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Tragic Redemption in “King Lear” by Shakespeare Essay


Introduction

King Lear, one of Shakespeare’s most tragic plays, shows how the tragic loss of honor, pride, and senility ultimately brings forth redemption to the characters. Redemption is one of the primary themes of the play. King Lear and the other characters that were at fault in the beginning of the play are redeemed in the end by the tragic death of the most innocent character. The play begins with a dark vision of a world that is superfluous and false, devoid of humility and love. It is only in Cordelia, Lear’s youngest daughter whom he banishes, do we find the light of truth. In a way, Cordelia becomes the symbol of good that must die in the end to redeem the souls of the others. Jessica Berg believes that Cordelia signifies a Christ-figure as her subsequent death reaffirms that the essential theme of the play is redemptive (4-6). On the other side of the thematic debate are those who believe that the play is primarily tragic in nature as Cordelia’s death signifies the consequence truth and goodness face, when confronted with iniquitous and gratuitous people. I believe King Lear is a tragic redemptive play that shows how human tragedy can ultimately make man realize his wrongdoings and transform him to become a new person. Redemption here implies freedom from one’s superfluous trite self to become a non-judgmental and truthful person. A tragic end redeems Lear. Thus, the theme of tragedy and redemption remain inseparable in the case of this play.

King Lear – a tragedy

King Lear is one of Shakespeare’s greatest tragedies. A tragic play is one where a tragic fate is the ruin or death of a hero. King Lear gives the impression that tragedy also occurs due to the direct misfortunes that fall on people, which fade the light of honorable characters, but in the end, it reemerges, more overpowering and absolute than the wrongs of the world. Shakespeare states in Troilus and Cressida, “In the reproof of chance/ Lies the true faith of men” (Troilus and Cressida 1.3.33-34). Thus, fate shows the true nature of man. Consequently, the poignancy of a tragic fate depends on the actions and reactions of men and women while facing adversity. The way men and women accept fate, good or bad, shows what their inner character is like. Similarly, in King Lear, Shakespeare presents the story of the physical and spiritual suffering of Lear. Suffering controls human existence and that demonstrates the tragedy in man’s life. This idea is summed up in the play as: “When we are born, we cry that we are come / To this great stage of fools.” (King Lear 4.6.187-88). The play is about life, love, and death – the love between father and daughter, faith between closest relations, and how death is the ultimate tragedy that affects all. Shakespeare uses the language of the play as a tool to scrutinize these aspects to present a tragedy that simply satisfies man’s love for beauty, life, and truth.

In King Lear, actions assume paramount importance as they are used as a means to illustrate characters. For instance, in act 1 scene 1 of the play, Lear divides his kingdom among his three daughters leaving no startling effect on the readers (or viewers). The presence of the prince of France in the scene almost prefigures the mood of the king in the later part of the drama (Brayton 401). Dividing the kingdom among his heirs by a king who presumably has no natural male heir is a simple setting that could have any outcome. It is the duty of a good king to ensure the line of succession to the thrown. This arrangement, on the sovereign’s death, averts chaos. Lear is completely aware of the consequences that may arise if he failed to divide the realm:

We have this hour a constant will to publish

Our daughters’ several dowers, that future strife

May be prevented now. (King Lear 1.1.44-46)

However, tragedy strikes when Lear’s love for sycophancy rules over his judgment and he, very unwisely, asks his daughters to profess their love for him. Thus, the prime merit of the future ruler rested on her ability to flatter, and not her intelligence or wisdom:

Which of you shall we doth love us most?

That we our largest bounty may extend

Where nature doth with merit challenge. (King Lear 1.1.52-54)

The true tragedy of the play begins as Lear speaks the word “say.” How can anyone say how much love she has in her heart? Can mere words express true love? This misjudgment of Lear teaches him the hard way that ascertaining truth and love is extremely difficult.

Such a beginning gives a powerful signal to the outcome of the play and horrifies its viewers. The reason being, this action of Lear contradicts that of a true king. Although Lear was correct in ensuring his line of succession after his death but his actions cease to be correct when he abandons the daughter who truthfully tells that her love cannot be expressed in words. Further, Lear abdicates his thrown to his successors soon after dividing his kingdom in the most precarious manner. This whole event shocks us. This is because we are used to the concept of a king who considers his role as a sovereign as one deigned by God (as was done by Queen Elizabeth) and in serving the kingdom, he was serving God. Fulfilling his duties as a ruler was a means to attain salvation. Yes, the right action would have been to make a will ensuring the line of succession. However, Lear ends up doing the less desirable thing by relinquishing his claim to the throne just to retire from his duty. What shocks us is Lear’s decision to retire, for a king never retires. He continues to do his duty until he dies.

