In his play King Lear, what does Shakespeare imply about the effects of adversity on the human spirit?

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vangoghfan | College Teacher | (Level 2) Educator Emeritus

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In his play King Lear, William Shakespeare implies that adversity can have a number of different effects on the human spirit. In particular, the play shows that by suffering adversity oneself, one comes to sympathize with the pain suffered by others. This idea is expressed very memorably in an exchanged between Gloucester and Lear in Act IV, scene vi. By this point in the play, both old men have suffered greatly, both physically and emotionally. Gloucester, in fact, has been literally blinded by one of Lear’s daughters and her husband. Nevertheless, Lear says to him that

A man may see how the world goes with no eyes. 
Look with thine ears. See how yond justice rails upon yond simple thief. Hark in thine ear. Change places and, handy-dandy, which is the justice, which is the thief? Thou hast seen a farmer's dog bark at a beggar?

  • Earl of Gloucester. Ay, sir.
  • Lear. And the creature run from the cur? There thou mightst behold 
    the great image of authority: a dog's obeyed in office. 
    Thou rascal beadle, hold thy bloody hand! 
    Why dost thou lash that whore? Strip thine own back. 
    Thou hotly lusts to use her in that kind 
    For which thou whip'st her. The usurer hangs the cozener. 
    Through tatter'd clothes small vices do appear; 
    Robes and furr'd gowns hide all. Plate sin with gold, 
    And the strong lance of justice hurtless breaks; 
    Arm it in rags, a pygmy's straw does pierce it.

At this point in the play, in other words, Lear has come to realize, by suffering adversity himself, how painful is the adversity suffered by others. He has also come to realize, by experiencing adversity in his own life, that adversity is often suffered unfairly by the poor and the powerless. Ironically, Lear’s own experiences with adversity have made him a better, more compassionate man by this point in the play than he was at the beginning. Paradoxically, now, when he is nearly powerless, he is in a much better position mentally and spiritually to actually exercise power than he was when the play opened. His experience with adversity has helped humble him. It has helped diminish his pride. Lear is a better man, and potentially a better ruler, at this point in the drama than he was when the play opened. He has grown and deepened as a human being thanks to his personal experiences with adversity.







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