King Lear As A Tragedy Essay, Research Paper
William Shakespeare’s play, King Lear is about power and the misuse of power, although this is not the sole theme or idea the play presents to its reader. It is a detailed analysis of the consequences of one man’s decisions. This fictitious man is Lear, King of England, whose decisions greatly alter his life and the lives of those around him, particularly those of his daughters, Regan, Goneril and Cordelia.
These four individuals: Lear, Cordelia, Goneril and Regan are to be considered the main characters in the play, as the Shakespeare may have been able to convey his messages just as clearly without other characters in the play. And in fact, in the episode the play is based upon, there was no sub-plot or “extras” and indeed Shakespeare noticed the simple themes strongly enough to want to write an entire play about it.
As Lear bears the status of King he is, as one expects, a man of great power but sinfully he surrenders all of this power to his daughters, Regan and Goneril as a reward for their demonstration of love towards him. While the only truly loving daughter, Cordelia is banished from the kingdom for not being able to exaggerate her sincere love as well as her lying sisters.
This untimely abdication of his throne results in a chain reaction of events that send him through a journey of hell. King Lear is a metaphorical description of one man’s journey through hell in order to expiate his sin.
As the play opens, one can almost immediately see that Lear begins to make mistakes that will eventually result in his downfall. The very first words he speaks in the play are:
“? Give me the map there. Know that we have divided
In three our kingdom, and ’tis our fast intent
To shake all cares and business from our age,
Conferring them on younger strengths while we
Unburdened crawl to death?”
But perhaps the greatest sin in the play is one, which the reader is given no indication of, except the ordinary. The sin is, who was the governing power which gave Lear his power in the first place?
And it is tragic how this contest for power, which in its path power is used and abused, ultimately leads to the death of the play’s namesake, King Lear himself.
Power, and perhaps more honestly the misuse of it is the primary theme in the play, many other ideas will creep into the reader’s mind as they progress through the play.
Insanity, and the toll it takes on those in contact with it, shines through the plot as a thought which Shakespeare has never portrayed so deeply. King Lear, as a human being, is quite obviously plagued throughout the play with the question of his peace of mind. In some instances, the lack of clear-thought is more obvious than in others. One which will surely spring to readers’ minds is the “mock-trial” Lear instigates with what he believes to be his daughters. He is in fact, talking to a chicken and a chair, and this is of course not an antic of a completely sane person.
Unfortunately for Lear, even his own confidence in his thinking and self-righteousness are also contributing to the image that he projects; that of an insane, perhaps immorally insane person. And what’s more, he is shown to be an insane leader, a man with power. Insanity and power are to character traits which should never be placed together.
The prospect of greed is not an uncommon one in Lear’s England. Lear’s two eldest daughters and Gloucester’s younger son are very much starved in many respects. They will do anything to eliminate this starvation, and what they are hungry for is power and its spoils. Although Edmund is more set on owning the riches that his brother is inevitably going to receive, he also realizes that he must use, gain and misuse power to get what he feels he deserves. Manipulation of his own family is hardly a daunting task for a man who is so incredibly insane with the prospect of taking what he can, in terms of power, and therefore in terms of riches.
Power begins the wrath, and in King Lear, all roads lead to power.
The greed that both Goneril and Regan show is quite extraordinary, but these women have no immediate desire for riches. They are quite aware of the spoils which will be revealed to them once they have achieved their goals of power, and as much power as they can possibly get their hands on.
Family relations also twine into the plot to show the reader yet another proposition of the characters that make up the story. The conflict between Goneril, Regan, Cordelia and Lear are shown and this is a focal point of King Lear.
Lear’s family is emotionally battered and shows symptoms of a truly dysfunctional family; constant dishonesty and deception for example. Broken promises, such as the issue of Lear’s proposed following of knights.
But to strengthen this particular theme, this is reflected in the lives of Gloucester, Edmund and Edgar, who all struggle against each other at some point, whether they are aware of it or not.
Tricked by the illegitimate son- Edmund; Gloucester- Edmund’s father, and Edgar- the elder and legitimate son are led to believe that they are being plotted against by one another, when in fact, it is Edmund doing to the sinister planning. This sort of behavior also indicates that the Earl of Gloucester’s family was not ideal by any means.