The first scene illustrates the character of Lear and makes us realize that the follies of his character will be the bearer of tragedy in this play. First, his decision to abdicate his thrown shocks us. Then his manner of choosing the heir to the throne shows his frivolity. It shows that he was a man who never understood the importance of his duties. Further, it also indicates that he was a terrible reader of human character. Clearly, Lear is a vain old man who fails to do his duties as a king. Then what keeps the viewers (or readers) interested in the play? It is the promise of redemption that Shakespeare makes, of the wrong ways of this man that keeps us fixated to the play. We realize that Shakespeare will show how the errors of Lear’s character is transformed in the end and thus, give a glimpse of the tragedy that will ultimately give redemption to this lost soul.

Lear’s abdication becomes a bearer of chaos. Because of his ignorance and false pride, Lear chooses the wrong successors to the thrown and this brings destruction to his state (Brayton 402). The paly shows how the two new rulers – Albany and Cornwall – move towards a civil war. Lear’s mistakes were first observed by Kent who immediately voices his dissatisfaction by saying:

Reserve thy doom;

And, in thy best consideration, check

This hideous rashness; answer my life my judgment,

Thy youngest daughter does not love thee least. (King Lear 1.1.151-154)

Kent voices his opinion out of his duty towards the crown as well as his love for Lear. Due to Lear’s mistakes, his bad daughters take the helm of the kingdom and rule it with disastrous results while the good daughter is spurned. What ensues next is complete chaos – servants rising against their masters, impeding threat of a civil war, and the heavens reflect the chaos of the kingdom through a storm.

In the end of the play, Lear realizes his mistakes and understands what a bad ruler he has been. He realizes that he has judged others unwisely:

Go to, they are not men o’ their words; they told me I was everything;

‘tis a lie, I am not ague-proof. (King Lear 4.6.105-107)

The tragedy of Lear begins with his foolish question. Can anyone express love with words? Cordelia professes her inability to express her love towards her father even when she loves him dearly. Nevertheless, Lear misjudges her love for indifference and embraces mere words with no truth in it. This foolishness brings out the tragedy in King Lear.

The second and most poignant tragedy of King Lear is the death of Cordelia and not that of her malingering sisters. Here, the tragedy was initiated with a fault – the error of a father to recognize true love and that of a king to identify true fealty (Lawrence 37). On the other hand, it could be argued that it was the doing of fate that maliciously teaches man right and wrong. Consequently, in the first scene, Cordelia fails because she was honest and she meets death as an innocent victim of fate. In this great play, catastrophe arises from righteousness (Hadfield 571). Thus, one cannot simply assign the credit of the misfortunes on fate, for destiny has little role to play in it. The choices made by the characters finally bring the end. The cause of the tragedy, therefore, is the characters and not destiny. For instance, the character of Lear is a perfect example of all the follies of man that dooms his future.

The third aspect of Lear’s tragic end is his madness. His decision to renounce his throne makes him expendable to his two elder daughters. He looses his position as a king and the respect he commanded. He gave away his kingdom to unworthy heirs and tasted the outcome of his foolishness. His daughters shun him and he becomes mad. Lear was proud and arrogant. His arrogance made him take the wrong decision that cost him his sanctity. His errors seem more tragic than the outcome itself. In the end, when Lear realizes his mistakes and prepares to reconcile with his youngest daughter, fate interferes. Cordelia dies and her death becomes a painful reminder to Lear of his pride.

Redemption in King Lear

What is redemption? Redemption is the reconciliation with past follies and accepting the destiny that any past action may have caused. Therefore, a sin or a wrongdoing is a prerequisite for being redeemed.

In King Lear, Lear’s action towards his youngest daughter brings forth chaos and destruction. However, when Cordelia and Lear meet again in act 4, scene 7, Cordelia, unlike her sisters, address her father with the same respect and fealty that he commanded as a king. She says to Lear: “How does my royal lord? How fares your majesty?” (King Lear 4.7.44) This shows that Cordelia is a devoted daughter and her love and respect for him does not diminish even when he no longer is the sovereign. Such form of address makes Lear realize that Cordelia was the one who was always truthful in her love towards him. When Cordelia pleads to reconcile with him and begs his forgiveness, he kneels in front of her, contradicting the age-old tradition to show his respect for his wise daughter (Lawrence 41). Here, Shakespeare shows two kind of redemption – first is that of Lear, the father and the king, who understands the true worth of his youngest daughter and realizes his mistakes and second, is that of a madman who shows understanding of worldly affairs. Thus, Lear’s act of kneeling shows that he realizes that he does not deserve his daughter’s love and/or her forgiveness. Yet, he kneels to show that he is willing to let go of his pride if she forgives him. I believe the redemption of Lear is the main theme of the play. Lear meets a tragic end due to his arrogance and pride, which ultimately transforms him. He no longer remains entrapped in the servitude of his hubris and sees the true nature of his daughters. However, the point that Shakespeare makes in this play is that the wisest of kings have their little follies. They like flattery and this love for adulation makes them a victim of treachery. The beginning of the play reinforces Lear’s character as an arrogant, imprudent, and overbearing king. His wrong judgment brings disaster on his life, kingdom, as well as on his innocent daughter. Metaphorically, Lear was responsible for Cordelia’s death.

