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King Lear - Analyzing a Tragic Hero

        Tragedy is defined in Websters New Collegiate Dictionary as: 

1) a medieval narrative poem or tale typically describing the downfall 

of a great man, 2) a serious drama typically describing a conflict 

between the protagonist and a superior force (as destiny) and having a 

sorrowful or disastrous conclusion that excites pity or terror.  The 

play of King Lear is one of William Shakespears great tragic pieces, 

it is not only seen as a tragedy in itself, but also a play that 

includes two tragic heroes and four villains.  I felt that a tragic 

hero must not be all good or all bad, but just by misfortune he is 

deprived of something very valuable to him by error of judgment.  

        We must be able to identify ourselves with the tragic hero if 

he is to inspire fear, for we must feel that what happens to him could 

happen to us.  If Lear was completely evil, we would not be fearful of 

what happens to him: he would merely be repulsive.  But Lear does 

inspire fear because,  like us, he is not completely upright, nor is 

he completely wicked.  He is foolish and arrogant, it is true, but 

later he is also humble and compassionate.  He is wrathful, but at 

times, patient.  Because of his good qualities, we experience pity for 

him and feel that he does not deserve the severity of his punishment. 

 His actions are not occasioned by any corruption or depravity in him, 

but by an error in judgment, which, however, does arise from a defect 

of character. Lear has a "tragic flaw" - egotism.  It is his egotism 

in the first scene that causes him to make his error in judgment - the 

division of his kingdom and the loss of Cordelia. Throughout the rest 

of the play, the consequences of this error slowly and steadfastly 

increase until Lear is destroyed. There must be a change in the life 

of the tragic hero; he must past from happiness to misery.  Lear, as 

seen in Act I, has everything a man should want - wealth, power, 

peace,  and a state of well-being.  Because a tragic character must 

pass from happiness to misery,  he must be seen at the beginning of 

the play as a happy man, surrounded by good fortune.  Then, the 

disasters that befall him will be unexpected and will be in direct 

contrast to his previous state.

        In King Lear the two tragic characters, a king and an earl, 

are not ordinary men.  To have a man who is conspicuous endure 

suffering brought about because of his own error is striking.  The 

fear aroused for this man is of great importance because of his 

exalted position.   His fall is awesome and overwhelming.  When 

tragedy, as in Lear, happens to two such men, the effect is even 

greater.  To intensify the tragedy of King Lear, Shakespeare has not 

one but two tragic characters and four villains.  As we have seen, the 

sub-plot - concerning Gloucester, Edmund, and Edgar - augments the 

main plot.  Gloucester undergoes physical and mental torment because 

he makes the same mistake that Lear does.  Like Lear, Gloucester is 

neither completely good nor completely bad.  There is, for instance, a 

coarseness in the earl, who delights in speaking of his adultery.  But 

he has good qualities as well.  He shows, for instance, concern for 

Kent in the stocks, and he risks his life to help Lear.  Gloucester's 

punishment, his blindness, parallel's Lear's madness.  These two 

tragic stories unfolding at the same time give the play a great 


        The important element in tragedy is action, not character.  It 

is the deeds of men that bring about their destruction.  Lear calls 

upon the "great gods," Edgar and Kent blame Fortune, and Gloucester 

says that the gods "kill us for their sport" (IV.i.37).  But in 

reality the calamities that befall both Lear and Gloucester occur 

because of the actions of these men.  Their actions, it is true, grow 

out of their characters: both are rash, unsuspecting, and vengeful.  

But the actions themselves are the beginnings of their agony, for 

these actions start a chain of events that lead to ultimate 


        A tragic hero gains insight through suffering.  Neither Lear 

nor Gloucester realizes  he has committed an error until he has 

suffered.  Lear's suffering is so intense that it drives him mad; it 

is on the desolate health that he fully realizes his mistake in giving 

the kingdom to his two savage daughters and disowning the one daughter 

who loves him.  It is not until Gloucester has been blinded that he 

learns the truth about his two sons.  These two characters learn to 

endure their suffering.  When Gloucester's attempt to commit suicide 

fails, he decides to bear his affliction until the end.  In his 

madness Lear learns to endure his agony.  Later, when he knows he 

is to be imprisoned, he maintains this misfortune with a passive 

calmness.  He has grown piritually through painfully achieved 

self-knowledge and through Cordelia's love. Tragedy in King Lear is 

not only seen through itself but, also through the character of the 

King and other characters.  The Play of King Lear is a great tragic 

play that many tragedies try to compare to. 

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