To begin to answer the question ‘To What Extent Can King Lear be described as The Tragic Hero’ I must first look at what is commonly thought to constitute a ‘Tragic Hero’. Aristotle, the Greek philosopher first set the guidelines for what it takes to be a tragic hero in his book on literary theory, Poetics. He stated that the Tragic Hero should be high born, he shouldn’t be all good or all bad but have a ‘tragic flaw’, this ‘tragic flaw’ must result in his downfall and before the end of the play this downfall should result in the hero recognising his flaws and an increase his self awareness before his untimely death.
Shakespeare himself wrote four great tragedies- Macbeth, Hamlet, King Lear and Othello. For the most part Shakespeare seems to follow Aristotle’s outline of a tragic hero, but adapted them to take into consideration the social influences of his time and ideas his audience would be able to relate to. Even today’s modern tragedies carry features that Aristotle outlined all those century’s before. Again, modern playwrights and authors will bend the rules to suit the audiences of their time.
Shakespeare wrote King Lear between the end of 1605 and 1606. Although it is widely recognised that he got the basic idea of the play from the late sixteenth-century play: The True Chronicle History of King Lear, some research into the current events around the time he would have been writing reveal what may have been further sources of inspiration. Two possible events that Shakespeare and his audience would have been aware of are the cases of Sir Brian Annesley and William Allen. Annesley’s eldest daughter tried to have him declared insane so she could take control of his property. His youngest daughter managed to successfully defend him. Allen was a former mayor of London who split his estate between his three daughters, who then went on to treat him poorly (SparkNotes Editors, 2002).
Maybe Shakespeare’s original audience may have been more sympathetic toward King Lear, due to the social relevance of some of the themes covered in the play? SparkNotes Editors, (2002) suggest that ‘ Elizabethan England was an extremely hierarchical society, demanding that absolute deference be paid and respect be shown not only to the wealthy and powerful but also to parents and the elderly.’ It strikes me that the Elizabethan audience may be more sympathetic Lear’s than a modern audience simple because his actions at the beginning of the play may not have seemed so strange to them. I don’t think a parent today acting behaving the way Lear did would ever be described as a ‘hero’ in any sense of the word.
I will now begin to work through Aristotle’s characteristics of a tragic hero again and see how far King Lear fits into each one.
Is he of noble birth? We know that Lear is high born and influential, he is the King, and ruler of a vast amount of land. We must also however look at his nobility of character, his actions at the beginning of the play, giving up his position voluntarily, does not suggest a great deal of integrity. However, he does seem respected by those around him, for example Kent (1,1,139-142):’Royal Lear,
Whome I have ever honored as my king,
Loved as my father, as my master followed,
As my great patron thought on in my prayers-‘.
Kent seems to be one of the few truly good characters in the play, as the story progresses we learn he is loyal and tends to speak his mind regardless of the consequences to himself. The fact that he is so devoted to Lear suggests that Lear has in fact been a good ruler in his time.
What is Lear’s ‘tragic flaw’? Aristotle developed the term hamartia to describe the fall of a noble man due to an error in his behavior. Lear’s main flaw is his egotism, everything that happens to him stems from him wanting his daughters to publicly declare their love for him in return for a portion of his land.
‘Which of you shall we say doth love us most
That we our largest bounty may extend
Where nature doth with merit challenge?’ (1,1,50-52)
He is easily flattered by Goneril and Regans declarations, in which they claim to love their father more than anything and anyone. When it comes to Cordelia’s turn, who Lear already deems his favorite, she will say nothing more than she loves him as a daughter should love a father. Lear is outraged and banishes Cordelia.
Lear’s hubris blinds him to the fact that Goneril and Regan have just manipulated him to get what they want and have no intention of taking care of him in his retirement. Lear’s idea was that he would keep the title of king, but have none of the responsibility that goes with it:
‘Only shall we retain
The name, and all th’additions to a king.
The sway, revenue, execution of the rest.
Beloved sons, be yours:’
The actual outcome however couldn’t be more different.
Bringing us on to Lear’s downfall. Kiernan Ryan describes it as:
‘A mighty monarch, accustomed from birth to believe himself innately superior to his subjects by virtue of his royal blood, is robbed not only of his royalty but also of the roof over his head, and compelled to feel what the poor, naked wretches of his kingdom feel’ (Ryan, 2005, xxxi)
Lear’s downfall is truly of epic proportion; he goes from being the most powerful man in the country to what is essentially a homeless madman wondering the moors. Goneril and Regan conspire to completely undermine Lear and he has no power left to stop them.
It certainly begs the question, did Lear not know his daughters at all. Did his tragic flaw, his egotism, blind him to the fact he banished the one daughter who truly loved and cared for him, and left himself at the mercy of the cruel, power-hungry Goneril and Regan?
So begins Lear’s downfall. His decent into madness first begin to manifest its self in act 2, scene 4. Lear wants to see Regan and Cornwall but they are refusing, claiming to be ill and tired from traveling. Within an 18-line speech, Lear goes from angry:
‘Are they “informed” of this? My breath and blood!
