Literary Archetypes Present in King Lear

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Literary Archetypes Present In King Lear

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In many, if not all, Shakespearean plays, there are a detailed series of events that lead up to the climax and denouement of the story being told. This series of events that are present are Archetypes which are defined and explained by Northrop Frye in his essay, “The Archetypes of Literature”. Shakespeare’s play, King Lear, is a tragedy written in the style of hostility to human kind rather than the horror of blood shed. This play adheres to the rhythm of the natural cycle following the seasons and growth of nature. The characters and setting of this play apply to Frye’s different spheres in his schema. King Lear’s characters represent more than their name, they match social figures which are recognized throughout cultures and are easily identifiable in a narrative. William Shakespeare’s play, King Lear, applies in a multitude of ways to the theoretical concepts of Archetypes that Northrop Frye discusses in his essay “The Archetypes of Literature”.

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The natural cycle is divided into four seasons that are subdivided into two major literary categories. Rhythm is dependent on the natural cycle, “…and everything in nature that we think of as having some analogy with works of art, like the flower of the birds song, grows out of a profound synchronization between an organism and the rhythms of its environment, especially that of the solar year” (Frye, 10). The first category is comedy and romance which follow the seasons of spring and summer. Spring is seen as a birth/rebirth phase, the light of nature, and the infancy of living beings. Summer is seen as the season of growth, where a child develops into a young adult. The second category is tragedy and satire which follow the seasons of fall and winter. Autumn is the dying stage in nature which corresponds to the tragedy genre. Tragedies are known for the fall and demise/death of the protagonist, similar to the fall of leaves, and death of trees and other plants, “Myths of fall, of dying god, and violent death and sacrifice of the isolation of the hero… the archetype of tragedy and elegy” (11). This applies to King Lear in Act V when Gonreil takes her sister down and ends up killing herself, “…O, she's dead!/Who dead? Speak, man/Your lady [Goneril], sir, your lady. And her sister/By her is poisoned. She confesses it (5.3.266-269). Winter is the satire/dark genre. This genre is specifically noted for its darkness and dissolution/defeat of the protagonist or heroic figure. Frye says, “Myths of the triumph of these powers; myths of floods and the return of chaos, of the defeat of the hero, and Götterdämmerung myths” (11) are the characteristics of the archetypal winter season. This season is applicable to the play when Lear grieves over Cordelia and then dies.

The characters and setting in the play apply to Fryes different spheres in his schema, specifically the human sphere and animal. The human sphere consists of isolation and a fallen protagonist. Cordelia becomes isolated when she is banished from the village and Lear is the character who is fallen when he learns the trouble of wanting the advantages of power even when he has given it up. The animal sphere does not particularly apply to animals in this play, but instead applies to the older sisters and Edmund, who turn savage and turn against their loved ones to better themselves, like an animal would in the wild. They act as if they are a predator, and kill others to make their way to the top and win the land, which ultimately leads to their own death. These spheres that are present are a symbol that recurs and enhances the literary experience of the play.

King Lear’s characters represent a deeper meaning than their name alone. They match social figures which are easily identifiable and recognizable in many cultures. An archetype is an original pattern or model that can apply to the characters of a literary work and match in contrasting pairs. Frye notes that, “patterns of imagery, on the other hand, or fragments of significance, are oracular in origin… they too are encyclopedic in tendency, building up a total structure of significance… the myth is the central informing power that give archetypal significance to the ritual and archetypal narrative to the oracle” (10). Majority of the characters in King Lear apply to an archetype, but not all. King Lear himself is the Ruler archetype and can be noted as the protagonist of the tragedy. He is the height of terrestrial male power and authority. As the King he holds the power and riches. He uses the land that he owns to test his daughters love for him by offering the one with the finest words of love with the most land. Lear says, “Meantime we shall express our darker purpose/Give me the map there/Know that we have divided/In three our kingdom (1.1.37-40). This is where Lear shows the wealth he has in the land that he wishes to divide. Next, Regan, Gonreil, and Edmund are represented as Villains. They are associated with the darkness of their thoughts, and their selfishness. These characters turn against their elderly fathers to only better themselves. Their actions end up being the main plot of the play and provide the downfall and death of the King. Gonreil speaks fake words of her love for her father and this is where the individual is able to see into the evil motifs of her being, “Sir, I love you more than words can wield the matter/Dearer than eyesight, space, and liberty/Beyond what can be valued, rich or rare/No less than life, with grace, health, beauty, honour/As much as child e'er loved, or father found/A love that makes breath poor, and speech unable/Beyond all manner of so much I love you. (1.1.60-67). These characters are cruel to other characters in the play especially when they are quick to suggest punishments for barely punishable actions. Then, there is Lear’s third and youngest daughter who is represented as a Scapegoat and Saint in the play. She is thoughtful and actually portrays love for her father even though she had no words to describe her love, “What shall Cordelia speak? Love, and be silent” (1.1.68). Her saint like being lead to her public death to end the drama and wrongful actions of others. She is a strong and courageous character who has strong morals that allow her to differentiate right from wrong. Finally, the Fool, as a single person, represents three archetypes. He makes people laugh and cry through his jokes, but also was the one to warn Lear of how foolish he has become, “Thou wast a pretty fellow when thou hadst no/need  to care for her frowning; now thou art an O/without a figure: I am better than thou art now; I/am a fool, thou art nothing. To Goneril. Yes/forsooth, I will hold my tongue. So your face/bids me, though you say nothing/Mum, mum/He that keeps nor crust nor crumb/Weary of all, shall want some/That’s a shelled peascod.(1.4.196-205). He is seen as the Fool, Trickster, and Wiseman. These character archetypes allow the story to follow a traditional pattern and narrative across all cultures.

William Shakespeare’s play, King Lear, applies in a multitude of ways to the theoretical concepts of Archetypes that Northrop Frye discusses in his essay “The Archetypes of Literature”. Frye is responsible for providing theoretical form to archetypes, and Shakespeare adheres to the series of events and characteristics of an archetypal pattern. King Lear is a tragedy of hostility to human kind and shows the natural cycle following the seasons and growth of nature. The characters and setting in the play provide an adherent to the different spheres in Frye’s schema. King Lear’s characters represent more than just a name, but correspond to a social figure that is recognizable throughout many cultures across the world. Archetypes are evident in many of Shakespeare’s plays, but King Lear is easily identifiable in the literary pattern.

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