Analysis Of The Tragedy "King Lear" By William Shakespeare

Categories: King Lear

King Lear, one of William Shakespeare’s greatest tragedies, follows a society in a series of terrible events. As with all tragedies, there exists a tragic hero which, according to Aristotle’s theory “Poetics”, is a literary character who makes a judgment error that inevitably leads to his/her own destruction. The tragic hero is the character who possesses a fatal flaw that initiates the tragedy and all the sufferings that follow. In this play, the tragic hero is assuredly, King Lear.

Kings Lear’s egotism, severity of his punishment and awareness/consciousness of his mistake are characteristics that qualify him to acquire the title of “the ultimate tragic hero”. Shakespeare conveys Lear as a tragic hero who ended up meeting his demise due to his tragic flaws.

As with all tragic heroes, Lear’s tragic fate was triggered by his lack of insight and heightened ego. Lear carries immense insecurity and egotism as he announces that he will offer the largest share of kingdom to the daughter who “doth love [him] most” (I, i, 50).

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He expects his three daughters to present him rivaling speech and declarations of love in order for him to puff up his ego more. Lear is looking for empty words and flatteries rather than true and honest affirmations of love. Goneril and Regan both proclaim in fulsome terms that they love him more than anything in the world, while Cordelia speaks from her heart in honest terms that she loves him exactly as a daughter should love her father.

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Valuing self-importance above all else, Lear is blind to the loyalty and love of Cordelia and instead, perceptive to the flattery of his two vile daughters, he banishes Cordelia out of his kingdom.

Lear’s lack of insight and blindness to realize Cordelia’s sincerity ultimately leads to his downfall. Furthermore, Lear is infuriated when Kent objects and protests to his decision of banishing Cordelia. Kent proclaims refuting the king’s decision, "Thy youngest daughter does not love thee least, / Nor are those empty-hearted whose low sounds / Reverbs no hollowness" (I, i, 152-154) Kent has insight and understands that Codelia’s words have expressed true loyalty to her father. He warns lear to see better and gain some insight. However, Lear’s huge egotism blinds and covers his sense of judgment. This fatal flaw of insecurity and egotism induces Lear to make error in his judgment, resulting in the improper division of his kingdom and the loss of his two most loyal companions - Cordelia and Kent. The consequences of Lears misjudgement error build up throughout the play, leading to Lear's ultimate tragic fall.

Lear loses his authority, family and sanity due to hiss error of judgement and his lack of insight. His punishment exceeds his error. Lear loses his authority when he misjudges his daughters. He transfers his royal authority to his two daughters, Goneril and Regan, and they deceitfully use this power against him. Goneril no longer loves him "beyond all manner" and Regan no longer is "an enemy to all other joys" as they have professed in the beginning (I, i, 60 and 72). Instead, Goneril reprimands her father for the way his servants and knights have "infected" her home (I, iv, 226). Regan follows and insists that "The old man and his people/ Cannot be well bestowed" (II, iv, 278-280). His daughters no longer even respect him. Lear has now also lost his identity as a father, since he even confesses that "[He] should be false persuaded [he] had daughters" (I, iv, 216-217).

Troubled and confused, Lear reveals his weakened sense of identity and is stripped of authority as king and lost authority as a father over his own flesh and blood. He misjuddges Cordelia, hs only true daughter and has to live with the unwholly deserved consequences. King Lear's banishment from his daughters houses, undoubtedly has tremendous psychological effect on him. The effect of Goneril and Reagan ingratitude is so profound on Lear that he looses his sense of his self and becomes insane. Kent tells us how Lear suffers on the heath: “all the power of his wits have given way to his impatience” (III, vi, 4). His children whom he gave everything have turned their back immediately on him when they got their promised land and power The theme of madness is explored deeply in Act III as King Lear is driven, to madness.

Lear’s madness is a result from the betrayal of his daughters.He has sincerely been led astray in his trust and loyalty and thus plunges into a darkness and a madness which the storm, the hovel, and the night quite literally and symbolically portray. Vividly Shakespeare portrays the transformation of man into storm and storm into man as Lear goes mad. Lear’s madness resulted from his daughters betrayal who he misjudges to be honest daughters. Lear’s tragic flaw lead to his own destruction and insanity. He lost everything including his own children. King Lear claims that he is a man “more sinned against than sinning” (III, ii, 58). This proves that Lear is a tragic hero because Aristolt explains that a “tragic hero’s misfortune is not wholly deserved and that the punishment exceeds the crime. It is true that Lear has made a mistake and misjudges his three daughters, but his punishment was unquestionably more severe as he loses his power, his daughters and his sanity all at once.

