In William Shakespeare’s classic tragedy King Lear, the title character, an aging British king, makes a definitive decision to flee his homeland due to his perceived notion that his daughter’s, one of whom was to control his Empire after his death, had turned their backs on him. This was indeed the truth when it came to his eldest daughters, however, not when it came to his youngest, and favorite. Upon her declaration that nothing she could either say or do could ever show her true love and admiration for her father, the King became enraged and eventually fled based on his perceived idea. Though Lear is a very typical tragic figure in the type cast Shakespearean drama–easily comparable, but very distinguishable from characters such as Hamlet or Julius Caesar–he does have individual intricacies that define his situation, as well as the situation of the people around him.
Lear fell into madness, and fled his homeland in favor of a beggar’s life. Ironically, his faithful servant was simply dealt this same punishment for remaining loyal to Lear. His favorite daughter was also greatly affected by Lear’s disappearance–her French-backed army was destroyed, and both herself and her father were captured. If the character of King Lear had not decided to flee his throne, the consequences would have been very far-reaching–all of which include the fate of his faithful companion, the fate of Britain as it was thrust into a power struggle, as well as perhaps keeping not only himself and his faithful daughter alive, but even maintaining his sanity as a whole–questioned so frequently throughout the play.
Addressing first the fate of his loyal servant, a tragic nobleman named Gloucester, it was Lear’s implicit actions that led to the man’s fate. Lear’s paranoia that all of his daughters, and not just the elder two, had turned against him forced him to flee. Naturally, this was going to create a power struggle–Lear’s eldest daughters as well as Cornwall, his son-in-law, filled the void. Gloucester chooses his allegiance, and sides with Lear at great personal risk. Subsequently the man is blinded and left to wander the countryside, before being led by his disguised son to Lear’s whereabouts.
As previously stated, when Lear chose to flee, it left a vacuum of power just waiting to be seized. When his treacherous daughters take control, the nobility as a whole was left to make their own decision as to remain loyal to their absent King, or his scheming but powerful daughters. Gloucester would never have been forced to make the decision that cost him his vision had Lear not fled in the first place. Gloucester is reflective of all the English nobility that would have been placed in similar situations when Lear made his decision to flee England, and his punishment is a product of the cowardice Lear shows at times in the play.
The entire fate of Britain was also placed in jeopardy when King Lear decided to flee, fearing for his own life. This calls into question two of Lear’s most fateful attributes–his cowardice, as well as his pride. Rather than remaining in England, willing to go to War to save his own throne, Lear decides to run out of cowardice that he may be betrayed and murdered by his daughters. His youngest, favorite, and loyal Cordelia has in fact stumbled upon a plot by her older sisters to seize the throne. By fleeing his post in England, he allowed for the true perpetrators to easily seize control. His pride lead him to believe even his beloved Cordelia had forsaken him, simply because she did not attempt to win her fathers favor out of flattery. This added to his madness, which certainly added to the reason he fled his post as King. Had he not left, it is very possible that his nobility, combined with Cordelia’s French assistance, would have been able to regain control–thus sparing the lives of virtually all the tragic characters.
Lear made the decision to exile himself–certainly an ironic microcosm for the entire story as a whole. By choosing to run, he did not just alienate himself, but actually sealed the fate of many others indeed. This is the irony of Lear’s self-exile–his pride, cowardice, and madness isolated many more than just himself. The implications of his actions, as are very typical of a Shakespearean tragedy (categorized as a Renaissance tragedy), draw on his tragic flaws to illustrate the downfall of both Lear himself, as well as the people around him (Schwartz, 2005).
There is one thing about King Lear as a character that distinguishes him from other tragic figures in Shakespeare’s plays–his inability to make himself overall impressionable as a character at all. He has neither the strength of Julius Caesar or Othello, nor the level of complexity of a character like Hamlet. The reason for this is very simple: King Lear is much more complex than King Lear is as a character. Unlike other Shakespearean dramas, much more emphasis is placed on implications of the title character’s actions rather than the title character himself (Walsh, 2012). King Lear himself is a very predictable tragic figure that makes decisions based on his typecast. This clearly paints the audience a picture as to the fear-reaching implications of Lear’s decisions throughout the play.
Had the complexity of Lear been explored by Shakespeare at greater length, and he not be relatively predictable as a character throughout, he may have never fled England–and thus he may have prevented the death of not only himself, but the most important person to him throughout the play, his faithful daughter Cordelia. Allowing the power void to empty by fleeing attune to his flaws, he created a War between Cordelia and her French allies and the newly commanded English forces of his treacherous daughter and her husband. When Cordelia herself is captured as well as her father, she is eventually sentenced to death. King Lear laments himself to a death by heartache while pining in prison for Cordelia–typical of his character.
By the time Lear meets his own demise, he is partially mad, ragged, and merely a ghost of his old form as King. Although Cordelia’s forces eventually win, neither Lear, Cordelia, his treacherous daughters, or the tragic Gloucester are alive to see it. King Lear, based on his tragic flaws of both pride and cowardice, made the decision to flee selfishly, rather than taking responsibility as King. As a result of these flaws, Lear destroyed the lives of almost all surrounding him, The play would have certainly turned a different way had Lear not decide to flee his post as King.
“King Lear: Entire Play.” King Lear: Entire Play. N.p., n.d. Web. 30 May 2013. <http://shakespeare.mit.edu/lear/full.html>.
“Shakespearean Tragedy.” Shakespearean Tragedy. N.p., n.d. Web. 30 May 2013. <http://cla.calpoly.edu/~dschwart/engl339/tragedy.html>.
“World Socialist Web Site.” The Element of Social Tragedy in King Lear –. N.p., n.d. Web. 30 May 2013. <http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2002/11/lear-n21.html>.