William Shakespeare is now regarded as one of the most celebrated playwrights in the history of world literature. Even during his lifetime, his dramatic works enjoyed enormous popularity among a great number of people. Nowadays, many of them form an important part of the literature curriculum in schools or colleges. Among his numerous plays, one can undoubtedly distinguish his tragedies such as Macbeth or King Lear.
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Although these tragedies profoundly different in terms of plot or theme, they have a common element. In particular, they depict the life of characters, who can commit immoral or even atrocious acts, but still, deserve readers’ compassion or at least pity. This is the main thesis that should be elaborated in greater detail.
In his tragedy Macbeth, Shakespeare depicts the titular character, who starts as a fundamentally decent person; yet, he has a crucial moral flaw that eventually leads this person to his downfall. For instance, Macbeth is famous for his bravery and integrity. To some degree, he can be perceived as a role model by other people. However, at the same time, one should speak about his enormous will to power.
This is the main internal conflict attracts readers’ attention. His moral flaw is exploited by his ruthless and amoral wife, whose manipulations prompt Macbeth to murder the king and his best friend. Apart from that, one should not forget about innocent bystanders such as Macduff’s family.
Eventually, Lady Macbeth dies shortly after realizing the enormity of atrocities that she and her husband perpetrated. Similarly, Macbeth dies at the hands of Macduff, the same man whose family he murdered. Shakespeare makes this character pitiable, and this is one of the major goals that the author tried to achieve.
In turn, King Lear can be viewed as a sympathetic individual. However, he commits a significant error in his ethical evaluation of other people, especially his daughters. At the beginning of the play, he decides to abdicate his throne and divide his kingdom among his three daughters.
However, he makes them declare their love for him. His two daughters, Goneril and Regan, readily follow his wish, while his youngest and favorite daughter, Cordelia, refuses to make this superfluous promise. This behavior is misconstrued by her father as a sign of ingratitude or disloyalty.
Moreover, he disowns and disinherits her. The main issue is that unlike her sisters, Cordelia always remains dedicated to Lear. The main character eventually appreciates Cordelia’s love, but his understanding comes too late. More importantly, his mistake results in the death of many innocent people. These are the main reason why King Lear is such a tragic figure.
In both these tragedies, the titular characters are shown to have fatal flaws that bring them to ruin, even despite decent dispositions. For example, Macbeth is first introduced as a brave, upstanding man valued by King Duncan as one of his trusted generals. However, his encounter with the witches sets the fatal chain of events in motion. In particular, their prophecies about Macbeth’s future glory tempt him and awaken his will to power (Frye 249).
In her turn, Lady Macbeth also prompts her husband to fulfill his ambition. She urges him to take the crucial step of murdering Duncan and usurping the throne. This choice eventually undermines the ethical integrity of this character, and he murders murder to secure his power.
Eventually, Macbeth realizes that he has turned into a monster; he understands that his actions are beyond redemption. To a great extent, the death at the hands of Macduff comes as a relief to him (Bevington 20). This is why readers cannot reject Macbeth as a completely contemptible figure.
In contrast, King Lear is far less villainous than Macbeth, and one can say that this character is much more pitiable than Macbeth. To a certain degree, his behavior can be explained by his search for a motherly figure (Kahn 33). He does not understand that his daughters cannot play this role. Much attention should be paid to his petty urge for validation and acceptance because this urge results in his highly questionable judgments of character.
Moreover, one should speak about the banishment of his genuinely loving daughter Cordelia. Apart from that, he is unable to understand that superficial promises should not be taken for granted. This is why he almost unthinkingly rewards Goneril and Regan for their alleged devotion to him.
However, the suffering that he undergoes redeems this character (Reibetanz 10). Moreover, he eventually becomes aware of his mistakes. This is one of the details that should be considered.
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In Macbeth and King Lear, Shakespeare does not shy away from describing people who can commit immoral actions. However, at the same time, his works emphasize the idea that these characters are driven by complex motives.
Their immoral actions cannot be explained only by malevolence and villainy. Macbeth and King Lear can take morally reprehensible actions, but the audience can sympathize with them. This is one of the qualities that distinguish Shakespeare among many other authors.
Bevington, David. Four Tragedies. New York, Bantam,1988. Print.
Frye, Roland M. “Launching the Tragedy of Macbeth: Temptation, Deliberation, and Consent in Act I”. The Huntington Library Quarterly 50.3 (1987): 249–261. Print.
Kahn, Coppèlia. “The Absent Mother in King Lear”. Rewriting the Renaissance: The Discourses of Sexual Difference in Early Modern Europe. Ed. Margaret Ferguson, Maureen Quilligan, and Nancy Vickers. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1986. 33-36 Print.
Reibetanz, John. The Lear world : a study of King Lear in its dramatic context. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1977. Print.