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Shakespeare’s tragedy King Lear is a detailed
description of the consequences of one man’s decisions.
This fictitious man is Lear, King of England, who’s
decisions greatly alter his life and the lives of those
around him. As Lear bears the status of King he is, as one
expects, a man of great power but sinfully he surrenders
all of this power to his daughters as a reward for their
demonstration of love towards him. This untimely abdication
of his throne results in a chain reaction of events that
send him through a journey of hell. King Lear is a
metaphorical description of one man’s journey through hell
in order to expiate his sin.
As the play opens one can almost immediately see that
Lear begins to make mistakes that will eventually result in
his downfall. The very first words that he speaks in the
play are :-
“…Give me the map there. Know that we have
In three our kingdom, and ’tis our fast intent
To shake all cares and business from our age,
Conferring them on younger strengths while we
Unburdened crawl to death…”
(Act I, Sc i, Ln 38-41)
This gives the reader the first indication of Lear’s intent
to abdicate his throne. He goes on further to offer pieces
of his kingdom to his daughters as a form of reward to his
test of love.
“Great rivals in our youngest daughter’s love,
Long in our court have made their amorous
And here are to be answered. Tell me, my
(Since now we will divest us both of rule,
Interest of territory, cares of state),
Which of you shall we say doth love us most?
That we our largest bounty may extend
where nature doth with merit challenge.”
(Act I, Sc i, Ln 47-53)
This is the first and most significant of the many sins that
he makes in this play. By abdicating his throne to fuel his
ego he is disrupts the great chain of being which states
that the King must not challenge the position that God has
given him. This undermining of God’s authority results in
chaos that tears apart Lear’s world. Leaving him, in the
end, with nothing. Following this Lear begins to banish
those around him that genuinely care for him as at this
stage he cannot see beyond the mask that the evil
wear. He banishes Kent, a loyal servant to Lear, and his
youngest and previously most loved daughter Cordelia. This
results in Lear surrounding himself with people who only
wish to use him which leaves him very vulnerable attack.
This is precisely what happens and it is through this that
he discovers his wrongs and amends them.
Following the committing of his sins, Lear becomes
abandoned and estranged from his kingdom which causes him to
loose insanity. While lost in his grief and self-pity the
fool is introduced to guide Lear back to the sane world and
to help find the lear that was ounce lost behind a hundred
Knights but now is out in the open and scared like a little
child. The fact that Lear has now been pushed out from
behind his Knights is dramatically represented by him
actually being out on the lawns of his castle. The
terrified little child that is now unsheltered is
dramatically portrayed by Lear’s sudden insanity and his
rage and anger is seen through the thunderous weather that
is being experienced. All of this contributes to the
suffering of Lear due to the gross sins that he has
The pinnacle of this hell that is experienced be Lear
in order to repay his sins is at the end of the play when
Cordelia is killed. Lear says this before he himself dies
as he cannot live without his daughter.
“Howl, howl, howl! O, you are men of stones.
Had I your tongues and eyes, I’d use them so
That heaven’s vault should crack. She’s gone
I know when one is dead, and when one lives.
She’s dead as earth. Lend me a looking glass.
If that her breath will mist or stain the
Why, then she lives.”
(Act V, Sc iii, Ln 306-312)
All of this pain that Lear suffered is traced back to
the single most important error that he made. The choice to
give up his throne. This one sin has proven to have massive
repercussions upon Lear and the lives of those around him
eventually killing almost all of those who were involved.
And one is left to ask one’s self if a single wrong turn can
do this to Lear then what difficult corner lies ahead that
ma cause similar alterations in one’s life.
Shakespeare, William. King Lear. Eric A.
McCann, ed. Harcourt Brace Jovanovick
Canada Inc., Canada. 1988.
There has been many different views on the plays of
William Shakespeare and definitions of what kind of play
they were. The two most popular would be the comedy and the
tragedy. King Lear to some people may be a comedy because
they believe that the play has been over exaggerated.
Others would say King Lear was a tragedy because there is so
much suffering and chaos.
What makes a Shakespearean play a comedy or a tragedy?
King Lear would be a tragedy because it meets all the
requirements of a tragedy as defined by Andrew Cecil
Bradley. Bradley states that a Shakespearean tragedy must
have to be the story of the hero and that there is
exceptional suffering and calamity slowly being worn
in as well as it being contrasted to happier times. The
play also depicts the troubled parts in his life and
eventually his death that is instantaneous caused by the
suffering and calamity. There is the feeling of fear in the
play as well, that makes men see how blind they are not
knowing when fortune or something else would be on them.
