Throughout history tragedy has been a big part of theatre. It has been popular even in ancient greek times, where it has said to have originated from. To this day it still has a great effect on us, we naturally want their to be happy endings, For the storyline to be wrapped up neatly like a good gift, In such a way, reality could never imitate it. So when it doesn’t and the tragedy is done correctly, It affects us and stays on our mind. Aristotle well known throughout history for his ground breaking research in both science and philosophy believes that it goes further than this. In his manuscript poetics about tragic theatre he says that when the tragedy fits the right structure, it stimulates in the audience such feelings of pity and fear that it leads to a catharsis. Which is the release of pent up emotions in an almost therapeutic type way. This means that this is the real reason people enjoy plays like these, Which is comforting because it reveals that people who enjoy these plays aren’t sadists, they are normal people simply seeking catharsis. ”pity is aroused by unmerited misfortune, fear by the misfortune of a man like ourselves”. A tragic hero is an important part of tragic theatre, without the tragic hero the play would not have the desired effect on the audience, therefore the tragic hero is very important. King Lear in the play king Lear written by Shakespeare is considered a tragic hero.
Aristotle has a very specific idea of what a tragic hero should be. Lear is the perfect tragic hero as he fits into the format that Aristotle has defined. This shows that Shakespeare has in-depth knowledge of his classics, I will further show this through the simple fact that king Lear could not unintentionally fit the format as a result of it having so many aspects and quite specific rules on to how it should be written. Therefore Shakespeare had to have carefully written king Lear to fit into the tragic hero category.
The over arching journey the tragic hero must go on, Is that after making a bad decision he is led too destruction. However it goes further than this as the tragic hero must have a specific set of traits. The first of them being the bad decision the tragic hero makes, must be one the audience could make themselves, something forgivable. Not just a cruel act, since we need to get the required pity. ”The flaw or error of judgement must also have far reaching weighty consequences , has to have an end point which they can or cannot realise”
The bad decision King Lear makes is to split his land, power and influence between his three daughters based on how well they can articulate their love for him. ”tell me, my daughters [since now we will divest us both of rule, interest of territories, cares of state], Which of you shall we say doth love us most?” This may not appear that bad based on our modern day ideology of right and wrong, However in those days things such as honesty and the divine order meant a lot to people. His concept of making his daughters articulate their love for him was dishonest in nature because they could lie about how much they loved him as well as it was ego boasting in nature because this whole way of splitting his land was purely so that he could simply hear them say great things about him and their relationship with him. Which would not have been the normal way you would’ve past your power down as king. However what furthered his error in judgement was banishing the daughter who refused to do this because it defied her concept of morality. This is another bad decision, Since a righteous king would be able to handle criticism, He would be able to handle hearing things he possibly would not have wanted to hear so that he is able to make choices that would benefit his people as a whole. After banishing his favourite daughter, He then goes on to banish his trusty advisor for speaking out against him for banishing his daughter. The way in which it was written reveals a lot of how he seems to almost be abusing his power, especially when talking to Cordelia when she decides not to do what he wants. ”Nothing will come of nothing speak again.” ”How, how Cordelia? mend your speech a little, lest you mar your fortunes” Its quite a threatening but not only that, Quite childish and obviously anger filled. The way he says, ”how, how” the repetition of the words gives an almost condescending tone. ”the whole speak again” shows his anger as well this belief that he has, that he has the power to make her completely change her view of the matter just because he doesn’t want to hear it. This also shows that he’s going beyond his kingly duties and also going beyond being a good parents as if the two roles that he has for his daughters have mashed themselves together in a way that benefits no one.
A quality the tragic hero must have is excessive pride as well as a fatal error that drives their bad decision. In this case his fatal error is his excessive pride, this is shown through many instances with king Lear. An instant I find very telling, Is how he reacts to his daughters ganging up on him and deciding that they will know dictate some of his actions. ”No you unnatural hags! I will have such revenges on you both That all the world shall- I will do such things – The terrors of the earth! You think Ill weep. No, Ill not weep. O fool i shall go mad” This quote was taken just before he went into a raging storm because his daughters now having more power than him decided to gang up on him and not let him keep the full size of his train [army]. He did not need all those men, however they were the physical representation of his past power and influence. His pride won’t let them go so he decides instead of doing what they said, risks his health by going into a raging storm. The sentence ”I will have such revenges on you both. That all the world shall- I will do such things” really helps to reveal the complete lack of power that Lear has, since all he can do now is yell empty threats with no possible way to implement them. The lack of any descriptive language and quite simplistic words, shows that he’s not thinking very clearly as well as has completely lost his high status that he once had before. It makes him look very weak and a lot like some venerable slightly loopy old man. So the words seem to really articulate that even after everything, even though he’s not in the position to make threats at all, His pride is still stronger than ever and is almost blinding him to the reality of his situation. It’s making him react to the scenario in such a way that he’s still making threats even though he’s in no position to, In such a way that he’d rather risk everything than give up anything that would slightly decrease the resemblance of the man he was before he gave his power up to his daughters.
