Loyalty is a principle on which many relationships and institutions have been built since the beginning of time. In Shakespeare’s day, if a person was unlucky enough to have his or her loyalty questioned, it could result in imprisonment, torture, and execution. Sometimes they were accused falsely and paid the price for the paranoia rampant in court. Other times, the paranoia had a basis, and those accused of disloyalty and treason were indeed guilty. Shakespeare perfectly captures the predicament of true loyalty versus perceived loyalty in his play, King Lear, which follows the tragedy and downfall of King Lear when he misjudges the true meaning of loyalty.
Shakespeare certainly had ample enough material to inspire him from current events of his time. One such event was the notorious Gunpowder Plot, which took place a year before the first performance of King Lear, conceived by Catholic citizens who wanted to see England back under the rule of a Catholic. Those same elements defining the story of the Gunpowder Plot are the very elements that Shakespeare uses in King Lear.
The play’s overriding theme of loyalty reflects the overriding theme of loyalty in Elizabethan England. Not only was loyalty to the divinely ordained throne mandated, but also loyalty to the family. The family was considered a microcosm of the Kingdom; immense importance was placed on obedience and respect for the hierarchy (Mahabal). As King James warned Parliament, there was not only the benefit of unity to be considered but the dangers of division (Shapiro 36). The monarchy and stability of the Kingdom relied not only on the subject’s loyalty to the monarch but their unity as well.
This idea of the necessity of loyalty has not changed since 1604, when Shakespeare first performed King Lear. Every morning millions of children in the United States pledge their loyalty to the United States government when they say the Pledge of Allegiance. But what is loyalty, and is true loyalty rewarded or punished? In this post, the idea of loyalty shown through the dissension of Cordelia and Kent is paralleled with the idea of loyalty through present-day whistleblower Edward Snowden to answer those pertinent questions.
In King Lear, the question of loyalty is presented in the opening scene. Upon desiring his retirement, King Lear decides to split the Kingdom between his three daughters. It is thought that this will also prevent any division or war over the Kingdom. However, before King Lear divides the Kingdom, he requests that each daughter tells him how much they love him.
Goneril and Regan profess their empty words of affection, but Cordelia, whose love is true, refuses to put words to her feelings. King Lear sees this as an offense and a sign of Cordelia’s disloyalty. You mean you’re not going to flatter me? So, naturally, He refuses to give her a part of the Kingdom.
Kent, who also holds the King in special affection, beseeches the King not to do this, that the King is indeed wrong. “Do: Kill thy physician, and the fee bestow upon thy foul disease. Revoke thy doom; or, whilst I can vent clamour from my throat, I’ll tell thee thou dost evil” (I.i.180-184). Once again, King Lear misinterprets true loyalty from Kent as disloyalty and banishes him. This form of narcissism and ignorance of what constitutes loyalty is Lear’s hamartia, the tragic flaw that brings his otherwise successful reign and life to a heartbreaking conclusion.
We can see the importance of loyalty and the swift action against disloyalty in other Shakespearean plays, such as Henry the V, when Henry must act quickly and decidedly without mercy upon the conspirators, including one he holds dear. In that case, Henry was correct in his actions against the conspirators who sought to harm him. King Lear, however, misconstrues Cordelia’s good intentions for bad. This error in judgment becomes the catalyst for disaster. Though the audience can see where true loyalty lies (Cordelia and Kent) and where actual deceit lies (Goneril and Reagan), King Lear succumbs to his ignorance until it is too late. The message Shakespeare sends through the idea of misperceived good and misperceived loyalty is the danger that can befall a Kingdom.
In modern times, the idea of loyalty to one’s nation or sovereign is still as relevant. In present-day America, there is no King. Citizens pledge their allegiance and loyalty to the nation, which is composed of the citizens. However, when the nation’s citizens find fault in the government’s procedures and politics, as did Cordelia and Kent in Lear, if they are truly loyal, they will speak truthfully and defend the good of their nation against the will of their government. On May 13, 2013, a United States citizen named Edward Snowden released top-secret NSA documents to the world: “‘My sole motive is to inform the public as to that which is done in their name and that which is done against them. The US government in conspiracy with client states…have inflicted upon the world a system of secret pervasive surveillance from which there is no refuge'” (Greenwald 23).
In explaining his motives for what some could conceive of as treason, Snowden says, “I want to spark a world-wide debate about privacy, Internet freedom, and the dangers of state surveillance” (Greenwald 18). Snowden goes on to say, “I am not afraid of what will happen to me. I accept that my life will likely be over from doing this. I’m at peace with that. It’s the right thing to do” (Greenwald 18). Kent similarly justifies his actions by his loyalty to Lear: “My life I never held but as a pawn to wage against thy enemies; nor fear to lose it, thy safety being the motive” (I.i.169-171). Cordelia also acknowledges what she has lost through her honesty and faithful allegiance to the King: “A still-soliciting eye, and such a tongue as I am glad I have not, though not to have it hath lost me in your liking” (I.i.257-259). All three clearly act out of their loyalty for their King and nation, even knowing the consequences of that loyalty.
It seems apparent from King Lear that loyalty, while noble and good, if not understood by King as it pertains to Lear or nation as it pertains to Snowden, will lead to nothing. Cordelia gave her life due to Lear’s lack of understanding of her loyalty, and Kent was left to mourn the King he loved. Snowden lives in exile, away from friends, family, and the country he loves, and will most likely die on foreign shores. Is loyalty rewarded? In these two circumstances, no, unless, of course, loyalty is its own reward and doing the right thing for the sake of what’s right. Given the present-day circumstances and liberties being eroded through such things as the Patriot Act and gun legislation, people would do well to remember the tragedy that befell King Lear.
“Some sixty versions of the Lear story were in circulation when Shakespeare set about to dramatize the tale of the old King in 1605. Nobody remembers these prior versions today. But King Lear continues to fill theaters” (McDonald 162). Shakespeare’s ability to tap into the psychology of human nature, translating onto paper and stage the emotions, thoughts, errors, brutality, betrayal, heroism, sorrow, and all of the other attributes that define man as something divine and something hellish, is nothing less than brilliant. As each generation comes face to face with the Law of Nature and, what some may argue as the universal morality which inevitably conflicts with subjective morality and self-interest, they too will have to struggle with the same themes in which Shakespeare wrote about over four hundred years ago. From whistle-blowers like Edward Snowden to the man contemplating breaking his vows of loyalty and leaving his wife, the theme is timeless. Because of this, Shakespeare is also timeless.
Greenwald, Glenn. No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA, and the U.S. Surveillance State. NY: Henry Holt and Company, LLC. 2014. Print.
Shapiro, James. The Year of Lear: Shakespeare in 1606. NY: Simon & Schuster. 2015. Print.
McDonald, Russ. The Bedford Companion to Shakespeare: And Introduction with Documents. NY: Palgrave. 2001. Print.
Mahabal, Prasad. “Daily Life in England during the Elizabethan Era”. Elizabethan England Life. 2015. Web. January 19 2016.
Fraser, Antonia. Faith and Treason: The Story of the Gunpowder Plot. NY: First Anchor Books. 1997. Print
Shakespeare, William. King Lear, Modern Library Paperback Edition. NY: Modern Library. 2009. Print.