King Lear: Machiavelli'S Ideas On Fortune
In the play King Lear by William Shakespeare, the theme of power and fortune is very prevalent as there are characters that believe that power comes through fortune as fortuneDont use fortune three times in one sentence fully dictates all actions. There are also characters that believe that power must be takenObtained not taken through action and not through fortune alone. The belief that fortune is not completely relied on to gain power is also seen with the famous Italian philosopher, Niccolo Machiavelli, who believed that fortune only was an influencer in half of our actions and further believed that in order for someone to be successful they had to act as they were naturally inclined. Machiavelli’s ideas are used by characters in King Lear such as Goneril and Edmund to attempt to gain power. Machiavelli's ideas on fortune are used by Goneril in the beginning of the play to successfully manipulate King Lear into giving her Lear’s land and power, successfully in the middle of the play by removing the last of King Lear’s power, and unsuccessfully in the end as she deviates from her natural actions. This is similar to Edmund who also uses Machiavelli’s ideas in the beginning of the play to turn Gloucester against Edgar,in the middle of the play to gain the land from Gloucester and unsuccessfully in the end as he also deviates from his natural actions.
In the beginning of the play, it can be seen that Goneril is a very deceitful and cunning individual that wants to gain power from her father, King Lear. Although at the beginning she does not have a concrete plan, she uses Machiavelli’s ideas on fortune to seize the opportunity and gain power for herself. Goneril does this by using King Lear’s pride and overconfidence against him when he is splitting up the land between his daughters. When King Lear asks them to tell him how much they love him, Goneril greatly exaggerates her love for him by saying, “Sir, I love you more than word 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, honor; As much as child e’er loved, or father found; A love that makes breath poor, and speech Unable.” (I,i,60-66).Although what she is saying is kind, it is also disingenuous and was said for the purpose of manipulating King Lear who is starting to suffer from senility. Goneril and Regan both recognize King Lear’s increasingly erratic behaviour and they choose to take advantage of the behaviour to help them gain more power and land. Goneril chooses to act instead of waiting for luck in accordance with Machiavellian ideas. Goneril understands that although she was lucky that King Lear’s old age made him make erratic decisions, she also acted and took advantage of Lear’s behaviour through her own actions. Goneril’s actions perfectly align with Machiavelli’s ideas about fortune especially one of Machiavelli’s main ideas: “I hold it to be true that Fortune is the arbiter of one-half of our actions, but that she still leaves us to direct the other half, or perhaps a little less.” (The Prince, Machiavelli). This quote means that only half of people's actions are affected by fortune, leaving the other half to be controlled by themselves.Ultimately, Goneril is successful in gaining land from King Lear using Machiavelli’s ideas and has manipulated fortune which has caused her to become an individual who is very powerful and fortunate.
In the beginning of the play, it can be seen that Edmund is a character who does not believe in fortune and instead is of the belief that his actions are entirely his own. Similarly to Goneril, Edmund is also a very manipulative and power hungry character who is wants power which includes betraying his own father. It can be seen that originally, Edmund is not a fortunate character as he is born as a bastard and is entitled to zero land. Edmund actually has to make his own fortune because if he waited and did nothing, he would never get the land from Gloucester. Edmund creates his own fortune because he is originally not the heir to Gloucester’s title and land due to him being born out of wedlock. Edmund chooses to act instead of waiting for fortune by faking a letter under Edgar’s name to show to Gloucester.Gloucester is shocked that Edgar would ever betray him as it was out of character.Edmund then mentions to Gloucester that Edgar had said that fathers should give their land to their sons, saying, “Never, my lord. But I have heard him oft maintain it to be fit that, sons at perfect age and fathers declined, the father should be as ward to the son, and the son manage his revenue.” (I.ii.75-78). It can be seen that Edmund is not placing his bets on luck but rather he is acting to achieve his goals. This belief can be seen when Edmund during his aside is mocking Gloucester on his belief of fortune and the nature of the universe by saying,“This is the excellent foppery of the world, that when we are sick in fortune (often the surfeits of our own behavior) we make guilty of our disasters the sun, the moon, and stars, as if we were villains on necessity; fools by heavenly compulsion; knaves, thieves, and treachers by spherical predominance; drunkards, liars, and adulterers by an enforced obedience of planetary influence; and all that we are evil in, by a divine thrusting on.” (I,ii,125-130).The quote by Edmund explains that he does not believe that fortune fully controls the actions of man, but rather that man should not blame fortune, the sun, the moon, or the stars. Furthermore, Edmund believes that people should be held accountable for their own actions.Similarly, Machiavelli believes that fortune is only the influencer in half of people's actions and that people have the power to change their fortune through their own actions. Both Edmund and Machiavelli understand that waiting for fortune to come their way is not a way to become successful.It can therefore be seen that Edmund uses Machiavelli’s ideas on fortune as he creates a plot to gain power through his own actions and not through fortune alone.
