King Lear - Analyzing a Tragic Hero


Tragedy is defined in Websters New Collegiate Dictionary as: 
1) a medieval narrative poem or tale typically describing the downfall 
of a great man, 2) a serious drama typically describing a conflict 
between the protagonist and a superior force (as destiny) and having a 
sorrowful or disastrous conclusion that excites pity or terror. The 
play of King Lear is one of William Shakespears great tragic pieces, 
it is not only seen as a tragedy in itself, but also a play that 
includes two tragic heroes and four villains. I felt that a tragic 
hero must not be all good or all bad, but just by misfortune he is 
deprived of something very valuable to him by error of judgment. 
 We must be able to identify ourselves with the tragic hero if 
he is to inspire fear, for we must feel that what happens to him could 
happen to us. If Lear was completely evil, we would not be fearful of 
what happens to him: he would merely be repulsive. But Lear does 
inspire fear because, like us, he is not completely upright, nor is 
he completely wicked. He is foolish and arrogant, it is true, but 
later he is also humble and compassionate. He is wrathful, but at 
times, patient. Because of his good qualities, we experience pity for 
him and feel that he does not deserve the severity of his punishment. 
 His actions are not occasioned by any corruption or depravity in him, 
but by an error in judgment, which, however, does arise from a defect 
of character. Lear has a "tragic flaw" - egotism. It is his egotism 
in the first scene that causes him to make his error in judgment - the 
division of his kingdom and the loss of Cordelia. Throughout the rest 
of the play, the consequences of this error slowly and steadfastly 
increase until Lear is destroyed. There must be a change in the life 
of the tragic hero; he must past from happiness to misery. Lear, as 
seen in Act I, has everything a man should want - wealth, power, 
peace, and a state of well-being. Because a tragic character must 
pass from happiness to misery, he must be seen at the beginning of 
the play as a happy man, surrounded by good fortune. Then, the 
disasters that befall him will be unexpected and will be in direct 
contrast to his previous state.
 In King Lear the two tragic characters, a king and an earl, 
are not ordinary men. To have a man who is conspicuous endure 
suffering brought about because of his own error is striking. The 
fear aroused for this man is of great importance because of his 
exalted position. His fall is awesome and overwhelming. When 
tragedy, as in Lear, happens to two such men, the effect is even 
greater. To intensify the tragedy of King Lear, Shakespeare has not 
one but two tragic characters and four villains. As we have seen, the 
sub-plot - concerning Gloucester, Edmund, and Edgar - augments the 
main plot. Gloucester undergoes physical and mental torment because 
he makes the same mistake that Lear does. Like Lear, Gloucester is 
neither completely good nor completely bad. There is, for instance, a 
coarseness in the earl, who delights in speaking of his adultery. But 
he has good qualities as well. He shows, for instance, concern for 
Kent in the stocks, and he risks his life to help Lear. Gloucester's 
punishment, his blindness, parallel's Lear's madness. These two 
tragic stories unfolding at the same time give the play a great 
 The important element in tragedy is action, not character. It 
is the deeds of men that bring about their destruction. Lear calls 
upon the "great gods," Edgar and Kent blame Fortune, and Gloucester 
says that the gods "kill us for their sport" (IV.i.37). But in 
reality the calamities that befall both Lear and Gloucester occur 
because of the actions of these men. Their actions, it is true, grow 
out of their characters: both are rash, unsuspecting, and vengeful. 
But the actions themselves are the beginnings of their agony, for 
these actions start a chain of events that lead to ultimate 
 A tragic hero gains insight through suffering. Neither Lear 
nor Gloucester realizes he has committed an error until he has 
suffered. Lear's suffering is so intense that it drives him mad; it 
is on the desolate health that he fully realizes his mistake in giving 
the kingdom to his two savage daughters and disowning the one daughter 
who loves him. It is not until Gloucester has been blinded that he 
learns the truth about his two sons. These two characters learn to 
endure their suffering. When Gloucester's attempt to commit suicide 
fails, he decides to bear his affliction until the end. In his 
madness Lear learns to endure his agony. Later, when he knows he 
is to be imprisoned, he maintains this misfortune with a passive 
calmness. He has grown piritually through painfully achieved 
self-knowledge and through Cordelia's love. Tragedy in King Lear is 
not only seen through itself but, also through the character of the 
King and other characters. The Play of King Lear is a great tragic 
play that many tragedies try to compare to. 


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