Love, and quite often the lack of it (the lack of it sometimes replaced by lust, shown by Edmund and Goneril) are another thought that Shakespeare manages to force the reader of King Lear to deal with. The vast, yet understated love shown by Cordelia at the beginning of the play towards her father, King Lear, is one of the most true in the play. Kent also displays a love for his leader, the King, and the recipient casts both these loves aside.
The love, which Edgar shows to his father by leading him after he is left blind, is also true, and understated as Cordelia’s is.
Lear finally manages to show a love at the end of the play, but it is too little, too late, as anyone will acknowledge after reading the play.
All these themes add to the placement of the play in a “tragedy category”, and it seems the Lear’s decisions and the power invested in him to have them carried out is the starting point of all the suffering and tribulation which takes place throughout the play. By dividing his throne to seemingly justify his ego he disrupts “The Great Chain of Being”, which states that the King must not challenge the position that God has, or The Gods have given him.
Through this, we can see that power and its misuse ultimately leads to heartache and tragedy for all main characters in King Lear.
The power that King Lear abuses cuts deeper that just his power as a man and a ruler. Lear also has the power, however insignificant it may seem, as a parent and a father to Goneril, Regan and Cordelia. This power is honored and respected by Cordelia, a woman who loves her father very much, but is not prepared to deceive him at any costs, even if the truth hurts him. Goneril and Regan, however, show little more than contempt for their father, and their words, while Lear still has power, at least, point exactly the opposite way.
Lear himself and his two eldest daughters have forced such turmoil on themselves, Cordelia, their servants and constituents in such a short time, it is very nearly inconceivable.
The family is indeed torn apart, Lear often becoming frustrated, and his insanity is worsening as he loses things which are so dear to him, or at least they once were.
Servants are killed during the story, and one man in particular, Kent, shows overwhelming loyalty to Lear by staying by him to gently guide his master even after he is banished and threatened with death.
No doubt the citizens of Lear’s Kingdom are suffering, as the destiny of their land is unstable throughout the play. The division and downfall of their governing family would have been traumatic for all those, which lived in Lear’s England at this time.
The one word; feeling; possession; trait; right; thought or endowment that always springs to mind while reading or watching the play King Lear is power. Or perhaps the misuse of it; lack of it; need for it; gift of it; abuse of it; love of it; need; lust; desire or manipulation of power.
The concept of power and misusing power is always present in the play King Lear, and it affects everyone involved in the plot; sometimes intimately, sometimes remotely. But the main characters, Lear, Goneril, Regan and Cordelia do secure the worst of the disease of power.
The hell which Lear travels through is unforgiving, and relentless, but he trudges on, defiant, possibly more so because of his poor state of mind. The pinnacle of this hell that is experienced by Lear in order to repent his sins takes place at the end of the play when Cordelia is killed. Lear says this before he himself dies. He cannot live without his daughter.
“Howl, howl, howl! O, you are men of stones.
Had I your tongues and eyes, I’d use them so
That heaven’s vault should crack. She’s gone forever!
I know when one is dead, and when one lives.
She’s as dead as earth. Lend me a looking glass.
If that her breath will mist or stain the stone,
Why, then she lives.”
All of this pain that Lear suffered is traced back to the single most important error that he made, the choice to give up his power. This one sin proved to have massive repercussions upon Lear and the lives of those around him, eventually killing almost who were involved. And one is left to ask one’s self if a single wrong turn can do this to Lear then what difficult corner lies ahead that may cause similar alterations in one’s own life. Especially when power is involved.
To have all these thoughts on one’s mind after reading a play, and all of these thoughts in essence leading back to the initial holding and misuse of power.
The tragedy of King Lear, which indeed qualifies as a true tragedy. Lear has endured so much pain and suffering, with his one tragic flaw, his power, preventing him to see the true faces of people.
In Shakespeare’s play, King Lear, power and the misuse of power have a tragic affect on all involved.
“And my poor fool is hanged! No, no, no life!
Why should a dog, a horse, a rat have life,
And thou no breath at all? Thou’lt come no more,
Never, never, never, never, never!”