Knowledge of the Aristotelian tragic hero reveals much about Shakespeare’s intentions in the tragedy King Lear.
“Our intention creates our reality” – Wayne Dyer
In Shakespeare’s play, King Lear, it is made apparent that Lear himself is an Aristotelian tragic hero. The statement “Knowledge of the Aristotelian tragic hero reveals much about Shakespeare’s intentions in the tragedy King Lear” is truthful due to King Lear’s journey through all 5 characteristics a tragic hero will experience according to Aristotle. The understanding of Lear as a tragic hero reveals Shakespeare’s intentions to ultimately reach a stage of catharsis, the process of releasing, and thereby providing relief from, strong or repressed emotions. Catharsis is the goal of all tragedies according to Aristotle and this is no different in King Lear. Shakespeare uses this tragic hero narrative to portray the damage that breaking the natural order, an important ideology in Elizabethan times, can bring.
Shakespeare was a poet and play write in the Elizabethan times who was born and raised in Stratford-upon-Avon, Warwickshire. Today his plays have him considered as one of the most eloquent writers of all time due to his insightful writings about human nature, tragedy and love. Shakespeare is the play-write for King Lear and displays the concept of a tragedy through his characters. The protagonist, King Lear, is an arrogant king who undergoes the narrative of a tragic hero in the play. Goneril and Regan are Lear’s two daughters who manipulate and deceive Lear into giving up his kingdom, then ultimately betray him once the power is theirs. Cordelia is the third sister who loves Lear most but gets banished from the kingdom for refusing to complement her father more than she believes he deserves.
As described by the Poetics of Aristotle, a tragedy must “Evoke a sense of pity or fear within the audience”, stating that “the change of fortune presented must not be the spectacle of a virtuous man brought from prosperity to adversity”. The fortunes of a tragic hero must go from “good to bad” unlike the typical hero’s path from “bad to good”. A tragic hero is a flawed hero who commits injustices or wrongdoings without evil intent.
A tragic hero experiences 5 characteristics in accordance to Aristotle’s beliefs. Hamartia, a major flaw that restrains their ability to make good decisions, is the first characteristic followed by Anagnorisis, a critical discovery made by the hero. Hubris, the third characteristic, is where the hero expresses immense pride in his/her self, his/her actions or a defiance of the gods. A reversal in fortune due to the hero’s poor choices is Peripeteia, the fourth characteristic. This must be irreversible and a turning point in the plot. The final characteristic is the hero’s downfall, in most cases death and can be described as Nemesis. The ultimate goal of any tragedy in the perspective of Aristotle is Catharsis, the process of releasing immense or repressed emotions and a feeling of relief. This is often felt by either the audience or the other characters in the play and not the hero (typically because the hero is dead due to the fifth characteristic, Nemesis).
Shakespeare blatantly follows the 5 characteristic path of a tragic hero through King Lear. Lear’s Hamartia/major flaw, is his pride which obstructs his ability to make good choices promptly within the play. Due to his daughters’ words in the “Love Test” scene in Act 1 Scene 1, King Lear donates the entirety of his kingdom to Goneril and Regan with the understanding that they will love him for eternity. Goneril expresses her fake love for lear by saying “Sir, I love you more than words can wield the matter; Dearer than eye-sight, space, and liberty; Beyond what can be valued, rich or rare; No less than life, with grace, health, beauty, honour; As much as child e’er loved, or father found; A love that makes breath poor, and speech unable; Beyond all manner of so much I love you”. Lear misinterprets these statements as genuine, his judgement misconstrued by his arrogance. It is King Lear’s pride alone that persuades him into believing the insincere statements made by his daughters Goneril and Regan.
Shakespeare uses dramatic irony by making the daughters’ deception painfully obvious to the audience yet anything but obvious to Lear. He does this through Lear’s third daughter, Cordelia, pointing out a flaw in Goneril and Regan’s statements of love. Cordelia asks “Why have my sisters husbands if they say they love you all?” in Act 1 Scene 1 which to the unobstructed mind clearly displays that the two sisters are deceiving Lear however, his overriding pride blurs his judgement. This blurred judgement causes Lear to make the unwise decision of gifting his entire kingdom to Goneril and Regan. Due to Shakespeare’s dramatic irony, we (the audience) know that Lear is being deceived which makes it clear to us that Lear’s pride his obstructing his judgement. Shakespeare proves Lear’s judgement to be incorrect in Act 3, Scene 4 where both sisters banish their father from their kingdoms leaving him to freeze in the brutal weather.
