King Lear as a typical Shakespearean tragedy
William Shakespeare is one of the famous writers with unique ways of presenting his characters in his plays that have attracted many readerships. Many of his plays have tragic endings; a situation commonly referred to as Shakespearean tragedy (Bradley, 2013). A Shakespearean tragedy is an example of unique writing by William Shakespeare that focuses on one or two characters having different flaws. These flaws prevent Shakespeare characters from seeing the truth (Bradley, 2013). Shakespeare’s tragedy describes specific misfortunes that result in sad endings with the main character dying or ending up emotionally devastated (Bradley, 2013).
King Lear is among the many plays written by William Shakespeare based on the true story of King Leir of Britain who ruled during the 8th century (Goldman, 2014). Like many Shakespeare plays the play King Lear typically presents Shakespeare’s tragedy right from the beginning until the end. King Lear being the main character makes certain decisions that fit the description of a tragic hero. He makes bad decisions as a ruler and only realizes his mistakes when it’s too late (Goldman, 2014).
According to the play, Lear decided to step down from the throne because he was aging; therefore he wanted to divide his kingdom among his three daughters. Before he could do this, Lear puts his daughters to the test (Cartmell, 2016). Lear demanded all his daughters to declare their love for him and each of them read aloud their speeches to the king.
Both Goneril and Regan, her older daughters, deceived their father by flattering him (Cartmell, 2016). Cordelia, her youngest daughter, was the favorite among the other sisters, told his father the truth, but Lear misinterpreted her speech (Cartmell, 2016). Eventually, the king banished his youngest daughter because he felt she did not love her as he had expected (Cartmell, 2016).
Lear divides his kingdom among the two daughters Goneril and Regan, who with time begin to undermine their father’s authority. Lear goes insane because of how his two daughters treat him. Because of his pride, Lear creates his tragedy by making a lot of bad decisions, including banishing her youngest daughter and only consider the two daughters who flattered him (Cartmell, 2016). After this tragic mistake, the rest of the play portrays how Lear undergoes misery because of his flaws. As a king, Lear is used to enjoying power and being flattered by people; he does not respond well to someone who contradicts or challenges him (Cartmell, 2016).
Shakespeare’s tragedy portrays specific features which make it distinct from other tragedies. One of the most important elements of Shakespearean tragedy is the hero (Roberts, 2017). In most Shakespeare plays, one man stands out among other characters. The hero is a female or a male who suffers various flaws of character and faces an inevitable fate. The hero in the play has a tragic personality that leads to his death (Roberts, 2017).
Tragic heroes according to William Shakespeare are distinguished by specific qualities, they have power and flaws that result in their downfall (Roberts, 2017). King Lear is a typical tragic hero because he is a ruler with tragic flaws of arrogance and pride, his flaws lead to his downfall. Typical of all Shakespeare tragedies, King Lear is ruined and eventually dies because of his tragic flaws which include his foolishness that is mostly spurred by his pride (Roberts, 2017).
Tragedy does not necessarily imply death, but it occurs in a series of steps that eventually results in one downfall especially of a hero, causing pain and suffering (Bradley, 2013). Lear is affirmed as the tragic hero because of his high status combined with his tragic flaw that eventually leads to his death (Bradley, 2013). The story focuses on Lear and his three daughters portraying how the king is a typical tragic hero as described by Shakespeare.
Shakespeare presents King Lear’s tragic flaws on several occasions; the first flaw is when he expects his youngest daughter to love and praise him in her speech (Goldman, 2014). However, Cordelia’s speech is misinterpreted by the king. Lear banished his youngest daughter and only split his kingdom into two, giving his other daughters Goneril and Regan. Lear’s pride prevents him from seeing the truth because his arrogance overrides his judgment (Goldman, 2014).
Lear’s arrogance also makes him lose important and faithful servant Kent. Out of pride, Lear refuses to listen to Kent’s advice, telling Kent to mind his own business (Cartmell, 2016) Kent makes several attempts to convince the king to see the truth, but he is also banished. The king constantly feels insecure and this combined with selfishness, leads to his downfall as he makes errors in his judgment (Cartmell, 2016).
King Lear turns his anger to his faithful servant Kent, who defends the daughter the king had banished. The downfall of the king is built throughout the play in several instances to portray how a tragic hero ends up (Cartmell, 2016). Another key element in Shakespearean tragedy is the character actions; most Shakespeare plays portray the deeds of heroes that cause destruction. In reality, the calamities that befall King Lear happen because of his actions towards people (Roberts, 2017).
Shakespeare intensifies the theme of a tragic hero using other characters in the play. Lear’s two daughters Goneril and Regan portray how Lear was blinded by pride and decides to banish one of his daughters. Lear preferred to listen to those who did not tell him the truth and resented anyone who went against his expectations (Roberts, 2017). Lear’s flaws are evident when he misjudged his daughter’s love for him because, in the long run, Goneril and Regan conspire against him and throw him out of his kingdom (Bradley, 2013).
The King realizes his mistakes after suffering from his flaws. A tragic hero learns the truth after suffering; Lear only realized he had made several mistakes when he started suffering; Lear suffered intensely that he becomes mad. When devastated, he fully realizes his mistakes of giving his kingdom to his two daughters (Roberts, 2017). The death of King Lear is the most apparent situation that truly describes Shakespearean tragedy as it reinforces the important element that describes a tragic hero.
The play presents how flaws slowly increase to the point that it destroys the king (Roberts, 2017). Throughout the play, tragedy is not only caused by the king’s flaws, but other characters to enhance tragedy. Like other Shakespeare tragedies, a tragic hero needs to undergo suffering and pain to realize his mistakes which leads to his death. The play King Lear is a good example that describes what it means to be a tragic hero and Shakespearean tragedy which is one of the common features among William Shakespeare’s plays.
- Bradley, A. C. (2013). Shakespearean Tragedy: Lectures on Hamlet, Othello, King Lear, Macbeth (Vol. 1). Library of Alexandria.
- Cartmell, D. (2016). Marketing Shakespeare Films: From Tragedy to Biopic. In Shakespeare’s Cultural Capital (pp. 57-76). Palgrave Macmillan, London.
- Goldman, M. (2014). Acting and Action in Shakespearean Tragedy. Princeton University Press.
- Roberts, R. (2017). “We that are young”: Youth and Age in King Lear. Ben Jonson Journal, 24(1), 96-116.