Shakespeare’s tragedy King Lear is a detailed
description of the consequences of one man’s decisions. This
fictitious man is Lear, King of England, who’s decisions greatly
alter his life and the lives of those around him. As Lear bears
the status of King he is, as one expects, a man of great power but
sinfully he surrenders all of this power to his daughters as a reward for
their demonstration of love towards him. This untimely abdication
of his throne results in a chain reaction of events that send him
through a journey of hell. King Lear is a metaphorical description
of one man’s journey through hell in order to expiate his sin.
As the play opens one can almost immediately
see that Lear begins to make mistakes that will eventually result
in his downfall. The very first words that he speaks in the
play are :- “…Give me the map there. Know that we have
divided In three our kingdom, and ’tis our fast intent To shake all cares
and business from our age, Conferring them on younger strengths while we
Unburdened crawl to death…”
(Act I, Sc i, Ln 38-41) This gives the reader the first indication of Lear’s
intent to abdicate his throne. He goes on further to offer
pieces of his kingdom to his daughters as a form of reward to his
test of love. “Great rivals in our youngest daughter’s
love, Long in our court have made their amorous
sojourn, And here are to be answered. Tell me, my
daughters (Since now we will divest us both of rule, Interest of territory,
cares of state), Which of you shall we say doth love us most? That we our
largest bounty may extend where nature doth with merit challenge.”
(Act I, Sc i, Ln 47-53) This is the first
and most significant of the many sins that he makes in this play.
By abdicating his throne to fuel his ego he is disrupts the great
chain of being which states that the King must not challenge the
position that God has given him. This undermining of God’s
authority results in chaos that tears apart Lear’s world. Leaving
him, in the end, with nothing. Following this Lear begins to
banish those around him that genuinely care for him as at this
stage he cannot see beyond the mask that the evil wear. He banishes
Kent, a loyal servant to Lear, and his youngest and previously most
loved daughter Cordelia. This results in Lear surrounding himself
with people who only wish to use him which leaves him very vulnerable
attack. This is precisely what happens and it is through this
that he discovers his wrongs and amends them.
Following the committing of his sins, Lear
becomes abandoned and estranged from his kingdom which causes him
to loose insanity. While lost in his grief and self-pity the
fool is introduced to guide Lear back to the sane world and to help
find the lear that was ounce lost behind a hundred Knights but now
is out in the open and scared like a little child. The fact
that Lear has now been pushed out from behind his Knights is dramatically
represented by him actually being out on the lawns of his castle.
The terrified little child that is now unsheltered is dramatically
portrayed by Lear’s sudden insanity and his rage and anger is seen
through the thunderous weather that is being experienced.
All of this contributes to the suffering of Lear due to the gross
sins that he has committed.
The pinnacle of this hell that is experienced
be Lear in order to repay his sins is at the end of the play when
Cordelia is killed. Lear says this before he himself dies as
he cannot live without his daughter. “Howl, howl, howl! O, you are men
of stones. Had I your tongues and eyes, I’d use them so That heaven’s vault
should crack. She’s gone for ever! I know
when one is dead, and when one lives. She’s dead as earth. Lend me a looking
glass. If that her breath will mist or stain the
stone, Why, then she lives.”
(Act V, Sc iii, Ln 306-312)
All of this pain that Lear suffered is traced back to the single
most important error that he made. The choice to give up his
throne. This one sin has proven to have massive repercussions
upon Lear and the lives of those around him eventually killing almost
all of those who were involved. And one is left to ask one’s
self if a single wrong turn can do this to Lear then what difficult
corner lies ahead that ma cause similar alterations in one’s life.
Reference List Shakespeare, William. King Lear. Eric A.
McCann, ed. Harcourt Brace Jovanovick Canada
Inc., Canada. 1988. There has been many different
views on the plays of William Shakespeare and definitions of what
kind of play they were. The two most popular would be the comedy
and the tragedy. King Lear to some people may be a comedy because
they believe that the play has been over exaggerated. Others
would say King Lear was a tragedy because there is so much suffering
and chaos. What makes a Shakespearean
play a comedy or a tragedy? King Lear would be a tragedy because
it meets all the requirements of a tragedy as defined by Andrew Cecil
Bradley. Bradley states that a Shakespearean tragedy must have
to be the story of the hero and that there is exceptional suffering
and calamity slowly being worn in as well as it being contrasted to happier
times. The play also depicts the troubled parts in his life
and eventually his death that is instantaneous caused by the
suffering and calamity. There is the feeling of fear in the
play as well, that makes men see how blind they are not knowing when
fortune or something else would be on them. The hero must be
of a high status on the chain and the hero also possesses a tragic flaw
that initiates the tragedy. The fall of the hero is not felt
by him alone but creates a chain reaction which affects everything
below him. There must also be the element of chance or accident
that influences some point in the play.
