The Concept of Duty in Shakespeare’s Plays

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The Concept of Duty in Shakespeare’s Plays King Lear and All’s Well That Ends Well

Since our early childhood, we have numerous duties: to be polite with others, to assist the older people, to help your mother with cleaning and so on. These are our duties when we are children. However, when we become older, the word “duty” gains a wider meaning than just help with the household. During the youth and adult life, duty becomes a set of moral obligations. It acts as a regulatory category that an individual must perform because of the public necessity. It also functions as a higher moral obligation that becomes an internal quality of an individual. Moreover, duty is an organic necessity that coordinates personal and public interests. From this point of view, we are used to think that we have to perform our duties whether we like them or not. In his works, Shakespeare refers to the concept of duty as an issue that helps build the country as well as social and personal relationships. Nevertheless, the writer challenges the usual understanding of this notion. In his writings, Shakespeare shows how people can manipulate their duties or pretend that they perform them in a proper way to reach their goals.

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The problem of duty is revealed in the drama King Lear. Lear is a king of Britain. King’s duty is to serve his people and protect his country, which is what he tries to do. Nevertheless, Lear is already an old man. He needs heirs to rule the country. He divides his legacy, the country, between his three daughters and their husbands. First, he wants to know how much his children love him. His favorite daughter Cordelia is wordless; so, in the end, the country is divided between two daughters. In this case, Lear does not perform his duty of the king. He acts just as an old man who presents gifts to those who speak better and loudly.

Shakespeare challenges the duty to family through the characters of Goneril, Regan, and Edmund. Goneril and Regan were the daughters of the King Lear and women who received the heritage. As soon as they began to rule their parts of the territory, their vows about the eternal love to their father were broken. When Lear stayed with Goneril, he was treated badly by her and her servants. He was not called a king or a father but an old crazy man who had no legal rights. Then, Lear went to Regan to find care and sympathy, but he faced the neglect. His daughters forbade him to travel with his men. First, his escort consisted of 100 people. Goneril reduced it to 50. Later, both sisters talked about 25 men, then 10 and 5; and in the end, no one was left. It is almost impossible to imagine a king without his escort. Edmund was a son of Gloucester. The issue was that Edmund was a bastard. Nevertheless, Gloucester acknowledged and treated him the same way as his legitimate son Edgar. However, this was not enough for Edmund; so first, he blamed his brother for the betrayal of their father. He claimed that Edgar wanted to kill Gloucester. Then, he betrayed his father telling the Duke of Cornwall that his father wanted to help Lear. He also added that Gloucester was in collusion with the French army. Later, Edmund became the reason for the death of Goneril and Regan. He swore his love for both sisters. However, because of jealousy, Goneril poisoned Regan and then committed suicide. Through these characters, Shakespeare shows that the family duties are not always performed in traditional way and followed by the happy ending.

The Earl of Kent and the Earl of Gloucester are the ideal examples of the duty of the king’s vassals. Despite the fact that he was banished from the royal court, the former remained loyal to his king. He changed his look and followed his master everywhere. “I am the very man, – That, from your first of difference and decay, Have follow’d your sad steps” (Shakespeare Act 5, Scene 3,line 337 – 340). It was he who wanted to stop Lear when he deprived Cordelia of her inheritance. It was he who then fought with Oswald, the servant of Goneril. He stayed with Lear even when the king started to lose his mind. The Earl of Gloucester also managed to stay loyal to the king of Britain despite the orders of the Duke of Cornwall, Regan, and Goneril. His destiny was not that favorable to him. The Duke of Cornwall made him blind by tearing his eyes. Nevertheless, the old man still was loyal to the King Lear. It is worth mentioning that Gloucester had a choice: he could stay aside and just observe, or he could help his king, which was what he eventually did. “Go in with me: my duty cannot suffer to obey in all your daughters’ hard commands” (Shakespeare Act 3, Scene 4, line 147-148). In addition, it must be said that the servants of Gloucester were also loyal as their master was. They tried to protect him, and one of the servants died, while others helped him escape. Therefore, we can make a conclusion that both the Earl of Kent and the Earl of Gloucester complied as vassals with their oaths to their sovereign. Besides the duty of loyalty, they performed their duty of friendship.

The Duke of Albany is a character that performs a duty of loyalty to his king. He is not such a bright personage as the Earl of Kent is, but still, he performed his duty. It is true that he did not take an active part in the drama from the start. He did not stop the king when Lear left his mansion. Moreover, he did not contradict or argue with Goneril to protect the king. He took part in the war with the French army, but the murder of Lear and Cordelia never was his intention. He wanted to pardon them. The Duke claimed that their enemies were the French but not the king and his daughter.

