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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.

But in some modern readings of King Lear, critics have come to a far different conclusion as to what Shakespeare's play is about and "who" Lear is. In these revisionist interpretations, King Lear is not a tragedy about a distinguished individual; it is, rather, a black comedy about the human condition at large, in which Lear is a kind of Everyman, a "mortal worm" and no more. We note that, unlike the tight unity of classic tragedy, King Lear embodies a major sub-plot in Edmund's evil plans to deceive his father, Gloucester, into believing that his good son, Edgar, harbors evil intentions toward him. Gloucester's path follows the same trajectory as that of Lear: indeed, the two narrative lines even intersect. The existence of this sub-plot implies that Lear's tragedy is not special or unique in any way, and this, in turn, deprives Lear of the distinction common to true tragic heroes.

As for the lesson that Lear garners from his experience, the seeming insight that he attains on the heath has no actual bearing on the play's outcome; it is simply a crutch that Lear uses to deny the inherent absurdity of the cosmos. Even after his exposure to the cosmic elements, Lear remains blind. His ordeal on the heath does not impart wisdom to him; it leaves him completely addled. When he is reunited with Cordelia, Lear is so mad that he cannot recognize her at first, mistaking his daughter for a spirit. True, Lear does acknowledge that this spirit is his once-spurned daughter, but held captive by the forces of evil (his two older daughters and the bastard...

(The entire section is 20,763 words.)