Free King Lear Essays: King Lear as a Tragic Hero
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Most critics of King Lear take the position that he was a
tragic hero. However, there are critics who believe that he might be
a comic figure. This paper attempts to discuss whether King Lear is a
tragic hero or not, looking at the works of two critics, each taking
opposite sides. On the one hand, there is A.C. Bradley, who takes the
position that King Lear is a tragic hero because he demonstrates all the
characteristics of a tragic hero as Bradley saw it. On the other hand, G.
Wilson Knight believes that the play King Lear is really a comedy of the
grotesque, and that King Lear is really a comic figure. The position that
I am taking is this paper is that King Lear is a tragic hero, because he
fits all the characteristics that Bradley identifies as belonging to a
tragic hero, and more than that although there might appear to be comic
elements in the play King Lear that the tragic element seem to outweigh the
comic. Therefore, the position taken by Knight is not accurate in
describing King Lear.
The tragic hero, according to Bradley, is a person who suffers
tremendously, whose suffering goes beyond him. The tragic hero also takes
the action that produces the suffering and calamity which leads to death.
Other characteristics of a tragic hero are as follows. The tragic hero is
a person who is of high degree, and his welfare is intimately tied up with
the welfare of the state. The hero is an exceptional being, of high
degree, whose actions and sufferings are of an unusual kind, who possesses
and exceptional nature. His nature is exceptional in the sense that it is
very much like our nature, except that it is intensified.
The tragic hero is also involved in conflict, which could be either
conflict with someone else, or conflict within himself. The tragic hero is
also described as inspiring pity on the part of the viewer because of the
intensity of the suffering that the tragic hero is undergoing.
Furthermore, the tragic hero is seen as wretched, nevertheless, the
audience does not see him as contemptible. Instead, the audience sees the
tragic hero as suffering and the order in the world as destroyed. The only
way that order would be restored is through the death of the tragic hero.
Knight, on the other hand, takes a different perspective of the play
King Lear. This author points out that tragedy and comedy are very close
to each other. "Humor is an evanescent thing, even more difficult of
analysis and intellectual location than tragedy. To the coarse mind
lacking sympathy an incident may seem comic which to the richer
understanding is pitiful and tragic." (Knight 1949, 34) In other words,
tragedy and comedy seem to involve the process of invoking tension, and the
relief of that tension could be either through the pain of tragedy or the
humor of comedy. This is why there are situations where a person may cry
or laugh at a similar set of circumstances. It just depends on how the
idea is developed. "The comic and the tragic rest both on the idea of
incompatibilities, and are also, themselves, mutually exclusive; therefore
to mingle them is to add to the meaning of each; for the result is then but
a new sublime incongruity." (Knight 1949, 34)
The reason that people laugh at situations is that there is a
juxtaposition of things that are incongruous. At the same time, the tragic
does involve incompatible things taking place, and thus leading to a
resolution of the pressure that is created through pain or crying. Knight
does not see tragedy and comedy as being very different in the sense that
they both view incongruity.
In the case of King Lear, Knight believes that while the character of
King Lear is tragic in the sense that he suffers that there is something
comic in the situation because King Lear brings it upon himself because of
the incongruity of King Lear's behavior. King Lear is mad, and his
behavior from the very beginning of the play, where he tries to see which
one of his daughters loves him more is incongruous. Knight sees this
situation as comic, where King Lear has " . . . staged an interlude, with
himself as chief action. . . . It is childish, foolish - but very human."
(Knight, 35) As far a Knight is concerned, King Lear's behavior is
incongruous, because he is a king and not a child.
Knight believes that the difference between the comic and the tragic is
that in the case of the former the oncongruities stand out more noticeably,
whereas in the tragic " . . . the dualism of experience is continually
being dissolved in the masterful beauty of passion, merged in the sunset of
emotion." (Knight, 35)
As I look at the ideas of Bradley and Knight, I tend to agree with
Bradley. King Lear is a tragic hero because he is king, he has undergone a
great deal of suffering, and in the end dies, being thrown out of his
kingdom by daughters he believed loved him. I think that the audience
pities King Lear, because he was unable to see that Cordelia, his last
daughter truly loved him, but could not flatter him as his other daughters
could. I believe that this was a pathetic sight and situation, and that
King Lear should be pitied and not laughed at. Knight believes that there
is something comic about King Lear wanting to be flattered, but I do not
agree with him. It is sad that an old king feels so lonely and unloved
that he has to try to create a situation where his daughters would tell him
that they love him to inherit his kingdom.
Which of you shall say doth love us most?
That we our largest bounty may extend
Where nature doth with merit challenge . . .
(Shakespeare 1990, Act I, Scene I, 50-52)
Knight argues that from Lear's madness and Gloucester's suicide that it
appears that what is being communicated is that "Mankind is, as it were,
deliberately and comically tormented by 'the gods'. He is not even allowed
to die tragically." (Knight, 48) In other words, Knight is trying to show
that the tragedy of King Lear is really a comedy of the gods.
I disagree with him, because the action of the play does not involve in
any major way the gods. Had the gods had a play of their own within the
play, then I could have agreed that the tragedy of King Lear was really for
the entertainment of the gods, and therefore a comedy, from their
perspective. However, King Lear remains the main character and the action
is from his perspective. This being the case, I think that the
determination whether the play is a tragedy or a comedy should be viewed
from this perspective.
My conclusion is that King Lear should be viewed as a tragic hero,
because he fulfills all the characteristics that Bradley outlines as
belonging to a tragic hero. On the other hand, the comic aspect of the
play that Knight tries to portray just does not seem real to me. It would
take "the coarse mind lacking sympathy" to see the comic aspect of King
Lear. From the play, King lear is of high estate: he is a king. His
actions cause the tragedy, because it is King Lear that called his
daughters together and had them tell him how much they loved him. It was
King Lear's actions that caused Goneril and Regan to strive to get as much
as they could and therefore to tell their father what he wanted to hear.
Since Cordelia could not flatter her father in the same way as her sisters,
she had the tragedy of her father's wrath. The suffering of a tragic hero
extends beyond himself, and it clearly did with respect to Cordelia, as
well as to Gloucester. Since there has to be a reordering the world within
the tragedy, King Lear must be gotten rid of. The audience sees the king
as an exceptional being in the sense that he is very much like us, except
that his emotions and behavior are intensified. He experiences both
internal and external conflict, and although he strikes us as being
wretched, we never see him as contemptible. Rather we pity him. It is on
these grounds that we consider King Lear a tragic hero.