King Lear Essay
The definition of tragedy in the Oxford dictionary is, "drama of elevated theme and
diction and with unhappy ending; sad event, serious accident, calamity." However, the
application of this terminology in Shakespearean Tragedy is more expressive. Tragedy
does not only mean death or calamity, but in fact, it refers to a series of steps which leads
to the downfall of the tragic hero and eventually to his tragic death. Lear, the main
character in King Lear was affirmed as the tragic hero because the play meets all the
requirements of a tragedy. In order for a character to be qualified as a tragic hero, he
must be in a high status on the social chain and the hero also possesses a tragic flaw which
initiates the tragedy. The fall of the hero is not felt by him alone but creates a chain
reaction which affects everyone around him. Besides, the hero must experience suffering
and calamity slowly which would contrast his happier times. The suffering and calamity
instantaneously caused chaos in his life and eventually leads to his death. Finally, the sense
of fear and pity to the tragic hero must appear in the play as well. This makes men scared
of blindness to truths which prevents them from knowing when fortune or something else
would happen on them.
Lear, the king of England would be the tragic hero because he held the highest
position in the social chain at the very beginning of the play. His social position gave him
pride as he remarked himself as "Jupiter" and "Apollo". Lear out of pride and anger has
banished Cordelia and Kent and divided his Kingdom in halves to Goneril and Regan.
Lear's hamartia which is his obstinate pride and anger overrides his judgment, thus,
prevents him to see the true faces of people. As in Act One, although Cordelia said
"nothing", she really means everything she loves to his father. However, Lear only
believed in the beautiful words said by Regan and Goneril. Although Kent, his loyal
advisor begged Lear to see closer to the true faces of his daughters, he ignored him and
became even more angry because Kent hurt Lear's pride by disobeying his order to stay
out of his and Cordelia's way Lear had already warned him, "The bow is bent and drawn,
make from the shaft." ( I, I, 145). Kent still disobeys Lear and hurts his pride further as
he said, "Now by Apollo, King, thos swearest thy gods in vain.". Finally, Kent is
banished. Because of the flaw of pride, Lear has initiated the tragedy by perturbing the
order in the chain of being as he gives up his thrown, divides the kingdom and banishes his
loyalist servant and loveliest daughter.
The downfall of Lear is not just the suffering of him alone but the suffering of
everyone down the chain of being. For instance, Lear's pride and anger caused Cordelia
and Kent to be banished, and Gloucester loses his position and eyes. Everything that
happened to these characters are in a chain of reaction and affected by Lear's tragic flaw.
If Lear did not lack of personal insight and if he did not have such an obstinate pride, he
would not have banished Cordelia and Kent, then Goneril and Regan would not be able to
conspire against Lear. Without the plot of Goneril and Regan, Gloucester would not have
been betrayed by Edmund and lose his eyes and status due to the charge of treason.
Moreover, the chain of reaction was continuous until the lowest person in the society is
affected; the fool, which is the entertainer, was kicked out into the storm with Lear by
Goneril because he was smart enough to tell the truth of Lear's blindness.
" Why, after I have cut the egg I' the middle and eat
up the meat, the two crowns of the egg. When thou
clovest thy crown I' the middle and gavest away both parts,
thou borest thine ass on thy back o'er the dirt. Thou hadst
little wit in thy bals crown when thou gavest thy golden one
away." ( Fool, I, iv, 155-160)
Because Goneril realized the wit of the fool who could see through the nature clearly, she
kicked him out together with Lear. " You sir, more knave than fool, after your master!" (
I, iv, 312)
Lear's exceptional suffering and calamity after his realization of his true character
shows the quality of a tragic hero. Due to his flaw, he gave the two daughters a chance to
conspire against him and he was finally thrown out of his daughters home and left with a
fool, a servant and a beggar. When Lear was left alone in the storm, he started to lose his
sanity and realize his fault to banish Cordelia and Kent. Before the thrown out of
Regan's home, Lear suffered for shelter food and clothes as he said, "On my knees I beg
that you'll vouchsafe me raiment, bed, and food." (II, iv, 155) In the storm, he suffered
from his growing madness because he could not bear the treatment of his two daughters.
