Lessons in King Lear by William Shakespeare
Satisfying, hopeful, and redemptive: some critics would say that these adjectives belong nowhere near a description of King Lear. One critic, Thomas Roche, even states that the play’s ending is “as bleak and unrewarding as man can reach outside the gates of hell” (164). Certainly, Roche’s pessimistic interpretation has merit; after all, Lear has seen nearly everyone he once cared for die before dying himself. Although this aspect of the play is true, agreeing with this negative view requires a person to believe that Lear learns nothing and that he suffers and dies in vain. Indeed, this is exactly what Roche believes when he states that at the play’s end, “Lear still cannot tell good from evil . . . or true from false” (164). This nihilistic approach, however, not only disregards many of the play’s moments of philosophical insight, but it also completely misinterprets Shakespeare’s intent. That is not to say that Lear is without fault at the end of the play; as Shakespeare surely understood, Lear is still human, and as such, he is subject to human frailty. What is most important about Lear, however, is not that he dies a flawed man but that he dies an improved man. Therefore, although King Lear might first appear “bleak,” Shakespeare suggests that Lear’s life, and human life in general, is worth all of its misery because it is often through suffering that people gain knowledge about the true nature of their individual selves and about the nature of all humanity (Roche 164).
From the very beginning of the play, Shakespeare suggests that King Lear has much to learn. As Maynard Mack explains in his essay “Action and World in King Lear,” the reader/audience is immediate...
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Clark, W.G., and W. Aldis Wirhgt, eds. The Complete Works of William Shakespeare. Vol 2. USA: Nd. 2 vols.
These classic tropes are inverted in King Lear, producing a situation in which those with healthy eyes are ignorant of what is going on around them, and those without vision appear to "see" the clearest. While Lear's "blindness" is one which is metaphorical, the blindness of Gloucester, who carries the parallel plot of the play, is literal. Nevertheless, both characters suffer from an inability to see the true nature of their children, an ability only gained once the two patriarchs have plummeted to the utter depths of depravity. Through a close reading of the text, I will argue that Shakespeare employs the plot of Gloucester to explicate Lear's plot, and, in effect, contextualizes Lear's metaphorical blindness with Gloucester's physical loss of vision.
Bradley., A. C. Shakespearean Tragedy: Lectures on Hamlet, Othello, King Lear and Macbeth. New York: Penguin Books, 1991.
Mack, Maynard. Everybody’s Shakespeare: Reflections Chiefly on the Tragedies. Lincoln, NB: University of Nebraska Press, 1993.
Muir, Kenneth. "Great Tragedies I: King Lear." Shakespeare's Sources. London: Methuen & Co Ltd, 1957.
Clark, W. G. and Wright, W. Aldis , ed. The Complete Works of William Shakespeare. Vol. 1. New York: Nelson-Doubleday
...not truly be seen with the eye, but with the heart. The physical world that the eye can detect can accordingly hide its evils with physical attributes, and thus clear vision cannot result from the eye alone. Lear's downfall was a result of his failure to comprehend that appearances do not always represent reality. Gloucester avoided a similar demise by learning the relationship between appearance and reality. If Lear had learned to look with more than just his eyes before the end, he might have avoided this tragedy. These two tragic stories unfolding at the same time gave the play a great eminence.