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ISSN: 0974-892X


July, 2022



King Lear – Tragedy of a King

Dr. Pradeep Kumar Chaswal, Assistant Professor, Dept. of English, Netaji Subhas University of Technology (East Campus), Geeta Colony, Delhi

Dr. Deepak Chaswal,  Assistant Professor, Dept. of English, Avvaiyar Govt. College for Women, Karaikal, Puducherry (UT)



In King Lear, Shakespeare depicts the tragedy of an old king whose herculean endeavour to maintain the dignity and grandeur of the title and authority of a king and pomp and show and all paraphernalia of royalty, meets a tragic failure and compels us to empathise with his tragic fate. First and foremost, we have to keep in mind that in King Lear, it is the king who dominates and guides the action of the play. Just as a king expects of his subjects total and complete allegiance and reverence to his authority, Lear, the king, also expects the same from his daughters. His daughters are also his subjects. However, he also expects his daughters to express their love for him profusely and uniquely. Fall of the king from the height of glorious pedestal of kingly grandeur and grace evokes the emotions of pity and horror and justifies King Lear as a piece of unique tragedy in the annals of tragic drama.

Key words: herculean, empathise, daughters, pedestal, authority.

Among the four prominent tragedies penned by Shakespeare, we may safely treat King Lear as a unique attempt in the sense that this play is the tragedy of a king, whereas the remaining three tragedies depict the tragedies of persons of elite class – in Hamlet, it is a prince, in Macbeth, it is a brave Scottish general, and in Othello, it is Moorish general in the Venetian army – minus the title of a king. Further, it may also be argued that the protagonist in King Lear is more than eighty years old in age, whereas protagonists in Hamlet, Macbeth and Othello represent youth.

It is also quite interesting to point out that in King Lear, Lear’s old age and his title of the king intensify the impact of tragedy. Even if we consider that emotion of anger in Lear plays dominant role in the course of the play, but we cannot ignore the fact that he is “More sinn’d against than sinning” (Lr. 3.2.55) and is “bound / Upon a wheel of fire” (Lr. 4.7.46-47) to bleed.

From the beginning to the end of the play, Lear in King Lear behaves like a king. Shakespeare gave the title King Lear to the play. He did not give the title Father Lear or simply Lear.

In King Lear, Shakespeare depicts the tragedy of an old king whose herculean endeavour to maintain the dignity and grandeur of the title and authority of a king and pomp and show and all paraphernalia of royalty, meets a tragic failure and compels us to empathise with his tragic fate. In Aristotelian sense, his error of judgement lies in renouncing the whole of his territory and its revenues in favour of his daughters, and failing to realise that the title of a king involves the control over territory and revenues of a state, and minus territory and revenues, the title of a king carries no meaning and authority like we see in King Lear.

Despite renouncing his territory and revenues, Lear in King Lear endeavours to protect and assert the authority and title of a king, and barring a few unkingly emotional outbursts, never falters or shows signs of weakness in maintaining the dignity and demeanour of a king.

It is in the capacity of a king that Lear takes unparalleled decision to distribute his kingdom among his daughters and in return, naturally expects thanks in the form of unparalleled love they cherish for him. Goneril and Regan do not falter in their expression of unparalleled love for their father, but unfortunately, Cordelia fails to appreciate largeness of Lear’s heart and invites the anger of Lear, the king.

In King Lear, it is pertinent to point out that it is not only bastard Edmund who indulges in villainy, but it is also legitimate daughters of king Lear who behave monstrously and villainously to challenge the authority of their father who also happens to be their king.
After renouncing the kingdom, Lear finds that two of his daughters do not show respect for him. Lear expects obedience from his daughters. As a king, he is deputy of God on earth, hence he invokes the intervention of God:

O heavens,
If you do love old men, if your sweet sway
Allow obedience, if yourselves are old,
Make it your cause; send down, and take my part!” (Lr. 2.4.186-88).
In Act II, Scene IV, Lear asks in an authoritative tone:
Who put my man i’ the stocks? (Lr. 2.4.177).
And again he asks, “Who stock’d my servant?” (Lr. 2.4.185).

