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Tragedy is defined in Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary as 1) a medieval narrative poem or tale typically describing the downfall of a great man, or, 2) a serious drama typically describing a conflict between the protagonist and a superior force, such as destiny, and having a sorrowful or disastrous conclusion that excites pity or terror. The play of King Lear is one of William Shakespeare’s great tragic pieces, it is not only seen as a tragedy in itself, but also a play that includes two tragic heroes and four villains. In the tragedy of King Lear: the tragic hero must not be all good or all bad, the tragic hero is deprived through errors in judgment, the use of two tragic characters intensifies the tragedy, the tragedy develops more through action than through character and the tragic heroes gain insights through suffering.
We must be able to identify ourselves with the tragic hero if he is to inspire fear, for we must feel that what happens to him could happen to us. If Lear was completely evil, we would not be fearful of what happens to him: he would merely be repulsive. But Lear does inspire fear because, like us, he is not completely upright, nor is he completely wicked. He is foolish and arrogant, it is true, but later he is also humble and compassionate. He is wrathful, but at times, patient. Because of his good qualities, we experience pity for him and feel that he does not deserve the severity of his punishment.
Lear’s actions are not occasioned by any corruption or depravity in him, but by an error in judgment, which, however, does arise from a defect of character. Lear has a tragic flaw, egotism, which is exemplified thus: “Which of you shall we say doth love us most” (I.i.52)? It is his egotism in the first scene that causes him to make this gross error in judgment of dividing his kingdom and disinheriting Cordelia. “Thy truth then be thy dowry! /…Here I disclaim all my paternal care, / Propinquity and property of blood, / And as a stranger to my heart and me / Hold thee from this forever” (I.i.115, 120-123). Throughout the rest of the play, the consequences of these errors slowly and steadfastly increase until Lear is destroyed. There must be a change in the life of the tragic hero; he must pass from happiness to misery.
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In King Lear the two tragic characters, a king and an earl, are not ordinary men. To have one man who is conspicuous endure suffering brought about because of his own error is striking. The fear aroused for this man is of great importance because of his exalted position. His fall is awesome and overwhelming. However, when tragedy, as seen in King Lear, happens to two such men, the effect is even greater. To intensify the tragedy of King Lear, Shakespeare has not one but two tragic characters and four villains. As we have seen, the sub-plot, concerning Gloucester, Edmund, and Edgar, augments the main plot. Gloucester undergoes physical and mental torment because he makes the same mistake that Lear does. Like Lear, Gloucester is neither completely good nor completely bad. There is, for instance, a coarseness or crudeness in the Earl of Gloucester who delights in speaking of his adultery, “Sir, this young fellow’s mother could (conceive), / whereupon she grew round-wombed, and had indeed, sir, a / son for her cradle ere she had a husband for her bed…” (I.i.12-14). But he has good qualities as well. He shows, for instance, concern for Kent in the stocks, and he risks his life to help Lear. Gloucester's punishment, his blindness, parallel's Lear's madness. These two tragic stories unfolding at the same time give the play a great eminence.
The most important element in tragedy is action, not character. It is the deeds of men that bring about their destruction. Lear calls upon the "great gods," Edgar and Kent blame Fortune, and Gloucester says that the gods "kill us for their sport" (IV.i.45). But, in reality, the calamities that befall both Lear and Gloucester occur because of the actions of these men. Their actions, it is true, grow out of their characters: both are rash, naive and vengeful. But the actions themselves are the beginnings of their agony, for these actions start a chain of events that lead to ultimate catastrophe.
A tragic hero gains insight through suffering. It is only after great suffering that Lear and Gloucester realize the errors of their ways. Lear's suffering is so intense that it drives him mad: “I fear I am not in my perfect mind” (IV.vii.72). It is in this desperate condition that Lear fully realizes his mistake in giving the kingdom to his two savage daughters and disowning the one daughter who loves him. This is evident in his words to Cordelia: “I know you do not love me, for your sisters / Have, as I do remember, done me wrong: / You have some cause, they have not (IV.vii.83-85). It is not until Gloucester has been blinded that he “sees” the truth about his two sons: “O dear son Edgar, / The food of thy abused father’s wrath; / Might I but live to see thee in my touch, / I’d say I had eyes again (IV.i.25-27)! These two characters learn to endure their suffering and learn while enduring their suffering. When Gloucester's attempt to commit suicide fails, he decides to bear his affliction until the end. In his madness, Lear learns to endure his agony. Later, when he knows he is to be imprisoned, he manages to calmly maintain his dignity. Lear has grown spiritually through painfully achieved self-knowledge and through Cordelia's love.
Tragedy in King Lear is portrayed mainly through the progression of the action itself. During this progression, a metamorphosis occurs in the two tragic heroes that shows not only their strengths and weaknesses, but also that they have gained insight into their lives. They learn that their poor judgment in the past has led to their present suffering. The audience experiences a momentary feeling of satisfaction at the reunions of Gloucester and Edgar and of Lear and Cordelia only to have their hopes metamorphose into grief and pity by the tragedy of the latter’s deaths.
Shakespeare, William. King Lear. Ed. Louis B. Wright. New York: Washington Square Press, 1957.
Bradley, A.C. “Lecture IX: King Lear”. Shakespearean Tragedies: Lectures on Hamlet, Othello, King Lear, Macbeth. Chicago: Macmllan & Co., 1904.