An exploration of the theme of power in King Lear and Glengarry Glen Ross.
The theme of power is one of the key themes in King Lear. The loss and need for power is explored from the start of the play and leads to many of the major events in the play. For example, Lear’s abdication led to Cordelia’s banishment. In a wider sense, the play uses this juxtaposition to explore the role of women in a patriarchal society.
In the first scene of the play, Lear is dividing his land between his daughters thus he is giving up the power which he possesses. Dramatic irony is used when Lear says ‘future strife may be prevented now’ as the choices made in the first scene actually do lead to ‘future strife’ further on in the play.
Although Lear appears to have lost a lot of power, he still remains the King until his death. This is echoed by the fact that Lear has Kent as a follower for the whole play. This shows the audience that he is never going to lose his kingship although, other than that, he has practically nothing. When disguised as Caius, Kent tells Lear ‘in your countenance which I would fain call master’, and he continues to be Lear’s follower. This is also shown by the fact that when Lear eventually dies, Kent states ‘I have a journey’ and ‘my master calls me’. This represents the fact that his function in the play is complete. The use of the vocative ‘master’ to refer to Lear shows that Lear has a grasp of superiority over Kent
The play also tells the story of Edmund’s want for power. In act 1, scene 2, Edmund reveals his anger at his very low power and social status at this point in the play through a soliloquy and he expresses an interest is gaining power. This is shown through the phrase ‘I must have your land’ when he is referring to Edgar. Throughout the course of the play, the lengths to which Edmund will go to gain this power are revealed. At the end of his soliloquy, Edmund uses an imperative, ‘now, gods, stand up for bastards!’ This shows that Edmund assumes a higher status than the gods, reflecting his own narcissism. It is also peculiar that Edmund uses ‘gods’ as opposed to ‘god’ as at the time, the major belief system in society was Christianity which only worships one god. This has got connotations of paganism. This further represents Edmund’s seclusion from society.
Immediately after receiving her power, Goneril begins to abuse it. For example, she instantly turns against her father, this is shown by the phrase ‘by day and night he wrongs me’. This is ironic as Lear has just given her half of England to rule. The negative lexical choices made in Goneril’s turn reflect her negative feelings toward Lear by uses a lexical set of ‘wrongs’, ‘gross’, ‘crime’, ‘riotous’, ‘not’, ‘sick’, ‘slack’ and ‘fault’. Goneril also uses an imperative, ‘say I am sick’ towards Oswald, this further reflects her gain of power. The sisters only voice their views after they have been given the power by Lear. When Lear was sitll in power, they used a lexical set of ‘love’, ‘valued’, ‘grace’, ‘health’ and ‘beauty’.
Lear soon regrets his loss of power, this is shown in act 1, scene 4 when he is ignored by Oswald. He still expects everybody to act out on his commands even though he has given up his status and power. Lear’s anger is shown through the phrase ‘call the clotpoll back’. The alliteration of the palatal plosive reflects the anger and when articulated, it almost sounds as if Lear is spitting the words out of his mouth. The phrase also uses an imperative mood, which suggests that Lear still perceives himself to have power.
Kent is placed in the stocks and made a mockery of in act 2, scene 2. This represents his loss in power. It also attempts to anger Lear, which is a misuse of Cornwall and Regan’s recently gained power.
In act 2, scene 4, Regan attempts to use her power to command Lear through the use of the imperative mood. This is shown through the phrase ‘return and sojourn with my sister’. However, Lear argues back, aptly using ‘No, rather I abjure all roofs’. This reflects the fact that Lear hasn’t fully come to terms with his loss of power at this point in the play, even though it was his own decision to give up his power in the first place and pass it on to his two daughters Regan and Goneril.
In King Lear, there is a clear cut division between the protagonists and antagonists. The crimes that take place in King Lear are thoroughly planned and well thought out. For example, Goneril and Regan carefully planned the exclusion of their father. This is shown through the letters that they send to each other. In comparison, in Glengarry Glen Ross, there is less of a clear division between protagonists and antagonists. The ‘crime’ is a foolish robbery with less serious consequences. There is a real sense of realism in Glengarry Glen Ross as the scenes take place in ‘everyday’ situations and the characters are believeable; in real life, a lot of robberies of this nature can be justified.
In King Lear, the character Edgar is completely stripped of power as he is forced to become ‘Mad Tom’ by the actions of hid brother ‘Edmund’. It is almost as if Edgar is being punished for being good-natured and honest. This makes a cultural comment about the existence of a great being as if there really is a god then why would he allow good people to suffer. In comparison, in Glengarry Glen Ross, the punishments are slightly more justified. For example, Levene is punished for cheating.
In King Lear, Lear experiences a sudden descent into madness. This is characterised by his break-down during the stormy weather conditions. This is a turning point in the play as Lear has a sudden realisation that he has lost his position. This scene also questions the chain of being as Lear is shouting at the Gods and commanding them when in reality, it should actually be the Gods controlling Lear as they are above them in the chain of being. This places serious doubts on Lear’s sanity. This has links to Glengarry Glen Ross where Leave shouts at Williamson. This also questions the ‘chain of being’ as Williamson has a superior role to Levene in the office as he is in charge.
Delusional thoughts are used by characters that have lost power in both plays. In King Lear, Lear creates a false trial for his daughters where animals are used to stand in for the people in the court. This really brings out Lear’s low sense of reality. If Lear still had power then the trial could indeed be real but as he has lost it, the trial is completely fictional. In Glengarry Glen Ross, Levene tries to use his past successes as a justification for receving leads of a higher quality form Williamson but Levene’s mind set is largely delusional and the final agreement is under Williamson’s terms.
Another incidence of Levene’s delusional behaviour is when he believes that he will actually close his last deal and make it back to the top of the leaderboard but, of course, this doesn’t go to plan and Levene experiences his downfall during the last scene of the play.
A character in King Lear who has more power than one may expect is the Fool. He has a grasp of superiority over Lear as Lear believes what he says and asks for his advice. This shows that power isn’t just material but it is intellectual. The Fool also acts as a plot device filling in the role of a ‘narrator’.
In conclusion, Shakespeare uses many techniques to represent character’s that have power or seek power, such as the imperative mood. This is highly effective as it makes the loss of power more dramatic throughout the play. In Glengarry Glen Ross, the concept of power is often shifted between characters and is very fluid.