Lear is certainly regarded as the tragic hero of King Lear. In the opening scene, we see him divide his kingdom and then banish the only daughter who really loved him, all because she would not participate in his game of love. Not only does he banish Cordelia but also his loyal servant Kent. These examples of terrible decisions convey his poor judgement which many regard as his fatal flaw (hamartia). Lear begins the play as the king and his entry on to the stage is accompanied with great pomp and ceremony. The play then follows him as he falls from this high status. The audience then see him standing outside of a hovel, having been thrown out of his daughters’ houses. This is a powerful reversal of fortune. Shakespeare further emphasises this by having Lear strip on the heath so the audience can witness the loss of his status in a physical way. Furthermore, Lear experiences an anagnorisis as he recognises the mistakes that he has made and he sees the truth about his own behaviour “They flattered me like a dog… To say ‘aye’ and ‘no’ to everything that I said!” (4.6.95–98). Some may question the tragic hero status of Lear. His failure to understand who to trust may mean some feel he cannot be regarded as a true tragic hero as his actions are too foolish.
- Why is Lear regarded as a tragic hero?
- Your answer should include: Fatal / Flaw / Fall / Anagnorisis
There are different examples of madness within the play. Lear’s actions lead him to what seems like madness. This is illustrated by him stripping on the heath and refusing for some time to find shelter. He even admits that “My wits begin to turn”. The importance of madness within the play is further shown in Lear’s cry ‘O let me not be mad, not mad, sweet heaven!’ The storm itself seems to be a mirror of Lear’s mental state. Once reunited with Cordelia Lear does speak as if he has entered the next world which would suggest his madness continues. However, there is evidence in this scene that he moves to some sanity although the proceeding events understandably lead him to see Cordelia’s breath after she has been murdered. The Fool could be regarded as another figure representing madness and indeed fools were sometimes people with mental disabilities. Often though a fool was an entertainer and thus intelligent. There is evidence of this in some of the Fool’s speeches where he makes insightful comments and shows an understanding of the mistakes Lear has made. While his words can appear strange, once analysed they are often meaningful. His song in Act I scene iv is an example of this, “That such a king should play bo-peep” as he is questioning Lear’s behaviour. Edgar has to take on the disguise of a Bedlam beggar, with the idea that he has come from a hospital for the ‘mad’. He too then is not really mad, despite appearances, and it is through his words that Gloucester to recognises his errors. Shakespeare’s exploration of madness in this play could be regarded as a way to examine what it means to be human.
- Who can be seen as mad within the play?
- Your answer should include: Lear / Fool / Edgar
Blindness is most clearly shown through the characters of Lear and Gloucester. It is Lear’s blindness to the truth behind the words his daughters express when he asks them to say how much they love him that leads to his downfall. His failure to see that Regan and Goneril are only flattering him to get their land means that he has placed his trust and his kingdom with the wrong people. Once they have this power they are quick to reject him and his rowdy knights resulting in him being homeless upon the heath. Cordelia was the daughter who loved him but he only recognises this much later. It can be argued that it is only his madness that brings him to see the truth. Kent tells him to “See better, Lear” and this is what he does. Similarly, Lear has been blind to the people in his kingdom and he has failed to see and thus take care of the poor. His fall allows him to finally see the truth in the form of Edgar disguised as the beggar and it is then that he shows kindness towards him “Come on, my boy. How dost, my boy? Art cold?” Gloucester is blinded in one of the most horrific scenes in Shakespeare’s plays. His eyes are gouged out by Cornwall for helping the King. However, it can be argued that the blindness was evident before this. He has been tricked by Edmund who suggested Edgar had plotted against him. Gloucester’s failure to see the truth about his sons resulted in Edgar fleeing. Interestingly it is after the physical blinding that Gloucester can see the mistakes that he has made and he even states “I stumbled when I saw”.
Both Lear and Gloucester are old men and their age does seem to be an important aspect of the play. In the opening scene Lear is giving up his kingdom so that he can “crawl unburdened toward death” immediately suggesting that Lear feels he wants to stop ruling because of his age. This could be viewed as foolish as it is this decision that leads to his downfall. There are other mentions of age such as when Lear refers to himself as “I am a very foolish fond old man”. It is also the abuse of these old men that creates the shock among the audience. Both Goneril and Regan criticise Lear because of his age “O, sir, you are old […] You should be ruled and led” and in the torture of Gloucester Regan takes pleasure in plucking his white beard.
Lear refers to himself as foolish and this description does seem to be applicable considering his actions of the opening scene in his game of love and indeed the very act of giving up his throne. His move into madness also presents him as foolish. He refuses to shelter despite the storm and he undresses. However, it is at this point that he shows empathy for Poor Tom. Similarly, the Fool can certainly be regarded as foolish but he also shows insight about the events and guides Lear. The play could certainly seem to be asking what it means to appear wise and actually be foolish or to appear foolish and actually be wise.
- Who is a foolish within the play and why could you regard them as such?
- Your answer should include: Lear / Poor / Tom / Fool