King Lear’s Self Discovery Although King Lear is an estimable monarch, as revealed by the devotion of men such as Kent, he has serious character flaws. His power as king has encouraged him to be proud and impulsive, and his oldest daughters Regan and Goneril reflect that “The best and soundest of his time hath been but rash…” and that “he hath ever but slenderly known himself” (1.1.297-298, 295-296). When Lear decides to divide his kingdom between his three daughters, Cordelia, Goneril, and Regan in order to have less responsibility in his old age, he creates a situation in which his eldest daughters gain authority over him and mistreat him. Lear is unable to cope with his loss of power and descends into madness. While the circumstances in which Lear finds himself are instrumental in the unfolding of this tragedy, it is ultimately not the circumstances themselves, but King Lear’s rash reactions to them that lead to his downfall. In this downfall, Lear is forced to come to terms with himself as a mortal man.
Lear’s self-destruction begins when he stands before the court to divide his kingdom and commands his daughters to profess their love for him. Cordelia, his youngest and most favored daughter, idealistically believes that words are unnecessary in the expression of love and refuses to profess her feelings. King Lear had planned to give the most land to Cordelia and to stay with her in his old age and he states of Cordelia, “I loved her most, and thought to set my rest/ On her kind nursery” (1.1.125-126). The king does not understand the motives behind Cordelia’s silence and is shocked by her unexpected reaction to his demand. He loses sight of his careful preparation for his future and in his…
…h. This gesture is Lear’s final relinquishment of the royalty he no longer values, as well as his decisive welcoming of mortality as it provides him with an escape from his grief.
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Shakespeare, William. The Tragedy of King Lear. Jay L. Halio. Ed. The New Cambridge Shakespeare. Cambridge University Press. New York. 1992.
Shakespeare, William. The Tragedy of King Lear. Ed. Russell Fraser. New York: Penguin, 1998.