Third time in the same scene he asks, “How came my man i’ the stocks?” (Lr. 2.4.194). When Cornwall tells him: “I set him there, sir” (Lr. 2.4.195), Lear can’t believe that his servant can be treated in such a shabby manner. Lear is taken aback and exclaims, “You! did you?” (Lr. 2.4.196).

In King Lear both order of man and order of nature conspire against Lear, the king, so “that there has never been such a case of a man stretched out on the rack of the world” (Holloway 221) to undergo agony of unparalleled proportions never seen before.

Before the curtain falls, Albany rightly remarks, “The oldest hath borne most: we that are young / Shall never see so much, nor live so long” (Lr. 5.3.326-27). There is disorder everywhere in the universe of man and universe of nature. There can be no better assessment of king’s tortured soul than what John Holloway has to say:

The ordeal has been unique in its protraction of torment, and the note is surely one of refusal to hide that from oneself, refusal to allow the terrible potentialities of life which the action has revealed to be concealed once more behind the veil of orthodoxy and the order of Nature. If there is such an order, it is an order which can accommodate seemingly limitless chaos and evil. The play is a confrontation of that, a refusal to avert one's gaze from that. Its affirmation is as exalted, humane and life-affirming as affirmation can be, for it lies in a noble and unflinching steadiness, where flinching seems inevitable, in the insight of its creator (92).

In King Lear, in the very first scene, Cordelia confronts her father, the king and thus, the seeds of chaos, turmoil, “decay and fall of the world” (Kott 279) are sown at the outset of the play. The impact of tragedy is so huge and mind boggling and unbelievable that in King Lear there will be no coronation. Jan Kott rightly remarks:

In King Lear, there is no young and resolute Fortinbras to ascend the throne of Denmark; no cool-headed Octavius to become Augustus Caesar; no noble Malcolm to ‘give to our tables meat, sleep to our nights’. . . . In King Lear there will be no coronation. There is no one whom Edgar can invite to it. Everybody has died or been murdered. Gloucester was right when he said: ‘This great world/Shall so wear out to naught.’ Those who have survived – Edgar, Albany and Kent – are, as Lear has been, just ‘ruin’d piece[s] of nature’ (279).

King Lear is a unique tragedy in the sense that Lear, the king confronts the order of man and order of nature heroically and majestically. Man and Nature are pitted against Lear. Daughters conspire against their father who also happens to be their king, to compel him to surrender to their will, but fail miserably. Similarly elements of Nature conspire to subdue his will, be he confronts the storm with all the mental might at his command and refuses to bow before the tyranny of nature.

On the face of it, Fool’s utterances provide comic relief in the tragic universe of King Lear but at a deeper level they expose the fatal error of judgement on the part of Lear. The Fool reveals the folly of Lear of dividing the kingdom among his daughters and rendering himself to the status of a paper tiger whose command carries no weight. Due to his own folly, Lear exposes himself to unbelievable storm of pain and misery. The Fool is, in fact, a philosopher and sage. Shelley rightly remarks when he says, “. . . the comedy should be as in King Lear, universal, ideal and sublime” (17).

Bradley rightly remarks that the division of his kingdom among his daughters was not “a childish scheme to gratify his love of absolute power and his hunger for assurances of devotion” (250). Rightly so, it was not a childish scheme but a well thought out plan to test the daughters’ loyalty and allegiance to his absolute power and authority since he was going to divide his kingdom among them and simply retaining the title of king for himself. Goneril and Regan passed the test but Cordelia failed. Unfortunately, Lear was knave and simpleton. He fails to pierce through the hearts of Goneril and Regan and find out the fiendish traits of their character and nature before dividing his kingdom. Lear’s folly of dividing his kingdom deprives him of his absolute power, territory and revenue. To assert one’s kingly authority, one must have absolute control of territory and revenue. It may be said that Lear despite his old age was not wise enough to foresee the fatal consequences of dividing his kingdom.

Cornwall puts Kent in stocks. Gloucester warns Cornwall that Kent was king Lear’s servant and he should not be treated in a base manner. He tells Cornwall:

. . . the king must take it ill,
That he, so slightly valued in his messenger,
Should have him thus restrain’d (Lr. 2.2.138-40).

In this way, Gloucester tries to convince Cornwall that despite the distribution of territory among his daughters, Lear is still a king.