Shakespeare uses Lear’s realisation that he can no longer command people like he once did as King for Lear’s Anagnorisis, a critical discovery made by a tragic hero. Upon giving up his kingdom to his daughters Lear hadn’t realised that he was also surrendering the authority he previously possessed as king. Shakespeare uses this confusion to subsequently create a moment of clarity for Lear after being banished from the kingdom with only his fool accompanying him. After discovering that his misfortunes are actually due to his own arrogance obstructing his ability to judge the character of those around him, Lear quotes “Pray, do not mock me: I am a very foolish fond old man” in Act 4 Scene 7. With this quote, Shakespeare clearly displays King Lear’s realisation that he was “foolish” to entrust his kingdom and power with his daughters. This moment is critical as it is the first moment Lear begins to realise his own mistake and flaws and is vital to Shakespeare’s development of the tragic hero narrative. A quote from Lear stating “Is it not as this mouth should tear this hand For lifting food to‘t? But I will punish home. No, I will weep no more. In such a night To shut me out! Pour on, I will endure.” in Act 3, scene 4 only reenforces his realisation of his mistake. Despite his apparent insanity, Lear shows a sign of reason in his madness by this awareness of his mistake.
The third characteristic, Hubris, is where the hero displays immense pride in themselves. Shakespeare intentionally uses Lear’s immense anger towards Kent, Lear’s devoted follower, to express this trait within his protagonist. In Act 1 Scene 1 Kent states “Do, kill thy physician, and the fee bestow Upon thy foul disease. Revoke thy gift, Or whilst I can vent clamor from my throat, I’ll tell thy dost evil” in which he asks of Lear to revoke the gifts to both Albany and Cornwall as Kent believes it will be the demise of the kingdom. Lear immediately dismisses this idea, refusing to be wrong, and in his anger banishes Kent from his kingdom. In this scene Shakespeare shows that Lear has too much pride to admit his wrong doings, even if it is for the betterment of him and his kingdom. His arrogance eventually results in the destruction of both his family and kingdom as I will expand on later.
Shakespeare uses language techniques in the play to show King Lear experiencing the fourth characteristic of a tragic hero, Peripeteia. King Lear’s banishment from the very kingdom he previously gifted to his two daughters acts as a turning point in the play and a facilitator for Lear’s Peripeteia. We see Lear’s fortunes reverse from his life of structure, control and sanity as ruler of the kingdom to disorder and madness after his exile. Shakespeare intentionally portrays Lear’s reversal of fortune through the shift from the literary device of verse to prose. Defined as any structured grouping of words in a piece of literature, the literary device of verse is a vital part of Shakespeare’s plays. The type of verse used in the majority of Shakespeare’s work is an iambic pentameter. This is no different in King Lear, where the use of iambic pentameter allows a comparison between sanity and insanity, control and loss of power.
Iambic pentameter is a line of verse with five metrical feet, each consisting of one short (or unstressed) syllable followed by one long (or stressed) syllable. During the beginning of the play, Shakespeare uses iambic pentameter when Lear is speaking to represent Lear still possessing his sanity, power as well as structure in his life, just as iambic pentameter possesses its structure. For example, Lear states “You see me here, you gods, a poor old man, As full of grief as age, wretched in both. If it be you that stirs these daughters’ hearts Against thy father, fool me not so much To bear it tamely; touch me with noble anger, And let not women’s weapons, water drops, Stain my man’s cheeks. In Act 2, Scene 4 while he still possesses his sanity. The iambic pentameter is displayed in this quote as their is one unstressed syllable followed by one stressed syllable and five metrical feet. Lear’s sanity, control and structure in his life are still with Lear at this point hence the iambic pentameter.
