Is Lear a Tragic Hero?
Prior to the twentieth century Shakespeare critics tended to interpret King Lear as a conventional or classic tragedy and saw Lear himself as an Elizabethan version of the "tragic hero." Like the ancient Greek character Oedipus, Lear is a majestic figure at the start of the play whose character flaw of hubris or pride compels him to initiate acts that lead to his ultimate demise. In this traditional reading of Shakespeare's King Lear, the hero's downfall, however, has redemptive qualities: a lesson is taught and learned and the audience experiences a sense of moral uplift at the end.
Several facets of the traditional Lear as tragic hero thesis are plainly valid. Like all the classic figures of tragedy, Lear is a royal personage, a king and, indeed, a man who stands above the rest of the characters (albeit for only a few scenes). He is a commanding figure at the pinnacle of his powers. Lear is presented to us by Shakespeare as the majestic monarch, ushered onto the stage with the ceremonial pomp and trumpets. In short order, we learn that during his reign, Lear has proven himself to be an able ruler, adding to the commonwealth's prosperity and estate. Thus, Lear is worthy of his prospective status as a tragic hero.
But, like Oedipus, Lear has a basic character defect. He is excessively proud of his accomplishments as regent and, beyond that, of the love that he deserves from his three daughters. When his youngest daughter Cordelia refuses to openly affirm unlimited affection for him, Lear's wounded pride forces him to disown and expel her, leaving all his powers in the hands of his duplicitous daughters, Goneril and Regan. They, of course, abuse him and Lear again falls into a rage, leaving shelter and sustenance to become "unaccomodated man" on the storm-swept heath. There he curses his faithless daughters, but he never associates his downfall with his own tragic character flaw. In fact, he remains blind to the connection between his trait of excessive pride and his plunge into raw nature. Near the play's conclusion, having been purged of excessive pride by the rough redemptive power of nature, Lear realizes too late that he has been "a very foolish fond old man" and realizes that he is "not of perfect mind." Therefore, according to the customary view of Lear as a tragic hero, Lear is taught a lesson and the audience comes away from the play with a message about the fatal consequences of unbounded pride....
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The Power of Language and the Language of Power in King Lear
King Lear is one of Shakespeare's darkest plays; darker than Measure for Measure, darker perhaps even than Titus Andronicus. So dark is it, that from 1681 to 1838 it was performed only in a tamed, even sedated version by Nahum Tate. The particular cruelty of King Lear is indicated in Shakespeare's alterations to his sources; in Holinshead's Chronicles Cordelia wins the war and restores Lear to the throne (although she does later hang herself). This darkness of tone is accompanied and indeed reinforced by a studied vagueness of time and geography.
The relationship of power and language is prominent from the beginning. Lear is at the height of his power, and plans two final acts which will settle the future of the Kingdom, of his youngest and favourite daughter Cordelia, and of himself. As might be considered typical of family events, tensions are exposed, and Lear's plan to divide the Kingdom between his daughters, marry Cordelia to the Duke of Burgundy and settle down to retirement in their third of the Kingdom is shattered. The power of language to deceive is the first and most obvious point made: Goneril and Regan are willing to say whatever they feel necessary to obtain their promised share, their empty flattery receives its reward, but Cordelia's honesty precipitates disaster.
Goneril claims to love Lear "more than eye sight", "A love that makes breath poor and speech unable, Beyond all manner of so much I love you." (1:1:62-63). Regan declares "I am alone felicitate in your dear highness' love" (1:1:77-78). In successive asides Cordelia allows the audience access to her greater integrity (or resistance) "What shall Cordelia speak? Love and be silent" (1:1:61), "Then poor Cordelia, And yet not so, since I am sure my love's more ponderous than my tongue" (1:1:75). Cordelia gives her own comment on the deceptive power of language: "that glib and oily art to speak and purpose not" (1:1:213-214).
