King Lear, by William Shakespeare, is a Tragic Play

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Updated: Mar 28, 2022
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“King Lear, by William Shakespeare, is a tragic play about a king and his three daughters. King Lear has three daughters: Goneril, the eldest, Regan, the middle child, and Cordelia, the youngest and most beloved by Lear. Both Goneril and Regan are married to men of power respectively: Duke of Albany and Duke of Cornwall. Cordelia, on the other hand, is unmarried and is assumed, like all unmarried women of the time period, to be pure. Continuing, when King Lear decides he is going to pass down the rule of his kingdom and divide it amongst his offspring, he demands that his three daughters earn it by convincing him that each of them loves him the most, consequentially sending the play into a downward spiral.

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In William Shakespeare’s tragic play, King Lear, Lear and his daughters— Goneril, Regan and Cordelia— have been presented a certain way through text. What this paper will strive to compare are the relationships between King Lear and his daughters within the text with that of the relationship of characters who play these Shakespearian characters on television. In this, this paper will report on how Shakespeare’s characters integrated their lives, problems, and attributes with that of characters who show their audiences their lives on and off the stage: in the world of television/motion pictures.

King Lear, the aging king of Britain, is the protagonist of the play. Lear, as William Shakespeare presents him, is a ruler who has become accustomed to enjoying absolute power, wealth, and the approval of others. Flattery is one trait among many that Lear dotes on the most and does not respond well to being challenged or questioned in any way. In addition, Lear is seen as a character who values appearances above reality— authenticity and truth— and these beliefs are recognized at the start of the play. In act one, Lear is shown prioritizing the concept of love over actual devotion, wishing to maintain power as king while unburdening himself with the responsibility and obligations concerned with governing and makes it his mission to leave all his responsibilities with his daughters and their respectable families. However, before dividing his kingdom, Lear asks each of his daughters to demonstrate the degree of their love for him. The unnatural public demonstration brought on upon his daughters establishes that Lear desires flattering public display of fictitious-factitious love over real love. This is seen more clearly when Lear asks the question, “which of you shall we say doth love us most?” rather than asking “which of you doth love us most?” (1.1.51). On relying on the test of his daughters’ love, Lear demonstrates that he lacks common sense and the ability to detect his older daughters’ falseness like Cordelia— the youngest— does.

Most readers conclude that Lear grants his inheritance to Goneril and Regan as a result of blindness—blind to the truth. And this seems more applicable when Kent says, “See better, Lear, and let me still remain the true blank of thine eye” (1.1.166-167). The depth of anger Lear shows toward those who disapprove of his actions (exile and disownment) suggests excessive pride, and such hubris leads Lear into making a series of mistakes, therefore highlighting the fragility of his emotional state. Continuing, although Lear is a character who is driven by greed, stubbornness, and arrogant temper, and one who acts out of emotion and whim (attributes of a tragic figure), Lear nevertheless has loyalty in subjects such as Gloucester, Kent, Cordelia, and Edgar, all of whom risk their lives for him. As the play continues, readers, after having witnessed a critical turning point within the play, are left to anticipate how Lear will react and continue throughout. Having been insulted and disgraced as king, Lear is characterized as not being prepared to face those responsible for his sudden bout of misery; including himself. Lear instead looks to the Fool to distract him, helping him to forget his problems via entertainment. But such a coping mechanism cannot sustain the desires and wants King Lear was previously accustomed to. Having been humiliated by his daughters, Lear starts to respond to his misfortune with anger, outbursts, and goes as far as to use physical violence when provoked (1.3 and 1.4).

More of Lear’s irrational behavior and fits of madness can be seen in much of acts two and three when he is traveling from daughter to daughter and especially when he encounters the ambiguous storm. However, in contrast with his dominating figure, when Lear is confronted with insults he is helpless and succumbs to despair and self-pity, especially when at the mercy of his daughter and her servants. Continuing, although struggling to grasp the means to deal with the loss of power, Lear continues to think of himself as omnipotent, thus creating plot of significance regarding the storm scene within act three. Although the choices Lear makes are irrational and inane, Lear still yearns to take charge of his own destiny. Because his only other choice is to surrender to his daughters’ control, by choosing to go out into the storm Lear believes that by conquering the unnatural and unpredictable he can retain some element of control. Lear, in spite of his despair, is exposed as being a complex character; one whose mistreatment, having outshined his absurdities, is deserving of the audience’s compassion and understanding. Ultimately towards the end of the play, Lear starts to display different reactions and emotions than the ones clearly presented at the start of the play. These include such emotions like regret, empathy, compassion; especially compassion for the poor, a population in which Lear had never paid attention to or noticed before (Act 3 Scene 4).

