King Lear And Hamlet: The Makings Of A Tragic Hero

King Lear And Hamlet: The Makings Of A Tragic Hero

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In William Shakespeare's tragedy, King Lear, the plot is driven by the misguided and sometimes baseless decisions made by King Lear and the brutality of family members towards one another. Like many other Shakespeare tragedies, this play is a commentary on action versus inaction, which is also seen in Shakespeare's Hamlet. Hamlet is the prince of Denmark who is thrown into a tragic situation when his father is killed at the hand of his own brother, Hamlet's uncle Claudius. Both characters are riddled by family strife, the difficulty of running a nation, and dealing with the complex workings of their own mind. Through the reading of these two stories, many similarities can be drawn from actions of the characters, to the resolve of each play, and moreover the use the tragic hero in both tales. Throughout time, the tragic hero has been come to be known as an honorable protagonist who has one fatal flaw which will eventually lead to his or her own demise. This is a concept that was coined by the Greeks which through time has been portrayed in many different works. There are four main concepts that a character must portray to be the tragic hero, and in either play, King Lear and Hamlet's lives are tied through this shared title and the characteristics they both possess.
The first characteristic of a tragic hero is nobleness or wisdom by virtue of birth. In defining noble, it is seen as one who is distinguished by rank or title, an exalted moral or mental character, and of, belonging to, or constituting a hereditary class that has special social or political status in a country or state; of or pertaining to the aristocracy. By birth, King Lear and Hamlet similarly share an elevated social standing through being in the top echelons of the social food chain. They are both in positions where those around them are honored to be in their presence, and must take orders at their will. Through being king, Lear is entitled to the envy of those around him, but also the vulnerability of his chair being sought after by even his own family members. This is also seen for Prince Hamlet. When his father died, the prince was next in line to rule the throne, but his sneaky uncle stepped in the way. Both men were stripped of their power by their own family members, which lead into how the characters developed their own tragic flaws.

