shakemenu.GIF - 5152 Bytes

Shakespeare's King Lear
    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
     for ever!
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.

               Reference List

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 
asks Edgar, 

"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 
daughter Cordelia.

Back To the Top ] [ Back To Essay Page ]
Complete Works Cliff Notes Free Papers! Biography Shakespeare Links Shakespeare discussion