King Lear meets all of these requirements that has been laid out
by Bradley which is the most logical for a definition of a tragedy
as compared to the definition of a comedy by G. Wilson Knight.
The main character of the play would be King Lear who in terms of
Bradley would be the hero and hold the highest position is the social
chain. Lear out of Pride and anger has banished Cordelia and
split the kingdom in half to the two older sisters, Goneril and Regan.
This is Lear’s tragic flaw which prevents him to see the true faces
of people because his pride and anger overrides his judgement.
As we see in the first act, Lear does not listen to Kent’s plea to
see closer to the true faces of his daughters. Kent has hurt
Lear’s pride by disobeying his order to stay out of his and Cordelia’s
way when Lear has already warned him, “The bow is bent and
drawn, make from the shaft.” Kent still disobeys Lear and is
banished. Because of this flaw, Lear has initiated the tragedy
by disturbing the order in the chain of being by dividing the kingdom,
banishing his best servant and daughter, and giving up his thrown.
Due to this flaw, Lear has given way to
the two older daughters to conspire against him. Lear is finally
thrown out of his daughters home and left with a fool, a servant
and a beggar. This is when Lear realizes the mistake that he
has made and suffers the banishment of his two eldest daughters.
Lear is caught in a storm and begins to lose his sanity because he
can not bear the treatment of his two daughters as well as the error
he has made with Cordelia and Kent. Lear also suffers from
rest when he is moving all over the place and the thing that breaks
him is the death of his youngest daughter Cordelia. This suffering
can be contrasted with other happier times like when Lear was still
king and when he was not banished by his two daughters.
The feeling of fear is when Lear is in
the storm raging against the gods, “I tax not you, you elements,
with unkindness. I never gave you kingdom, called you children, you
owe me no subscription.”, telling them to rage harder since he has not
done anything for them and that he didn’t deserve what he has received
from his two daughters. The fear is how Lear in a short period
of time went from king to just a regular peasant and from strong
and prideful to weak and unconfident. This shows that men do
not hold their own destiny and that even though things may be great
now you can be struck down just as fast as was to Lear.
The fall of Lear is not just the suffering
of one man but the suffering of everyone down the chain. Gloucester
loses his status and eyes, Cordelia and Kent banished, and Albany
realizing his wife’s true heart. Everything that happened to
these characters are affected by Lear in one way or another and that
if Lear had not banished Cordelia and Kent then the two sisters would
not be able to plot against their father. Without the plot
of the two sisters then Gloucester would not of lost his eyes to
Cornwall and his status because he was guilty of treason. There is an element
of chance in the play in which Edgar meets Oswald trying to kill
his father because he is a traitor. Oswald is slain asks Edgar,
“And give the letters which thou find’st about me to Edmund Earl of Gloucester.
Seek him out upon the English party.” Edgar finds a letter to Edmund from
Goneril about the conspiracy to kill Albany. This part in the
play affects the outcome of Goneril and Edmund in which will lead
to both of their deaths.
The pain and suffering endured by Lear
eventually tears down his strength and sanity. Lear is not
as strong, arrogant, and prideful as he was in the beginning of the
play instead he is weak, scared, and a confused old man. At
the end of the play Lear has completely lost his sanity with the
loss of his daughter Cordelia and this is the thing that breaks Lear
and leads to his death. Lear dies with the knowledge that Cordelia
is dead and dies as a man in pain. “And my poor fool is hanged!
No, no, no life! Why should a dog, a horse, a rat, have life,
And thou no breath at all? Thou’lt come no more, never, never, never,
King Lear has met all the requirements
that Bradley has stated as a Shakespearean tragedy. Lear has
a tragic flaw which is his pride that prevents him to see the true
faces of people. He also initiates the tragedy by the banishment
of Cordelia and Kent as well as dividing the kingdom. Lear
has also suffered and endured the pains of his error which leads
to his death and which is contrasted to that of happier times.
There is the feeling of fear in the play which is of a King losing
his crown and becoming a peasant. Lear has also created a chain
reaction that affects everything down the chain. The element of chance
is also introduced in the play with Edgar and Oswald, Oswald possessing
the letter to Edmund. And the final part is the death of King
Lear dying in suffering of the death of his daughter Cordelia.