King Lear

by: William Shakespeare


he hath ever but slenderly known himself. (I.i)

As Regan and Goneril discuss the ways in which old age has changed Lear’s personality, Regan makes this observation. It introduces Lear’s fatal character fla he does not see himself clearly, and as a result he does not understand the true nature of his relationships with the people around him, especially his daughters, or the true nature of his royal status. It’s significant that Regan makes this observation. Throughout the play, Regan and Goneril see their father clearly, and although in some ways they are the play’s villains, it’s hard not to sympathize with their attempts to rein in their father, who is every bit as wrathful, irresponsible and senile as they believe him to be.

Who is it that can tell me who I am? (I.iv)

When Goneril first confronts Lear about his behaviour in her household, Lear responds sarcastically, telling Goneril that he must not be Lear after all, since Lear’s daughter would never speak to Lear in this way. He is angry and upset, and alongside the sarcasm Lear’s speech also expresses genuine anguish. In this moment of confrontation with his daughter, Lear is beginning to see himself and his situation more clearly: he is not inseparable from his royal status. His explosive reaction to this insight shows the audience that far more extreme outbursts are to come as Lear gradually acquires a true understanding of his situation.

Why then let fall
Your horrible pleasure. Here I stand your slave,
A poor, infirm, weak and despised old man.

Lear addresses these words to the storm that rages about him on the heath, toward the end of a speech in which he tries to command the wind and rain to do his bidding. Even in these lines, when Lear admits his powerlessness for the first time, he gives the storm an order: “let fall/Your horrible pleasure.” Nevertheless, Lear’s admission of powerlessness is an important moment: it shows he has begun to acquire true self-knowledge. So terrible is this self-knowledge that in his next scene, Lear will be mad. Because Lear is a (former) king, self-knowledge also helps him to understand the true nature of power. Significantly, in these lines Lear sees himself as a “slave” and “poor.”

I am a very foolish, fond old man,
Fourscore and upward, not an hour more nor less;
And to deal plainly,
I fear I am not in my perfect mind. (IV.vii)

Lear recovers from his madness in Cordelia’s tent, and when he first wakes he does not recognise his daughter. He introduces himself to her with these lines, in which he finally describes himself accurately, without rage, madness, boasting or any attempt to wield his long-vanished royal power. The accuracy of his self-description and the simplicity of his language show how far Lear has come since the play’s opening scene. His display of self-knowledge paves the way for his reconciliation with Cordelia, which is the closest thing King Lear has to a redemptive moment.