Moving forward, King Lear’s daughters Goneril, Regan and Cordelia serve as dramatically different examples of good and evil on and off the stage. To start, Cordelia is the youngest and most beloved daughter of King Lear and the main catalyst of the plays tragedy. Although Cordelia’s role in the play is minor, she is ever-present in the minds of readers as a symbol of virtue, mercy, and forgiveness. Moving forward, Cordelia, as the youngest and favorite child of King Lear, is questioned last when asked how much she loves her father and is stuck for words. Although Cordelia genuinely adores her father, she refuses to flatter him and cannot say how much she loves him. Because of this act of honest disobedience, Cordelia is viewed as devoted, honest, and righteous— characteristics strikingly different from that of her sisters, Goneril and Regan. Although Cordelia embodies that of the ideal Shakespearean women, because of her response Cordelia is disowned and left with nothing. Although there is little seen of Cordelia in the play, she is held in high regards and is considered a virtuous woman by other characters within the play. For example, despite having been disowned by her father, no title or land to her name, the King of France still marries her off of virtue alone saying, “Love’s not love when it is mingled with regards that stands aloof from th’ entire point. Will you have her? She is herself a dowry” (1.1.258-262). As the play continues, Cordelia, having remained loyal to her father despite his cruelness, forgives him when they are reunited at the end of the play. This inherent goodness that Cordelia showcases’ at the end of the play rather than the beginning suggest that love can overpower evil and greed even at the end when both Lear and Cordelia succumb to the evils of the world around them.

Goneril is Lear’s eldest daughter and is the one he puts on public display first. Although Goneril is the oldest daughter of King Lear and the wife of the Duke of Albany, she is presented as manly, deceitful, and amoral. After professing her deep love for her father and receiving a portion of his kingdom, Goneril betrays Lear and plots his murder. It should be noted here that Goneril’s insincere expressions of adoration towards her father uncover the inherent dishonesty around her character. Her aggressiveness within the play, a quality unexpected of a female character in the time of Shakespeare, makes her not only ruthless but also unpredictable in the eyes of the audience— another trait that is either hidden or none existent in females within Shakespearian literature. Readers therefore see Goneril’s true character increase throughout the play, defying the natural order of the female role in Shakespeare’s time which typically called for female offspring to respect, honor, and later care for their fathers. Additionally, Goneril’s true intent start to grow slowly in the following way: when she challenges her father’s authority on more than one occasion, when she boldly proposes an affair with Edmund in act four scene two after having denounced her husband, and again when she removes military power away from her husband. Goneril in this sense can be seen as a masculine character who has uncovered her true nature after having deceived her father— this being cruelty and power. In fact, throughout most of the play, power has been an important feature to Goneril; however by the end of the play, she is prepared to lose such power and consequently the kingdom— one attribute that Shakespeare does not deviate from; the rejection of female agency.

Moving on, Regan is King Lear’s middle child and the wife of the Duke of Cornwall. Although initially Regan appeared more sympathetic and gentler compared to Goneril at the start of the play when greeting her father with kindness and when showing concern over Edgar, Regan is presented as being just as villainous as her older sister, Goneril. In fact, the two sisters are almost indistinguishable within the play in terms of characteristics. Like Goneril, Regan also proves herself to be unyielding and cruel by showing no real respect for her father, men, or rankings. Continuing, this is reinforced when Regan plucks Gloucester’s beard in act three showing her disrespect and uncaring nature towards the classes. However, in contrast to that, Regan reveals later on in the play that although she has these behavioral traits, she is aware of public opinion and, although she puts up a façade, is aware of her actions and what others may think of her.

