King Lear is based on appearance and reality. Both fathers in the main plot and the subplot deal with children who deceive by appearances. Lear is taken by false words and appearances just as Gloucester is. Add to this several characters in the play appear to be someone but they turn out to be others such as Edgar disguised as a beggar and Kent disguised as a servant. What concerns the fool, he appears to be foolish but in reality he is wise.
Goneril and Regan are the personification of hypocrisy. Goneril exaggerates, by trying to deceive her father and say that her love is inadequate compared to his. The phrase ‘A love that makes breath poor and speech unable’ prove it. She tries to make her love seem priceless. On the other hand, Regan is no less. Regan tells her father that her own pleasure lies solely in the enjoyment of his love. The sister’s love is a means to an end.
Reality lies behind appearance when Goneril and Regan remark about their father at the end of the scene on ‘the infirmity of age’. They complain about Lear’s rash judgement and unexplainable behaviour and they are apprehensive that they will receive the same treatment of Codelia and so they resolve that they, ‘must do something, and I’th’ heat.’
Appearance and reality have an effect on King Lear. Goneril is sick and tired of her father as she accuses him that due to his character the knights are behaving in an intolerable way, and suggests that disciplinary measures have to be taken. Lear is shocked as he answers her, ‘Are you our daughter?’. Lear puts on an act, as a means of expressing his horror and astonishment and these are signs of madness. The phrases, ‘Does any here know me? This is not Lear/ Does Lear walk this’speak this Where are his eyes?’ shows a King Lear who is getting weak in his senses. He curses Goneril and says that he still has one ‘kind and comfortable’ daughter left to go to (Regan), yet she turns out to be made of the same stuff. She tells him to reduce the knights but for Lear, they are a symbol of status. The king attacks and curses his daughter to give birth to a thankless child that will torment her as his own bastard identity as a king. The man is used to flattery and her ingratitude is hurting him.
For Lear Kent in the stocks is an insult. When Kent tells Lear that ‘Your son and daughter’ in reference to the ones that put him there, Lear refuses to believe that Cornwall and Regan are responsible for his servant’s ‘shame’. Lear refuses to see reality. Lear is most concerned with his own mental state as he fears he is becoming hysterical with sorrow. He is affected physically as if his daughters are attacking him for the inside. Lear is shocked when he finds that Regan sides with her sister as she tells him that if she checks his knights there are good reasons. Regan tells Lear to follow Goneril with half of his knights and then he can come in her house. From all those inflated speeches, Lear expects kindness and respect but Goneril does not want, not even the fifty knights. The phrase, ‘I gave you all’ said by Lear shows biterness as it is a reality that hits him hard.
For the many, Cordelia may appear to be cold, disrespectful, as if she wants to challenge her father as she fails to make him happy since she refuses to take part in what one can say, a love ‘contest’. She says she has nothing to say as she tells him, ‘What shall Cordelia speak love and be silent’. But in reality she is the epitome of a loving daughter and one can apprehend this, because the king of France says that he takes her because she is a woman of integrity. Albeit her father has banished her from the kingdom, Cordelia is really sad when she read the letters, describing Lear’s treatment at the hands of her sisters. One can see that ‘holy water’ fell from her ‘heavenly eyes’ as she lamented Lear’s plight. Cordelia shows that her love is to an end when she sends her soldiers to search for Lear, who is still wandering outside as she pities and feels for him. She shows a deep genuine concern for her father. The same as Edgar, she assists the parent who rejected her so heartlessly. In act four scene seven, Cordelia does her best to restore her father to sanity as she cares for him through love. Cordelia is feeling sorry for her father. She directs her sympathises towards him. When her father tells her that if she has any poison he will drink I,t she answers, ‘No cause, no cause’ as for Cordelia, there is no reason why she shouldn’t take care of her father, because Cordelia in reality is a woman of principles and integrity.
One can draw up a parallelism between the main plot and the subplot on what concerns appearance and reality. Gloucester is taken by false words and appearances, just as Lear is. In both plots the innocent and lovable child is cast off and the father promises his properties to the unworthy children, in return for a show of affection. The evil children gain ground.
Since Edmund is the bastard son, he has no rights on the lands. Like Goneril and Regan, Edmund is ready to defend his own interests as he is prepared to do anything seen from the phrase, ‘If I’ll not take it with birth, I’ll take the land by with.’ He writes a letter which is supposedly from Edgar where there is written that Edgar seeks his Gloucester’s life. He pretends he doesn’t want to show to his father, what he wrote. With his father, Edmund acts in a way and with his brother in another way. For Gloucester, Edgar appears the villain but his this is ironical since Edmund is the villain. He shows blind trust in Edmund much that he agrees to let Edmund discover the truth on his brother’s feelings. Simply, Gloucester puts himself in his sons’ power. Edmund pretends to be concerned with family honours, tries to show how loyal he is, when he uses such words as ‘justice to the cause’. A number of ironies are seen for instance, when Cornwall tells Edmund, ‘I hear you have shown your father a child like office’ and when he says ‘Nature of this trust we shall need’ but all this is ironical as he is not trustworthy. In act two scene one Gloucester praises Edmund as a ‘loyal and natural boy’ and this shows that he accepts Edmund as his only legitimate child.