First and foremost, we have to keep in mind that in King Lear, it is the king who dominates and guides the action of the play. Just as a king expects of his subjects total and complete allegiance and reverence to his authority, Lear, the king, also expects the same from his daughters. His daughters are also his subjects. However, he also expects his daughters to express their love for him profusely and uniquely. Critics after critics have dubbed Lear as mad or insane person, but it appears to be a very harsh indictment of a man who is both king and father and expects the due regard from his daughters. It may be said that King Lear was more than eighty years old and so due to his old age he might have felt that to perform the functions of kingdom he should divide his kingdom among his daughters. He had taken the decision of dividing his kingdom quite in good faith but unfortunately his daughters betrayed him.

Lear just wants to be pleased with exaggerated expression of loyalty and love for him. In Act I, Scene I, Kent pleases the king when he tells him that he embodies authority. Time and again, both Kent and Gloucester address Lear as their king. Throughout the play, Lear is conscious of his authority as a king. That is why, time and again, he refuses to be treated shabbily, either by his daughters or by his evil daughters’ servants. Lear strikes Oswald when he misbehaves with him. His evil daughters do not understand and appreciate the fact that though he has distributed his kingdom, yet he has retained the title of king, hence, sovereignty and authority of the king too.

Lear is “Fourscore and upward, not an hour more or less” (Lr. 4.7.61) of age, hence naturally due to old age thinks that the affairs of kingdom should be dealt with by his sons-in-law. We can safely assume that his sons-in-law are simply managers who have been deputed by the king to manage the affairs of the kingdom. It is a fact that sovereign authority remains with the king. Unfortunately, daughters and sons-in-law behave like usurpers of sovereign authority which legally and constitutionally remains with Lear, the king.

Critics have pointed out that during storm scene, Lear goes mad and insane. On the contrary, actually and in fact, Lear in his proper frame of mind acts like a king and does not show signs of madness. A mad man cannot hold trial of his daughters. Legally, Lear is the king of his kingdom. That is why he asserts his authority and holds the trial of his daughters in absentia. Lear’s soul has been tortured so bitterly and terribly by his two ungrateful daughters that he calls them “she foxes!” (Lr. 3.6.21). During trial of his daughters Lear tells that Goneril “kicked the poor king her father” (Lr. 3.6.47-48). He also wants to know if the heart itself is the source of evil. He asks the jury, “Then let them anatomize Regan; see what breeds about her heart. Is there any cause in nature that makes these hard hearts?” (Lr. 3.6.75-77). It is only a wise man who can put the philosophical questions to the jury. To be fair to Lear, he does not go mad. Actually, he has become wiser after emotional setbacks. He comes to know of the real nature of his [dis]obedient daughters:

I would learn that; for, by the marks of sovereignty,
knowledge, and reason, I should be false persuaded I had daughters.
(Lr. 1.4.227-28).

Lear also cannot tolerate that the number of his “followers” should be reduced to fifty by his daughter, Goneril. He is extremely angry and expresses his anger as follows:
I’ll tell thee: [To Goneril] Life and death! I am ashamed
That thou has power to shake my manhood thus (Lr. 1.4.291-92).
Lear’s manhood has been challenged. He retorts in the manner of a curse:
Blasts and fogs upon thee! (Lr. 1.4.294).

Ingratitude and insolent behaviour, on the part of two of his daughters, causes emotional turbulence and Lear’s outbursts know no bounds. Lear threatens Goneril in the manner of a king:

Thou shalt find
That I’ll resume the shape which thou dost think
I have cast off for ever; thou shalt, I warrant thee (Lr. 1.4.303-05).

These words of Lear testify to the fact that he has not relinquished the nature and authority of a king. Lear is quite conscious of the fact that his anger could cause madness. Hence, he invokes heaven:
O, let me not be mad, sweet heaven!
Keep me in temper: I would not be mad! (Lr. 1.5.42-43).

Fool reminds king Lear that he had abdicated his authority, hence he was in trouble. However, de jure, Lear has not surrendered his authority as a king. That is why he cannot tolerate ill-treatment meted out to him, on the part of his two ungrateful daughters. They dare to challenge his authority, hence he reacts violently like a king. Lear is neither mad nor insane. The audience expect him to behave like a king, and he does the same. Apart from being a king, Lear is also father of his daughters. Time and again, he also invokes his relation of father vis-à-vis his daughters to emphasise that he is their father, too, hence, he should not be maltreated. King has to be obeyed, similarly father too. Anyway, in King Lear, Lear is primarily a king because it is in the capacity of a king that he has divided his kingdom among his daughters and retained the title and authority of the king with himself.

