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Social order in King Lear

Throughout Shakespeare’s King Lear, the ideas and behaviours of order and disorder are contrasted. Through the development of disorder in the play, the theme that the orderliness of a society depends on the existence of a set social structure emerges. Through the play Shakespeare shows various social structures and how they affect order in society. My creative piece is a four panel computer generative display to show the development of disorder in the play. Each panel represents the social order in a certain segment of the play.

At the very beginning of the play, Lear has control over society and influence on the behaviour of his subjects. He creates a structured and ceremonious environment. This environment is paralleled by my first panel. Lear demands his daughters profess their love of him in exchange for territory. This shows that he holds control and influence over his subjects. In this control, there is a definite sense of order. This is shown in the shift from prose to verse in scene one. When Lear enters, he brings with him control and order, this prompts a change from unordered prose into orderly verse. My panel displays Lear’s enforcement of order through the formation of lines at the edges of the bounding box. The formation of these orderly lines mirror the control Lear exerts on his daughter’s and subjects. Moreover, the opening scene shows the preference of birth order and legitimacy of birth, in social rank. This is shown in Gloucester’s acknowledgment of Edmund, and Lear’s decision to make Goneril, his “eldest born”, receive her inheritance first (Shakespeare, I.i.9; I.i.54). Shakespeare conveys the idea of predestination. By being illegitimate, Edmund is destined to a harsher life than his elder brother Edgar. Through her place as youngest daughter, Cordelia is destined to speak last and marry last. My first panel evidences this idea through fixed random velocities of particles. Each particle has a predestined ability to follow the leader particle which is based on its initial velocity. This shows that social order is based largely on predestination. Furthermore, Kent “[holds himself] but as a pawn / To wage against [Lear’s] enemies” (I.i.164-165). Kent shows Lear’s ultimate control over his followers. They are willing to die for him and follow his every word. However, with this control, Lear develops a rashness, and no longer allows Kent to be “the true blank of [his] eye” (I.i.169). Shakespeare shows the negative implication of having a social order controlled by one person: they do not have anyone to check their actions for them. My animation demonstrates this idea: the smaller particles exert no control on each other or on the leader particle, they do not have any way to influence their own fate. To conclude, Lear begins the play with ultimate control and influence over society, and the behaviours of his subjects. This is shown in my first panel.

When Lear divides his kingdom, he creates a rift in his subjects, and an environment where multiple people vie for control. This complication of social order disarrays Lear’s society. Lear orders that his “coronet [be] part[ed] between” Albany and Cornwall, but that he should “retain the name and all th’addition of a king” (I.i.145; I.i.142-143). Lear is pulling his authority apart. He no longer has complete control as it divided between Cornwall, Albany, and himself. My second panel illustrates this by dividing the particles into two sections and subjecting them to influence from three leader particles. Lear expects a “reservation of a hundred knights” (I.i.140). These knights are directly paralleled by the particles in my panel. Lear wants to retain control of them. However, he is now competing with Cornwall and Albany for control. Moreover, when Lear visits his daughters he is treated with disrespect. This breakdown of familial ties shows that Lear has lost his ability to unify society and provide order to the people of Britain. When Goneril prevents Lear from retaining his hundred knights, she has “power to shake [Lear’s] manhood” (I.iv.295). This power is evidenced in my panel through the volatile relationship between leader and follower particles. The followers will choose to follow the nearest leader. This means that no leader has complete control. Distributing power might appear to promote order by distributing responsibility. However, in practice, it prevents society from unifying and promotes internal conflict. In the play Lear is solely responsible for pulling apart society. He creates two kingdoms where there was one. In my panel, the particles are divided into two bounding boxes with a gap in between to show this sharp division. Lear has ironically hurt his kingdom and taken away his own authority. Furthermore, when Regan and Cornwall place Kent in the stocks, they disregard Lear’s authority. Shakespeare shows that Lear is no longer given the respect he once was. Despite this, Lear finds it hard to believe that his daughters would disrespect his assumed power (II.iv.15-27). This shows how accustomed Lear has become to ultimate control and how he isn’t prepared to fight with others for power. Regan believes that Lear should “be ruled and led” (II.iv.154). But Lear refuses to be led, he wants to lead, but without responsibility. This creates conflict and upsets the social order. In my panel, the particles can not form ordered lines because they are influenced by multiple leaders. Both the text and my panel show that order is harder to achieve when authority it divided. When Lear divides the kingdom, authority and sway are split between: Lear, Albany, Cornwall, Regan, and Goneril. My panel illustrates this by showing the force exerted on particles by multiple leaders.