Edmund does not only aim at Edgar’s inheritance but consequently to his father’s title. We see that appearance lies behind reality when in act three scene five, Edmund turns against his father. He does not show to Cornwall that he hates his father but he wants to prove to Cornwall, that he is loyal to the country and at the same time faithful to his ‘blood’. Edmund turns against his parent, his own flesh and blood. Cornwall is given the letter which contains the information about the French invasion as Edmund proves his father he is a spy of France. It because of Edmund that Cornwall intends to punish Gloucester for his treachery. He pretends to be sorry that he has discovered his father but he hopes he will find his father with Lear to make Cornwall even more suspicious.
The notion of appearance and reality can be discussed from Edgar’s point of view as he disguises himself as a mad beggar, Poor Tom. Edgar’s disguise affects the king and the plot. When Edgar appears as Poor Tom, Lear is convinced that cruel daughters must have reduced this pitiful man to beggary. Edgar has to do his best to be convincing as a madman. In Lear’s eyes Edgar is the unaccommodated man as he sees Edgar as ‘a poor, bare, forked animal.’ Lear feels that is only someone like poor Tom who has nothing superfluous (over and above) that can instruct him on the essential nature of man. In Edgar’s eyes, Gloucester is a devil but in reality he is a loving father. Until Gloucester realises that he was deceived by Edmund, for him Edgar is the unfaithful and wicked son. When in Act four, Edgar guides his gather, for Gloucester he thinks he is guided by a beggar but in reality, he is his son.
It might appear for someone that when Kent accuses the king of ‘hideous rashness’ he is showing lack of respect towards his sovereign. Kent accepts banishment without any rancour and immediately assumes a disguise, applies to Lear for a job, so that he can continue to follow and serve Lear. Kent under no doubt is a dedicated loyal servant in spite of how Lear has treated him. Throughout the play, Lear thinks that beside him there is his servant, but only at the end he gets to know who really lies behind that disguise.
The fool with all his songs and riddles appears foolish but in reality he is wise. A lot of the fool’s speeches are designed to alert Lear about his daughters true characters. He points out, that Regan will behave the way Goneril behaved, as it is useless that he pins on the second daughter’s kindness. The fool is wise in his foolishness and knows that Lear is going to be deceived. In his constant epigrams the fool shows that he is no fool at all but in reality he is sage. The fool generalises about mankind but in actual fact he is referring to Lear, when he tells him that when he is rich they flatter him, but when he becomes poor they do not love him. The fool gives a general truth about selfish humanity. He says that father’s who are not rich have children who do not adore them, where as fathers who are rich, it is the opposite. Added to this he points out too, that the poor are unlucky, and that it is a fact of life.
Normally old age is associated with wisdom but in reality King Lear and Gloucester are foolish. Gloucester is foolish as he puts himself in his son’s power and never questions and is taken by false words and appearances. Lear is fooled by Gonerill’s and Regan’s superficial and elegant speeches and fails to recognise Cordelia’s and Kent’s honesty. Lear appears to be powerful with his hundred knights as they are a symbol of might and importance, but in reality he is not, as he is treated with the ‘weary negligence’ by Oswald and other servants as requested by Goneril. One can see that king that appears only to have power when Lear asks Oswald ‘Who am I sir?’ and Oswald replies disrespectfully, ‘My lady’s father’ as if he shows him that he does not have any authority anymore.
When Lear in his eyes appears wise in reality he is foolish, and when he is mad he shows the true traits of wisdom. When Kent, Lear and the fool are in the storm, the king shows concern for the fool and one understands this from the phrase, ‘boy go first. You houseless poverty’ and here one starts to see the purification of the king. In his madness, the king starts acquiring a social conscience. We are already seeing the redemption of the king by spending the night in a hovel, as he reduces himself to a commoner and understands what people go through as the phrase, ‘The art of our necessities is strange, And can make vile things precious’ as for Lear, necessities make things that once appeared so evil look precious. Lear tells Kent to take shelter first himself and this proves that the king starts understanding himself and others better. When he starts to talk about the poor naked wretches he realises that he should have taken much more care of the equity of justice. The king’s social conscious begins to work, as in his madness the king becomes social revolutionary and from such phrase as , ‘Is man no more than this?’ one can confirm it. He says that, if the rich are to expose themselves to what the poor feels, they might give what they don’t need to the poor and the world would be more just.
The same accounts for Gloucester as only when he is blind in reality he sees. The phrase said by Gloucester, ‘ I have no way, and therefore want no eyes; I stumbled when I saw’ confirms that when he was blind in reality he understands what is happening around him and Gloucester realises his mistake and wishes to be reconciled to Edgar.
Through the several themes and one of them is, the notion of appearance and reality, the reader comes to a fuller understanding of the play. We get to feel and understand more the sufferings of King Lear and Gloucester.