Shakespeare’s play King Lear documents the life a man who experiences a dramatic shift in worldview. The main character, King Lear, begins the play as a self-centered, proud, and materialistic man who cares less about his family than his reputation. By the end of the story, Lear is a humbled man who cares for his family more than his previously precious power. Lear’s strife broke him down until he was finally able to let go of his old perceptions and adopt a better outlook on life. Shakespeare chronicles Lear’s change from selfish to caring throughout the course of the story, and shows how the hardest of times can actually bring out the best in a person.
Lear’s old worldview places more importance on superficial, material things than on sincere and important values. At the beginning of the play, Lear was very concerned with maintaining his vast wealth, status, and power. When Lear was dividing up his kingdom among his three daughters, he gave the most land to the daughters who flattered him the most. Lear welcomed the flattery because it made him feel like a strong and powerful king. When Lear’s eldest daughters, Goneril and Regan, flattered him the most, Lear split the kingdom between them because they made him feel powerful. Lear completely disregarded and actually disowned his youngest daughter Cordelia because she refused to falsely over-flatter the king.
Cordelia was just being honest in her modest praises of the king, but Lear wanted to hear more about how great of a ruler he was. So, when Cordelia didn’t make Lear feel big enough, he undermined even his so-called “strong” family values and disowned his favorite child. At this point in the play, Lear didn’t have a strong grasp on the important things in life, like genuine relationships or truthfulness and loyalty. King Lear tells Cordelia’s prospective husband to “…leave her, sir; for, by the power that made me, I tell you all her wealth” (1.1.207) Lear means that Cordelia is not worth anything anymore because she has inherited no land in the kingdom. This goes to show how much importance Lear places on material possessions, because he calls his daughter worthless when she owns no land.
King Lear’s humbled worldview at the end of the play is miles different than from the materialistic worldview he abided by before. Throughout the course of play, Lear’s troubles taught him to value people more than physical things. Lear ended up losing all of his land, money and power- the three things that were most important to him at the start of the story. Lear was left with nothing that made him the man his old ideals told him to be, so he had to shift his values to fit his new predicament. This shocking change forced Lear to humble himself and focus on the lasting things in life, namely relationships. As the play unfolded, Lear felt more and more remorse for disowning Cordelia, because he realized how important family really was. Lear said of his regret, “I am a very foolish fond old man” (4.7.24).
He came to realize his prior choice to place more importance on false flattery than strong family ties was a sad mistake. In an attempt to right his past wrongs, Lear changed his philosophy to one that cared more about maintaining strong relationships than an impressive reputation. This new philosophy was one that cared more about Cordelia than Goneril, Regan, and their ensemble, because Cordelia was a genuine and honest girl. The new philosophy explains why King Lear spent so much time at the end of his life apologizing to Cordelia and trying to spend time with her. Lear knew that Cordelia was the most virtuous woman in his life, so he sought to deepen his relationship with her. This new philosophy made Lear a loyal, honest, and humbled man- very different than the Lear in the beginning of the play. Lear’s new philosophy benefitted him by making him a more moral person, and it benefittied those around him because everyone got to interact with a much more pleasant Lear.
Shakespeare intentionally wrote King Lear’s change from the old philosophy to the new philosophy to teach the reader a lesson about human nature. Lear was extremely proud at the beginning of the play, and the burning fire of his hubris was fueled by the gasoline of his wealth, power, and status in the kingdom. Not until Lear was robbed of all of his physical possessions and meaningless status did he start to care about more important things. Lear hit rock bottom as he wandered through the woods without love, land, money, power, or trust. Only when his material belongings failed him did Lear think to look for solace in wholesome ideals such as love, family closeness, and honesty.
These things made up the new philosophy that Shakespeare revealed in King Lear by the end of the play. The adoption of this new worldview somewhat redeemed the King’s unforgivable actions taken at the beginning of the play, and made him a more lovable and virtuous man. Shakespeare obviously favored the new Lear over the old, selfish Lear; this is a comment on human nature in general. Proud and superficial people have to experience hard times in order to experience the cathartic cleansing that allows them to refocus their priorities in life. Lear went through just such an experience, and he became a better man because of it.
King Lear is a character that many readers of Shakespeare can relate too. Lear had his priorities in life very confused. At first, he valued things that weren’t important, such as land, money, and power. When Lear was robbed of these things, he realized just how unreliable it is to place so much importance on physical items that can easily be taken away. What really matters in life are relationships, honesty, love, and morals. Lear learned this after he lost everything. He realized that he could be happy even without anything physical to comfort him, because many times the most important things in life can’t be seen. This new philosophy of Lear’s carried his through the hard times he experienced in the play and allowed him to die happier than he would’ve had he still followed the old philosophy. Lear’s shift in perspectives is an example that Shakespeare encourages everyone to follow in order to live the most genuine and satisfying life possible.
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