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
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
And here are to be answered. Tell me, my
(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
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
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.
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, 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.