King Lear's Folly
In Shakespeare's King Lear, the actions of King Lear and of his daughters bring ruin and chaos to England. Social structures crumble, foreign invaders threaten the land, and, in a distinctly non-Hollywood ending, almost everyone dies tragically. The outlook is very bleak, as many of the problems are left unresolved at the end of the play: There is no one in line to assume sovereignty, and justice and virtue have not been restored to their proper places in the country's structure. All of these problems are catalogued by Edmund early in the play:
Unnaturalness between the child and the parent; death, dearth, dissolutions of ancient amities; divisions in state, menaces and malediction against king and nobles; needless diffidences, banishment of friends, dissipation of cohorts, nuptial breaches, and I know not what. (King Lear, I.ii.120-123)
Each of these comes to pass, in some way or another, during the course of the play. Later on, Lear's fool adds to the list of woes: priests who do not practice what they preach, brewers who water down their beer, nobles practicing common occupations, people burned for expressing their sexuality, and many others besides. (King Lear, III.ii.76-89) Unlike Edmund's list of problems, the fulfillment of these is not specifically detailed in the text of the play, but this second catalogue adds to the general feeling of the dissolution of society that runs throughout the drama.
All of these problems can be traced (directly or indirectly) to Lear's abdication of the throne. Although Lear had no thought for the problems it might cause, the abandonment of the royal throne by the king had struck at the very heart of the social order that the Englishmen in Shakespeare's time had envisioned. The king was the representative of God on earth in the political arena. Since the Reformation in England, the King had also been the successor of the Pope as the head of the Church of England and, hence, God's representative on earth in the spiritual arena, as well. For Lear to abandon the throne and to divide his kingdom was for him to mock the divine order and the great chain of being to which Elizabethans likened their society.
Lear's fatal flaw is lack of insight; Regan claims early in the play that "he hath ever but slenderly known himself." (King Lear, I.i.286-287) Sight and insight are major themes in the play; many of the tragic situations could have been avoided if the characters had better understood themselves, their situation, or each other. Cordelia fails to see the ritual nature of the favor her father asks of her; Lear fails to see that his daughter, in refusing to participate in the test, is attempting to deal with him as a person, outside of the ritual framework in which he operates; Regan and Goneril fail to see Edmund's trickery; Gloucester, like Oedipus, gains insight only when he is blinded. It is difficult to blame the characters for not better...