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...

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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 of this power is his ability to name effectively: his word is law. This power to name is expressed in his offer of Cordelia to the Duke of Burgundy: "Unfriended, new adopted to our hate, Dowered with our curse, and strangered with our oath" (1:1:206-207). Lear combines here the authority of the father with the (similarly regarded) authority of the King. He has already delivered the "curse" to which he refers:

Let it be so. Thy truth then be thy dower,
For by the sacred radiance of the sun,
The mysteries of Hecat, and the night,
By all the operation of the orbs,
From whom we do exist and cease to be,
Here I disclaim all my paternal care,
Propinquity and property of blood,
And as a stranger to my heart and me
Hold thee from me for ever.

Lear clearly and confidently employs language to exercise power, invoking the goddess Hecat, the sun, the night and the stars in his support. At this stage, and for the last time, Lear is in control of the world through his use of language. Over the course of the play, Lear's...

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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 seem to be involved. Shakespeare's stress on female chastity becomes increasingly marked in the late plays.

If laughter is restrained by fear in Act I, it is equally restricted by pity in Act III. Alexander Leggat identifies various structural elements of the play which are characteristic of comedy as a Shakesperian genre. "Every one of Shakespeare's plays makes some use of laughter, though the laughter can be grim; but none makes such pervasive use of the fundamental structures of comedy, particularly as Shakespeare practised it." Leggat cites Maynard Mack, who sees Lear's journey through the blasted heath as a parody of the forest scene in As You Like It, and Stephen Booth on similarities with Love's Labours Lost, and notes the "full and significant use of disguise" (p.3), very much a feature of Shakesperian comedy, rather than tragedy. Furthermore, I think the use of a prominent sub-plot mirroring the main action is comedic...

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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'....

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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...

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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...

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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...

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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...

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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...

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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...

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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...

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King Lear: Saints and Sinners

(Shakespeare for Students)

The setting of King Lear is decidedly pre-Christian, and yet despite the many references to the pagan world, and an undefined pantheon...

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