Her fears are justified when her Father turns to her and asks: "What can you say to draw a third more opulent than your sisters? Speak." Her reply is not best calculated to please him: "Nothing my Lord" (1:1:84-85). Cordelia's inability (or unwillingness) to join with her sisters in this charade so angers Lear that he disinherits and banishes her. His loyal servant Kent, who defends her, is also banished. Lear's power is total, and, as many commentators have noted, used unjustly. Part...
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King Lear and Comedy
Strangely enough, it is G. Wilson Knight, a critic famous (not to say notorious) for a vehemently Christian interpretation of Shakespeare's plays, who notes in The Wheel of Fire some of the comedic aspects of King Lear. Whether or not the harsh moral ecology of King Lear fits comfortably with the Christian ethos of forgiveness, structural elements of comedy are plainly present in the plays, quite apart from the sardonic humour of the Fool. Indeed, a "happy ending" involving the marriage of Cordelia and Edgar was part of Nahum Tate's revision of the play which was the accepted version from 1681 to 1838. Marriage is the traditional ending in Shakespearian comedy, and many critics have found the death of Cordelia to be unacceptably cruel. This is especially true in view of the fact that Shakespeare altered his sources for the story (Holinshead's Chronicle and the anonymous play King Leir). Wilson Knight sees the opening scene as being comedic, a suggestion unique in my experience, but not without foundation, in that Lear's stage-management of his abdication breaks on Cordelia's resistance, leaving his plan in chaos. It is the puncturing of pride and pomposity, the subversion of Lear's assumptions, which provides the possibility of humour, although Lear's reaction to this setback is authentically frightening. Over the course of the play Lear's power to curse—
That thou hast sought to make us break our vows,
Which we durst never yet, and with strained pride
To come between our sentences and our power,
Which nor our nature nor our place can bear,
Our potency made good, take thy reward:
—declines, to become ludicrous and ineffectual:
No, you unnatural hags
I will have such revenges on you both
That all the world shall—I will do such things
What they are, yet I know what; but they shall be
The terrors of the earth.
Where it has been traditional to see the conflict of Act I as a dispute between truth and falsehood, Katherine McLuskie identifies it as an ideological clash between a contractual and a patriarchal notion of authority in the family. This is well observed, but does not entirely account for Cordelia's behaviour, in which the idea of "chastity" in its broadest Elizabethan sense would...
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A Brief Critical History of King Lear
King Lear was written in 1604 or 1605, as far as can be established. It certainly incorporates material from Samuel Harsnett's A Declaration of Several Popish Impostures, London, (1603), an exposure of a fraudulent case of spirit possession, and it was registered with the Company of Stationers on 26th November 1607. The Quarto was published by Nathaniel Butler at the sign of the Pied Bull in 1608, and a significantly different version included in the Folio of 1623.
King Lear was rewritten in 1681, twenty-one years after the re-introduction of the Monarchy. The play was no longer considered suitable in Shakespeare's version, and Nahum Tate rewrote it in line with Restoration notions of 'decorum'. Although Tate's version is justly reviled, it is in some ways truer to its sources (Raphael Holinshed's The Third Volume of Chronicles (1587) and an anonymous play King Leir) in allowing Cordelia and Lear to survive. However, in the Holinshed version, Cordelia does eventually hang herself in prison. King Lear was undoubtedly too uncomfortable for Restoration tastes, and it remains a troubling and harrowing play. Shakespeare's version was not restored in performance until 1838.
The range of critical opinion expressed on King Lear in nearly four hundred years is obviously too extensive and varied to detail here. In particular the vast expansion of literary criticism in the Twentieth Century renders an inclusive review impossible. As usual, there are no contemporary accounts of Shakespearean performances, and the first critical response is implied, therefore, in a wholesale rewriting of the play by Nahum Tate in 1681. Although the critical response is varied almost all critics agree on three points; King Lear is 'great'; King Lear is bleak; as Maynard Mack says, 'King Lear is a problem.'1
Tate's 'Dedication' to The History of King Lear states:
Twas my good Fortune to light on one Expedient to rectify what was wanting in the Regularity and Probability of the Tale.
