Tragedy is defined in Webster? s New Collegiate Dictionary as 1) a medieval narrative poem or tale typically describing the downfall of a great man or 2) a serious drama typically describing a conflict between the protagonist and a superior force, such as destiny, and having a sorrowful or disastrous conclusion that excites pity or terror. The play of King Lear is one of William Shakespeare? s 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.
In the tragedy of King Lear the tragic hero must not be all good or all bad, error of judgement deprives the hero, the use of two tragic characters intensifies the tragedy, the tragedy begins not by character but by action and through their suffering the tragic heroes gain insights. 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, which is egotism.
It is his egotism in the first scene that causes him to make his error in judgment of dividing his kingdom and losing 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 pass 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, 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 eminence. 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 catastrophe. 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 in this 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 spiritually 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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