King Lear is a brutal play, filled with human cruelty and awful, meaningless disasters. Like many of Shakespeare’s plays it involves a tragic hero, as well as King Lear, Macbeth, Hamlet and Othello all contain a tragic hero within their story lines.
King Lear’s basic flaw at the beginning of the play is that he values appearance over reality. He wants to be treated like a king but he doesn’t want to fulfill a kings obligations. His “love tests”, which he asks his three daughters to participate in, demonstrate that he values a flattering public display of love over real love. He doesn’t ask “which of you doth love us most?” but instead he asks “which of you shall we say doth love us most?”
Lear’s scheming older daughters, Goneril and Regan respond to his test with flattery, telling him that they love him more than anything else, but Cordelia, Lear’s youngest and favourite daughter, refuses to speak. When told to speak, she says that she cannot “heave her heart into her mouth”. In response, Lear flies into a rage, disowns Cordelia, and divides her share of the kingdom between her two sisters.
Throughout the play there is a parallel between the main storyline and the subplot. The subplot in King Lear is about The Earl of Gloucester his illegitimate son Edmund and his legitimate son Edgar. Edmund plots to betray his half-brother Edgar and take his inheritance. By means of a forged letter and a fake attack he convinces Gloucester that Edgar intends to murder him. Gloucester makes Edmund his heir; Edgar flees and disguises himself as a wandering madman. This mirrors Lear’s rejection of Cordelia. As a reflection of Lear, Gloucester is the central figure in the sub-plot. He falls prey to Edmund’s lies and manipulation and although well meaning, he is a morally weak man.
Shakespeare’s work was greatly influenced by the Greek philosopher Aristotle. Aristotle claimed that there was six points that could define a tragic hero.
The tragic hero is a man who is characterized by good and evil. King Lear’s character often exhibits evil towards other characters in the play. At the start of the play, Lear’s judgement is consistently faulty, not only in the division of the kingdom, but also in his understanding of other characters’ motives. His treatment of Cordelia in Act1 scene1; “Here I disclaim all my parental care, Propinquity and property of blood” Lear disowns his most loved daughter, Cordelia, when she refuses to copy her sisters in their exaggerated declarations of love for him. It is clear that the love, which Cordelia has for her father, is very true, unlike her two sisters. Cordelia is already Lear’s favourite daughter at the beginning of the play so presumably he knows that she loves him the most. He treats Kent appallingly in Act 1 scene 1, Kent recognizes that Lear is wrong in disowning Cordelia, “I’ll tell thee thou dost evil”. Lear banishes Kent for speaking up for Cordelia. There are many incidents throughout the play, which show his evil and cruelty, he insults Goneril and Regan terribly in Act 2 scene 4,
“Or rather a disease that’s in my flesh. Which I must needs call mine: thou art a boil, a plague-sore, or embossed carbuncle.”
Lear does show goodness as well as evil in the play in Act 4 scene 7 Lear repents, “I am a very foolish fond old man.” In Act 5 scene 259 Lear admits that he has killed the slave who murdered Cordelia, “I killed the slave that was a-hanging thee”. While far from being completely transformed, Lear dies redeemed and forgiven. Aristotle states that a tragic hero is characterized by good and evil, this is definitely true for King Lear.
In Aristotle’s definition of a tragic hero he states that the tragic hero has a fatal flaw, or harmatia, that is the cause of their downfall. King Lear’s fatal flaw is that he is proud; he wants and expects everyone to publicly worship him. He expects everyone, even his own grown up children to obey him everything including a display of flattery so that he can decide on a whim which of them is to receive his kingdom. He rejects Cordelia as she will not publicly express her love for him, however after the kingdom is divided between Goneril and Regan, he realizes they want nothing more to do with him. Lear loses his authority and respect, the two things, which he needs, he requires people to flatter him and to constantly show him the respect, which he feels he is entitled to. By being so proud and expecting everyone to obey him Lear loses his mind when he loses his authority and respect, so King Lear does indeed have a fatal flaw which, is the cause of his downfall.
The tragic hero must have a hubris surrounding him. Lear certainly does have people surrounding him who bring about his downfall. Although Goneril and Regan both declared their love for their father it becomes obvious that they only want his land and his power. In Act 1 scene 3 we see Goneril deliberately ordering Oswald to behave in a way, which she knows will provoke Lear’s anger, by creating arguments with her father, Goneril is a key element in her fathers’ breakdown. In Act 1 scene 4 Goneril tells Lear that he must reduce the number of knights, which he keeps, by asking this of Lear it is reducing his power and authority as well as the number of knights, which he has. After being told by both Regan and Goneril to dismiss his soldiers, Lear leaves in a fury into a violent storm on the heath. The storm marks the height of Lear’s rage. In the play it becomes clear that Goneril is the leading activist in the humiliation of Lear, it is she that begins the argument about how many of Lear’s knights he really needs and it is this which leads to his fleeing into the storm and into madness.
The tragic hero almost always goes on a journey. In the play Lear does go on a literal physical journey, however he also undertakes a moral journey. From Act 3 onwards Lear journeys through the storm and the heath, towards Dover. Throughout the first part of the play we continually see Lear in a terrible rage, this builds up in the storm which most of the action of the play revolved. The first half of the play leads up to it and the second half deals with the effects it has had on Lear. It is on the heath, before being persuaded into the hovel, Lear has three great speeches which all seem to be challenging the storm, they are not very long, however they are extremely powerful, full of emotion and show the crazed side to Lear.
Later in the play, the doctor states that only when Lear’s rage has gone away will he be able to recover, however by that time his rage will have caused him permanent damage. After his madness passes he begins to see the world as it really is and less the way which he imagined it was; he sees Regan and Goneril for what they really are, he realises that Cordelia really does love him, he is more understanding towards other people, he tells the Fool and Kent to seek shelter ahead of him from the storm, this is unusual behaviour for any King. This behaviour marks the beginning of Lear’s journey of self-awareness, as opposed to his usual self-pity. By under going his physical journey into the storm he does not realize that it is literally a journey into self-discovery.
The tragic hero is someone people can relate to. Shakespeare created characters that his audience would be able to easily relate to, he did this by giving them realistic human traits; he did not make them perfect. Throughout the action of the play Lear continually exhibits realistic human characteristics. He makes many foolish mistakes, at the beginning of the play he is extremely blind to the truth, he can not see that it is Cordelia who loves him most and not Goneril and Regan, however we know that Cordelia is his favourite daughter at the beginning of the play so presumably he knows she loves him the most. Nevertheless, Lear values Goneril and Regans flattery. As the play develops it becomes clear that Lear develops as a character, he learns from his mistakes and therefore becomes a better and more insightful human being. However in some ways he does not, he never completely recovers from his insanity and emerge as a better King, but his values do change through the course of the play, he realises his weakness and insignificance in comparison to the natural world, this makes his him a much more humble and caring person.
The tragic hero always falls in the end. Like almost all of Shakespeare’s plays King Lear ends in tragedy for everyone.