Tate's 'expedient' was to invent a romance between Cordelia and Edgar. The terms Tate uses throw some light on Restoration critical theory. 'Regularity' is a matter of form, of adherence to a set of dramatic and aesthetic rules, although questions of 'decorum' have a moral dimension. More modern interpretations find a high...
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The Tragic Ending of King Lear
The story of King Lear is a mythic one which existed in the folklore of England long before Shakespeare was born. It seems that only Shakespeare, however, imbued the story with its tragic ending. Even Shakespeare's followers resorted to the optimistic resolve of the Lear tale. In a 1680 adaptation of King Lear, Nahum Tate not only allows Lear and his most-loving daughter Cordelia to live, but restores Lear to his throne. He also abolishes the character of the Fool from his adaptation altogether. The hopeful ending of Tate's adaptation ignores what Shakespeare interpreted as the tragedy of the Lear story. In order to reveal the poetic truths of life, including its negative aspects—betrayal, filial hatred, deception, and death—King Lear must be a tragedy. Moreover, by definition of a tragedy, the death of King Lear and his devoted Cordelia must be understood as a sacrifice to truth that is inevitable from the beginning of the play.
Lear's death is foreshadowed in the play even before he performs the fatal error of assigning all his kingdom's territories to his greedy daughters Goneril and Regan. When Lear prepares to ask of each of his daughters to express her love for him, he states his purpose in doing so:
. . . and 'tis our fast intent
To shake all cares and business from our age.
Conferring them on younger strengths while we
Unburdened crawl toward death.
(King Lear Act 1.Scene 1.Lines 38-41)
The irony of these lines is revealed as their literal truth becomes apparent. Lear has made the decision to donate as a form of dowry the three parts of his kingdom to each of his daughters: Cordelia, Goneril, and Regan. The size of their share depends on how much they love their father and, moreover, how well they can express it. The fact that the words of Goneril and Regan are infused with their own greed as well as that of their suitors, the receivers of the dowry, is apparent to the audience of the play from the beginning; however, Lear believes them and thus appears gullible. Moreover, Lear does not perceive the true love of Cordelia, who replies "Nothing" when it is her turn to articulate her love to her father. The audience, on the other hand, is immediately clued in to the truth behind Cordelia's reticence by the use of asides. In her first aside to the audience, as she struggles over how to fulfill her father's demand to...
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Good and Evil Children in King Lear and Henry IV
William Shakespeare takes his attack on the notion of the divine right of kings one step further in King Lear, as he shows that even kings are infallible when it comes to judging their children. Lear's banishment of Cordelia is the prime illustration of the notion that parents tend to project their own expectations on to their children, sometimes with dire results. While Shakespeare may have imbued his royal tragedies with themes of history and duty and divine right (or lack of it), his characters, like Lear, and Henry IV, were above all individuals, with individual choices to make about the course of their lives. That these choices, through accident of birth, might significantly affect the actions of an entire nation is at the core of the tragedies which have satirical and universal undertones, especially for the reader of Shakespeare.
If Lear, as a monarch and father, is the role model for other fathers and "domestic monarchs," then perhaps Shakespeare is having a very big laugh on his readers. Hoping at last in his old age to enjoy the benevolent care and love which he feels is owed to him by the virtue of his parentage, he is easily flattered by the pumped up expressions of devotion that Regan and Goneril hand him, merely to take advantage of a "ripe situation." Cordelia, on the other hand is berated and punished for expressing the truth about the limits of her abilities to love responsibly. Muir notes that ". . . To a child, the father may be both loved protecter and unjustly obstructing tyrant; and to a parent the child may be both loving supporter of age and ruthless usurper and rival" (pg. xivi). These are the attitudes that are spread among the benevolent and wicked children of Lear, Gloucester, Henry IV and Henry Percy (by wicked here, we can also mean useless and ill cast, for that is the description that typifies Henry IV's son Hal). While the parent goes on with his own expectations and ambitions, which include his perceptions of how his children will behave, the children are busy with expectations of their own. We see this in Gloucester's illegitimate son, Edmund, whose aspirations to legitimacy will stop at nothing, especially fratricide. While it is clear that Gloucester loves both his sons well, and is not averse to helping Edmund gain favor with persons like Kent, it is clear that the disparity in Edgar and Edmund's lineage has embittered the latter, and this bitterness has turned his manipulation of his...