The other thing that must happen for the character to be a tragic hero is a change in fortune, as a direct result of his error in judgement. ”Turn of plot must depend of human agency rather than on demonic or unnatural driving forces, on probable rather than accidental connections among incidents; that the primary emotions evoked by the tragic drama are pity and fear about what could plausibly happen rather than horror about the way that fate can in a strange alliance with change intervene in the natural course of events ” [The psychology of Aristotelian tragedy]. You can tell from looking into the words that king Lear uses to verbalise his wants, and emotions, that the way in which he speaks and his pattern of speech gradually changes throughout the play, as his reversal of fortune takes an effect on him and he begins to not only lose his status but also gradually his mind. When he first speaks its is written through verse type writing which is a formal type of writing called iambic pentameter which is a line of verse that has one short or unstressed syllable followed by one long stressed syllable, latinate words are also used which are words that are derived from the latin language. There is also more complex sentences used, imagery, illusion ect… These all help to make King Lear sound quite intelligent and ‘Kingly’. For example this is king lear’s language in one of the very first scenes. ”Let it be so, thy truth then by thy dower! For, by the sacred radiance of the sun, The mysteries of Hecate and the night, By all operations of the orbs From whom we do exist and cease to be ect..” however if we look further in the play when the reversal of fortune has really started to have an effect on him. The language drastically changes. ”No rescue? What, a prisoner? I am even The natural fool of fortune. Use me well; You shall have ransom. Let me have surgeons; I am cut to the brains” This is a lot more simplistic, the language isn’t very elaborate and Its also a little bit nonsensical. You can tell that the person that has said this isn’t entirely sane. This really does show the reversal of fortune because it is hard to imagine that the person quoted just above is the same person quoted now. It seems like two entirely different people, which shows not only the reversal of fortune but also another aspect that the tragic hero must have which is to be physically or spiritually wounded often resulting in his own death. It is obvious that king Lear goes through many different mental changes throughout the play, his loss of grip on reality is made severely obvious with the dialogue he says. As he loses all his power, his patterns of speech become no longer iambic pentameter and it becomes hard to understand what exactly he is saying, As well as it becomes less official kingly and more like the ramblings of a mad man.
Another thing which is also of equal importance is having the hero’s fate being much greater than deserved. As this is where the pity is formed, It is made very clear that King Lear’s fate was much greater then deserved. He died of heart break holding his favourite child in his arms near by the corpses of his other two daughters. Not only that but all of the characters except two were left alive at the end. That includes the fool, Gloucester ect… However it’s his dialogue on top of that, that helps to properly verbalises how tragic it all really is as well as how undeserving he is of his fate ”And my poor fool is hanged No,no,no, life! Why should a dog, a horse, a rat, have life, And thou no breath at all? Thou’ll come no more, never, never, never, never, never!” he then goes on to claim that he sees breath coming from his daughters mouth as if she’s still alive and then dies. If we look at his crime which was to mess up the natural order and use his power and influence for an ego boast, as well as to banish those who disagreed with his decision. It does not seem like he was deserving of this fate. The words drive home the absolute ridiculousness of it all. ”why should a dog, a horse, a rat have life, and tho no breath at all?” to fully understand how using animals to explain how absolutely crazy it is that they should have life and he should not. Its important to understand the way in which the natural order goes. God, king, second to king, nobility, peasants till it goes down far enough and gets to animals. They are at the bottom of the natural order, However him a king is at the top. Being at the top it would be incredibly difficult to understand how those at the bottom could be prospering while he is not. To then discuss the fact that just before he dies he sees her breath shows that he has completely succumbed to madness and that the reality of his scenario is just to difficult for him to handle.
In conclusion Shakespeare had a vast amount of knowledge of classics, In order to be able to write the character of king Lear that fits so fully under Aristotle’s ideology of it all.
author unknown, 19 may 2018, Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tragic_hero
Rorty. Amelie. Okensenberg, August 3rd 1992, Essays on Aristotles poetics, philadelphia, new jersey, Princeton university press
Shakespeare. HBJ, 1969, King Lear, torontio. canada, Ken Roy