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Through the course of the play, King Lear goes through a process of attaining self-knowledge. With this knowledge, he goes through a metamorphosis of person, much like a caterpillar's change into a butterfly. In the beginning, King Lear's vanity, and the image and exercise of power dominate his person. But a series of losses (based on his own bad decisions), a wise "fool", a powerful storm, a seemingly crazy man, and the death of one who truly loved him clear his vision and allow him to see himself and the world as they truly are. The pain and suffering endured by Lear eventually tears down his strength and sanity. Lear is not as strong, arrogant, and filled with pride as he seems in the beginning of the play. Instead he a is weak, scared and confused old man. At the end of the play Lear has completely lost his sanity with the loss of his daughter, Cordelia and this is the breaking point that leads Lear to his death.
In the beginning, King Lear shows his need for praise is how he chooses to divide his kingdom among his daughters. The one who praises him with the most "love" shall receive the largest area of land. This is even more evident when considering that Lear already has divided up the kingdom before the praising even begins, as he gives each daughter her land before hearing the next daughter's praise. Thus the entire arbitration is just a show and an ego boost to himself. It is because of his love for praise that makes him react so strongly to Cordelia when she chooses not to join in the act with her sisters. King Lear is much like a child and tends to have huge fits when things do not go the way he planned. This is shown in his banishment of Cordelia and Kent. Kent is probably one of the most loyal towards Lear besides Gloucester, and it is Cordelia that truly does love Lear. But because they choose not to contribute to this hypocritical "show of love", they are banished. He even threatens to kill Kent if he is found in ten days. Lear says,
"Upon our kingdom; if, on the tenth day following
Thy banished trunk be found in our dominions,
The moment of thy death. Away! By Jupiter,
This shall not be revoked (Act I Sc. I 179-182).
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Lear puts a misplaced importance on words, appearance and position. One only needs to impress Lear with pleasing words or actions, but with Lear's gullibility, they do not need to be true. This is characterized by Lear quick acceptance of the disguised Kent. When Kent presents himself to King Lear after being banished, Kent uses Lear's gullibility and praise in order to win the position. In this case, it's the image of authority that Kent appeals to.
"Lear: Does thou know me, fellow?
Kent: No, sir; but you have that in your countenance which I would fain call master. Lear: What's that?
Kent: Authority (Act I Sc. IV 26-30)
As with many of today's corporate jobs, saying the right things to those in charge can get you many things regardless of your qualifications. Because Kent tells Lear that he radiates authority, Lear gives him a chance to serve him. King Lear continues to show his need for ego reinforcement with his keeping of a hundred knights. These knights are hardly around for noble deeds as one might assume knights to be doing. They seem to be a band of men who eat, drink, and go hunting with him. Lear's knights provide a blanket of security by always praising Lear, and leaving him someone he can exercise command over. His need for them becomes more apparent when Goneril suggests that not keep them. Lear becomes extremely angry with her and harshly accuses her of being ungrateful, only after he asks the gods to render her unable to bear children. This is a rather unpleasant thing to say to his own daughter, not to mention one he just gave half of his kingdom to, just for suggesting he does not keep a band of hoodlums around to reassure his power.
Lear's turning point begins when he is outside in the storm. After unhappily leaving Gloucester's castle, Lear and the Fool find themselves outside in a fierce storm. It is through his anger over his last confrontation with his daughters and the power of the storm that begin the process of change within Lear. This change, at heart, is a change of vision (this is true for most of the characters in this play). Lear begins to see himself, his children, and the world around him differently, much to the help of the fool. During Lear's time in the storm, he realizes the treachery of his daughters Regan and Goneril. He expresses his anger by hoping the storm will be even more fierce to him. Lear goes on to state that since those who owe him everything are so harmful to him, why shouldn't the storm which owes him nothing be any less? But it is also here that Lear begins to see himself not as the "Almighty King", but as a poor, weak and despised old man. Though, he still believes himself to not fully be at fault as he says, " I am a man more sinned against than sinning (Act III Sc. II 59.)"
Lear goes through another change, and begins to think of others in the process. Lear then gains the self knowledge of how he has not helped the poor. He states that he must be exposed to the same harshness they have endured. He believes this will be part of some heavenly justice. Continuing on the lines of humanity, Lear begins to see humans as no more than animals, except that humans are clothed. Because clothes play a very important in the visual image of kingship, this is a very important revelation for Lear. At this point though, his sanity takes yet another step away as he tries to take off his clothes to try to truly be the animal that he is. These "steps" continue as Lear holds a trial using the animals in the hovel to represent his daughters. He even believes that his own dogs are against him. Though his sanity may be decreasing, his self realization and true understanding of people seems to increase.
The final leg of Lear's journey of self-knowledge is taken with his true and honest daughter, Cornelia. Upon waking to Cordelia's voice, Lear is in a state of disillusion, but also of great humility. He offers to drink poison if she so wishes it, for he knows he wrongly punished her when it was her sisters loved him the least. Lear show more of his humility when he asks Cordelia to forget and forgive since he is old and foolish. When Lear returns carrying the body of Cordelia, he has finally won the battle within. It is a shame thought that the death of his daughters brought about this self-discovery.
Lear's self-discovery is not just the discovery of one man's self,
but a collection of discoveries. Lear makes the error of casting aside the good daughter and is punished for it. Gloucester's major flaw was adultery and this backfires when his bastard son resents his illegitimacy and moves to displace both Edgar and Gloucester. The story seems to come full circle at the end, as the play ends as it began with Lear and his three daughters on stage. This time, all three are dead and Lear as well. Kent and Gloucester spoke to open the play and here Kent and the new Earl of Gloucester (Edgar) have the last two lines to end the play. Moreover, the kingdom is being divided in both cases with Lear as the divider in the beginning and Albany in the end. They were the only two characters who are seen to grow and develop over the course of the play Everything that happened to these characters are affected by Lear in one way or another, but if none of these events had taken place, then none of the characters would have gained the knowledge of themselves or of each other. Though most eventually paid for this knowledge with their lives, what would their lives have been without it?