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Textual and Contextual Analysis of the Opening Scene in Shakespeare's King Lear
Since the early seventeenth century, the opening scene of King Lear has been the subject of extensive literary interpretation and the object of intense critical debate. This is, of course, the scene in Lear in which the aged monarch's youngest daughter, Cordelia, refuses to follow her older siblings' suit by professing an unbounded love to Lear, and as such, it is both the wellspring of the plot and the herald of its thematic contents. As William Martin (1987) has recently stated, critical opinion remains sharply divided on the salient matter of whether Shakespeare's Lear is "a 'Christian' play with optimistic overtones or a pessimistic 'pagan' play affording little or no hope for man in a relentlessly indifferent world" (p.5). In the present writer's view, this dichotomy can be recast as a divide between those "traditional" readers who interpret Lear and its opening scene in context, and those "new criticism" readers who scrutinize the text itself and find meaning outside of its context. In essence, the former interpret a work like Lear by imputing certain explicit intentions to the author (here Shakespeare) on the basis of biographical and source data, the author's historical circumstances, and the work's conformity to norms and dramatic conventions of its day. On the other hand, those following a new critical approach effectively discard all this "background" data from their analyses, jettison the quest to discern the author's singularly purpose, and focus upon the formal, structural and linguistic elements of the text, through "close" reading aimed at the "discovery" of the text.
In the essay at hand, the present writer will first analyze Act I, scene i of Shakespeare's King Lear within context. This will require some preliminary identification of seemingly pertinent contextual dimensions to Shakespeare's composition, and in the subsequent analysis, the present writer will use Irving Ribner's (1960) reading as a "guide" to this approach. The present writer will then investigate the same scene, utilizing the perspective and the techniques of the "new" or "modern" critical approach. While this portion of the analysis will make reference to readings of Lear by Elias Schwartz (1977) and by Martin (1987), the present writer will "parse" the text chiefly through original analysis.
The "traditional" approach to the analysis of literary works attempts to discern "facts" about the...
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Contrast in Character in The Tragedy of King Lear
King Lear is one of Shakespeare's greatest tragedies, but it is also a carefully constructed arrangement of deliberately contrasting characters and human qualities; these contrasting elements make the tragic outcomes inevitable and heighten the emotional involvement of the reader, or playgoer, in what might otherwise be seen as a story that depends upon coincidence and misunderstandings to the point where credibility could be undermined.
The most obvious contrasts in moral character are among the younger people of the play. Cordelia, in her true love for her father, which at the same time refuses to pander to his vanity and degenerate into self-serving flattery, could not be more starkly delineated in contrast to her selfish, hypocritical and amoral sisters, Goneril and Regan. Where Goneril boasts of "A love that makes breath poor, and speech unable" and Regan states that she is "alone felicitate in [her] dear Highness' love", Cordelia tells Lear that "I love your Majesty according to my bond, no more nor less". (I, i, 60, 75-76, 92-93)
The subsequent actions of all three daughters, of course, fulfill what the reader suspects from the moment that the three have spoken of their love for Lear. The elder two daughters proceed to humiliate him whenever possible, attempting to reduce him to a state of utter dependency upon such crumbs of his own largesse that they are willing to bestow back upon him. If anything, they degenerate into almost stock figures of evil as they conspire to betray and even murder each other in their efforts to win Edmund for themselves. Cordelia, of course, remains loving and loyal to her father, no matter how abominably he has treated her through his foolish vanity.
Edgar and Edmund represent the male converse of this relationship, with the good and guileless Edgar as the "Cordelia" of Gloucester's sons and the bastard Edmund as the hypocritical and evil plotter who is ready to betray any and all in his drive to supplant his "legitimate" brother and succeed in life at any cost.
