Like Shakespeare’s other famous tragedies, King Lear features a noble-born protagonist who makes a fatal mistake that leads to widespread suffering and, eventually, the death of himself and several others. Lear makes his fatal mistake in the play’s opening scene, when he divides his kingdom among his daughters according to the degree of love they profess for him. Failing to see that Regan and Goneril have lied about their love, he bequeaths all his land to them and condemns Cordelia, the only daughter who truly loves him. Lear therefore remains blind to who his daughters really are, and this metaphorical blindness results in him making a decision that causes enormous suffering—including the literal blinding of Gloucester. Notably, just as Lear fails to see who his daughters are, over the course of the play he loses touch with his own identity. He cries out painfully in Act I, “Does any here know me? This is not Lear . . . . Who is it that can tell me who I am?” (I.iv.197–201). Blind even to himself, Lear slowly goes mad and falls into psychological isolation.
One aspect of King Lear that makes it an unusual tragedy is that Lear, though certainly a tragic figure, is a relatively benign protagonist who realizes his mistakes and repents for them. To be sure, Lear often speaks in an abrasive and caustic way, displaying arrogance and peremptoriness toward other characters (notably Kent and Cordelia). But unlike some tragic protagonists he himself never becomes evil or directly commits any evil acts, even if he unleashes evil in the form of his daughters. Ironically, Lear’s madness is what enables him, at last, to overcome his blindness and see things clearly. His first moment of clarity arises in Act III, at the height of the storm. Lear hesitates before entering the hovel and expresses empathy for his subjects, whom he’s literally and figuratively left out in the cold:
Poor naked wretches, whereso’er you are,
That bide the pelting of this pitiless storm,
How shall your houseless heads and unfed sides,
Your looped and windowed raggedness, defend you
From seasons such as these? Oh, I have ta’en
Too little care of this! (III.iv.28–33)
Lear regains clarity at other crucial moments as well, like when he recognizes Cordelia at the end of Act IV and acknowledges that he has wronged her. He repents for his failure and hopes, as he tells Cordelia in Act V, for a chance to “ask of thee forgiveness” (V.iii.11).
Despite Lear’s moments of clarity, the play moves inescapably toward a tragic conclusion that, unlike other tragedies, does not feel very cathartic. Catharsis is the moment of release an audience feels after experiencing strong emotions. King Lear certainly engages the audience’s emotions, but whereas cathartic experiences lead to a feeling of renewal, Shakespeare’s play does not. For one thing, punishment in the play often outweighs the crime. Even though Regan, Goneril, and Edmund all deserve their fates, Lear, Gloucester, and Cordelia all die despite their innocence. Moreover, no one learns valuable lessons through their suffering. Lear realizes his mistakes as a king and as a father, and his brief reunion with Cordelia offers a partial redemption. Yet the pain of Cordelia’s undeserved death sends him back into madness and suffering, and he literally dies of a broken heart. Finally, with everyone from Lear’s family dead, there is no good candidate to assume the throne. Albany will continue to rule Britain, but his role in the play’s disastrous ending leads the audience to question whether the social order can really be repaired. By leaving the audience profoundly sad and virtually hopeless, King Lear ranks among Shakespeare’s bleakest tragedies.