George Orwell rightly remarks:

Lear renounces his throne but expects everyone to continue treating him as a                   king. He does not see that if he surrenders power, other people will take advantage of his weakness: also that those who flatter him the most grossly, i.e. Regan and Goneril, are exactly the ones who will turn against him (309).

In fact, there was nothing wrong in distributing the territories of kingdom among his daughters. Seen in the light of the Hindu Shastras – he was more than eighty year old, so he had entered the fourth and final stage of human life that is sanyas ashram. He threw off the burden of ruling the kingdom. He intended to lead a peaceful, happy and carefree life, sans worldly cares and concerns, but his daughters proved faithless, disloyal and ungrateful rascals. They neither showed reverence to Lear who happened to be king nor cared for fulfilling the filial obligations towards him who was also their father.

Shakespeare lays emphasis on the fact that to retain simply the title of a king and to renounce the authority over the kingdom does not guarantee the welfare of the renouncer. George Orwell opines:

Shakespeare starts by assuming that to make yourself powerless is to invite an attack. . . . If you throw away your weapons, some other less scrupulous person will pick them up. (311)

Shakespeare seems to suggest that if you have donated or distributed all your worldly possessions to others, do not expect gratitude or thankfulness from others for the same.
It is not only the tragedy of an old man who happens to be the father of two unfaithful and ungrateful daughters, but it is also the tragedy of a king who, in the innermost recesses of his heart never forgets that despite his protestations as a father, first he is king and then anything else.

Wilson Knight argues, “The tragedy is most poignant in that it is purposeless, unreasonable” (197). However, we may differ with Wilson knight for so harsh a judgement, since from the beginning till the end of the play, Lear displays a remarkable sense of kingly authority which behoves a king to maintain and assert at any cost, and under all circumstances.

Fall of the king from the height of glorious pedestal of kingly grandeur and grace evokes the emotions of pity and horror and justifies the king lear as a piece of unique tragedy in the annals of tragic drama.

Wulfstan’s sermon to the English People may safely be quoted to explain the affront to power and authority of king. He tells “how treachery, unlawfulness and infidelity to one’s lord have spread everywhere throughout the land” (Holloway 78). In King Lear Shakespeare reveals the lower aspects of human nature which cause havoc in universal order too. John Holloway rightly remarks:

In King Lear it seems, from the first, like an infection spreading everywhere affecting a general change in human nature, even in all nature (79).

To conclude, if we ask the audience to vote for the outstandingly greatest tragedy written by Shakespeare, we may safely assume that the audience would vote in favour of King Lear as his greatest achievement. Lear in King Lear is the unique king. He is old in age and runs full circle of life. During the course of the play, king’s authority stands shattered, moral order stands demolished, there is chaos and along with vice, virtue is also vanquished. After Lear’s death, there is vacuum, and we are left wondering as to what is going to be the future of Man sans moral order. It appears as if tortured and tormented Lear has cursed Man never to recover from the moral degeneration he has set himself in. We just cry in shame - O Lear, Have mercy on us. It appears as if Lear’s “terrifying curse” (Mack 156) on Goneril has engulfed the whole mankind.



Works Cited

Bradley, A. C. Shakespearean Tragedy, Atlantic Publishers, 2010.

Holloway, John. The Story of the Night: Studies in Shakespeare's Major Tragedies,         Routledge, 2005.

Knight, Wilson. The Wheel of Fire, Routledge, 2003.

Kott, Jan. “King Lear, or Endgame.” Shakespeare King Lear, edited by Frank Kermode. Macmillan, 1969, pp. 270-292.

Mack, Maynard. Everybody's Shakespeare: Reflections Chiefly on the Tragedies. U of Nebraska P, 1993.

Orwell, George. The Orwell Reader: Fiction, Essays, and Reportage, Harcourt Brace, 1961.

Shakespeare, William. King Lear, edited by A. W. Verity, Cambridge, 1959.

Shelly, P. B. A Defense of Poetry, edited by Albert S. Cook, Ginn and Company, 1891.