The hero must be of a high status on the chain and the
hero also possesses a tragic flaw that initiates the
tragedy. The fall of the hero is not felt by him alone but
creates a chain reaction which affects everything below him.
There must also be the element of chance or accident that
influences some point in the play.
King Lear meets all of these requirements that has been
laid out by Bradley which is the most logical for a
definition of a tragedy as compared to the definition of a
comedy by G. Wilson Knight.
The main character of the play would be King Lear who
in terms of Bradley would be the hero and hold the highest
position is the social chain. Lear out of Pride and anger
has banished Cordelia and split the kingdom in half to the
two older sisters, Goneril and Regan. This is Lear’s tragic
flaw which prevents him to see the true faces of people
because his pride and anger overrides his judgement. As we
see in the first act, Lear does not listen to Kent’s plea to
see closer to the true faces of his daughters. Kent has
hurt Lear’s pride by disobeying his order to stay out of his
and Cordelia’s way when Lear has already warned him, “The
bow is bent and drawn, make from the shaft.” Kent still
disobeys Lear and is banished. Because of this flaw, Lear
has initiated the tragedy by disturbing the order in the
chain of being by dividing the kingdom, banishing his best
servant and daughter, and giving up his thrown.
Due to this flaw, Lear has given way to the two older
daughters to conspire against him. Lear is finally thrown
out of his daughters home and left with a fool, a servant
and a beggar. This is when Lear realizes the mistake that
he has made and suffers the banishment of his two eldest
daughters. Lear is caught in a storm and begins to lose his
sanity because he can not bear the treatment of his two
daughters as well as the error he has made with Cordelia and
Kent. Lear also suffers from rest when he is moving all
over the place and the thing that breaks him is the death of
his youngest daughter Cordelia. This suffering can be
contrasted with other happier times like when Lear was still
king and when he was not banished by his two daughters.
The feeling of fear is when Lear is in the storm raging
against the gods,
“I tax not you, you elements, with unkindness.
I never gave you kingdom, called you children,
you owe me no subscription.”,
telling them to rage harder since he has not done anything
for them and that he didn’t deserve what he has received
from his two daughters. The fear is how Lear in a short
period of time went from king to just a regular peasant and
from strong and prideful to weak and unconfident. This
shows that men do not hold their own destiny and that even
though things may be great now you can be struck down just
as fast as was to Lear.
The fall of Lear is not just the suffering of one man
but the suffering of everyone down the chain. Gloucester
loses his status and eyes, Cordelia and Kent banished, and
Albany realizing his wife’s true heart. Everything that
happened to these characters are affected by Lear in one way
or another and that if Lear had not banished Cordelia and
Kent then the two sisters would not be able to plot against
their father. Without the plot of the two sisters then
Gloucester would not of lost his eyes to Cornwall and his
status because he was guilty of treason. There is an element
of chance in the play in which Edgar meets Oswald trying to
kill his father because he is a traitor. Oswald is slain
“And give the letters which thou find’st about
me to Edmund Earl of Gloucester. Seek him out
upon the English party.”
Edgar finds a letter to Edmund from Goneril about the
conspiracy to kill Albany. This part in the play affects
the outcome of Goneril and Edmund in which will lead to both
of their deaths.
The pain and suffering endured by Lear eventually tears
down his strength and sanity. Lear is not as strong,
arrogant, and prideful as he was in the beginning of the
play instead he is weak, scared, and a confused old man. At
the end of the play Lear has completely lost his sanity with
the loss of his daughter Cordelia and this is the thing that
breaks Lear and leads to his death. Lear dies with the
knowledge that Cordelia is dead and dies as a man in pain.
“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’lt come no
more, never, never, never, never, never!”
King Lear has met all the requirements that Bradley has
stated as a Shakespearean tragedy. Lear has a tragic flaw
which is his pride that prevents him to see the true faces
of people. He also initiates the tragedy by the banishment
of Cordelia and Kent as well as dividing the kingdom. Lear
has also suffered and endured the pains of his error which
leads to his death and which is contrasted to that of
happier times. There is the feeling of fear in the play
which is of a King losing his crown and becoming a peasant.
Lear has also created a chain reaction that affects
everything down the chain. The element of chance is also
introduced in the play with Edgar and Oswald, Oswald
possessing the letter to Edmund. And the final part is the
death of King Lear dying in suffering of the death of his
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