One of the most interesting aspects of William Shakespeare’s play King Lear is Lear’s response to losing his land and power to his two daughters Regan and Goneril. This power shift ultimately affects Lear’s character as a whole in a major way. We begin to see such character developments emerge when Lear is forced into the storm.
At the start of the play, being king is such a huge part of Lear’s identity that he believes that he commands respect and authority just by being who he is. Goneril and Regan flatter Lear with flashy complements and seemingly genuine professions of love to Lear and as a result get him to give up his land holdings to them. Cordelia refuses to partake in such “fake” behavior and is banished from the kingdom. At this point in time, Lear believes that Goneril and Regan love him the most because of their words, but soon realizes otherwise.
After giving up his power, Lear continues to act as though he is king but quickly notices that he no longer commands the same level of respect and authority as before. Goneril and Regan begin treating their father poorly and eventually end up kicking him out into a brutal storm. It is clear that Goneril and Regan’s praise of Lear was only a means of gaining power for themselves.
While in the storm, and in the shelter, Lear is forced to reflect and face the consequences of his daughters’ betrayal along with his own conflicting emotions. It is here where Lear learns the most about himself before he “goes mad”. Not only does he realize that people will do anything for power but he also realizes that only those who are truly loyal (for instance Kent) will continue to respect you even after power is lost. Lear begins to see clearly through Goneril and Regan’s lies and begins to see the truth in Cordelia’s words as well. Lear is filled with sorrow and regrets banishing someone who was truly loyal to him.
Lear also begins to regret the actions he took as king (or lack thereof) while in the storm. While standing outside in the pouring rain Lear exclaims:
“Poor naked wretches, wheresoe’er you are,
That bide the pelting of this pitiless storm,
How shall your houseless heads and unfed sides,
Your looped and windowed raggedness defend
From seasons such as these? O, I have ta’en
Too little care of this. Take physic, pomp.
Expose thyself to feel what wretches feel,
That thou may’st shake the superflux to them
And show the heavens more just”(Act 3, Scene 4, Lines 32 – 41).
In this excerpt, Lear expresses his empathy towards the poor and homeless people of his former kingdom. He ponders how the homeless are able to survive in such conditions (like the storm), with no fat or good clothes to keep them warm. Lear begins to see first hand the unfair distribution of wealth. He becomes both angry and sad and regrets not doing anything to fix this wealth distribution issue when he was king. This demonstrates Lear’s growth as a character because it shows that Lear is no longer only concerned only for himself but is now able to empathize and care for others’ well beings as well.
Through his daughters’ betrayal and the loss of his land and power Lear is able to gain more knowledge about himself and overall become a better human being as a result.