William Shakespeare’s plays often provided a great deal of insight into the psychology of his characters and King Lear is no exception. As King Lear prepares for his retirement, he thinks to set things up for a comfortable and easy journey through time to the end of his life. He does this by allocating his land and property to his three daughters to the degree to which they are able to convince him that they love him.
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While his two older daughters easily play the game, vowing their undying devotion to his every comfort, his youngest daughter refuses to play the game, insisting that he should know by now the depth of her affections. Because of the choices he makes at this point in his life, Lear is forced to endure a much longer spiritual and physical journey through to the door of death. As he travels from being ruler of his land to destitute madman to retired and dying king, Lear experiences a much longer spiritual and mental journey than he anticipated while still managing to maintain his nobility in the end. As he undergoes this process, he proves himself to be a tragic hero.
Basically, there are six major elements required to make up a tragic hero. To begin with, heroes must have a noble stature, although they don’t necessarily have to be royalty. They are also seen to have excessive pride or what some might politely call a lot of self-confidence. Finally, they all have to have a tragic flaw, usually something related to their source of pride. These three character traits combined lead the character to his or her downfall through a three-step process.
The process begins with the first event, the mistake in judgment or action that will eventually cause his ruin. The second event is when the hero realizes finally where he made his mistake. The final event is the reversal of fortunes the hero experiences as a result of his mistake, experiencing the consequences of his mistake, which was usually a surprise to the audience but a perfectly logical set of consequences as they occurred.
As the play opens, King Lear is depicted as a strong king gone weak with age. He is tired of the burdens of ruling a country and makes plans to divide his kingdom among his three daughters and then to live out his last years in peace and comfort, being provided for by those daughters he so lovingly set up to be rulers in their own right: “’tis our fast intent / To shake all cares and business from our age, / Conferring them on younger strengths while we / Unburdened crawl toward death” (I, i, 38-41).
His royal nobility is evidenced in his societal position as well as in the great respect his subjects show him. The fact that his kingdom is large enough to divide with honor between three daughters also suggests he holds a very powerful position in the world and his ability to produce a succeeding generation is also demonstrated through his three daughters. There is nobility as well in his plan to divide his kingdom among his three daughters rather than giving it to one only or handing it off to the nearest male relative as was the custom throughout much of England at the time Shakespeare wrote his play. However, even in this element of the play, Lear shows a slight weakness in his nobility as he has been unable to produce a succeeding male generation.
Lear takes justifiable pride in the love he commands from his daughters and his subjects, but this becomes his fatal flaw. Rather than simply divide his kingdom up equally among his daughters, Lear decides to make a game out of their love for him, “Which of you shall we say doth love us most, that we our largest bounty may extend where nature doth with merit challenge” (I, i, 51-53). Regan and Goneril are both eager to convince the king of their love, vying with each other regarding which one can praise him the most.
However, Cordelia argues that she is sincere in her affections to the point that she cannot lie about her affections now, whether it is to convince him of her love for him or for any other reason. More than that, she insists he should be aware of her feelings for him based upon her unwillingness to lie in order to gain his favor. The first event of tragedy occurs here as Lear makes his choice. After being disappointed with Cordelia’s response to him regarding her love for him, he proclaims: “Here, I disclaim all my paternal care, propinquity and property of blood, and as a stranger to my heart and me hold thee from this for ever” (I, i, 113-116). By disowning Cordelia, Lear separates himself from his most loyal supporter and the one daughter who would have cared for him in the way he’d envisioned.
It can also be argued that Cordelia, his youngest daughter, is a tragic hero. She, too, possesses nobility in that she is a princess and remains true to her heart throughout the play. She is proud of this trait, particularly as compared to her sisters, and she is unwilling to trivialize it in any way. When she’s pressed to ‘mend her speech’ in order to gain her father’s favor, all she can say is “Haply, when I shall wed, that lord whose hand must take my plight shall carry half my love with him, half my care and duty” (I, i, 100-102).
In making this statement, Cordelia indicates that whoever she might eventually marry will only be able to claim half of her affection because the other half will still be devoted to her father. This, then, becomes her own fatal flaw as she is neither able to leave her father to his chosen fate nor keep her from attempting to help him, which nearly gets her killed.
Lear realizes his mistake shortly after this when Goneril confronts him with his powerlessness. “O most small fault, how ugly didst thou in Cordelia show! Which, like an engine, wrenched my frame of nature from the fixed place; drew from my heart all love and added to the gall. O Lear, Lear, Lear! Beat at this gate that let this folly in” (I, iv, 257-262). As he travels from Goneril’s household to Regan’s, he is quickly stripped of all his own retainers and reduced to physical powerlessness which is quickly echoed in his increasingly scattered thoughts. This forces him to realize his mistake in trusting to his deceitful daughters instead of seeking the sincerity such as what was delivered by his youngest.
Without a place to turn or a coherent thought pattern, Lear is then forced to suffer a much longer spiritual and physical journey through madness and a harrowing night on the moors. Cordelia also goes through the three events of tragedy as she first finds she is unable to make up pretty words to please her father and then is made to suffer the consequences of these actions. However, because this ‘mistake’ was of a noble nature, she refused to tell a lie just to please him, she is eventually reinstated as sole heiress of her father’s kingdom as she should have been from the first.
Lear is finally reunited with Cordelia again just as he’s dying. With this reunion, Lear is again provided with the physical comforts he expected in his old age and begins to recover his intellect. This recovery occurs just in time for Lear to rescue Cordelia from certain death which, in turn, provides him with his one chance at salvation. In recovering himself enough to rescue his youngest and only surviving daughter by the end of the play, Lear is in actuality saving himself.
Unfortunately, after his physical battle with the storm, his body is beyond saving and he slips off into eternal sleep knowing himself for a fool because of the unnecessary hardships he’d endured. His saving grace is in his ability to save his one good daughter before she is also killed and thus manages to preserve his kingdom as well as his family through this one child.
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Shakespeare, William. “King Lear.” The Complete Pelican Shakespeare. Ed. Alfred Harbage. New York: Penguin, 1969.