King Lear, Hamlet and Tragedy, Was it Unavoidable?

I was re-reading Kentaro Miura’s amazing series Berserk (read it), a masterwork of tragedy and drama comparative to King Lear. During my second reading I began to realize more clearly that the threads of tragedy which culminated in the climax have been slowly wound together throughout the entire series.

This got me thinking about Shakespearean tragedies, to what extent were the fates of Lear or Hamlet determined from the start? To what extent was Lear’s fate determined by his character?

Hamlet’s situation can more easily be simplified: Hamlet was too fickle. Therefore, when an important situation demands initiative Hamlet was unable to act, eventually forcing him into an unavoidable and dangerous situation. I might not have had to turn out the way it did, but a climax had to come for Hamlet, whether he liked it or not.

Lear’s “fatal trait” is harder to pin down, would it be his blindness to the designs around him? Would it have been his mad decisions? Could it simply be that he had too much power for his character?

Would Lear have still experienced tragedy without Regan or Goneril?

I firmly believe yes. What comes up must go down, and Lear was up too high for too long. While the tragedy of Hamlet required a grave situation, Lear created his grave situation by disowning Cordelia, thus opening up the throne for the taking. Even if one left an old Lear to his own devices, he would slip up eventually and the paper castle of loyalty that he had built up around him would fall.

What do you think?

Edgar: Too Good for His Own Good?

In King Lear, it is hard to find a more honorable character than Edgar. Edgar, being Gloucester’s only legitimate son, had the ability to ignore his brother when he advised him to flee. But, like the good brother he was, he listened to the “illegitimate” Edmund. Edgar’s loyalty and trust were vital to the development of the plot of King Lear.

Edmund’s plan to gain power began with overthrowing his family. Edmund knew that he wouldn’t inherit anything from his father, since he wasn’t “pure” in blood. Edmund needed to somehow gain his brothers status. To do so, Edmund used Edgar’s loyalty against him. He convinced Edgar that he was banished, and turned his father against his brother. Edmund then had the power and influence to begin his attempted claim that lead him to contribute to the tragedy of King Lear. Without Edgar, Edmund would never have gotten past his father.

If another character was in Edgar’s shoes, such as Lear, Edmund would have never been trusted. Edgar is both a good character and a good person. He has the ability to look past the fact that his brother isn’t completely related to him, something many others could not look past at the time.

While Edgar’s banishment and his transformation into Poor Tom feel unjust at the time, Edgar gets his revenge at the end of the play when he takes down Edmund as the honorable Edgar. Most deaths at the end of the play feel justified, except for the death of Cordelia. As a reader, I was happy that besides Kent, at least one likeable character remained well at the end of the play. I liked that even while Edgar’s trust and devotion to his family almost cost him his life, he gets the revenge he is looking for.

Fear of Women in Power

In class my group chose to focus on the motif of women being presented or seen as animals and even monsters. We found several moments in the play where male characters seemed threatened by seeing the women in power and thus had to characterize them as “monstrous.” This motif represents the theme that women are not respected equally even when in the same position with the same power as men and don’t receive the same respect in any way.
I found this theme present in the New York Times article “Nasty Woman: Why Men Insult Powerful Women.” Trump speaks down to several women in high power, calling them “emotional” or “angry” after simply standing up for their campaign as every other powerful male figure does. The article speaks of many politicians even years back who have made remarks about women that were so unnecessary but got played off as and were accepted simply because it was coming from powerful men.

I found these two sources very relatable to one another with their descriptions of powerful men having the ability to call women names and describe them in offensive ways. In Shakespeare’s King Lear, Albany tells Goneril that she and her sisters are “tigers not daughters,” while in the middle of an argument. Despite anything Goneril has done, it is still extremely inhumane for Albany to refer to the King’s daughter as an aggressive mammal. Lear himself speaks about his “pelican daughters” later in the play, which clearly represents the power he believes he owns over them and the threat he feels of them taking over his kingdom.

