Study Guide

King Lear Compassion and Forgiveness

By William Shakespeare

Compassion and Forgiveness

Act 2, Scene 4
Regan

REGAN
[…] Shut up your doors:
He is attended with a desperate train,
And what they may incense him to, being apt
To have his ear abused, wisdom bids fear.
CORNWALL
Shut up your doors, my lord. 'Tis a wild night.
My Regan counsels well. Come out o' th' storm. (2.4.348-353)

Regan seems pretty cold-blooded, don't you think? Not only has she driven her aging father from her home and out into the storm, she also orders her husband to lock the doors behind him! There's no compassion in Regan (or her sister Goneril, for that matter).

Act 3, Scene 2
King Lear

LEAR
My wits begin to turn.—
Come on, my boy. How dost, my boy? Art cold?
I am cold myself. Where is this straw, my fellow?
The art of our necessities is strange
That can make vile things precious. Come, your
   hovel.—
Poor Fool and knave, I have one part in my heart
That's sorry yet for thee. (3.2.73-80)

Even while Lear teeters on the brink of insanity, he feels pity for the Fool. Mr. T would be proud.

Act 3, Scene 6
Edgar

EDGAR, aside
My tears begin to take his part so much
They'll mar my counterfeiting. (3.6.63-64)

Edgar almost ruins his "Poor Tom" disguise by weeping in pity for Lear's insanity. The "good" characters in King Lear are unable to control their emotions in the face of injustice and suffering.

Act 3, Scene 7

FIRST SERVANT
Hold your hand,
my lord.
I have served you ever since I was a child,
But better service have I never done you
Than now to bid you hold. (3.7.88-92)

Cornwall's own servant feels so much pity for Gloucester that he rebels against his master to try to prevent him from further wounding Gloucester. The servant's reward, of course, is that Regan stabs him.

Act 4, Scene 7
Cordelia

CORDELIA, kissing Lear
O, my dear father, restoration hang
Thy medicine on my lips, and let this kiss
Repair those violent harms that my two sisters
Have in thy reverence made.
KENT
Kind and dear princess. (4.7.31-35)

As she bends over her ailing father to revive him with a kiss, Cordelia reveals that she has one of the kindest, loving hearts in English literature. Even after her father unfairly banished her, love and forgiveness come naturally. Aww.

King Lear

LEAR
Be your tears wet? Yes, faith. I pray, weep not.
If you have poison for me, I will drink it.
I know you do not love me, for your sisters
Have, as I do remember, done me wrong.
You have some cause; they have not.
CORDELIA
                                                           No cause, no
   cause. (4.7.81-87)

This is, maybe, the most tender of moments in the play. When Lear awakens and finds his daughter at his bedside, he acknowledges the way he's hurt Cordelia and admits that she has "some cause" to wish him harm. Yet, despite everything, Cordelia finds it within herself to utter "no cause, no cause."

Act 5, Scene 3
Edgar

EDGAR
Kent, sir, the banished Kent, who in disguise
Followed his enemy king, and did him service
Improper for a slave. (5.3.258-260)

Cordelia's not the only one who forgives Lear's terrible behavior. Even after Kent is banished by his king (for no good reason, we night add), he still finds a way to serve his "enemy king." Kent disguises himself as "Caius" so he can get a job being Lear's servant. Now that's devotion, wouldn't you say?

EDGAR
Let's exchange charity.
I am no less in blood than thou art, Edmund;
If more, the more th' hast wronged me. (5.3.200-202)

After Edgar stabs his evil brother in the guts, he decides it's time to "exchange" forgiveness. Aww, how sweet. 

But wait a minute, is this supposed to be a touching moment or not? At first, Edgar seems to make an offer of peace, by saying that, even though he (Edgar) is a legitimate son and Edmund is a "bastard," he's no better than Edmund. Touching, right? 

Not so fast. Edgar continues on to say something like: "But if I am better than you, you've wronged me even more than I thought." Sounds like a backhanded compliment to us. (Did we mention that Edgar says all of this while Edmund's bleeding out of his guts?)

LEAR
Poor naked wretches, whereso'er you are,
That bide the pelting of this pitiless storm,
How shall your houseless heads and unfed sides,
Your looped and windowed raggedness, defend
   you
From seasons such as these? O, I have ta'en
Too little care of this. Take physic, pomp.
Expose thyself to feel what wretches feel,
That thou may'st shake the superflux to them,
And show the heavens more just (3.4.32-41)

Up until now, King Lear has never really thought about the plight of homelessness. This is the first time he acknowledges the "poor naked wretches" in his kingdom as he realizes that he hasn't done enough to solve the homeless problem. Lear's compassion moves him to acknowledge that he should have done something about it when he had the power and authority to make a difference.

EDMUND
This speech of yours hath moved me,
And shall perchance do good. (5.3.236-237)

Even Edmund, the play's villain, finds himself moved by pity when his brother Edgar describes the death of their father. As a result, Edmund tries to save Lear and Cordelia's lives by confessing that he's ordered his henchmen to hang them. But, just when we might begin to think that things might turn out well, we Learn that Cordelia has already been hanged.

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