As the play reaches the midpoint, Goneril continues to use Machiavelli’s ideas on fortune to attain her goals. Goneril continues to take power away from King Lear even though he has lost most of his power already. Similarly, Machiavelli believed that when someone fell upon good fortune, they must prepare for times with no fortune. This is evident when he says, “So it happens with fortune, who shows her power where valour has not prepared to resist her, and thither she turns her forces where she knows that barriers and defences have not been raised to constrain her.” (The Prince, Machiavelli). Therefore, when someone was fortunate, they must continue to act and prepare instead of relying on fortune alone because the people who are unprepared are usually left vulnerable when the fortune is gone. This is exactly what Goneril does. Goneril recognizes that King Lear still has some power due to his one hundred knights that follow him around so she decides to try and take some of them away from him. She then tries to convince King Lear that he does not need the knights when she asks, “What need you five-and-twenty, ten, or five, To follow in a house where twice so many have a command to tend you?” (II,iv,300-302). As Goneril goes back on her agreement to let Lear have one hundred knights, she also continues to apply Machiavelli’s ideas on fortune. Goneril is making provisions to prepare for when she is left without fortune by removing even more power from King Lear. Therefore, Goneril is successful in using Machiavelli’s ideas on fortune to become a powerful character in the play.
In the middle of the play, Edmund does not rest on his laurels and does not wait for fortune. Similarly to Goneril, Edmund has fallen upon good fortune but instead of doing nothing, he prepares to further consolidate his power. As the play continues, Gloucester reveals to Edmund the letter from Cordelia. Edmund then uses this knowledge to betray Gloucester to Regan and Cornwall. This is evident when Edmund is talking to Cornwall and reveals Cordelia’s plot by saying,“How malicious is my fortune that I must repent to be just! This is the letter he spoke of, which approves him an intelligent party to the advantages of France. O heavens, that this treason were not, or not I the detector.” (III,vi,10-15).Edmund was clearly pretending to be a trustworthy character towards Gloucester to gain his trust and ultimately betray him. This is a true Machiavellian idea as Edmund refuses to be unprepared or slow to react to changes around him, but rather he acts with ambition and without caution.After Gloucester is confronted by Cornwall and Regan, Gloucester is then punished and his title, “Earl of Gloucester”, is given to Edmund. It is evident in this part of the play that Edmund is not relying on fortune but rather he is acting to achieve his goals. Furthermore, his actions are also incredibly ambitious which is a Machiavellian idea about fortune as Machiavelli states, “For my part I consider that it is better to be adventurous than cautious, because fortune is a woman, and if you wish to keep her under it is necessary to beat and ill-use her; and it is seen that she allows herself to be mastered by the adventurous rather than by those who go to work more coldly.” (The Prince, Machiavelli). Machiavelli’s belief is that people who are naturally more adventurous or ambitious with their actions are more likely to be able to control fortune and use it successfully. Machiavelli explains fortune by personifying fortune as a woman and how the more ambitious and adventurous the person is, the more likely they could control the woman. Clearly, Edmund uses his ambitious actions and Machiavellian ideas to his advantage by successfully gaining power from Gloucester and manipulating his own fortune.
