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William Shakespeare’s tragic drama ‘King Lear’ is among the most frequently read, performed and studied of Shakespeare’s plays.

Lear himself is widely considered to be one of Shakespeare’s most complex, dynamic and interesting characters.

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The Story of King Lear

William Shakespeare’s tragic drama King Lear is among the most frequently read, performed and studied of Shakespeare’s plays. The play’s themes of injustice, the consequences of rash decisions, and the ways that the hunger for power can corrupt people continue to resonate with readers, critics and viewers after more than four centuries. So, does the radical character transformation that Lear undergoes during the play.

The play opens with Lear, the elderly king of Britain, deciding to effectively retire and divide his kingdom evenly between his three daughters: Regan, Goneril and Cordelia. Before dividing his kingdom, Lear asks for each of his daughters to demonstrate the extent of their love for him in words. Regan and Goneril, Lear’s oldest daughters, offer bold, over-the-top assertions of their love for their father.

However, Lear’s youngest and more beloved daughter Cordelia, remains silent and explains that she could never put the extent of her love for her father into words. Cordelia’s refusal to vocalize her love sends Lear into a fit of rage and he exiles her from the kingdom. Cordelia quickly accepts an offer of marriage from the king of France and leaves the kingdom.Regan and Goneril soon betray their father and take away all of his remaining political power. The betrayal of his oldest daughters drives Lear to insanity. He flees from his kingdom and wanders the countryside during a violent thunderstorm, with his Fool and Kent, a disguised nobleman who remains loyal to Lear, in his company.

While wandering the countryside during the storm, Lear comes to realize not only the tremendous power of nature, but also his insignificance – and the insignificance of all people regardless of their positions in life – in comparison to it. Stripped of his political power and wealth and left homeless and insane, Lear comes to truly recognize and sympathize with the plights of the poor and homeless throughout his kingdom and realizes the tremendous social and economic disparity that exists throughout his kingdom.At the same time, Gloucester, an elderly nobleman, is tricked by his illegitimate son Edmund into believing that Edgar, his legitimate son, is conspiring to have him killed. Gloucester realizes that Lear’s oldest daughters have betrayed their father and decides to come to Lear’s aid, which leads to Regan and her husband blinding him and sending him off to wander the countryside. Gloucester, however, is accompanied by Edgar, who disguises himself as a beggar and leads him to Lear.Cordelia eventually leads a French army to Britain to rescue her father and restore him to power.

The British army, however, quickly subdues the French forces. Cordelia and Lear are imprisoned by the British, although the two are able to reconnect. Lear comes to realize the true extent of Cordelia’s love for him.

The play concludes on a number of tragic notes: Gloucester dies, Edgar kills Edmund, Goneril poisons Regan and then commits suicide, Cordelia is executed by the British, and Lear dies from grief after realizing that the daughter who truly loved him is dead.

King Lear: Character Analysis

At the start of the play, Lear is someone who places more importance upon appearances than actual truth. He prefers flattery over true love and wants to be respected as a king without taking on any of the responsibility that the role entails. Lear’s desire for simple declarations of affection and for a life of respect and relative ease has disastrous consequences for his family and for his kingdom. His retirement leads to a series of conflicts and a war that leaves his entire family dead, including the beloved daughter who truly loved him, and his kingdom in ruins.Lear is not an evil person and does, to some measure, learn from his mistakes.

In fact, the transformation he undergoes suggests that he’s capable of being a terrific and righteous king. Over the course of the play, Lear develops from a foolish, naive king who places value only in appearances and empty declarations of love to someone who gains an entirely new perspective on life. While wandering the countryside during the storm, he comes to renounce politics and mere appearances and realizes that what matters most in life is true love, such as the sort Cordelia has for him.

He also begins to feel a strong sense of empathy for others, in particular for the homeless and downtrodden who populate his kingdom. In essence, by losing nearly everything in life that he held dear, Lear develops into a better and wiser person.

Critical Interpretations

King Lear is considered, along with Hamlet and Richard III, to be among Shakespeare’s finest tragic plays. Lear himself is generally considered to be one of Shakespeare’s most psychologically complex, carefully developed and interesting characters.

Critics, however, debate the nature of the change Lear undergoes and whether or not it can be fairly said that he undergoes a radical transformation in personality by the play’s conclusion.Some critics argue that Lear does indeed change over the course of the play, that he learns about the importance of true love above all else and realizes the consequences of the terrible mistakes that he has made. They tend to point out that he comes to realize his insignificance compared to the power of nature and develops into a man of compassion and humility. Other critics point out that while Lear does develop a significant measure of self-awareness during the play and becomes a kinder and gentler person over the course of such, he never truly recovers his sanity or develops into a better king who puts an end to the strife that is destroying his kingdom.Critics have also viewed King Lear as a masterful study into the nature of human identity.

During the play, Lear loses his identity as a naive and uninterested king and develops an almost entirely new one as a compassionate common man who realizes the true nature of the world. At the start of the play, Lear’s entire identity as king is taken away from him by his oldest daughters. His identity quickly shifts from that of a king to that of a homeless and crazed wanderer to that of a loving father who would rather rot in prison with his beloved daughter than return to political power. Lear’s identity, like all identities, is ultimately unstable and relative to particular social and political conditions.

His identity, like all identities, is subject to change, either at the hands of others or due to his own actions and self-realizations.

Lesson Summary

Shakespeare, as many literary critics and psychoanalysts have noted, possessed a remarkable understanding of human psychology, especially considering that the field of psychology would not be invented until nearly 300 years after he died. King Lear is widely considered to be among Shakespeare’s finest, and most tragic, explorations into the human mind and human nature. While the play presents a very cynical world view, it also offers lessons that are applicable to our lives today.The character of Lear might strike you as familiar. He is the sort of person who values how things appear on the surface over how things truly are. He places far more importance on maintaining appearances than fulfilling his kingly responsibilities.

Many of us know people who’ve made mistakes similar to Lear’s and paid a tremendous price for doing so. In a sense, King Lear is Shakespeare’s most moral play. Its ‘lessons’ are applicable to all of us. Throughout the play, Shakespeare reminds us of the danger of valuing appearances over truth, of the importance of embracing and respecting those who truly love us rather than those who merely claim to love us, and of our own individual insignificance in comparison to the powers of nature and the forces of the social world.

Many of us have had experiences not unlike Lear’s, in which we’ve lost something of great value to us – such as money or a job – and have, as a result, developed a sense of humility and empathy for those who are less fortunate than we were and might again be. Many of us have also had experiences such as Lear’s through which we’ve come to realize that true love matters far more than mere empty words.

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