King Lear as an Arthur Miller Tragedy
If we seek to justify Shakespeare’s King Lear as a tragedy by applying Arthur Miller’s theory of tragedy and the tragic hero, then we might find Lear is not a great tragedy, and the character Lear is hardly passable for a tragic hero. However, if we take Aristotle’s theory of tragedy to examine this play, it would fit much more neatly and easily. This is not because Aristotle prescribes using nobility for the subject of a tragedy, but, more importantly, because he emphasizes the purpose of tragedy — to arouse pity and fear in the audience, and thus purge them of such emotions.
Arthur Miller, in his famous 1949 essay, “Tragedy and the Common Man,” states the following as the nature of the tragic hero:
…The tragic feeling is evoked in us when we are in the presence of a character who is ready to lay down his life, if need be, to secure one thing — his sense of personal dignity. …The underlying struggle is that of individual attempting to gain his “rightful” position in his society. … Tragedy…is the consequence of a man’s total compulsion to evaluate himself justly.
Now some people may find it doubtful whether Lear fits the above description. True, he is displaced from his “rightful position in society,” namely, that of a king, but he has brought about displacement by himself. In addition, he shows few signs of struggling to regain that position or striving to “evaluate himself justly.”
Lear is not forced, like Richard II is, to give up his crown. Although he is very old, he is not obliged to hand his power over to anyone, let alone divide his kingdom into three. Not only is he not obliged or compelled to do so, Kent even openly warns him against the act in Act I S…
…ar being most effective in bringing forth feelings of pity and fear that the audience is consequently purged of these feelings, we may conclude that King Lear is clearly a tragedy. Arthur Miller’s theory of tragedy, although moving and persuasive, fails to account for the tragicness of this play, perhaps because his main concern is to discuss the “tragedy of the common man,” and thus limiting his scope of discussion on the genre as a whole.
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