In a way, Cordelia is the symbol of Christian goodness while her other sisters symbolize pagan brutishness. The essential element of the play lies in its biblical allegory of human folly and how it results in failure. Though King Lear does not strictly follow the theme of allegory, yet, undoubtedly, it was one of the main considerations of Shakespeare when he was writing this play. Though Shakespeare attempted to create a Christian Allegory like the Faerie Queen, yet he stopped in the end and resurrected Cordelia (Berg 6). The reason for this digression eludes the readers. Here is the element of sanctification that assumes ground. Cordelia, who was the good, wise, and the only worthy one to live, died. It almost appears as if she was the one paying the price for her father’s sins: “For thee oppressed king, I am cast down” (King Lear 5.3.3-5). It is believed that there is a definite parallel between Cordelia’s death and that of Christ’s crucifixion (Berg 5). Her death was intended, and almost necessary as it was the only way to make Lear see his follies and repent. This was the only road to redemption that could have saved the mad king.

Is Cordelia’s death enough to bring forth the tragedy of the play? No, it is not. However, the death of an innocent and guileless person makes it all the more tragic (Berg 6). The Christian belief is that all those who have sinned would die. However, in the play, it is the most innocent person who embraces death. Like Christ, it is Cordelia who had come to save Lear and had to die (Berg 7). This idea of selfless death brings in us an immense sorrow that we are unable to handle. Lear is redeemed from his madness, arrogance, and pride but at what cost? The cost was the life of his innocent daughter. Redemption is gained, but at a price that was too high to pay. That is the tragedy of the play. Unlike other Christian allegories, Shakespeare does not employ a complete Christian ending, which would have meant the death of a sinner. Shakespeare uses the concept of grace to bring greater dramatic and tragic effect by killing Cordelia instead of the ones who should have been punished. This aspect of the play moved the readers (or viewers).

Conclusion

Lear is redeemed when he accepts his sins: “I am a man / More sinn’d against than sinning” (King Lear 3.2.58-59). Yet, is he repentant? Obviously, he repents for all his sins when he holds Cordelia’s dead body in his arms. However, there seems to be a lack of conciliation when he shouts at the storm accusing nature to have conspired against him along with his daughters. Lear is a man of many faults. However, when his dignity and pride are stripped off, even then his hubris does not leave him. Shakespeare wants to show that man does not observe his faults even when he faces adversity. However, the death of Cordelia brings him back to his right senses. He realizes the mistakes he had done and prepares to repent. However, this redemption comes at a cost. The death of Cordelia, Lear’s youngest daughter makes him recognize the mistakes he had committed. Cordelia pays the price for Lear’s redemption. In a way, she saves the king from his own hubris and self-destructive pride. Lear is a tragic hero for he gloats in human follies like all sinners, is punished by those he considered his closest and is saved by the one whom he had banished. Lear realizes his terrible mistake in misjudging Cordelia, but only after her death. This tragic irony strikes the deepest core of the reader’s (audience’s) heart. Even after Cordelia’s death, Lear is reluctant to accept it and uses a mirror to check if she has really died. When the mirror clouds up, he sees hope, for he thinks that she might still be alive. Nevertheless, life’s tragic end knows no bound and Cordelia dies, leaving Lear a broken man.

I believe King Lear is a redemptive tragedy. Lear finds redemption at the end of the play through the sacrifice Cordelia makes for him. However, the means through which Lear is redeemed is tragic for it shows the suffering of a man to make life worthwhile. The play preaches nothing about love, life, or truth. Instead just holds a few truths about the characters whose actions brings forth the tragic end to the story. Finally, all the good people die and Lear realizes his follies before he too embraces his final destiny.

Works Cited

Berg, Jessica Vanden. “Grace, Consequences, and Christianity in King Lear.” Italics, 2000, pp. 4-9.

Brayton, Dan. “Angling in the lake of darkness: Possession, dispossession, and the politics of discovery in King Lear.” ELH, vol. 70, no. 2, 2003, pp. 399-426.

Hadfield, Andrew. “The Power and Rights of the Crown in Hamlet and King Lear:‘The King—The King’s to Blame’.” The Review of English Studies, vol. 54, no. 217, 2003, pp. 566-586.

Lawrence, Sean. “The Dif culty of Dying in King Lear.” ESC, vol. 31, no. 4, 2005, pp. 35-52.

Shakespeare, William. King Lear. Penguine, 1999.

Shakespeare, William. Troilus and Cressida. Penguine, 2015.

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IvyPanda. 2020. "Tragic Redemption in "King Lear" by Shakespeare." September 21, 2020. https://ivypanda.com/essays/tragic-redemption-in-king-lear-by-shakespeare/.

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