Shakespeare uses this imagery and comparison to ferocious animals as a way to portray Goneril and Regan’s lack of power and cruel treatment received by every other man in the play.

Growth Doesn’t Need Suffering

Shakespeare’s King Lear is a play in which the development and growth of the titular King Lear is induced by a set of tragic circumstances which befall him. This type of growth also befalls other characters, the most notable being Gloucestor and Edgar. The betrayal of his daughters and subsequent night out in the storm pushes him into “O, matter and impertinency mixed, / Reason in madness!” ( When out in the storm after being pushed out by Goneril and Regan, Lear contemplates the “Poor naked wretches, wheresoe’er you are, / That bide the pelting of this pitiless storm,” (III.iv.32), and states that “O, I have ta’en / Too little care of this.” (III.iv.36). This realization of his follies and flaws when he had power comes as a result of his suffering, but it comes too late for him to act substantially.

Similarly to Lear, Gloucestor is a man who suffers immensely from his perceived betrayal from Edgar and later actual betrayal by Edmund and the tearing out of his eyes. Yet, with the help of Edgar, he also seems to see more clearly, stating, “O my follies! Then Edgar was abused. / Kind gods, forgive me that, and prosper him” (III.vii.111). Through his suffering, Gloucestor becomes more aware of his situation and the truth of the complex matters surrounding him, similarly reinforcing the theme that suffering will aid a person in growth and development, even if such growth may come too late to save a person from a poor fate (given that both Gloucestor and Lear die at the end of the play).

However, I think that this theme is incomplete as a concept if the actual structure and form of the play is left unacknowledged. If personal suffering is required for personal growth, then there might not be a reason aside from pure entertainment to read or watch a tragedy like King Lear – only our personal experiences in life will provide us the growth for us to advance towards greater self-actualization and mutual recognition. However, the fact that novels, plays, and literature as a whole can concretely affect us and allow us to understand the follies of Lear and the other characters within the play means that in some aspects, we can learn the lessons of Lear and apply them in our own lives without needing to suffer and ultimately die as Lear had. In reading the play, though we might be able to relate ourselves to Lear or even feel as if we are Lear, placed in a tragic situation deteriorating by the minute, we are ultimately kept safe by the barrier of the fourth wall. With this in mind, I think a revised theme with regards to suffering in King Lear could be that although suffering may lead to a person growing and developing, keeping an open mind and heart will also allow a person to learn the lessons of others and grow and develop in a similar manner without the same level of suffering.

Arguably, this is also a flawed argument. No matter how much empathy we hold for Lear or even other characters in literary works, a personal tragedy will also be more visceral and ‘real’ in our minds, given that they are more proximate and real than what literature can convey through words. It’s hard to say whether there are certain things in life which can only be learned through personal experience, but I don’t believe that personally experiencing suffering is necessary for all things in life. Such a notion is a slippery slope, especially when comparing magnitudes of suffering – does one person’s suffering outweigh or invalidate another’s, or does it simply contextualize it? (This topic is also conveniently explored by King Lear in comparing Edgar and Lear). It all seems to come down to empathy and mutual recognition – will it allow us to grow and learn from our past mistakes, or must we make them again to drive home the lesson?

From Power to Pain

King Lear is a play about tragedy and Lear himself experiences this in a way much worse than any other character. Lear makes his fatal flaw when he decides to split the kingdom off by how much his daughters love him and falls blind to the fake love to Regan and Goneril’s fake love and gives them all the land while not giving Cordelia any who is the one who truly loves him. Lear loses himself after he realized the wronging he has done and starts to go crazy. He even says in Act 1, “Does any here know me? This is not Lear . . . . Who is it that can tell me who I am?” showing he has lost himself and doesn’t know the man he is becoming because of his suffering. He doesn’t realize the wrong he has brought Cordelia until it is too late and asks for her forgiveness but it is too late for she has a sudden death. At this point the tragedy Lear has endued is too much for him and he dies of a broken heart. The tragedy that Lear has gone through is too much for him but it’s too late to do right and this makes him my favorite character because from all the things he did he wanted to do right.