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‘Bottoming Out’ in Shakespeare’s King Lear

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In Shakespeare’s King Lear, the concept of ‘bottoming out’ can be seen throughout.  King Lear reaches his financial bottom after giving away most, and then subsequently losing all, of his possessions to his two eldest daughters.  Great Britain itself hits bottom when it is forced into war with France.  Many characters reach their emotional bottom, each with varying end results.  This essay will explore how the characters reached their emotional bottoms, how they knew they had reached their emotional bottoms, and what benefits they received from these realizations.

One assumption that is often made regarding “hitting bottom” is that the person will go through some transformation and emerge a happier, if not a better, person.  This is not the case with Goneril, King Lear’s eldest daughter.  Her descent into what really became madness began with greed and jealousy.  Her greed turned obsessive as she schemed with, and eventually against, her sister Regan.  Her own madness and obsession led to the murder of her sister.  It was the revelation of her treachery against her husband that led her to despair so deeply that she committed suicide.  Her despair was not out of repentance, but out of defeat.  In the end, she finds no salvation.

Gloucester, on the other hand, seeks suicide in the depths of despair, but finds salvation.  He experiences treachery at the hands of his illegitimate son, Edmund.  Having given away all of his possessions and his title to his treacherous son, reaching his financial bottom, he loses his physical eyesight and gains the insight of clarity.  This plunges him into despair so deeply that he feels the only way out is suicide, his emotional bottom.  His legitimate son, Edgar, tricks him into believing that he tried to commit suicide but God spared him.  Gloucester gains salvation through the knowledge that his legitimate son has stood by him, all before he dies anyway.

Of course, the most obvious example of hitting bottom can be seen in King Lear himself.  After disowning his faithful youngest daughter, Cordelia, Lear is subjected to the injustices of his eldest daughters, Goneril and Regan.  As he travels back and forth between their homes, they reward his generosity to them by stripping him of his every possession and all of his followers.  He has hit his financial bottom.  He responds to their statement that he does not need his followers any longer with, “Reason not the need! Our basest beggars are in the poorest things superfluous. Allow not nature more than nature needs, Man’s life is cheap as beast’s.”  He bases his worth on his possessions.

After this, he is left virtually alone and is eventually cast out into the storm.  The storms reflect Lear’s growing madness, and yet reveal his clarity at the same time.  He sees the injustices played upon his poor subjects by his own actions.  He sees the misjudgments he made regarding his daughter, Cordelia.  Despite all the assistance given to him by his loyal friend Kent and the fool, he still remains self-centered as he descends into his madness.

It is interesting how his madness gives him clarity of vision.  After being reunited with Cordelia, Lear begins the ascent into hope and happiness, despite being captured and taken to prison.  He reaches his lowest level of despair when Cordelia has been hanged in prison.  He, just like his daughter, Goneril, resorts to murder and then, not knowing if Cordelia is alive or dead, dies over the grief.  One is left to wonder if the grief is more for the loss of his daughter, or for the loss of any hope for himself.  Had he lived and retaken control of his crown, would he really have changed anything for the common man?

In life, we make the assumption that deep despair, which may or may not lead to suicide or death, will give us clarity of vision.  We assume that clarity will help us to emerge from our despair as better people, and make us better able to deal with life’s trials and tribulations.  King Lear seems to dispute that concept.  Then again, it is a Shakespearean tragedy, is it not?

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