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Cordelia, the third daughter of the King Lear, acts as an image of duty of children to parents. She continued to love his father even when he began to deny her as his daughter. She was the only one, among his children, who tried to cure him when he started to lose his mind. “Restoration hang Thy medicine on my lips; and let this kiss Repair those violent harms that my two sisters Have in thy reverence made!” (Shakespeare Act 5, Scene 1, line 31 -34). With the help of her husband, she started a war to punish those who despised her father. In the end, she lost her life trying to help her father and king.

Another interesting personage is Edgar. He is a legitimate son of the Earl of Gloucester. His duty is becoming more obvious in the end of the drama. First, he performs a duty of a son. He becomes a guide to his blind father. Edward takes care of him throughout the way that they pass to reach Dover. However, the more significant Edgar’s duty is his duty to himself. He needs to reveal the truth to the world and clear his name. In the end, he fights with Edmund and beats him. Only after that, Edmund confesses in his crimes. In such a way, Edgar becomes innocent and not guilty of the betrayal.

The most significant differentiation of duty from the morality can be observed throughout the character of Oswald. He is Goneril’s servant. In the story, Oswald appears to be a negative personage. Nevertheless, he is a man of duty. His duty is to serve his mistress Goneril, and he does it. He despises the King Lear because she told him to do that. He does not treat him appropriately because of Goneril. He is a messenger who delivers her letters to her sister. In the end, he dies while fulfilling one of her orders.

Shakespeare also refers to the concept of duty in his comedy All’s Well That Ends Well. The story highlights the duties to the sovereign and family.

First, the family duties are mentioned. In the first scene, the readers discover that the father of Bertram died. So, the king of France now becomes Bertram’s fiduciary. In the times of Shakespeare, it was a duty of a king to become a protector to the young aristocrats whose fathers died. “You shall find of the king a husband, madam; you, sir, a father ”(Shakespeare Act 1, Scene 1, line 5). In this situation, the king sets an example to his people not be indifferent to the grief of others. The king is an image for the whole country. He has to perform his duties in a proper way; otherwise, his people will not respect him and listen to him. Another performer of the parents’ duty is the Countess of Rousillon. She is the mother of Bertram. She also takes care of Helena. The matter is that Helena’s father asked the woman to look after Helena after his death. So, the countess regards the girl as her daughter.

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Bertram, who is now the Count of Rousillon, becomes the son of the king of France due to the tradition. In such a way, he is the son and the vassal at the same time. His duty is to obey his sovereign and comply with all the orders of his king. However, Bertram fails to perform all his duties appropriately, especially those that concern his marriage. When he is married, he remembers about another duty of the aristocrats, the war. So, the young husband escapes from his wife in Tuscany to war. In such a way, he neglects his duty of a husband, but he thus performs his duty as a warrior. However, Bertram fails his duty as a vassal as he has not performed his duty of a husband completely.

Another character is Helena. She is the daughter of a famous physician who recently died. Before that, he gave Helena his receipts and asked to keep them, which she did. So, we can say that Helena succeeded in performing her duty of a daughter. Then, the character acts as a doctor. The doctor’s duty is to cure the patients. In other words, Helena cures the king of France. In his turn, the king keeps his word and lets the girl choose a husband from his vassals. After that, Helena performs a duty of a wife. She swears to obey her husband and does everything that he tells her. “In every thing I wait upon his will” (Shakespeare Act 2, Scene 4, line 53).

The character that challenges the duty of loyalty and truth is Parolles. It is a man who follows Bertram everywhere. He always speaks about his courage and his military experience. When he is asked about the retreat on the battlefield, he calls it the military strategy. However, he fails the examination that Bertram and other soldiers prepared for him. As a captive, he immediately reveals all the secrets of the army to those who caught him. In addition, he claims that the captains of the army are fools and thieves who cannot manage the army.


To sum it up, it is worth mentioning that William Shakespeare refers to the concept of duty in his plays. He sets an example for others by means of Cordelia performing her duty of a daughter or Kent’s duty of a vassal and a friend in King Lear, or Helena’s duty of a wife in All’s Well That Ends Well. However, he also tries to challenge the common understanding of the duty. For example, Oswald in King Lear does not elicit sympathy, but he performs his duty. Moreover, Edmund, who wants to gain power, conceals his intentions and calls them the son’s duty in one case and the servant’s duty in another. In the play All’s Well That Ends Well, we observe how Bertram escapes his duty of a husband in favor of that of a warrior. Considering these situations, we can make a conclusion that the duty is not always concerned with the moral issues. Moreover, some people can pursue their goals, pretending that they perform their duties.

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