Legitimate Edgar, I must have your land.
Our father’s love is to the bastard Edmund
As to the legitimate. Fine word, 'legitimate'!
(I, ii, 16-19)
In such lines, Shakespeare allows his male villain a certain flair that he denies to the more banally evil Goneril and Regan. Near the conclusion of the play the...
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Kingship and the Themes of Shakespeare's Hamlet, King Lear, and Macbeth
The manner in which Shakespeare treats the nature of kingship in Hamlet, King Lear and Macbeth reflects the essential tone and themes of these works. In Hamlet, a play in no small part pervaded by abstractions, paradoxes and conscious role playing, the kingship is described in terms of abstractions, paradoxes and the self-conscious "playing" of the king. In King Lear, a play which contrasts natural relations with the power of real politic, we find that a duality characterizes Lear's kingship. Finally, in Macbeth, a work of dark and supernatural phenomena, the kingship is described, in similar fashion, as dark and mystical. The unifying strand which all of these respective treatments of kingship have in common is found in the correspondence between the state of the kingship and the state of the kingdom, and in the state of the universe of nature itself. In this paper we shall observe the manner in which Shakespeare's treatment of the kingship mirrors the primary concerns of these three plays and identify the common thread which runs throughout them.
Hamlet is a work filled with abstractions, paradoxes, ironies and the conscious playing of roles, and it is in these terms that Shakespeare characterizes the kingship in this work. As epitomized by the ghost of ur-Hamlet, the king in Hamlet is an abstract and insubstantial role, or, as Hamlet remarks, "a king of shreds and patches." The specter of ur-Hamlet serves as a continual reminder of the abstract nature of kingship, a role pervaded by paradox and irony.
Hamlet's references to the kingship reveal the paradoxical treatment which Shakespeare attributes to the role of sovereign. Hamlet states to Rosencrantz:
Ay, sir, that soaks up the King's countenance, his rewards, his authorities. But such officers do the King best service in the end. He keeps them, like an ape in the corner of his jaw, first mouthed, to be last swallowed. When he needs what you have gleaned, it is but squeezing you and, sponge, you shall be dry again.
And later, in discourse with Horatio:
Imperious Caesar, dead and turned to clay,
Might stop a hole to keep the wind away.
O' that that earth which kept the world in awe
Should patch a wall t'expel the winter’s flaw!
These two passages illustrate the curious and...
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Madness in King Lear
The Lear that is presented at the beginning of Shakespeare's play is a man subject to "unruly waywardness" (I.i.298) and "unconstant starts." (I.i.300) He casts off the daughter who is most faithful to him because she refuses to match the exaggerated claims of love that her sisters profess for their father. Similarly, he casts off his most loyal subject, Kent, when he defends Cordelia, whom Kent knows to be true to the King. Ill-used by Regan and Goneril once he has relinquished his power to them, madness overcomes him. He is only restored from this madness when he is re-united with Cordelia. His experience of madness teaches him wisdom and he corrects all his previous faults as a result.
Several things attribute to Lear's eventual madness. The Fool, initially, plays a large part in pointing out to the King his foolish mistakes. Even before the onset of Lear's madness, the Fool is anticipating it:
thou hast pared thy wit o'both sides, and left nothing i' the middle.
Lear's gradual realization of the disloyalty of his two elder daughters also leads him to anticipate his oncoming madness. Reproaching himself for his blindness, he says of himself, "Either his notion weakens, his discernings/ Are lethargied," (I.iv.236-37) and later, ". . . let thy folly in,/ And thy dear judgement out!" (I.iv.280-81) It is Lear's reaction to Goneril's refusal to house him together with his whole retinue that marks the first real premonition of his madness, and the Fool suggests that it is his lack of wisdom, which accompanied his old age, that will be the cause of it.