However, ironically it is through this suffering that Lear acquires ‘reason in madness’ (IV, vi, 162-163). It is through suffering that Lear is redeemed as a character. Through his physical suffering Lear experiences moral regeneration. Lear gains self-awareness and acknowledges his vulnerability.Lear’s madness changes him, as he starts to sympathize with Poor Tom, a homeless beggar in the midst of a horrid storm. Lear is in the same situation as Poot Tom, who is out in the cold rain with no home or shelter. He gains the capacity to empathise with others as he can see that the impoverished citizens of his kingdom stand no chance of survival. He realizes that he had the resources to help these people when he was in power but ignored them. He sheds his clothes and exposes himself to the elements in an attempt to identify with the most vulnerable in society (such as Poor Tom/Edgar): “Take physic pomp,/ Expose thyself to feel what wretches feel/ That thou may shake the superflux to them/ And show the heavens more just” (III, vi, 33-36).

Lear’s madness allows him tocomprehends the issue with much more wisdom and knowledge than before. Edgar Edgar is amazed by the fact that Lear is making these comments, as he is unmistakably insane. He even uses the statement ”reason in madness”, to perfectly explain the fact that Lear is proving himself to be more wise than before despite his insanity. This isn’t the only instance where Lear demonstrates improved wisdom throughout his spell of madness: Lear’s heroic status is underscored in his newly acquired humility as he acknowledges his mistreatment of Cordelia: “I did her wrong” (I, v, 21) and in his sincerity in trying to make amends. He acknowledges his foolishness and pleds for Cordelia’s forgiveness as he says, “Pray, you now, forgive and forget” (IV, vii, 84). Lear grows in humility and wisdom and ennobled by his suffering. He gains self-awareness, perceiving himself to be a “foolish fond old man” (VI, vii, 58). Lear’s anagnorisis underscores his essentially tragic status. This reveals Lear's new regained understanding of himself and his admittance to his faults, a sign of the first step towards self-awareness and insight. The tragic hero, Lear, finally realizes his tragic flaws and uses the consequences to be insightful.

Lear misjudging his chilfren due to his blindeness ultimately lead to his loss of authority, family and sanity. But, through his insanity he realizes the errors in his ways and shows more insight and growsas a father. Shakespeare converys Lear as a tragic hero who possesses all of Aristotle’s requirements of a trgic hero. “It's a tragedy, it's a classic tragedy. In a way, he's got a character flaw that is going to cause his destruction, and it's not going to come from the outside; it's going to come from the inside of him,” (Bennet Miller).

Works cited

  1. Shakespeare, W. (2003). King Lear (3rd ed.). Arden Shakespeare.
  2. Aristotle. (1961). Poetics (I. Bywater, Trans.). Clarendon Press.
  3. Felperin, H. (2019). Shakespearean Tragedy: Genre, Tradition, and Change in Antony and Cleopatra, Coriolanus, Hamlet, and King Lear. Princeton University Press.
  4. Bloom, H. (2007). King Lear (Bloom's Shakespeare Through the Ages). Infobase Publishing.
  5. Heilman, R. (1986). This Great Stage: Image and Structure in King Lear. University of Nebraska Press.
  6. Mack, M. (1965). King Lear in Our Time. University of California Press.
  7. Dollimore, J. (1984). Radical Tragedy: Religion, Ideology, and Power in the Drama of Shakespeare and His Contemporaries. Duke University Press.
  8. Bevington, D. (2009). King Lear (Bantam Classic). Bantam Classics.
  9. McEachern, C. (2015). King Lear: A Guide to the Play. Bloomsbury Arden Shakespeare.
  10. Holland, P. (2012). The Cambridge Introduction to Shakespeare's Tragedies. Cambridge University Press.
Updated: Feb 02, 2024
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Analysis Of The Tragedy "King Lear" By William Shakespeare. (2024, Feb 04). Retrieved from

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