Lessons in King Lear by William Shakespeare

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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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...retations of King Lear. Ed. Janet Adelman. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall, 1978. 22-33.

Jorgensen, Paul A. Lear’s Self-Discovery. Berkeley: 1967.

Kott, Jan. “King Lear or Endgame” Shakespeare: Our Contemporary. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1974. 127-168.

Mack, Maynard. “Action and World in Shakespeare.” Shakespeare’s Middle Tragedies. Ed. David Young. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall, 1993. 169-184.

Roche, Thomas P. “‘Nothing Almost Sees Miracles’: Tragic Knowledge in King Lear.” Critical Essays on Shakespeare’s King Lear. Ed. Jay Halio. New York: G.K. Hall & Co., 1996.


Shakespeare, William. King Lear. Ed. Russell Fraser. The Signet Classic Shakespeare. Sylvan Barnet, gen ed. 2nd rev. ed. New York: Signet, 1998.

---. Othello. Ed. Alvin Kernan. The Signet Classic Shakespeare. Sylvan Barnet, gen ed. 2nd rev. ed. New York, Signet, 1998.

In this essay, the author

  • Analyzes how roche's pessimistic interpretation of king lear is nihilistic and misinterprets shakespeare’s intent.
  • Analyzes how shakespeare suggests that king lear has much to learn. the reader/audience is immediately invited to sense that he is not truly aware of the harsh realities of human life.
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