King Lear

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Lear's wrong judgement and punishment and his repentance.

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Lear Title character of King Lear, an ancient king of Britain. Lear rejects Cordelia, his only honest daughter, when he mistakes her frankness for a lack of affection. He is then rejected by his other two daughters Regan and Goneril, to whom he has granted his kingdom, and finds himself wandering in the wilderness outcast and insane. His prideful wrath has blinded him to the difference between good and evil, but before the play's end he recovers his sanity in part, although too late to prevent the tragedy of Cordelia's death However, in the course of his trials he does come to recognize his failings, which constitutes the play's most important lesson.

Lear's descent into madness, the central event of the play, illustrates the extent to which humanity can be degraded by its errors. Lear is both victim and perpetrator, for his own egocentricity has sparked the events that lead to his collapse; his ensuing suffering is a result of his inadequacy as a human being Thus his story presents to us a powerful demonstration of humanity's frailty, and the consequent potential for tragedy in life.

Our horror at Lear's tale is alleviated somewhat by his partial recognition and acceptance of his failings Lear s trials have been variously interpreted They may be seen as comparable to God's punishment for sins; his recognition of his fault is followed by reconciliation with Cordelia, which is suggestive of God's forgiveness following a sinner's repentance. That the relief is accompanied by death suggests the importance of the Christian afterlife and its eternal mercy but this promise is lacking in Lear's pagan world. In a non-religious interpretation, Lear's endurance is heroic in itself, and his triumph lies in his acceptance of his errors before he dies. These two interpretations are not, of course, mutually exclusive: Lear is heroic in both senses. Also, most commentators agree that Lear's suffering is finally redemptive, in that it leads to heightened consciousness on his part. Further, Lear's last words seem to indicate (though the question is disputed) that he dies believing that Cordelia is alive which implies a happy resolution in death akin to that of Gloucester, whose heart 'Burst smilingly' (5.3. 198), and whose sufferings conspicuously parallel Lear's.

In the course of his wanderings, both physical and mental, the distracted Lear is able to understand his folly. He first recognizes a general lack in his conduct as a ruler. Raving madly in the storm, Lear suddenly realises that he had been previously unaware of hunger and homelessness, and he sees that the knowledge would have been valuable to him as king. He tells himself 'Expose thyself to feel what wretches feel, /That thou mayst shake the superflux to them, / And show the Heavens more just' (3.4.34-36).

Lear comes to a more personal acknowledgement of fault, though his progress is fitful. At first, his guilt takes an unhealthy, morbid form, as he castigates himself for having fathered his daughters, seeing the fault in the sexual process rather than in his egotistical demands. While still on the stormy moor, he declares his torment to be 'Judicious punishment! 'twas this flesh begot / Those pelican daughters' (3.4.73-74). He elaborates on these sentiments when he equates female sexuality with the torments of hell, in 4.6.117-128. Lear's attitude towards sex—also displayed by Edgar—is evidence of the unhealthy mental and moral state of the play's world.

However, before his lowest point, Lear learns of Cordelia's faithfulness and realises the wrong he has done her. As Kent reports, 'burning shame' (4.3.46) drives him from her camp. While wandering in the fields nearby, he encounters the blinded Gloucester and, stirred by the sight of another sufferer, acknowledges his own weakness—'they told me I was every thing', he says of his former courtly flatterers, adding sardonically,' 'tis a lie, I am not ague-proof (4.6.104-105). Later, as part of his remarks on patience, he declares the weakness of all humanity, firmly including himself. He is raving, but the tone of his lament is clear enough; the arrogance that informed his earlier vow of revenge is entirely gone. Finally, in Cordelia's presence, he declares himself'a very foolish fond old man' (4.7.60) and admits that he has wronged her. He asks her to 'forget and forgive' (4.7.84), and later, as father and daughter are taken to prison, he is pleased at the prospect of perpetual atonement: 'I'll kneel down, /And ask of thee forgiveness: so we'll live . . .' (5.3.10-11).

Still, his insight is at best flawed. That a catastrophe and such a great degree of unhappiness has been necessary to elicit in Lear the acknowledgement of his faults and the existence of human ingratitude has been held against him by many readers. Shakespeare accepted no simple views on the complexities of life, and Lear is distinctly not a perfectly reformed man. Strikingly, no trace of guilt is found in his grief over Cordelia's death, and his enthusiasm for imprisonment with her is disturbingly egocentric in his lack of any sense other life, as was his original demand for love, in 1.1. This point has been central to much recent feminist criticism of the play. However, Cordelia acquiesces and so do most audiences; the play's emphasis on forgiveness and redemption seems clear, and in this light, Lear's residual defects are perhaps best viewed as evidence of Shakespeare's honesty about human frailty. Finally, King Lear is a play that raises more questions than it answers, and the extent to which Lear's tragedy is illuminating to him—as opposed to us, for its potential for illumination is unquestionably clear—remains for us to contemplate. Shakespeare doubtless believed that there was a historical king of Britain named Lear, as is recorded in his sources, but he is in fact a mythical figure. The name derives from a Celtic god of the sea, Llyr. The legendary king is reported to have founded the town of Leicester, whose name is related to his own (Lear 4 castrum, Latin for 'camp').