Loyalty Honored but Betrayal Repaid: Betrayal and Loyalty in “King Lear”
This essay was submitted as part of coursework for American Military University’s English literature course.
Shakespeare’s tragedy “King Lear” has the main theme of betrayal but also about loyalty. “King Lear” is a play about King Lear who is so blinded by vanity and madness that he casts out the people who are most genuine and loyal to him to elevate flatterers who ultimately betray him. The play opens with King Lear asking his daughters to tell him how much they love him and it is from that point it is presented to the audience that the truth is sometimes an ugly, plain thing and that a man would rather succumb to the beautiful allure of a falsehood than to allow himself to hear what might be a bitter ugly truth. It also seems that the most unexpected betrayals come from those who are closest to us and if we are patient, those who would betray us will receive justice in one way or another.
Betrayal comes in many forms in within “King Lear” from simple lies; to usurpation of power; to infidelity; to murder. The first betrayal of the play was the most blatant and surprising because it was the condemnation of King Lear’s youngest daughter, Cordelia, for refusing to lie about how much she loved her father. “Why have my sisters husbands if they say/ They love you all? Haply, when I wed,/ That lord whose hand must take my plight, shall carry half my love with him, half my care and duty./ Suce I shall never marry like my sisters,/ To love my father all,” (Shakespeare, Act 1 Scene 1, 101-106). King Lear was upset by the fact that his favorite daughter told him the truth of her feelings, that she could never love a husband if she loved only her father and he betrays her by disowning her. But it is from this first betrayal that the seeds of rebellion are planted in the minds of King Lear’s other daughters, Regan and Goneril, and he soon finds himself stripped of his power and authority. If King Lear cannot be trusted nor can he trust his family, it brings to mind the question of who is actually loyal.
There are a few acts of loyalty within “King Lear”. One of the most notable and visible was Kent with his unwavering desire to serve his king despite being banished by that same king for telling him he was wrong to disown Cordelia. Then there was Edgar of Gloucester who also remained loyal to his father despite being hunted for unwarranted accusations of treachery and guided his blinded father out of Gloucester to safety. And lastly there was Cordelia who remained loyal to her father despite being betrayed and took an army to war against her sisters over the mistreatment of King Lear. But how was this loyalty repaid?
“Time shall unfold what plighted cunning hides,/ Who covered faults, at last shame them derides (…)” (Shakespeare, Act 1 Scene 1, 282-283). Sadly, loyalty does not get to reap its fullest rewards within the play but there is some measure of justice for those who suffered from betrayal. Each betrayer is punished in some way, the daughters die after betraying their father; the Duke of Gloucester and each other; Edmund dies after instigating the mutilation of his father and the banishment of his brother; and King Lear dies of heartbreak after realizing that he betrayed Cordelia and that his actions led to her death. The true moral of “King Lear” is that if you betray those around you and surround yourself with flatterers that you yourself will end up betrayed.
Shakespeare, William. King Lear. New York: Signet Classic, 1998. Print.