It is said that no other playwright illustrates the human condition like William Shakespeare. Furthermore, it is said that no other play illustrates the human condition like King Lear. The story of a bad king who becomes a good man is truly one of the deepest analyses of humanity in literary history; and it can be best seen through the evolution of Lear himself. In essence, King Lear goes through hell in order to compensate for his sins.
Lear's relationship with his three daughters, Goneril, Regan and Cordelia, is, from the beginning, very uncharacteristic of the typical father-daughter relationship. It's clear that the king is more interested in words than true feelings, as he begins by asking which of his daughters loves him most. Goneril and Regan's answers are descriptive and sound somewhat phony, but Lear is flattered by them. Cordelia's response of nothing is honest; but her father misunderstands the plea and banishes her. Lear's basic flaw at the beginning of the play is that he values appearances above reality. He wants to be treated as a king and to enjoy the title, but he doesn't want to fulfill a king's obligations. Similarly, his test of his daughters demonstrates that he values a flattering public display of love over real love. He doesn't ask "which of you doth love us most," but rather, "which of you shall we say doth love us most?" (I.i.49). It would be simple to conclude that Lear is simply blind to the truth, but Cordelia is already his favorite daughter at the beginning of the play, so presumably he knows that she loves him the most. Nevertheless, Lear values Goneril and Regan's fawning over Cordelia's sincere sense of filial duty.
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...e and determination to repair his life is evident at this point, and continues to show for the duration of the play.
Perhaps Lear's most difficult moment to endure is when he discovers his youngest and most prized daughter, Cordelia, dead. His initial reaction is of unbearable pain, but, being in his current state of madness, some of the anguish is alleviated when he "realizes" that she is alive. The king overcomes his earlier mistakes only after losing the one daughter who truly loved him. It's debatable whether Lear is completely conscious of his loss, but more plausible to suspect he is not fully affected by it as he is no longer in his right mind. Finally, Lear has dealt with the consequences of his decisions and is redeemed.
Halio, J. The Tragedy of King Lear. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992.
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