A couple of days ago, I riffed a little on the old SAT analogy, and set one up between King Lear and Hamlet, linking the two main characters and their pathologies (but stopping short of calling them psychoses). Today, another little analog with that other major tragedy.
Remember when we first meet Claudius, we don’t see him as a villain. He might be controlling, a little pompous, maybe even slightly lecherous, but we don’t see him as evil. Even when we hear what the Ghost has to say–and I can only speak for myself here–I wasn’t ready to jump on the let’s-avenge-dad bandwagon that Hamlet’s driving. In the scenes that follow, Claudius is protective of his state, possibly paranoid, but still not quite evil (in my view). In fact, I would say that Shakespeare goes out of his way to conceal proof of Claudius’ guilt (via his confession) until after Hamlet is certain (because of his uncle’s reaction to the play), and well past the midpoint of the play.
Can the same be said about Goneril and Regan?
There’s nothing in the opening scene that tips the scale toward the evil of the older sisters. Kent states that their “large speeches may their deeds approve” (I.i.182); so for him, the jury’s still out. Cordelia says, “I know you what you are, // And, like a sister, am most loath to call // Your faults as they are named” (I.i.269-71). This sounds ominous but it’s really only suspicion and supposition for now; she doesn’t name those faults, so how are we to believe her. Even when the sisters confer with one another after Cordelia’s exit, it is more an outlining of Lear’s problems, not evidence of their cruelty or malice.
In fact, I would go so far as to say Goneril’s actions in the remainder of the first act are still consistent with one who–to use a sports metaphor–is still playing defense and not one who is taking the battle to the king. I don’t think it’s until we see Regan’s actions at Gloucester’s castle, particularly once she is reunited with her sister, that we see true malice on the part of the sisters.
And guess what?
That’s the midpoint of the play.
So in both these tragedies, suspicions are raised in the first half of the play, but they are more imagined than evidenced, more like doubts. I would posit that anyone going into the play completely cold wouldn’t be convinced of the evil after the first act of either tragedy. This is vastly different than Richard III’s or Iago’s early proclamations of villainy. In a sense, Claudius’ and the sisters’ cruelty, evil, and malice is more imagined in the first part of the play, unless you’re looking for it, but that action on the part of the audience would only be the product of memory of previous readings and viewings.
How I would love to see Lear or Hamlet for the first time with no preconceived notions, and not know until those turning points the true nature of those villains!