Firstly, the clamorous opening scene of ‘King Lear’ introduces initial elements of Lear’s tragic heroism, such as his tragic flaw and the hamartia. In Act I Scene 1, a mood of uncertainty is established in the first six lines of the play, which are typical of Elizabethan and Jacobean drama, where characters set the scene and introduce key themes and ideas. Lear initiates a horribly misjudged ‘love test’. This vain attempt at gauging his daughters’ affection for him is disrupted by Cordelia’s refusal to take part. This culminates in her banishment and exclusion from her inheritance to Lear’s vast estate. From this scene, we are made aware of Lear’s tragic flaw, his egoistic pride. He is deceived by the false flattery of his two eldest daughters and angered by Cordelia’s curt refusal to participate. His lack of perception and preoccupation with appearance is an indication of Lear’s coming misfortune. Features of a tragic plot are also in evidence during the opening scene. The banishing of Cordelia is the hamartia of the play. Though this is only known retrospectively, we are made more aware of the significance of this irrational act at the end of the scene. The scene ends with Gonerill and Regan speculating on Lear’s behaviour after witnessing his evictions of his most trusted companions, Kent and Cordelia (‘We must do something and i’th’heat’). This serves not only to foreshadow the role the sisters’ play in Lear’s descent but to also emphasise the sudden vulnerability of Lear’s position.
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It is this vulnerability that plays some part in tempering our initial outlook on Lear. A key component of the Shakespearian tragic hero is the ability to garner sympathy from the audience. Sympathy for Lear is generated through the humiliation he suffers by Cordelia’s curt refusal of his request and the relative vulnerability of his position by the end of the scene. Lear clearly loved his youngest daughter a great deal, dividing the kingdom so she would receive the most opulent share (‘I loved her most’). He is pained and shamed by her refusal to take part in his ‘love test’. This only seems to trigger Lear’s tragic flaw resulting in his irrational, emotive act. Yet, to what extent does our sympathy succeed in overlooking Lear’s monstrous behaviour is open to debate. One contrary view is that the ferocious ugliness to Lear’s personality fails to garner any sympathy from an audience alienated by his distasteful traits. The language he uses to describe Cordelia is disparaging and cold in its objectification (‘But now her price has fallen’…’little seeming substance’). Our confusion over Lear’s sudden venom is echoed by France (‘Sure, her offense must be of such unnatural degree that monsters it (or your fore-vouched affection fall into taint)’). However, I would argue that although excessive, hubris as according to Aristotle was seen to be a necessary component of the tragic hero. Furthermore, the severity of Lear’s behaviour is somewhat excused by the arduous hardships he faces, physically and emotionally, in the following scenes, namely Act III Scene 2.
Lear’s subjection to the elements not only develops elements of tragic heroism but explores the developing dichotomy of Lear’s character. The visceral emotion of Lear’s isolated wanderings gives greater emphasis to the peripeteia of the previous scene, in which Lear has been phased out from rule by eldest daughters. This isolation of the protagonist is highlighted in the traditional structure of a classical tragedy (upon which Shakespeare and his contemporaries based their tragedies) and allows for greater insight as the hero attempts to cope with events. In Act III Scene 2, Lear is out on the heath, after being stripped of his knights by Gonerill and Regan, ranting at the elements. He is preoccupied with paranoid thoughts on his ‘two pernicious daughters’, suggesting a collusion between them and the storm (‘But yet I call you servile ministers…Oh ho!’Tis foul’). He displays unbridled egotism in his futile attempts at getting the tempest to do his bidding (‘Crack nature’s moulds, all germens spill at once/That makes ungrateful man’). He seems unable to concede his sudden loss of power, from the previous scenes.
Yet, there are passages in which Lear shows greater self awareness and invokes pity and fear in the audience. Lear soon realises that unlike Cordelia, nature doesn’t abide by his orders and subsequently humbles before its power (‘I tax you not…horrible pleasure’). The storm is personified by the use of the oxymoron ‘horrible pleasure’ reflecting its intensity and in turn Lear’s own mental instability. Though he still shows flickers of egotistic entitlement (‘You owe me no subscription’), Shakespeare manages to successfully set the basis for Lear’s coming anagnorisis in Act IV in a realistic and believable way. Also, fear and pity, crucial components of a tragedy, is felt by the audience throughout the scene. Lear’s stark self assessment shows signs of a man slowly starting to see himself more clearly (‘Here I stand, your slave- A poor, infirm, weak, and despised old man’). All the adjectives are bleak and direct in nature.
The reconciliation between Lear and his estranged daughter, Cordelia acts as the setting for the transformation of Lear’s character. In Act IV Scene 7, a doting Cordelia arrives to Lear’s sleeping aid lamenting his plight (‘hovel thee…/In short and musty straw’). The sorrowful descriptions highlight Lear’s vulnerability and reaffirms Cordelia’s virtuous nature. Lear awakens in a state of bewilderment, unable to recognise others and expressing his relentless suffering (pge 76). His exclamations show Lear has become a figure of pathos. His humbling towards Cordelia is striking in depth. Firstly, he recognises Cordelia’s virtuosity going as far as movingly offering to drink poison (‘If you have poison for me I will drink it’). Lear’s use of first person pronouns, ‘methinks’ and ‘I’ is suggestive of his new found humility. Gone is the earlier use of the omnipotent third person royal ‘we’. Lear seems to accept his diminished status by the love of his caring daughter, Cordelia.
