Strengths and Weaknesses King Lear

1 January 2017

Discuss the strengths and weaknesses of the character King Lear The character of King Lear is essentially a destructive character in this play due to his weaknesses but he reveals some strengths in character in acts four and five of the play. The weaknesses portrayed by Lear are his inability to see reality and his misconception of love. His strengths are his renewed optimism and his ability to become humble. Although Lear reveals these strengths the damages his weaknesses cause override his positive change in character.

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A central weakness of King Lear is his flaw of being blind to reality. This flaw is displayed in the exposition of the play when Lear banishes Cordelia as she refuses to confess her love for him. He is blind to reality due to his irrational expectation of his daughters and this causes him to react unreasonably to Cordelia’s defiance. The blindness of this irrational action is reinforced when Kent tries to reason with Lear stating “see better Lear and let me still remain/the blank of thine eye” and Lear who is blind to this reason banishes Kent also.

The use of the words “see” and “eye” allows the audience to understand direct links between Kent’s speech and the idea of Lear’s fatal flaw of being blind. In addition to this, the use of the word “better” and the phrase “let me be the blank of thine eye” illustrate that Lear has lost his ability to see reality clearly. This flaw is increasingly developed as Lear falls further into madness and loses his grip on reality. This blindness is illustrated to the audience as Lear attempts to appeal to Regan’s ‘good nature’ which she essentially does not possess at this point. No Regan thou shalt never have my curse/thy tender-hafted nature shall not give” he states to her after aggressively criticizing Goneril.

The tone of his speech to Regan is inappropriately flattering and displays his desperation as he is attempting to appeal to her filial feelings that we know Regan does not have for Lear. The tone of this speech displays his blindness to reality and to the true nature of his daughter. At this point the audience begins to develop empathetic feelings towards Lear despite the flaw of his blindness.

This trait of desperation and the wish to search for something the good despite evidence to the contrary is one that many people can relate to. This identifiable trait allows us to feel sympathy for the character Lear as it is difficult to dislike him whilst he is in this state. However, the problems this flaw has caused cannot be ignored by the audience as the play develops. King Lear’s underlying desire for power is another fundamental weakness in his character in the beginning of the play.

This weakness becomes obvious in the exposition of the play when Lear states to his daughters “know that we have divided/in three our kingdom, and ‘tis our fast intent/to shake all cares and business from our age”. This essentially means that Lear wishes to give away the responsibility of being a King but keep the powerful status the title brings. This desire for power is further shown when Regan and Goneril wish to strip Lear of all his possessions and his entourage. The prospect of this is unimaginable for Lear and he states “allow not nature more than nature needs/man’s life as cheap as beast’s”.

Through this we understand that the only way he believes he can have power and authority is through possessions and followers as that without this he has nothing. The use simile here renforces this idea that Lear believes he is merely an animal and that his life is not worth anymore than that without any of his possessions and his status. It is this that allows us to understand his fundamental flaw in desire for power and his misinterpretation of what authority and power is.

This flaw portrayed by Lear also allows us a gateway into understanding this flaw in the hierarchical Elizabethan society. The idea of the ‘chain of being’ to represent society was one that was prominent in Elizabethan times and it saw the King, closest to divinity at the top with a great deal of power and the majority of the population at the bottom with very little power. The king was wealthy and had possessions and the majority of the population did not, thus creating the link between wealth and power in this society.

Through understanding the ‘chain of being’ we are able to understand his belief in his absolute power and the reasons behind his desperation to keep his possessions because power for him and Elizabethans is defined through wealth. This idea also allows modern audiences to reflect on their own society and evaluate the strength of the link between power and wealth in their society. After the storm in act 3, Lear begins to show strength in character by showing optimism despite his dismal circumstances.

John Ellis praises Lear for this by describing him after the storm as having “tragic strength and will in the face of the machinations against him by his own children”. Lear is at the height of his madness in the storm when he strips off his clothes and curses the world and his two daughters Regan and Goneril. At this point it is difficult for the audience to imagine him recovering from this state, but his reconciliation with Cordelia displays his strength of optimism. Lear says to Cordelia “we two alone will sing like birds i’ the’ cage” which shows his optimism to start a new life with Cordelia despite what happened in their old life.

The positive natural imagery in this quote is important and it is in stark contrast to the negative natural imagery of “hags” and “serpents” he used during the storm. This change reflects a change in the state of his mind and shows a positive quality of his ability to understand that although he has lost his wealth and power he still has the love of his youngest daughter. Lear also uses positive natural imagery when he says “ebb and flow of the moon” which illustrates that he is looking forward to living a peaceful life style with Cordelia despite their past.

Both of these quotes show that he is content with living a simpler life as he has come to realise power and wealth are not the most important things in life. This strength in Lear’s character cannot be ignored however it is questionable whether this optimism overrides the destruction he has caused in his kingdom. It can also be speculated that if he and Cordelia had not died Lear would have left the kingdom in the ruin it had become to pursue a simpler life.

In stark contrast to the beginning of the play, one of Lear’s strengths is his ability to become humble. It has been said that “the moment of Lear’s awakening is one of the most moving scenes in our literature”. In agreement to this statement it can be argued that his ability to be humble in contrast to his previous mindset is extremely moving. When Lear is apologising to Cordelia he says that he will “kneel down and ask of thee forgiveness”. The choice of the words “kneel” and “ask” are important here as they are submissive, not dominant words.

This illustrates to the audience that Lear has gotten over his pride and arrogance and has learnt to accept and acknowledge his mistakes. Lear also shows the audience that he has become humble with the quote “talk of court news… who loses and who wins, who’s in, who’s out… ” which displays his wish to distance himself from the court he had once cherished for the wrong reasons. This shows the strength of being humble as he has lost his position of power, but he has accepted it and he no longer cares for ‘court gossip’ or being the centre of attention.

This change in character is extremely important as it allows us to understand that Lear had the ability to see the error of his ways. This change in character and the one mentioned previously are both changes that result in Lear no longer caring for the Kingdom. Although this is admirable as it had previously been the centre of his life, it is also to an extent selfish as he is leaving the kingdom which he essentially destructed. It is this that makes Lear a weak character as his actions at the beginning of the play were irreversible.

The weaknesses of King Lear and his actions due to these weaknesses were too great to allow redemption for him at the end of the play despite the strengths he shows in the final acts. Lear, due to his status made too much of an impact of the Kingdom to be forgiven by the audience. However his character demanded the Elizabethan audience consider the importance they placed on the ‘chain of being’ and allowed modern audiences to reflect upon their own societal structure. His change in character also enabled us to understand that wealth and possessions do not equal happiness.

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