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...
(The entire section is 888 words.)