Jesus Mariscal is a college-four seminarian studying for the Diocese of Yakima.
Emotional Control: Lear vs. Theseus
by Jesus Mariscal
The tragedy King Lear and the comedy A Midsummer Night's Dream, both written by William Shakespeare, share similar characters and themes. Under the light of the plot that develops from the conflicts between fathers and daughters in the first scenes, a significant difference between Lear and Theseus unfolds. A significant difference between Lear and Theseus that is evident throughout both plays is their personalities. While Lear maintains an intemperate personality, in contrast, Theseus preserves a temperate personality.
From early on in King Lear, Lear demonstrates his intemperate personality. Lear's first appearance in the play shows his lack of emotional control when Lear's youngest daughter, Cordelia, refuses to participate in Lear's absurd love contest. Disappointed by Cordelia's rejection, he explodes into a furious rashness and "disclaims [his] paternal care, propinquity, and property of blood [from her] forever" and asks her to "avoid [his] sight" (15). In other words, he disowns and exiles her from his kingdom. Lear indulges in a reckless rage, blinds himself and does not realize he banishes the daughter whom he calls his joy; the daughter whom he loves the most and had planned to "to set [his] rest on her kind nursery" (15). This means that Cordelia rejects his love contest. Lear loves and trusts her so much that he had planned to live with her to be cared by her during his retirement if she had participated as his elder daughters do in his contest.
However, in seconds, when Cordelia rejects his love contest, Lear suddenly flips from referring to Cordelia as his joy and most loved daughter to comparing her to a "barbarous Scythian" (15), a savage personage from "classical literature savagery" (14). The sudden and unexpected change of sentiments towards his daughter that move from affection to abomination clearly shows Lear's reason blurred by a lack of emotional control.
Lear maintains his intemperate personality during and after his contrition. The night during which Lear experiences his conversion is a cold and stormy night. The extreme weather helps him to recognize and purge all his unjust rancor and prejudice towards Cordelia and homeless people. Once he comes to a realization of things, he does not need to further risk his health under the extreme weather. However, he becomes overwhelmed with a roaring contrition and unreasonably prefers to stay out under extreme weather to invoke the heavens requesting justice (137), rather than taking shelter and finishing his reflection in safety. If he had not lost control of his emotions, he would have taken shelter to protect his physical health.
Furthermore, towards the end of the play when Lear and Cordelia are arrested and sent to jail, Lear, now with a tender heart indulged in love does not realize or care that they are going to be imprisoned. Instead, he is happy to go to prison with his daughter. Blinded by the bliss of being reconciled with Cordelia, Lear tells her that in prison they will have time together and "sing like birds i' the' cage" (235), and that when she asks for his "blessing, [he will] kneel and ask [for her] forgiveness" (235). His over joyous ecstasy does not allow him to realize that they will be deprived from freedom like the singing birds that he talks about to Cordelia. Although Lear is now experiencing positive emotions, they are still extreme emotions that make Lear to unreasonably embrace the fact that he and his beloved daughter will be imprisoned.
In contrast, Theseus preserves a temperate personality throughout A Midsummer Night's Dream. From the opening scene, Theseus shows his temperate character by containing his impatience and desires from making love to his fiance Hippolyta before the wedding day. He tells her that although he has the power to force her into making love to him as he did in the past, he will abstain and "wed [her] in another key, with pomp, triumph, and reveling" (7). In other words, Theseus wants to do things right for Hippolyta this time, and he will throw a festive and royal wedding for her. Therefore, Theseus overcomes his lustful desires and romantic affection for Hippolyta by exercising self-control over his emotions.
Theseus's temperate personality is also evident through his serenity and calculated response with which he receives Egeus in his palace. Despite that Theseus and his fiance Hippolyta are in the middle of working on their wedding preparations (6), he takes the time and helps him with his concerns. Theseus could have become irritated and told Ageus that he was busy with his wedding preparations and to come back later after the wedding. Yet, he does not turn Egeus away. He hear Egeus's problem and then proceeds to help him. This displays Theseus' control over his emotions. Also, when Theseus deals with Egeus's problem, which is the disobedience of his daughter, Hermia, calmly he stabilizes the situation.
Due to the proximity of Theseus's wedding and the stress involved in planning a wedding, plus his impatient desires for Hippolyta, he could have lost control of his emotions and over reacted and simply have forced Hermia to an unwanted marriage or executed her right away. However, he keeps calm and reasons that either of these two options, far from establishing order right before his wedding, would most likely create turbulence and controversy. Instead, Theseus not only gives Hermia more time to reflect on her disobedience to her dad, but he also gives her two other options besides death as her father Egeus had suggested, namely, a chaste single life or forced marriage. With such a prescription, Theseus drives tension, interruptions, and controversy away from his wedding preparations and establishes order at least for four more days.
Lastly, on the wedding night, Theseus can hardly wait the "three hours between [his] after-supper and bedtime" (145). He wants to seal the marriage already, but he has to wait three more hours. If Theseus wants he can call off the celebration early to go and consummate the marriage, but before he lose control to his affection and lustful desires, he asked for entertainment to help him "ease the anguish of the [the] torturing [hours]" (145). Theseus has such control of his emotions that when he thinks he might not be strong enough to resist them, he arranges for assistance. Whether he fights his emotions by himself or with the help of other means, he still is the one controlling his own emotions because he is the one who arranges for such means.
In conclusion, although the two different plays have the filial relationship theme in common, a main difference in the personalities between Lear and Theseus is discovered under this theme. While Lear is depicted as blinded or confused due to his inability to control his emotions, Theseus is portrayed as stabilizing any situation due to his ability to conquer his emotions whether by his mere strong will or by assistance that he arranges when he feels threatened by the power of his primed desires inside of him.