Self-discovery in Shakespeare's King Lear

Self-discovery in Shakespeare's King Lear

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Self-discovery in King Lear


        Through the course of the play, King Lear goes through a process of

attaining self-knowledge, or true vision of one's self and the world. With this

knowledge, he goes through a change of person, much like a caterpillar 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 "fool" of a conscious, a powerful storm, a "supposed" crazy man,

and the death of the one who truly loved him, clear his vision and allow him to

see the 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 was in the beginning of the play instead

he is weak, scared, and a 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 thing that breaks Lear and leads 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

"gusto" shall receive the largest area of land. This is even more evident when

you consider that he already has divided up the kingdom before the praising even

begins. As evident as he gives each daughter her land before hearing the next

daughter's praise. Thus the who thing 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 and Kent when they do not act as he would like them to. It could be

said he is like a child who doesn't remember all that his family has done for

them, but only sees them saying no to a piece of candy. In the play, this is

shown in his banishment of Cordelia and Kent. Kent is probably one of the most

loyal people in the room (not to mention his kingdom), and it is Cordelia that

truly does love Lear. But because they choose not to contribute to this "ego

trip", they are banished. In fact, he threatens to kill Cordelia if she 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.

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Away! By Jupiter,"


This shows that at the beginning of the play, King Lear feels that his image is

more important than the life of his favorite daughter. This hunger for "image

attributes" is further shown when Kent presents himself to King Lear after being

banished, but in disguise. Kent wants to gain employment as a servant to the

King uses Lear's gullability to praise in order to win the position. In this

case, it's the image of autority that Kent appeals to. The dialog is as follows:


               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


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 are in fact are merely

Lear's fair-weathered friends who eat, drink, and go hunting with him. They

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 which

is shown when he asks the gods to render Goneril unable to bare children. Lear



               "Hear, Nature, hear! Dear goddess, hear!

               Suspend thy purpose, if thou dist intend

               to make this creature fruitful!

               Into her womb convey sterility!

                Dry up in her the organs of increase;


This is a rather unpleasant thing to say to your own daughter, not to mention

one you just gave half your kingdom to, just for suggesting you don't keep a

band of hoodlums around. In fact he continues to suggest that if she should have

children, let them be perverse and unnatural.  Though this appears to happen in

nature, I feel it's a rather poor choice of outcome for one's grandchildren.


        The turning point for Lear is 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

"family" and the power of the storm that begin the process of change within Lear.

This change which at it's heart is a change of vision (this is true for most of

the characters in this play). What must change is how Lear sees himself, his

children, and the world around. At the beginning of Lear's time in the storm, he

is seeing the treachery of his daughters Regan and Goneril. This truly creates

the anger within him. He expresses his anger at the storm by trying to coax the

storm to be even more fierce to him. Lear says 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, infirm, weak, and despised old man."  Though he still

believes himself to be not at fault in any way. This is especially shown when

Lear says, " I am a man more sinned against than sinning."


        After this though Lear begins another change, and that is thinking of

others instead of just himself. This first person, is the Fool. Lear worries if

the fool is cold out in the storm, and begins to see how precious necessities

can be if you suddenly are without them.  This caring for others continues just

before entering the hovel. Lear know begins to just think of those around him,

but humanity as a whole. He begins to think of the poor who brave storms like

this with the little that they have. Lear says,


               "Poor naked wretches, whereso'er you are,

               That bide the pelting of this pitiless storm,

               How shall your houseless heads and unfed sides,

               Your looped and windowed raggedness, defend you"


Lear, then gains the self knowledge of how he has not helped the poor. He says

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 we where clothes.  Because Lear has prided

himself on his image, and 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" daughter, Cornelia. It is here that he is once again referred to ask

"King" by one of his daughters. Though is standing is no longer that of ruler.

Upon waking to Cordelia's voice, Lear is in a state of dillusion,  but also of

great humility. He offers to drink poison if she so wishes it, for he knows he

has punished her when it was her sisters who should have been.  Lear show more

of his humility when he ends the scene asking his daughter cordelia to "forget

and forgive. I am old and foolish."  He continues to ask forgiveness when, as

they are taken away as prisoners, he says,


               "When thou dost ask me blessing, Ill kneel down,

               And ask of thee forgiveness."


        Finally, when Lear returns carrying the body of Cordelia, he once again

realizes that he his just another animal on the planet. He does this very subtly

when he says, "Pray you, undo this button."   This is a brilliant way of making

that point because it ties together the end with the time in the storm. During

the storm, he had asked Kent, the Fool, and Edgar to "come unbutton here."


        The self-discovery of Lear is not just the discovery of one man's self,

but the discoveries of everyone down the chain.  Gloucester loses his status and

eyes but learns the truth about Edgar and Edmond, Cordelia and Kent banished,

and Albany realizing his wife's true heart. Everything that happened to these

characters are affected by Lear in one way or another and that if Lear had not

banished Cordelia and Kent then the two sisters would not be able to plot

against their father.  Without the plot of the two sisters then Gloucester would

not of lost his eyes to Cornwall and his status because he was guilty of treason.

But if non of these events had taken place, than none of them 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?
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