“Fiery”? The “fiery” duke? Tell the hot duke that Lear-‘
We can imagine the tone the actor would use when playing this scene, the use of quotation marks and exclamation marks suggest he’s scornful, and incredulous at being disobeyed. However, his anger quickly dissipates, he cuts himself off mid sentence, saying:
And am fallen out with my more headier will
To take the indisposed and sickly fit
For the sound man’
Then he notices Kent in the Stocks again ad as quickly as he calms down he begins raging:
‘Death on my state! Wherefore
Should I sit here? This act persuades me
That this remotion of the duke and her
Is practice only.’
Throughout this speech in your mind’s eye you can imagine him pacing back and for the, gesticulating wildly, arguing with him self. A massive alteration from the man whose hubris seemed to allow him complete self-assurance.
By Act 2 Scene 4, we think Lear must be beginning to see the error of his ways, so I was very surprised by the following quote, referring to the fact that Goneril was going to let Lear keep fifty of his knights while Regan wanted to reduce the number further to 25:
‘Thy fifty yet doth double her five and twenty,
And thou art twice her love.’
He still believes that what they are prepared to give him reflects the strength of their love; Just as the audience is beginning to feel sympathy for Lear, is Shakespeare reminding us that he wouldn’t be in this position in the first place if it wasn’t for his ‘tragic flaw’.
From here, Lear’s madness deepens. ‘Lear’s mind reflects the disorder in his kingdom’ (ICS course material). His poor decisions have not only left him in a vulnerable state but also his country, which he has effectively split in two.
The state of Lear’s mind is echoed by the raging storm that permeates act 3. The external conditions give the audience an insight into the torment and chaos of Lear’s mind:
‘The tempes in my mind
Doth from my senses take all feeling else
Save what beats there-filial ingratitude.’
Nothing else matter to Lear now, he doesn’t care about the furious weather, he doesn’t care about finding shelter or keeping himself safe, his mind is all consumed with his anger at his daughters disrespect and ingratitude.
Does Lear’s punishment exceed his crime? He certainly seems to think so:
‘I am a man
More sinned against than sinning.’
In the events leading up to the end of the play, Shakespeare includes a number of devices to ensure the audience knows who the truly evil characters are compared to those, like Lear who just have their ‘tragic flaw’. One of the most harrowing and horrific scenes in the play comes in act 3, scene 7. Cornwall gouges out Gloucester’s eyes, encouraged along by Regan. It is a truly callous act and neither man nor wife shows any hesitation or remorse.
No matter what ones feeling are towards Lear’s previous actions and behavior, they must pale in comparison to this truly evil act. I think after witnessing this act the audience will never be able to see anything either of these characters does, as just again. We also see the married Goneril making advances at Edmund. Particularly to a Shakespearian audience, this would seem completely scandalous. Are these both tools that Shakespeare uses to make sure his audiences sympathies a well and truly where he wants them to be, with our ‘Tragic Hero’?
The audience see nothing of the actual battle between Cordelia and her French army, and Goneril, Regan and their British army, however by this point we are certainly on the side of Cordelia and Lear so are disappointed to hear that Goneril and Regans side prevailed and Cordelia and Lear have been captured. We had begun to notice changes in Lear, from when he was out in the storm, his only concern was not for himself but that his fool and Kent get some shelter, and he also spares a thought for:
‘Poor naked wretches, whereso’er you are,
That bide the pelting of this pitiless storm,’
For the first time he seems to be thinking of others. Further on, when he is reunited with Cordelia he seems truly remorseful for what he did to her, acknowledging the fact that despite having good reason to Cordelia didn’t do him wrong like her sisters did. The audience, are seeing Lear’s repentance and are feeling increasing pity and fear for him. Aristotle’s own words: ‘A man cannot become a hero until he can see the root of his own downfall.’ are particularly apt here. Lear sees his mistakes and what they have led too and we begin to feel that given the chance he could have become a better person.
This, however is not to be, in a final nod to the definition of a ‘tragic hero’ Lear dies. The final act also sees the demise of Cordelia, Gloucester, Goneril, Regan and Edmund. With both good and bad characters dead it is difficult to say that justice has been done, however with all main antagonists out of the picture society, at least, can return to normal.
Did Shakespeare set out with Aristotle’s blue print in mind when he created Lear? We will never know but in my opinion he does seem to fit the main characteristics Aristotle outlined. The only argument against this I can see is the fact the audience does not witness Lear’s great, admirable qualities before we are introduced to his ‘tragic flaw’. If we look at our first introduction to Macbeth, one of Shakespeare’s other ‘tragic hero’s’ for example; The audience is told of how he fought bravely for his country and we see him promoted to Thane of Cawdor before we learn about his ‘tragic flaw’. Despite this however I believe King Lear is one of the all time great tragedies and Lear himself most definitely deserves the title ‘tragic hero’.