Slings and Arrows (2003-2006), directed by Peter Wellington, is a Canadian television series that features the backstage drama, onstage embarrassments, and personal turmoil’s encompassing the staff and actors within the fictional New Burbage Theatre Festival. Most known for its conceit in using plotlines that parallel that of the Shakespeare plays being performed, the third season follows the Burbage Theatre production of King Lear. It should be noted that the characters within Slings and Arrows that this paper will focus on briefly are the following: Geoffrey, Charles, Ellen, Barbara, and Sophie. Because the characters in King Lear go through just as many changes as the characters they take on in Slings and Arrows, it is important to realize that the use of plots used in literature is limited whereas in television, multiple plots can be used as a way of showing character and story development. Continuing, in season three audiences see artistic director Geoffrey Tenant attempting to create a breathtaking production of King Lear with aging lead actor Charles Kingman who, as the show continues, begins to literally live the role. Thus, the story line starts its downward spiral similar to that of King Lear.

Moving forward, the third season starts off with the cast returning home after a successful Broadway production of Macbeth, where an old friend of Ellen’s— Barbara— suggests that she think about moving beyond New Burbage in regards to her acting. As the play progresses, showing more character development in the show, both female characters begin to showcase characteristics like that of the daughters in King Lear. Just as Goneril leads her father to believe that her love for him extends beyond any evidence of poor behavior, Barbara leads Ellen into thinking that she isn’t happy with her life and her position as an actor; ultimately leaving Ellen to feel as though she is responsible for her own actions when in truth, Barbara is the one leading her friend. This too is similar to the sense that Goneril is seen as responsible for Lear’s actions, having earlier endorsed them with her flattering confession. Continuing, Later in the show both Ellen and Barbara, like Goneril and Regan, show litter mercy and act out against Geoffrey as they call for Charles punishment concerning his irrationally behaviors throughout the show.

Meanwhile behind the scenes, although Geoffrey decision to cast aging theatre legend Charles Kingman as Lear was one thought out without reason, Geoffrey in this season wants to carry out his vision. And having casted an aging actor and willfully making the decision to keep Charles’ dying wishes to himself, Geoffrey in turn only to jeopardize their production. In this, we see a comparison between Geoffrey and Shakespeare himself. Within the play, Shakespeare offers the audience no explanation at all for Lear’s point in dividing his kingdom, thus making it seem as though Lear’s action despite seeming reasonable to him are “willful and arbitrary” (Hanly, 1985); just like Geoffrey’s own actions throughout the show. To continue, just as Shakespeare’s Lear reflects on his own pity when encountering the poor, focusing on the parallels he sees in them within his own life, Charles himself goes through these same tangents. Audiences see this when he is among other actors, however this emotion is especially directed towards Barbara when saying, “Damn celebrities” when he must wait on Barbara in order to complete rehearsal. And again with Ellen in regard to her understanding of prose, verse, and how to truly act as Regan. Thus, Charles’— as well as Lear’s—pity is only a reflection of the pity he feels for his own situation. In addition, Charles is an actor, one in which the theater respectably admire; and so because of this, both Charles and Lear share a concept of responsibility and therefore blame for dispensing a balance.

Lastly, Sophie is one character who is most like the character she embodies in the play: Cordelia. Although she is seen for various amounts of times in the show, as rehearsals continue, Charles continues to terrorize Sophie on perfecting her character portrayal.

Because, like Cordilia and Lear, Charles has rejected her, Sophie has no choice but to seek guidance and improve though friendships with other characters. Because she cannot go to other people with her problems on set, like the virtuous Cordilia, Sophie is held in high regard with some of the other actors; mainly Barbara and Ellen.

In conclusion, through the paralleling of characters within and outside the text, as well as on and off the stage, and into the surrounding lives of such characters and their lives, it is believed that through motion picture productions, characters become more relatable and better to understand; especially with Shakespeare. Barbra’s parallel with Goneril in terms of power throughout most of the play and the entirety of the show, shows that Goneril has a masculine side to her, one of authority and cruel honesty. Having power—whether it is outside of the stage or on— has been the most important objective for both characters.

In Geoffrey’s artistic visions, he recognizes that he bears responsibility for both his own problems and for those of others, who suffer just as equally either because or by such actions. Both Charles’ and mostly Geoffrey’s understanding of the complicity of events that follow them throughout the show is a major step in accepting responsibility and in acknowledging that one cannot is only depend on themselves to solve their problems. Much like Lear with the Fool and with the misfortunes around him, by the end of the play Lear learns just what it is to be forgiven and along with that, comes to understand that even he is not above God’s justice— the unnatural and natural laws that he attempted to disrupt.”

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King Lear, By William Shakespeare, Is a Tragic Play. (2021, Apr 19). Retrieved from