King Lear

Models of Action and Observation in King Lear

Auden once asserted that Shakespearean tragedy is necessarily parabolic, pertaining to the only myth that Christianity possesses: that of the 'unrepentant thief'. We as the spectators are thus implicated in the action since each of us 'is in danger of re-enacting [this story] in his own way'.1 The sufferings of the hero could be our own sufferings, whereas in Greek tragedy, such a notion is precluded precisely because the misfortunes of a character can be traced back to the discontent of the gods. Hippolytus is not a moral agent; Hamlet is. The aesthetic of Shakespearean tragedy is therefore dynamic, with an audience that, to a certain extent, are also participants. Auden proposes a model of observing based upon an Aristotelian conception of drama, one that involves the spectator in an emotional relationship with the characters on stage. King Lear too, offers the audience several quite distinct paradigms of both observation and action, and crucially, it is on the varying successes of these models that the tragedy hinges.

One does not need to look far in King Lear for a figure that might fit Auden's mould. Kent surely embodies that which Schlegel termed the 'science of compassion' in the play.2 He is...

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