Gloucester’s moral insights seem to be purer than King Lear’s is. In this aspect, we can find subtle differences between both characters.
In act III, King Lear acquires moral insights and feels pity for the poor people [III. iv. 28-29]. Nevertheless, Gloucester’s moral insights go beyond thought and take a step into action. A similar speech to that of King Lear in act III is produced by Gloucester [IV. i. 63-70]. Both speeches deal with the need of compassion and charity for the low but, the beginning of Gloucester’s speech is remarkably different to that of King Lear, ‘Here, take my purse’. Gloucester is much more disinterested than King Lear is.
But not all critics consider the subplot in such a positive way. Many of them think that the subplot only arise confusion and bewilderment. Concretely, Bretrand Evans, in his essay Practice as Diversion, states that the practices made by characters in the subplot are diversionary. This ritic justifies the subplot as a device to provide secondary awareness- unawareness gap. In fact, the main gap disappears at the end of act I. King Lear is not aware of his daughter’s falsehood and he thinks that they love him.
But Regan and Goneril are planning to take the absolute power upon the kingdom, so they try to make his father become mad. But, at the end of act I, King Lear discovers how disgraceful their daughters are, and he also realises that the third daughter, Cordelia, is really the one who loves him truthfully. Therefore, as the main plot is no longer exploitable, according to Evans, Shakespeare provides a subplot with abundance of secondary gaps. In the subplot, Gloucester is unaware of Edmond’s plot to get rid of him and Edgar.
Also, there are examples of disguise, such as Edgar disguised as Poor Tom, and Kent disguised as a servant. Both characters provide situations in which other characters do not know their real identities. Nevertheless, Evans states that the main function of this complex set of practices and practisers is to diverse our mind from the main plot: The gaps created by these two practiser [Edmond and Edgar] ompensate for the absence of a central gap, and indubitably they add immeasurably to the excitement of the total play.
But they are diversionary and they cannot begin to generate the degree of centripetal force as in Hamlet and Othello. However, when reading King Lear, your attention is continuously focusing on these repetitions in the subplot as reminiscence of the main plot. The subplot is like a mirror that instead of diverting your mind from the main plot, it makes you to remember what has just happened to characters in the main plot.
For instance, after the division of the kingdom [I. ] the issue of the child betraying sibling and parents is introduced, and just in the following scene, Edmond tells Gloucester that Edgar has the intention of betraying him. Then, a very interesting speech is produced by Gloucester [II. ii. 95-107] in which he reflects upon the problems that affect to the kingdom, to families, to countries and so on. It seems to be an extension of the main plot; it completes the main plot. In fact, the subplot gives the play a mythic quality since characters in oth plots are involved in similar situation.
William Empson states that the play acquires a universal quality since two different families suffer a similar misfortune. It indicates that every family might suffer a tragedy like these that King Lear and Gloucester live. Much is the critic on the issue of the subplot in King Lear and many are the opinions about its function or validity. But what is clear is that the use of the subplot is not superfluous but it was made with a clear intention though this one is different according to the point of view.