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!” (IV.vi.192-193). 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?