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The next characteristic of a tragic hero is the emergence of a tragic flaw, or the one thing within their own personalities which leads to their demise. This characteristic is better known as Hamartia which is literally translated from Ancient Greek into "tragic mistake". Each character possesses a flaw, though each is different. King Lear respectively, possesses a wide variety of flaws which include pride and the inability to distinguish between words and reality. The main action in the play develops from the beginning of Act One where King Lear asks of his daughters to express their love toward him, which will allow for him to decide how to divide up his kingdom. This is an example of his willingness to believe words rather than truth, because rather than asking of his daughters, "Which of you doth love us most", he says, "Which of you say we say doth love us most?" (I.1.51). This leads to King Lear dismissing the daughter who actually does love him, Cordelia, and allowing the two most vindictive daughters who later strip him of his title as king to remain. The pride Lear takes in being king allows for him to believe that no one will mistreat him and that his daughters will take care of him, which allows the reader to see him as an old man who is blinded by his horribly misguided decisions. Hamlet's tragic characteristics on the other hand are irrational, half baked actions, self doubt and pity, and the inability to act when the time calls for it. In the beginning of the play, Hamlet learns of the plot against his dead father, that his own uncle Claudius had killed him with poison in the ear. His father's ghost comes to him and asks him to revenge his death in order to set right the balance of fate, and to regain what had been stolen from Hamlet, the throne of Denmark. Prince Hamlet's insatiable need for proof weighs down his acts against Claudius, and Hamlet at one point decides it best to feign insanity to best go about his plan. In one of many of Hamlet's soliloquies, he labels himself a coward, noting that his own demise is being brought about by his inability to act saying, "Why, what an ass I am! This is most brave, that I, the son of a dear father murdered, prompted to my revenge by heaven and hell, must like a whore unpack my heart with words and fall a-cursing like a very drab, a stallion!" (II.2.521-526). He realizes early on in the play that he needs to do something quick, and he sets upon a course of waiting for the king to mess up. Both characters portray qualities which will eventually bring them down in the end, which leads into the consequences of these characteristics.
In a third attribute of the tragic hero, there must be seen a reversal of fortune, better known as Peripetia, brought about by the hero's tragic error. Through King Lear, the reversal of his fortune happens to be loss of status. With the distribution of his lands, he is left with two daughters who are power hungry and willing to do anything to take over as dictator. When Lear expels Cordelia from England, he is losing the one person who would actually look after him in the winter of his life. Regan and Goneril attempt to oust the king completely from his throne and take his men away, Lear is forced to flee and take disguise to stay alive. In a speech after he is denied room in his daughters' homes, Lear says to an oncoming storm, "Rumble thy bellyful. Spit, fire. Spout, rain. Nor rain, wind, thunder, fire are my daughters. I tax you not, you elements, with unkindness. I never gave you kingdom, called you children; you owe me no subscription. Then let fall your horrible pleasure. Here I stand your slave, a poor, infirm, weak, and despised old man" (III.2.14-20). He understands now that he has made a mistake, now that the plot has already been set into motion, now when it's too late to undo what has been wronged. Hamlet, unlike Lear does not have a complete turn of fortune; rather events in his life depress him more than ever which increases his irrational behavior. In the scenes leading up to the fight with Laertes, Hamlet is put on watch by those who are around him to see if he is actually insane. It can be seen by the readers that his insanity does not stem from lovesickness over Ophelia, but rather his own indecision of how best to fulfill his objective. In a rash move, Hamlet kills Polonius when he is lurking behind the curtain during a conversation with the Queen, thinking it is Claudius. This in turn causes Ophelia to commit suicide, which in turn sets Laertes on a path of destruction in which he pledges to find out who killed his father and seek revenge. Both characters at this point have fallen from their places at the top of the fortune wheel, down to the bottom which in the end leads to the final realization they have wronged mainly against themselves.
The final attribute to a tragic hero is Anagnorisis which literally translates as discovery, and is the recognition that the reversal in fate was brought about by the hero's own actions. King Lear overtime with the loss of his position in life realizes that he is not as all powerful as he once thought, and that he too is just a man. Armed with this knowledge, he is able to forget his foolish pride, and learn from his mistakes. This play wouldn't be a tragedy if it weren't too late in the game for him to learn this knowledge. He finally reunites with Cordelia to say, "Pray you now, forget and forgive. I am old and foolish" (V.1.88), and later, "We two alone will sing like birds i' th' cage. When thou dost ask me blessing, I‘ll kneel down and ask of thee forgiveness" (V.3.9-11). The king as this point has realized he has given his faith and trust to the wrong set of offspring, and is asking for Cordelia's forgiveness. It is too late in the play for Lear to set things right, and at the hand of her elder sisters Cordelia is hung, which is proceeded by Lear dying of a broken heart. Likewise, Hamlet's final realization of his tragic flaws end fatally, as nearly all characters in the play are dead by the end. As Hamlet returns from England, he tells Horatio of the plot against his life by the king by two messengers he thought to be his friends. He has finally come to terms with what he must do as he is being challenged to a duel by Laertes, and he says, "Not a whit, we defy augury; there's a special providence in the fall of a sparrow. If it be now, 'tis not to come', if it be not to come, it
will be now; if it be not now, yet it will come: the readiness is all. Since no man knows aught of what he leaves, what is't to leave betimes? Let be" (V.2.97-202). Hamlet has come to the realization that he must pay for what he has done and that he is now ready for what must take place, whether it be his death, the killing of Claudius, and anything in between. He dies a noble death by telling Laertes that he is sorry for what he has done to his father, "Give me your pardon, sir. I have done you wrong; but pardon't, as you are a gentleman. This presence knows, and you must needs have heard, how I am punish'd
with sore distraction" (V.2.204-207). Before his death, Hamlet manages to set right what had been wronged by killing Claudius in a similar fashion to the way he killed King Hamlet. Through a long process, both characters learned from their mistakes, and finally recognized the reversal of their fate for what it was, mistakes made on their own accord.
Though these plays are tied together by genre of tragedy, the connections don't stop there. The two main characters, as it has been shown through this essay embody all that is a tragic hero. The actions and inactions of these two characters drive the plot, and the consequences turn what could be a comedy of errors into brutal tragedies about mistrust, hunger for power, and the quest to set fate right.
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