However, another interpretation of the reunion casts a less reverential light on the faithfulness of Cordelia and her role as ‘the living emblem of womanly dignity’. Feminist critic Kathleen Mcluskie commented that Cordelia’s saving love…, works in the action less as a redemption of womankind than as an example of patriarchy restored’. I would disagree on two counts. Firstly, though the sympathetic characters in the play happen to reinforce patriarchal order, that doesn’t necessarily mean that they are sympathetic because they do so. For instance, just because Gonerill and Regan are seen as undermining patriarchal order doesn’t make their actions any less evil. Secondly, I do not perceive Cordelia’s behaviour as submissive and symbolic of ‘female subordination’. Cordelia’s gentle pity is redemptive, her ‘No cause, no cause’ exemplifying the natural response of a doting daughter. In turn, I believe Lear’s sincerity in his repentance due to the apologetic affection he bestows upon Cordelia and the grief that overcomes him in the deathly denouement.
Lastly, in King Lear many tragic elements of the denouement combine to complete Lear’s presentation as a tragic hero. In Act V Scene 3, a distraught Lear enters carrying the lifeless body of his youngest daughter, Cordelia exclaiming ‘How, howl, howl! O, you are men of stones’. His expressions of sorrow and laments tug at our emotions. Lear’s suffering is a crucial component of the classical tragedy. It allows the audience to share in his grievous emotions thus providing catharsis to the audience as well as the protagonist. Our pity peaks as Lear expressing illusionary hope (‘the feather it stirs’) before accepting the sorry fate. The changed nature of Lear is most evident when reflected with the opening scene. The egoistic, arrogant Lear of the start has metamorphosed into a repentant, self pitying shell of a man. The love Cordelia could never put into words is expressed in her death. Lear dies grief stricken, and we as the audience feel his pain.
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However, there are many who believe the destructive denouement of King Lear sullies the extent to which he can be classified a ‘tragic hero’. In a tragedy, the story should end with regeneration and signal society’s return to normality. Yet in King Lear we close with Edgar’s sombre words that the survivors ‘Shall never see so much nor live so long’ suggesting that the lives of those who remain have been shattered by the events of Act V Scene 3. This lack of poetic justice in King Lear upset many of Shakespeare’s contemporary audience. Eighteenth-century audiences found the death of Cordelia during the closing stages of the play deeply shocking. On the subject of poetic justice, many critics have interpreted the lack of poetic justice in King Lear as rendering Lear’s tragic heroism in vain. Yet I would argue that though the tragedy ends badly for the Lear and Cordelia, the evil figures in the play all suffer the same deathly fate thus in keeping with the classical structure of tragedy. Secondly, we as the audience can take solace in Lear’s reconciliation with Cordelia. For instance, in Shakespeare’s tragedy ‘Othello’ anagnorisis comes too late (Othello learns of Iago’s wickedness after murdering his innocent lover, Desdemona) leaving the audience aggrieved but piteous. One must also question the extent to which Lear undergoes change in the play. Many commentators have noted that Lear, at no point, takes responsibility for the cruel natures of his daughters, Gonerill and Regan, or acknowledges the folly of his actions. I agree with the notion of Lear’s incomplete transformation and would further point to his reaction to his daughter’s death. Lear is faced with the devastating aftermath of his actions and does not have Gonerill and Regan to accuse vengefully of responsibility. Yet he chooses to retreat into himself, deceiving himself over Cordelia’s death, instead of talking liability.
Overall, the extent to which King Lear fulfils the role of the tragic hero is a thorny issue. Lear is not a tragic hero with a single tragic flaw which causes his downfall. Nor is his growth a simple movement from ignorance to knowledge. When he emerges from his madness Lear may have learned a great deal, but doubts remain about the depth and legitimacy of his understanding. Yet taking this into account, I would still classify Lear as a tragic hero because of the immense sympathy the audience feels for him by the end of the play. He is infuriating in Act I Scene 1, showing ego and arrogance but becomes increasingly sympathetic as he suffers. He evokes feelings of fear and pity. His repentance seems sincere and believable so much so that come the tragic denouement, his grief becomes our grief. By then Shakespeare’s tumultuous tragedy has become a cathartic experience, for all, in which King Lear has emerged a complex but ultimately honest tragic hero.
Without Gonerill and Regan to denounce as responsible for Cordelia’s deaths, he is faced with his part in her death. Yet, he instead retreats from self examination, choosing not to accept Cordelia’s death at all. Though I believe Lear never fully changes, refusing to acknowledge his hand in the fates of his daughters, it would be overly cynical to doubt the grief and guilt Lear holds which lead to his untimely death.
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