Development of Lear´s Character in Shakespeare´s Tragedy 'King Lear'

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2011

15 Pages, Grade: 1,3


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Foolishness and Weakness of the Old King.

3. Oncoming Insanity

4. Suffering of Lear

5. Lear´s Self-Revelation

6. Conclusion

7. Bibliography

1. Introduction

The tragedy of King Lear, written by William Shakespeare in the seventeenth century, comprises a lot of informative topics that are still relevant today. For example, Foakes is fascinated by the diversity of the play’s themes saying, “[i]t is unsparing in its depiction of human cruelty and misery, but also rich in its portrayals of goodness, devotion, loyalty and self-sacrifice” (1). He adds that “…its language and its imagery, have encountered many to see the play in terms of universal values, as a kind of objective correlative for the spiritual journey through [the] life of [the] suffering Man” (Foakes 1997, 1). Foakes is insisting that the main plot and the sub-plot of the tragic heroes, known as Lear and Gloucester, are worth considering because both comprise many tragic events. First of all, the main plot for the character, Lear, should be regarded because it seems to be more tragic and complex. Reading the tragedy, it becomes obvious that Lear, throughout the play, undergoes a gradual development of his identity. The way he experiences this change is important to follow, because it gives the readers a better insight into his changing personality.

First, Lear´s true identity will be represented in this paper through the abdication scene and banishment of Cordelia: “[t]he proud and egotistical king of the first scene, who cannot tell the difference between love and flattery…” (Green 1992, 171) unfairly divides his kingdom between his three daughters. Secondly, Lear´s wandering in search of self will be shown after being dishonoured by his ungrateful daughters in the storm scene. After losing his power, his daughters, and his house, Lear begins to lose his mind, and in trying to find the reason of his suffering becomes mad. Finally, Lear´s ripeness will be introduced after his meeting with Gloucester and reconciliation with Cordelia. Now Lear gets a new insight into himself, finds an answer to his madness, repents, and reveals himself to his banished daughter. So, this paper will show that insensible Lear, who values his authority above all, learns to understand the true feelings and to be human only after going through the grievous journey from the loss of his status as king, through his sufferings, to self-knowledge and self-revelation. A more precise understanding of these subjects will be introduced in the next pages.

2. Foolishness and Weakness of the Old King

The story of King Lear begins with the old king who aims to reward his daughters with his property and land. In the opening scene Lear gives the audience the impression of being a powerful and strong person. Foakes agrees with Lear´s convincing performance on the stage, saying that he “…behaves as the very embodiment of regal authority…” (50). He adds that Lear “…is to conduct state business, in a formal ceremony publishing the division of the kingdom, and determining a husband for his youngest daughter” (Foakes 1997, 13). When Lear gives an order to bring him the map and marks off his realm, he indicates once more that he has a grand power and evidently is proud of himself and his majesty:

Meantime we shall express our darker purpose.

Give me the map there. Know that we have divided

In three our kingdom … (1.1.35-7)

However, in the first scene Lear already shows his lack of wisdom. As Foakes points out, “[i]n marking out divisions on a map…Lear symbolically gives away his power and the revenues generated by his ownership of land” (17). Even the Fool emphasizes Lear´s irrational decision, hinting on his folly: ´Thou should not have been old till thou hadst been wise´ (1.5.41-2). It is clear for him “…that Lear´s retirement and his generosity in dividing the kingdom are in themselves foolish decisions” (Foakes 1997, 58-9). This is what Lear´s attendant tries to make Lear aware of from the very beginning, but Lear does not want to take this awareness into consideration. Then, by doing this, Lear causes the whole tragedy of his life.

Moreover, the love test reveals that Lear is not as powerful as it was initially supposed. The way Lear questions his daughters is inappropriate and reckless. His enquiry about the fondness of his children for him -`[w]hich of you shall we say doth love us most´ (1.1.51) - shows that Lear is worried about the appearance of love, but not about its substance. He desires his daughters to respond according to his will; and thus, prefers the flattering of Goneril and Regan, who fulfil Lear´s desire, to the sincerity of his most beloved daughter, Cordelia, who tries to show her true feelings for her father. Hence, Lear´s decision reveals his “…psychological weakness – a reprehensible craving for flattery…” (Greene 1992, 152). Then, he rejects Cordelia with the words:

Here I disclaim all my paternal care,

Propinquity and property of blood,

And as a stranger to my heart and me,

Hold thee from this for ever. (1.1.114-7)


Excerpt out of 15 pages


Development of Lear´s Character in Shakespeare´s Tragedy 'King Lear'
Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz
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development, lear´s, character, shakespeare´s, tragedy, king, lear
Quote paper
Alina Müller (Author), 2011, Development of Lear´s Character in Shakespeare´s Tragedy 'King Lear', Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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