In many stories, the role of protagonist is to endure hardship and losses but regardless, the resolution in these stories tends to be a happy ending. However, some writers such as William Shakespeare and Arthur Miller prefer more tragic endings for their protagonists. Although the protagonists enjoy a happy life in the beginning of both King Lear and Death of a Salesman, we quickly see their uprising hardship, loss, and their inevitable destruction. Not only the destruction of their surroundings but of their civilization, their family, and most importantly of themselves.
In the beginning of the Shakespeare’s play King Lear, we see Lear as a strong and dominant ruler of the kingdom. His temper shows arrogance and that he is of strict judgment, which is first seen against Cordelia and Kent as they had both unpleased Lear by saying something he did not wish to hear. CORDELIA [ASIDE]: “What shall Cordelia do? Love, and be silent.”(Shakespeare, Act I,i, 62-63). This marks the beginning of the downfall of social order. This begins the collapse the great chain of being. Once the king surrenders the kingdom to his corrupted daughters, Goneril and Regan (whom he finds loyal), its only matter of time before social order ceases to exist. This also shows the breakdown of family as Cordelia was to marry the king of France due to her banishment set forth by Lear himself. Goneril and Regan plot the end of Lear’s kingdom by totally removing his title as king from the kingdom.
Although set hundreds of years apart, Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman, faces a similar crisis. Although initially seen as a happy family, we soon learn that Willy Loman has had as affair with another woman. We also find out through one of his constant flashbacks that his older son Biff finds out about the affair and begins to distance from his father. Willy always forced his son Biff to become a successful in life but that became impossible as Willy slowly started to go insane. As a result of the affair and Willy’s insanity, Biff decides to leave his father and Willy, now heartbroken, desires to commit suicide. And consequently, this results in the breakdown of their once happy family. Near the climax of the story, Willy also realizes that he himself is primarily at fault for Biff’s struggles in life. Due to his lack of encouragement to help improve his son’s school grades (math specifically), Biff must endure such hardships later on in life.
Willy Loman and King Lear are both very different characters in terms of status but are yet very alike as they are both perfect examples of tragedy in each play. Willy Loman, who believed himself to be a big shot, and well liked, got fired from his job where he had worked for many years and lost respect from those around him. Thus, the social order in the story begins to collapse. The loss of his job creates financial problems for Willy, making it impossible for him unable to pay off his debts. His friend Charlie offers him a job but Willy refuses because of his pride. Furthermore, his belongings, be it furniture or electronics begin to break down.
According to the common conception at the time that an item becomes useless by the time it is paid off also contributes to Willy’s stress, leading to his insanity, which tragically led to his death. Lear suffers a similar struggle as he becomes fed up with the drastic overturn in his life, that he has been betrayed and treated like dirt by his own daughters. What strikes him hardest is at the climax of the story, when Lear realizes Cordelia’s loyalty to him. In the resolution, Lear finds not her beloved daughter but only a lifeless corpse of her. Lear, heartbroken, sheds tears of sorrow and dies from that broken heart.
It’s very clear that such sufferings and unfortunate experiences create very tragic situations that can lead to the downfall of the protagonist. Both Willy Loman and King Lear made crucial errors because of their overweening pride, which lead them to their inevitable destruction. Their faults led them from one crisis to another, creating such tragic endings for them. In the end, all they were left with was pain and destruction. They caused harm to those around them, their family and most importantly, themselves.
1. King Lear
Shakespeare, William. _King Lear_
England: Hazell Watson and Viney Ltd., 1964.
2. Death of a Salesman
Miller, Arthur. _Death of a Salesman._
Toronto: Penguin Books Ltd., 1977.