He began to realize the true faces of his daughters and did not want to see them again, as
"I prithee, daughter, do not make me mad.
I will not trouble thee, my child; farewell.
Well no more meet, no more see one another.." ( II, iv, 218-220)
Further more, as Lear moved all over the place to Dover, he suffered from rest as Kent
and Gloucester said,
"Now, good my lord, lie here and rest awhile." ( Kent, III, vi, 81)
" Trouble him not, his wits are gone." ( Kent, III, vi, 86)
" Good Friend. I prithee take him in thy arms
I have o'er heard a plot of death upon him, There
is a little ready; lay him in it and drive
toward Dover, friend, where thou shalt med
both welcome and protection. " ( Gloucester, III, vi, 87-91)
The madness in Lear's mind grew more serious in his restless journey. Unfortunately, the
calamity continued instantaneously. He then suffered from the death of his youngest
daughter Cordelia which broke his heart into pieces,
"I might have saved her, now she's gone forever!
Cordelia, Cordelia! Stay a little Ha! What is't
thou sayest? Her voice was ever soft, gentle,
and low an excellent thing in woman." ( Lear, V, iii, 270-273)
These sufferings contrast the happier times at the beginning of the play when Lear was still
the King of England. For instance, his being welcomed and praised by Goneril and Regan
which contrasted to his being thrown out of their homes. Also, Lear's pride as a "Jupiter"
contrasted an "old man" begging for shelter, food and clothes. In addition, the love from
Cordelia when she was alive contrasted the death of Cordelia who could love Lear no
As the play moved on, the pain and suffering accumulated in Lear's heart
eventually tore down his strength and pride. Lear was no longer a strong, haughty, and
prideful king as he was in the beginning of the play. Instead, he became a weak, modest,
and confused old man. As we can see at the beginning, he expressed himself as the
"Jupiter" and "Apollo". However, at the end of the play, he expressed himself as "a very
foolish fond old man." (4.7 L60) The realization of Lear's true quality of being foolish
and hubris with a lack of personal insight, in addition to the death of Cordelia which broke
his heart, made him lose his sanity completely and eventually lead to his death. Just
before he dies as a man in pain, he said,
"And my poor fool is hanged! No, no, no life!
Why should a dog, a horse, a rat, have life,
And thou no breath at all? Thou it come
no more, never, never, never, never!" ( V, iii, 305-308)
The death of Lear is most apparent to Shakespearean Tragedy and further reinforces his
quality of a tragic hero.
In order to certify a play as a tragedy, the feeling of fear and pity to the hero must
appear in the play. The feeling of pity to Lear was apparent when he was in the storm
raging against the gods. He was betrayed and thrown out by the daughters and which he
thought he did not deserve this cruel treatment. As seen in the quote,
"I tax not you, you elements, with unkindness.
I never gave you Kingdom, called you children
you owe me no subscription. Then let fall
your horrible please..." ( Lear, III, ii, 15-20)
Here, the feeling of fear appears as well because in a short period of time, Lear fell from
the position of King to a normal peasant. His weak, unconfident and mad mind overrules
his strong, prideful and sane character. However, in looking deep down, the real fear
implied here is, no matter how great things appear now; men do not hold them long and
you can sink to the very bottom just as fast as Lear fell from the top of the chain to the
In Shakespeare's tragic play King Lear, Lear the main character demonstrated all
the necessary requirements of being a tragic hero. His high social status nourishes his
hamartia which is hubris, and the tragedy is initiated by the banishment of Kent and
Cordelia. Lear's pride not only altered his live alone, instead, it affected everyone around
him down to the bottom of the social chain. Moreover, the realization of his true quality,
pains and sufferings eventually leads to his tragic death which the most obvious element in
a tragedy. Because Lear fulfills the "formula" of Shakespearean Tragedy, he could be
firmly proven as tragic hero in the play.
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