Comparison Of Macbeth and King Lear

Through William Shakespeare's plays, 'King Lear' and 'Macbeth' one can see how individual are lust for power, may cause them to go against nature, and ultimately cause their own death. King Lear and Macbeth are two of Shakespeare’s most famous tragedies. They were written and performed at critical moments in England’s history, and both relate to the monarchy in ways that attempt to educate and forewarn the monarchs of proper ruling over the land. In these plays, Shakespeare utilizes a new type of character known as a malcontent figure.

In King Lear, the malcontent figure is Edmund. This is easily seen based on his actions in the second scene of the first act when he forges a letter from his legitimate brother Edgar that causes their father to fear Edgar. As a bastard son, Edmund is entitled to very little compared to the inheritance Edgar will receive, and this displeases Edmund. So he has no qualms over tricking his gullible father and forcing Edgar to flee.

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Edmund is clearly an antagonistic character, and he does not have any ethical issues against toying with his father and brother. Similarly, Goneril and Regan have some characteristics of a malcontent figure as they take advantage of their father to get more power.

Contrastingly, the malcontent character in Macbeth is Macbeth, who plays the role of a protagonist. He is described by the Captain as “Disdaining Fortune, with his brandished steel,/ … Like Valour’s minion, carved out his passage,/ Till he faced the slave.

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” Macbeth is introduced as a character that is selfless and noble. He becomes a malcontent figure when he plots to kill Duncan to ascend to the throne, influenced by the prophecy spoken by the witches. In this way, it can be said that a malcontent figure applies to any type of character.

Edmund holds little power because, though he is a prince of Gloucester, he is born out of wedlock. He does not accept this, but rather chooses “Nature … to thy law/ My services are bound.”  He follows a mindset that would say survival of the fittest, throwing everything into disorder. Similarly, Macbeth chooses to advance to a higher status in the monarchy by leaping over the next step of waiting for Duncan to pass down the role. Tragedy follows as Macbeth goes on a killing spree fueled by his tyrannical paranoia. He even seeks out the witches for another prophecy, when it was the witches’ first prophecy that started this all. It begs the question: what would’ve happened if Macbeth had not heard the witches’ prophecy? Would he still have the ambition to go for kingship? If he never knew he would be king someday, might he have waited until the role was legally passed to him?

Shakespeare draws tragic parallels between Macbeth and King Lear’s eventual tale spins into madness. In both plays female deception is present. In King Lear we have the king’s daughter Regan and Goneril who deceptively lie to their father confessing their love to strip him of his wealth, causing him to leave society and become one with nature. Lady Macbeth seems fair but reveals her manipulation when she pushes her husband to murder the king. Lady Macbeth questions his masculinity until she convinces him to go along with her plan. Lady Macbeth uses her tongue to make Macbeth feel less manly stating he is, “too full of the milk of human kindness.

Another similarity is in the form of characters. I found a striking correlation between the Fool in King Lear and the witches in Macbeth. These characters demonstrate intuition and wisdom to influential characters. Unfortunately, their insights are ignored in both plays. In Macbeth the witches call Banquo “lesser than Macbeth, and greater,” and “not so happy, yet much happier”; then they tell him that he will never be king but that his children will sit upon the throne ”. If the witches were presented differently do you think the characters would have listened to them? In King Lear, the Fool tries to warn the king about banishing Cordelia, which the king eventually learns was his biggest mistake. Both the witches and the Fool change their speech throughout the play demonstrating rhyme or lyrical passages. “And the very ports they blow, All the quarters that they know..I’ll drain him dry as hay. Sleep shall neither night nor day.”

Even after they gain more power, their ambitious hunger is not satisfied. In both King Lear and Macbeth, the malcontent characters continue to feed their ambitions until their death by slaying. 

Works cited

  1. Shakespeare, W. (1997). King Lear. In B. A. Mowat & P. Werstine (Eds.), Folger Shakespeare Library edition (2nd ed.). Simon & Schuster.
  2. Shakespeare, W. (2011). Macbeth. In B. A. Mowat & P. Werstine (Eds.), Folger Shakespeare Library edition (2nd ed.). Simon & Schuster.
  3. Adelman, J. (1986). Birth and Death in ‘Macbeth’. Shakespeare Quarterly, 37(4), 383-391.
  4. Bevington, D. (2005). King Lear. In P. H. Greenfield (Ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Shakespeare's Tragedies (pp. 133-152). Cambridge University Press.
  5. Greenblatt, S. (2012). Shakespeare's Freedom. University of Chicago Press.
  6. Howard, J. E. (2002). The Authority of Interpretive Communities. Routledge.
  7. Kastan, D. S. (2009). Shakespeare and the Book. Cambridge University Press.
  8. Kinney, A. F. (2014). The Oxford Handbook of Shakespeare. Oxford University Press.
  9. Orgel, S. (2008). Shakespeare's History Plays. In S. Wells (Ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Shakespeare on Stage (pp. 118-137). Cambridge University Press.
  10. Weimann, R. (1996). Shakespeare and the Power of Performance. Cambridge University Press.
Updated: Feb 02, 2024
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