As the play nears its end, Goneril deviates from her natural characteristics. Since the beginning of the play, Goneril was a cautious yet cunning character who got power through manipulation. However, Goneril was not a character who did the dirty work herself, on the contrary she usually had someone do it for her. This was evident when she sent a letter to Edmund to kill her husband, Albany, instead of killing him herself. As the play continued, Goneril became increasingly jealous of Regan for spending time with Edmund because Goneril wanted to be with Edmund instead. This apparent love triangle between the two sisters and Edmund causes a rift between Goneril and Regan. This is most evident when Goneril states she would rather lose the battle to the King of France than have Regan win Edmund’s heart. “I had rather lose the battle than that sister Should loosen him and me.” (V,i,21-22). Machiavelli’s belief was that in order to be successful, people must act as their nature intends. As Goneril is under the effects of jealousy, she deviates from her normally cautious behaviour and decides to poison her sister, Regan. After the poison has killed Regan, Goneril begins to feel guilty about killing her sister and decides to take her own life as seen when the gentleman says, “Your lady, sir, your lady. And her sister By her is poisoned. She confesses it.” (V, iii, 268-269). Goneril therefore is unsuccessful using Machiavelli's ideas on fortune as she deviates from her natural behaviour, loses her power and her life.
As the play is drawing to a conclusion, Edmund had been continuing his plan to become the King of England, but he would never become the king as he fails to use Machiavelli’s ideas on fortune. Edmund had succeeded in gaining power from Gloucester using Machiavelli’s ideas and Edmund has also been successful in turning Goneril and Regan against each other. The only part of the plot left for Edmund is to kill Albany and become the King of England. Unfortunately, before then, Edmund is challenged to a duel by his brother, Edgar who states,”A most toad-spotted traitor. Say thou ‘no,’ this sword, this arm, and my best spirits are bent, to prove upon thy heart, whereto I speak, thou liest.” (V,iii,166-169). The line stated by Edgar is important because he calls Edmund a liar and a traitor which suggests to Edmund that Edgar knows of his plot to gain power. Edmund then accepts the challenge from Edgar because he is worried that Edgar knew his secret plot to kill Albany and that he would reveal it to Albany. As a result, Edmund acts differently from his nature because in most cases Edmund would have refused the challenge as he is not a fighter. Edmund is instead a cunning individual who manipulates people to fulfil his ambitions. Machiavelli’s belief was that to be truly successful, a person must act as their nature intended. Machiavelli’s belief is seen when he states, “I will leave his other actions alone, as they were all alike, and they all succeeded, for the shortness of his life did not let him experience the contrary; but if circumstances had arisen which required him to go cautiously, his ruin would have followed, because he would never have deviated from those ways to which nature inclined him.” (The Prince, Machiavelli). Machiavelli uses this quote to explain that if people acted a different way, they would have not been successful because they would have acted against their nature. Therefore, Edmund fails to use Machiavelli’s ideas on fortune as he chose to act differently than his nature would suggest. Edmund’s failure to follow Machiavelli’s ideas, leads to him being slain by Edgar, which could have been avoided if Edmund had continued to act the way his nature inclined him.
It can be seen that both Edmund and Goneril use Machiavelli’s ideas on fortune to gain power. This is seen with Goneril when she manipulates King Lear by choosing to act and manipulate fortune and when Edmund uses Machiavelli’s ideas on fortune to betray Gloucester and take his land.Unfortunately, both characters during the end of the play fail to use Machiavelli’s ideas which contributes to their demise. In conclusion, Edmund and Goneril are of the same belief that fortune can be manipulated and is something that can be altered. Sadly, this manipulation of fortune to gain power ultimately fails and contributes to both of their downfalls in a very similar way.