An Overview of Shakespeare's King Lear

An Overview of Shakespeare's King Lear

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An Overview of King Lear


I chose King Lear as the classic tragedy to analyze. Famous for its difficult plot and its intriguing themes of family, loyalty, madness, and community, it is rich with ideas to pursue. Arrogant, powerful, and sure of himself, Lear decides to retire and pits his three daughters against one another for the choicest pieces of his realm: they must outdo one another in professing their love for him. Two sneaky daughters (Regan and Goneril) compete as directed, and the third, Cordelia, states simply that she loves him according to her bond, no more nor less (I.1.97-99). Outraged, he cuts her out of the will and divides the land between the other two, prompting them to scheme with one another to reduce his meager luxuries, and then against one another to be more powerful and have the love of Edmund, the bastard (and bastardly) son of the Earl of Gloucester. Gloucester and his legitimate son Edgar are betrayed by his illegitimate son Edmund in a story that parallels the mistreatment of Lear by Goneril and Regan. Other characters include Kent, who counsels Lear against his rage at Cordelia and is exiled because of it, and yet disguises himself to help Lear fight against the humiliations heaped upon him by his ungrateful daughters. Edgar, the legitimate son of Gloucester, is misused and also tries to work against the greed of Regan and Goneril. Cordelia's refusal to pander to her father's ego wins her the love of the King of France, who takes her away after Lear shames her and sends her back with his armies as he begins his successful war against England under the power of Regan and Goneril. Morally, King Lear is a tale full of violence, greed, betrayal, and malice. The violence of Lear is gut-wrenching, with a particularly horrible scene (III.7) where Regan and her husband, the Duke of Cornwall, pluck out Gloucester's eyes for his support of the king and his supposed treason. There are few characters of good and honorable nature, and those that are, like Edgar, for example, are rather slow about identifying the treachery all around them, and are unable to prevent evil from taking its toll. Lear's eldest daughters are unquestionably evil, as is Gloucester's illegitimate son Edmund. Lear, self-absorbed and secure in his reign, apparently never bothered to ensure his daughters were raised to be good and moral women, thinking perhaps that his greatness alone deserved their awe and love.

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Gloucester's alliance with an easy woman produces a bastard son whose character reflects his immoral conception and who actively resents the limitations of his birth. Part of Lear's development as a tragic character is that he comes to an understanding of his poor assessment of both his daughters and the world around him; he had not appreciated the lives and struggles of lesser men, and in his exile learns the difficulties faced by his subjects and the avarice of Regan and Goneril. In the end, most everyone dies, as Goneril kills Regan and then herself, Lear and Cordelia are sent to prison where she dies first and he after, and Edgar kills Edmund. Edgar and Kent are left to restore order to the realm.


At first glance, the modern tragic genre is rife with characters of moral problems that are reflective, and perhaps simplistically stereotypical, of modern social ills. Novels about the drug-addicted, sexually abused, beaten-up, and put-down abound in popular fiction; for many of the novels, Aristotle's "embellishment of language" is the jargon of drug rehabilitation therapists and criminal defense lawyers. I did not want to choose a book that was about the cold, hard life of the streets or the rage-to-riches-to-rags story of the criminal American ethnic minority group. Rather, I wanted a book that would explore the themes of King Lear without having to depend upon a sensationalized setting. It is easy for an author to take underprivileged characters and make life worse; I wanted to see characters whose suffering didn't arise from low socioeconomic status.


For this reason, it was difficult to find a book that I could pair with my chosen classic, King Lear. I was pleased to find Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe, and found it to be quite promising. Our main character, Okonkwo, works harder than others to prosper due to his father's moral weakness. Successful and proud, his farm is wildly successful, and he marries wisely to improve his situation. His willingness to work hard mirrors his willingness to be inflexible and harsh in his relationships with others, and it is this rigidity that causes his personal and political downfall. Unable to bend like others in his tribe, unable to admit his wrongdoing and change with the times, Okonkwo's stubbornness leads to the deaths of those close to him and to his own suicide. While Okonkwo has all of the qualities of a tragic hero, he is casually cruel and not particularly likeable, which makes one less likely to empathize with him. As I read the book, I found myself to be distracted by thousands of questions about family relationships, social hierarchies, and the history of the colonialization of the African people. Things Fall Apart is a good book and a good fit for Lear, but I was even happier when I found Jane Smiley's A Thousand Acres.

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