Can life really be as troubling as how the play, King Lear, presented it?
This is the question raised in one of our major assessments on King Lear. They were given four quotations about the play from the experts and were asked to choose two to support their arguments. These three were chosen as the better responses.
Slightly edited and modified for our readers' convenience.
The thing that makes tragedies so sad is that all the bad events happen in a short amount of time. Everyone gets hurt, loses someone, loses hope, but what made the life of King Lear and the rest so tragic is that the plot changes were faster.
It is the tragedy in which evil is shown in the greatest abundance; and the evil characters are peculiarly repellent from their hard savagery, and because so little good is mingled with their evil. The effect is therefore more startling than elsewhere; it is even appalling. “Shakespearean Tragedy: Lectures on Hamlet, Othello, King Lear, Macbeth.” by A.C. Bradley
AC Bradley talks about the abundance of evil that the five antagonists (Goneril, Regan, Edmund, Cornwall, and Oswald) and their lack of goodness. It is possible for a person to be evil and to possess it but that doesn’t mean that he has no ounce of good. Yes, the five antagonists are evil but there are characters like Cordelia, Edgar, and Kent who are against them. Edmund, just before he dies, tries to redeem himself. There are also characters that experience a realization or change. Of course there is Gloucester who gives up and fails to hold the hope that his real son Edgar brings.
The drama so engages us that to feel it adequately requires us in the end to become wholly open to, totally consumed in, the most painful bewildering feelings. But because those feelings press toward release, toward some form in which we can name them and (to that extent at least) master them, to speak adequately requires us in the end to detach ourselves from our feelings, to withhold or withdraw some part of ourselves from the integrity with which we have to experience the drama. “An Essay on King Lear” by S.L. Goldberg
SL Goldberg advises the audience to detach from their emotions to experience the play without bias and see the play with either an optimistic or piteous view. Life is what we make it to be. We can look at our lives and be pulled in by its tragedies or “bewildering feelings”. We can push forth and carry on because we know that life has many valuable treasures. We can also see it as troubling and we make it as such. We can choose to jump off a cliff like Gloucester or wait for salvation. There will always be ‘downs’ but there will always be ‘ups’ as well. (by A.M.)
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It is possible for life to be as troubling as the play, King Lear. Believe it or not, there will always be people with evil in their hearts that can grow to that extent of King Lear’s antagonists. As AC Bradley put it, “There is a great abundance of evil and little good in characters like Goneril, Regan, Edmund, and Cornwall, and Oswald.” By the looks of it, by how the world now works, there are actually people in similar situations such as that of the evil characters in the play.
SL Goldberg talks about the most painful and bewildering feelings that we may experience because of the drama. Troubles in life may lead to real-world drama that we will all go through and hopefully overcome. At some point we will learn to handle them and future troublesome situations.
Even if things as bad as King Lear’s tragic events are possible, it is still an opportunity wherein we can learn and help better ourselves. (by T.R.)
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The tragedy of King Lear is an acknowledgement of the darkness hidden within all men, the potential darkening of the world due to the actions of men, especially those in power. Joyce Carol Oates speaks precisely of this in her work “Is this the Promise End?: The Tragedy of King Lear”:
And so the value Cordelia represents does die with her. Though one may argue about whether the play's conclusion is "uplifting" or "depressing," it seems incontestable that the drama's few survivors experience it as an "image" of the horror of the Apocalypse that is, an anticipation of the end of the world.
Cordelia is often interpreted to be the representation of truth, sincerity, love, and humility and is even described in a fashion similar to the Virgin Mary. Ultimately, the acts of selfish men, who seek to consolidate power, lead her to death. It is the death of truth and love, and in the end we see brother kills brother, child betrays parent, and families and marriages torn apart.
There is an optimistic not however as William Hazlitt put it in “Characters of Shakespeare”:
The concluding events are sad, painfully sad; but their pathos is extreme. The oppression of the feelings is relieved by the very interest we take in the misfortunes of others, and by the reflections to which they give birth.
Hazlitt stressed that we need to experience the despair and sadness evoked by the tragedy of King Lear in order to relieve ourselves of the negative emotions and undergo catharsis. This purge of sadness acts like a vaccine—by experiencing the pains and horrors of Shakespeare through the eyes of his characters, we are saved from our unconscious drive to inflict pain to others as we experience these same pains and horrors in real life. (by M.C.)
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