Identity in King Lear and the Dreaded “Senioritis”

At the heart of the tragedy of King Lear lies an identity crisis. As King, Lear derived meaning, power and identity from his privileges and influence as a king, a father, and a man; he sat atop power hierarchies, automatically granted him respect and reverence from his subjects, peers and family. However, once he is stripped of the power of a King and of father’s control over his daughters by his own folly, he loses the power and influence he once took for granted, and he is left lost, confused and bitter. King Lear’s mistake did not lie in making those positions and privileges a part of his identity- they impacted his day-to-day life and fundamentally changed his relationships with all those around them. Nor did his mistake entirely lie in his hubris in giving all his influence to his daughters and expecting his mere title to grant him respect, though that certainly is a part of it. Rather, King Lear’s true mistake was building his entire identity around external titles and privileges that could be stripped away rather than on inward qualities or experiences.

Act I, Scene I illustrates Lear’s folly in this regard. In the scene, he asks each daughter, Goneral, Regan and Cordelia, to espouse how much they love him, and depending on their responses, he will divide up his land to each accordingly. Goneral and Regan both indulge him in long, praiseful speeches in an effort to improve their own wealth and status, while Cordelia, his favorite from the start, speaks of her feelings curtly and plainly, yet truthfully. As a result, Lear denounces Cordelia and divvies up his kingdom betwixt Goneril and Regan. This scene demonstrates that Lear values outward praise and respect over shared experiences and sincerity; he is, in a word, shallow. Consequently, when he is no longer King and thus is not accorded the respect and praise of one, he is left with no sense of self-worth, as his identity was based on shallow exaltations.

Many high school students and teachers speak of a phenomenon called “senioritis”, which is an outlook crisis often occurring during the second semester of a student’s senior year where they become uninterested in high school grades, extracurriculars and accolades and lose motivation and purpose. Some of this is due to the excitement of college and certain negative high school experiences, sure, but I also believe that it has to do with how students often build their identities in high school. With such an emphasis placed on grades and extra-curricular achievement, students may construct their identities around what they excel at, ie. being the “basketball player”, “math kid”, “theatre kid” etc. Again, this is perfectly normal, as these activities make up much of students’ day to day life and influence who they interact with. However, if a student who derived their identity solely from high school academics activities climbs the mountaintop (ex: being admitted to college, ending their senior season on the varsity team, earning the lead role in a show), it can be difficult to figure out where to go next once second semester hits and it all doesn’t feel as meaningful anymore. And like Lear, a student losing these parts of their identity can lead to feelings of confusion, loss of purpose, and lack of motivation that all characterize senioritis.

I know there are many more causes of the senioritis effect that I am likely overlooking. However, as someone who is currently experiencing its effects, I am trying to look inward to focus on the qualities and relationships I have that truly constitute my identity- my friends, my family, my passions and interests outside of school.