Shakespeare’s King Lear as the Ultimate Tragic Hero

King Lear, one of William Shakespeare’s greatest tragedies, depicts a society in grim circumstances. As with all tragedies, there exists a tragic hero [1] , one who possesses a fatal flaw that initiates the tragedy and all the sufferings that follow. In this play, the tragic hero is undoubtedly the title character, King Lear. The plot is driven by the power and consequence of losses, more specifically, the losses of Lear. In the course the play, King Lear, because of his flaws, loses his authority as a king, his identity as a father, and his sanity as a man. One loss builds on another, but moreover, his greatest loss, and what distinguishes this tragedy from all others, is his chance of redemption. Unlike other tragedies, there is no salvation for the tragic hero or any sign of optimism in the conclusion. This bleak portrayal of King Lear, through his losses, makes him the ultimate tragic hero, and the play an ultimate tragedy.

The play begins with King Lear’s decision to divide his kingdom among his three daughters. This is the first sign of Lear’s loss – the loss of authority. Wanting to abandon his responsibilities before his time, Lear claims, “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). It can be argued that his flaw is in his decision to prematurely abdicate the throne, going against nature. However, it is more crucial to realize that his major flaw is actually in his character, shown through his judgment in renouncing his power. Lear carries immense insecurity and egotism as he announces that he will offer the largest share of kingdom to the daughter who professes the greatest love for him. Goneril and Regan both proclaim in fulsome terms that they love him more than anything in the world, while Cordelia speaks from her heart in honest terms that she loves him exactly as a daughter should love her father. Valuing self-importance above all else, Lear is blind to the loyalty and love of Cordelia and instead, perceptive to the flattery of his two vile daughters. Furthermore, Lear is infuriated when Kent objects and protests to his decision: “Thy youngest daughter does not love thee least, / Nor are those emptyhearted whose low sounds / Reverb no hollowness” (I.i.153-155). This fatal flaw of insecurity and egotism induces Lear to make error in his judgment, resulting in the improper division of his kingdom and the loss of his two most loyal companions – Cordelia and Kent. The consequences of this error build up throughout the play, leading to Lear’s ultimate tragic fall.

Lear’s lost royal authority now transfers to his two daughters, Goneril and Regan, and they deceitfully use this power against him. Ironically, Lear also falls in status, to a level inferior to that of his own children. Goneril no longer loves him “beyond all manner” and Regan no longer is “an enemy to all other joys” as they have professed in the beginning (I.i. 61, 73). Instead, Goneril reprimands his father for the way his servants and knights have “infected” her home (I.iv.237). Regan follows suit, and insist that “The old man and his people/ Cannot be well bestowed” (II.iv.258). His daughters no longer even respect him. Lear has now lost his identity as a father, since he even confesses that “[He] should be false persuaded / [He] had daughters” (I.iv.227-228). Troubled and confused, Lear reveals his weakened sense of identity when asking “Who is it that can tell me who I am” (I.iv.224). Stripped of authority as king, Lear has now also lost authority as a father over his own flesh and blood.

King Lear’s banishment from his daughters undoubtedly has tremendous psychological effect on him. He not only loses youth as he “crawl toward death”, but also loses sanity as his “heart…break into a hundred thousand flaws” and “he…go mad” (I.i.41, II.iv.284-286). With so much suffering already thrown upon Lear due to his tragic flaw, it seems that Shakespeare has now shown pity and decided to set the stage for a reversal of fate. Losing sanity has given King Lear the opportunity to discover the truth and the core of humanity. With disapproval of Regan and Goneril, Lear heads outside, where a wild storm takes place. In this time of chaos, Lear meets Edgar as Poor Tom and gains profound revelation of man and life. Seeing Poor Tom bare, at human’s most natural state, Lear questions, “Is man no more than this?” and realizes that the “unaccomodated man is no more but such a poor, bare, forked animal as thou art” (III.iv.103-104, 107-109). He continues with disrobing himself, and at the same time, removing himself from any social constraints. It is at the extreme low point that Lear strips of his rationality and relies on his inner instincts to fully grasp his identity and regain his humanity. He now understands the deep love of Cordelia and the disguise employed by his other daughters. The real King Lear finally emerges.

Although Shakespeare creates this turning point for Lear, he is actually paving the way for a greater tragedy. Lear loses everything he has – authority, family, and sanity, but now he faces his greatest loss – the chance for redemption. After the storm, Lear is finally reunited with Cordelia as he struggles to regain his sanity. Cordelia never loses her love for her father even after he has disowned her, and after seeing him, she cries, “O my dear father, restoration hang / Thy medicine on my lips, and let this kiss / repair those violent harms that my two sisters / have in thy reverence made” (IV.vii.27-30). The mention of restoration signifies Cordelia’s ability to redeem Lear of his previous mistakes. When Lear wakes up, he admits, “I am a very foolish fond old man…I fear I am not in my perfect mind” (IV.vii.61,65). This reveals Lear’s new regained understanding of himself and his admittance to his faults, a sign of the first step towards redemption. At this point, after all the turbulence, the audience takes a sigh of relief, feeling positive and seeing hope for Lear. Unfortunately however, this play does not leave any traces optimism.

In the final act, Edmund captures Lear and Cordelia as his prisoners, and orders both to be killed. Lear escapes, but Cordelia, his loyal and loving daughter, dies. Lear finally realizes only Cordelia can give him “a chance which redeem all sorrows that ever [he] have felt” (V.iii.272-273). Her death breaks the last thread between Lear and happiness. He expresses his deepest sufferings and declares his sorrows when sees Cordelia has “gone forever… She’s dead as earth” (V.iii.265-267). With nothing left, not even the future and possibility for redemption, Lear loses the only possession that remains – his life. King Lear is truly a tragic hero because he was so close to happiness after much torment, yet he is still unable to achieve salvation, and instead, he is subjected to complete deterioration, both mentally and physically.

“Is this the promised end?” Kent, Lear’s loyal servant, questions at the end of the play (V.iii.270). Indeed, this is the tragic end of King Lear, a play displaying a world of corruption. King Lear, due to his tragic flaw of insecurity and egotism, makes an initial mistake that soon snowballs into a series of losses, including the loss of authority, identity and sanity. Just as he is about to redeem himself, he is deprived of that chance as he losses the only one capable of restoring him – Cordelia. The play ends with the ultimate downfall of the tragic hero, as Lear dies in a state of grief. In this way, King Lear portrays not only the tragedy of a society, but more importantly, the tragedy of a man. Even though Lear has undergone much transformation and realized the meaning of humanity, the bleak society he lives in does not warrant him the opportunity for redemption. Through revealing his losses, King Lear illustrates the journey of the title character, an ultimate tragic hero.

 

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