After the turning point in Act 2, Scene 4, Shakespeare switches from verse to prose for Lear’s lines in the play. Prose, defined as written or spoken language in its ordinary form, without metrical structure, is used after King Lear’s turning point as a tool to portray his loss of power, sanity and structure in his life. After gifting his kingdom to his two daughters, Lear also unwillingly gifts them the power he previously possessed as ruler. Lear’s inability to recognise his loss of power leads to frustration and anger. Lear expected to be treated as he previously was as king despite giving away his kingdom. Upon the realisation that he isn’t being treated with the respect of a king, Lear begins his journey into insanity as his anger takes control. His daughters remove the knights from his entourage, treat him horribly and lock up his servant in stocks (something which is deemed incredibly offensive to the king of the servant). These actions are the driving force behind Lear’s plummet into insanity as they only reenforce King Lear’s mistake to entrust his kingdom with Goneril and Regan.
We can tell this is Shakespeare’s intent through the shift to prose when Lear loses both control and sanity. For example, Lear states “Is man no more than this? Consider him well, Thou ows’t the worm no silk, the beast no hide, the sheep no wool, the cat no perfume. Ha! Here’s three on’s are sophisticated. Thou art the thing himself; unaccommodated man is nor more but such a poor, bare, forked animal as thou art”. In this quote, Lear clearly strays from the structure of iambic pentameter just as he strays from his life of sanity and control. This reversal in fortune saw Lear shift from a life of structure, power and order as king to the virtual opposite due to his hamartia/fatal flaw. Lear was once a powerful King however, due to his own poor decisions, he becomes unwanted by his own two daughters. Lear’s pride convinced him to entrust the kingdom with Goneril and Regan, despite both Cordelia and common sense suggesting it was a bad idea. This leads to the aforementioned peripeteia which ends up dividing their family and destroying the kingdom. Goneril, Regan Cordelia and Lear all pass away at the end of the play due to Lear’s mistakes. This results in their family and kingdoms ending in ruin.
King Lear’s inevitable death is the fifth characteristic of a tragic hero, Nemesis. This downfall for Lear is his death in Act A, Scene B, while he holds the dying Cordelia in his hands. While reflecting on his poor judgement and realising his mistakes, King Lear and his daughter Cordelia were imprisoned by Edmund. Edmund later calls for the execution of Cordelia and Lear and despite being able to kill the guard, it isn’t in time to save Cordelia’s life. Watching the death of his own daughter and understanding that it was his fault sent Lear into a whirlwind of emotions. He could not cope with the overwhelming guilt and devastation he felt and ended up passing away while holding Cordelia in his hands. It is during this scene that the ultimate goal of any Aristotelian tragic hero story, Catharsis, is found.
Catharsis is the ultimate goal for any tragic hero narrative according to Aristotle’s bylaws and can be defined as the process of releasing, and thereby providing relief from, strong or repressed emotions.. In King Lear it is eventually reached in Act A, Scene B, where Lear sees his daughter pass away in his hands and where he passes away himself due to the shear overwhelming emotion he felt. As the audience, it’s hard not to pity Lear due to extremity of his punishments throughout the play. He is banished from the same kingdom he once gifted his daughters, he banished the only daughter that truly loved him in Cordelia, he suffered through the cold and wet and watched his family slowly die around him, Cordelia even dying in his arms. Lear’s own death pushes it beyond doubt and only further reenforces the pity the audience has for King Lear.
Ultimately, Shakespeare uses the catharsis to portray the affects of breaking the natural order. Natural order is the orderly system comprising the physical universe and functioning according to natural as distinguished from human or supernatural laws. Because of natural order, everything has its place in the world and this was a very important ideology in Elizabethan times, when Shakespeare was writing this play. With this knowledge we can further understand the intentions of Shakespeare to portray the tragedy that follows breaking the natural order. King Lear breaks the natural order right at the beginning of the play by entrusting his kingdom to his daughters and not taking it to his grave like a king should do. Lear then begins his slippery slope down the narrative of a tragic hero because of his actions. It is with this background on Shakespeare and the culture he would have been surrounded by that we can tell his intentions for the use of King Lear’s tragic hero narrative.
Overall, the use of King Lear as a tragic hero shows insight into Shakespeare’s intentions to reach the ultimate goal of catharsis within the play. Through the 5 varying characteristics we can see just how blatant the tragic hero narrative is within King Lear and how he conclusively reaches catharsis, where immense pity is felt for Lear. Shakespeare uses multiple language features to intentionally portray the tragic hero narrative in King Lear and teach us the audience about the dangers of breaking the natural order.