The protagonist of King Lear is Lear. In dividing his kingdom between Cordelia, Goneril, and Regan, Lear sets in motion the events of the play. Lear divides his kingdom because he wants the last years of his life to be restful, and because he expects his daughters will take care of him. Although Lear has already decided which land to give to each daughter, he insists they prove their love to him. This insistence on his daughters’ public declarations of love becomes Lear’s tragic mistake. Lear has no real motivation for requiring his daughters to profess their love to him other than his own egotism. Lear does not see himself or his situation clearly, blinded to the fact that Goneril and Regan do not really love him. He cannot see that Cordelia does love him, and that his own anger with Cordelia is extreme and misplaced. Lear’s lack of self-knowledge causes his plan to go horribly wrong. He ends up homeless and mad, wandering in a violent storm.
Once he is reduced to the status of a homeless beggar, Lear begins to acquire real self-knowledge. The process of acquiring knowledge is painful for Lear, and comes at the price of everything he previously valued. Lear comes to realize that many of the things he believed in—like kingship, justice, and his family’s love—are unreliable or non-existent. He sees that without power, a human is just a “poor, bare, forked animal” (III.iv). Lear realizes he can’t take for granted even the most basic human necessities like clothes or shelter. Only after he has lost everything is Lear able to see himself clearly, as “a foolish, fond old man” (IV.vii). This self-knowledge allows him to be reconciled with Cordelia, and Lear’s loving bond with her gives him a new sense of meaning. However, Lear’s relationship with Cordelia proves to be one last thing that can be taken from him. After Cordelia’s murder, Lear ends the play howling with grief, unable to accept his daughter’s death. He even seems to lapse back into madness, suggesting he may have lost the self-knowledge he so painfully acquired.