Corresponding with Lear's madness, which is real, the play presents apparent, or feigned, madness in other characters. The disguised Kent challenges Oswald, for reasons Cornwall cannot understand, for he is not aware of the former's disguise. He puts Kent's provocation down to madness, for want of an explanation.
Edgar, also disguised to escape detection, takes on the aspect of madness. Edgar has been falsely rejected by his father, just as Cordelia has been rejected by hers. But Edgar's resulting madness, unlike Lear's, is only assumed. And it is this assumed madness which instills the real one in Lear. His meeting with Edgar as Old Tom completes the King's fall into madness, which Kent perceives. He urges that Lear be led away, for "His wits begin t'unsettle." (III. iv.166)
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Two Critical Episodes in Shakespeare's King Lear
In Act III of King Lear the crucial event is the king's breakdown into madness. The episode in which the event occurs is based upon the storms that rage inside and outside the king. The substance of the play is that Lear, in a mighty fashion, must suffer emotionally, physically and finally in madness before he can see clearly the error of his ways. After banishing his faithful daughter Cordelia, and being turned out by his two evil daughters, Lear’s emotional journey downwards follows a physical path. In like fashion, the sub-plot of Gloucester in Act IV serves to reinforce Lear’s suffering.
As the episode begins, the scene is a heath in the midst of a storm. Instead of having Lear appear in the opening scene, he is described as "contending with the fretful elements . . ."; he "strives in his little world of man to outscorn . . . the wind and rain." The episode’s theme of the two storms meeting through one man is presented before it is experienced by the audience. The stage is cleared, and Lear enters alone, but for his Fool, raging at the storm and at himself. This is the moment at which he is alone with himself, for the Fool is his mirror. Before he can reach the lowest point of his journey, he must expel his energy in anger at his foul condition. Kent enters, and warns Lear of the danger of the storm, "Man's nature cannot carry the affliction nor the fear." As Kent directs Lear towards shelter in a hovel, the basest dwelling, Lear responds to his compassion, and in moving to seek shelter is still unbroken by his inner raging. The Fool following makes a prophecy, that when everything is upside down, "than shall the realm of Albion [England] come to great confusion." Although the episode of the storm is broken by a return to a sub-plot concerning Gloucester, it is that sub-plot that will reinforce the episode upon the heath.
Lear, in the care of Kant and the Fool, arrives outside the hovel. The stage direction says, "storm still." Lear asks to remain alone in the storm. "The tempest in my mind/ Doth from my senses take all feeling else/ Save what beats there." As he will not leave the storm, he will not leave tormenting himself with his suffering. The theme of ungrateful daughters repeats itself in every speech, with every step of his passage through the storm. It is an obsession.
Kent attempts to persuade Lear into the hovel. Lear responds, "No I will be the pattern of all patience." Kent: "Here...
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King Lear: Saints and Sinners
The setting of King Lear is decidedly pre-Christian, and yet despite the many references to the pagan world, and an undefined pantheon of 'gods', the pervading view of the play is one of redemption through suffering. This is a clearly Christian perspective of life and death.
Lear declares that he is 'more sinn'd against than sinning' (III, ii, 59-60)1, and Cordelia is seen very much as a figure of sacrifice. Both Lear and Gloucester must suffer to an extreme degree before they can come to terms with their lives, and their faults; and through their suffering, they gain understanding, and ultimately forgiveness—from Cordelia (for Lear) and Edgar (for Gloucester).
In examining this view of the play, we cannot separate the parallel Gloucester plot from the main Lear plot. Edgar may well say that Lear 'childed as I fathered' (III, vi, 108), but both men have committed sins against their own children, and against the bonds and duties which are interdependent. Cordelia talks about those bonds and duties in I,i ('I love your Majesty/According to my bond': lines 91-92), and Lear harps on about them throughout the play, linking them with the responsibilities of children. Gloucester too alludes to them when he hears of Edgar's supposedly traitorous plots to have him killed (I, ii, 105). The 'unnatural' acts of the two loving children ironically set off the heinous acts of the truly unkind children (Goneril, Regan and Edmund), and...
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