In the storm, Lear finds a social structure in which all people are equal and affect each other equally. However, this supposed equality is framed by the division Lear created in the kingdom. When Lear is confronted with the storm, he begins to see himself as equal to those who he once thought himself superior to. He asks if the fool is cold and reassures the fool that he is cold as well (III.ii.71-72). Lear now has compassion for those around him. The states of other’s have influence on his own state. He doesn’t think of himself as superior anymore. Nature and the storm have succeeded in enforcing equality. My third panel shows equality by allowing all particles to bounce off one another and thus exert equal influence. Any particle has the potential to affect the path of any other particle. This results in complete turmoil and disorientation which parallels the imagery and harsh sound devices used to describe the storm. Furthermore, Lear treats a disguised Edgar as “learned”, even though Edgar claims to “[eat] cow-dung” (III.iv.153; III.iv.129). This contrasts Lear’s fixation on ceremony and formality at the beginning of the play. In addition, Edgar speaks entirely in prose, while at the beginning of the play, everyone around Lear spoke in verse. Lear is now surrounded by characters portrayed as lower class and treats them with respect. In my panel all the particles exist in the same bounds, there is no class division. In the context of the storm, Lear loses his aloof sense of authority and starts considering the implications of his decisions on others. However, the storm was created specifically to “let fall [its] horrible pleasure” on Lear (III.ii.19-20). Lear is being punished for the division he created in his kingdom and family, and perturbation of the social order. Shakespeare makes this evident through the personification of the storm. In my panel it is made evident through the natural variation of colour with Perlin noise (Perlin). This creates a band of darker colour across the panel: dividing the particles. Lear has tampered with nature and the smooth and natural division in particles shows that. The storm is fuelled by the division Lear has created and thus it becomes a natural part of the storm. In conclusion, the storm enforces equality while punishing Lear for his actions. Shakespeare uses the interaction with lower class characters and personification of the storm to show this. My panel uses equal interaction of particles and Perlin noise.

Following the death of Lear and Cordelia, society is fragmented. There is no longer the sense of purpose and drive that existed during the storm. Shakespeare uses the many deaths of characters to show how society becomes fragmented. People no longer have anyone to follow. My final panel starts with a random distribution of particles that have no affect on one another. This illustrates the separation and complete lack of social order. After being blinded, Gloucester says that he, “[has] no way, and therefore want[s] no eyes” (Shakespeare, IV.i.19). This shows the lack of direction in Gloucester’s life, and in society. Gloucester begins to wander searching for death. Some of the particles in my panel wander and remain alone like Gloucester. They trudge along endlessly. However, Shakespeare does provide characters with a sense of direction at the end of the play. Edgar is fixated on killing Edmund and thus he is driven to pursue his goal. My panel has particles which move quickly to achieve their goals. Through war and the individual motives of each character, those who are alive are brought together at the end of the play. There is no longer a social structure, but the intentions of each character have pulled them together. At the beginning of the play, the stage was filled with characters who were there because Lear wanted them to be. Now it is filled with characters who are there because they happen to be or because they chose to be. There is very little strength or order, which enforces the theme that order comes from a defined social structure. My panel uses individual Archimedes’s spirals to decide the movement of each particle (Weisstein). Each particle moves closer to the other particles as time progresses. Moreover, Kent denies a proposition of leadership saying that “[his] master calls [him]” (Shakespeare, V.iii.386). This shows that there is no authority holding society together, Kent is actually being pulled away from society. Edgar ends the play with uncertainty. There is a definite possibility that no social order will ever form. Shakespeare simply leaves us with characters standing together on a stage sharing grief. There is no order, only the proximity of characters which hints at a potential of order. My panel ends with a spinning circle which is vaguely reminiscent of a crown. This shows that collectively the particles have regal strength, but there is nothing holding them together and thus no practical power. Shakespeare ends King Lear with a fragmented society drawn together by war and individual desires, with no promise of a social order. In my final panel, I show this using particles spiralling together to form a circle.

To conclude, Shakespeare contrasts the ideas of disorder and order throughout King Lear. Through the development of disorder in the play, the theme that the orderliness of a society depends on the existence of a set social structure emerges. Shakespeare shows several social patterns in the play. I display these in my four panels: unity in Lear’s control, the division of the kingdom, the storm, and the fragmentation of society at the end of the play.

Works Cited

  • Shakespeare, William. King Lear. Clayton: Prestwick, 2005. Print.
  • Perlin, Kenneth. Standard for Perlin Noise. Kenneth Perlin, assignee. Patent US6867776 B2. 15 Mar. 2005. Print.
  • Weisstein, Eric W. "Archimedes' Spiral." MathWorld. WolframAlpha. Web. 06 Apr. 2016. <http://>. Web.