King Lear - Analyzing a Tragic Hero

Tragedy is defined in Websters New Collegiate Dictionary as:

1) a medieval narrative poem or tale typically describing the downfall
of a great man, 2) a serious drama typically describing a conflict
between the protagonist and a superior force (as destiny) and having a
sorrowful or disastrous conclusion that excites pity or terror. The
play of King Lear is one of William Shakespears great tragic pieces,
it is not only seen as a tragedy in itself, but also a play that
includes two tragic heroes and four villains. I felt that a tragic
hero must not be all good or all bad, but just by misfortune he is
deprived of something very valuable to him by error of judgment.

We must be able to identify ourselves with the tragic hero if
he is to inspire fear, for we must feel that what happens to him could
happen to us. If Lear was completely evil, we would not be fearful of
what happens to him: he would merely be repulsive. But Lear does
inspire fear because, like us, he is not completely upright, nor is
he completely wicked. He is foolish and arrogant, it is true, but
later he is also humble and compassionate. He is wrathful, but at
times, patient. Because of his good qualities, we experience pity for
him and feel that he does not deserve the severity of his punishment.

His actions are not occasioned by any corruption or depravity in him,
but by an error in judgment, which, however, does arise from a defect
of character. Lear has a "tragic flaw" - egotism. It is his egotism
in the first scene that causes him to make his error in judgment - the
division of his kingdom and the loss of Cordelia. Throughout the rest
of the play, the consequences of this error slowly and steadfastly
increase until Lear is destroyed. There must be a change in the life
of the tragic hero; he must past from happiness to misery. Lear, as
seen in Act I, has everything a man should want - wealth, power,
peace, and a state of well-being. Because a tragic character must
pass from happiness to misery, he must be seen at the beginning of
the play as a happy man, surrounded by good fortune. Then, the
disasters that befall him will be unexpected and will be in direct
contrast to his previous state.

In King Lear the two tragic characters, a king and an earl,
are not ordinary men. To have a man who is conspicuous endure
suffering brought about because of his own error is striking. The
fear aroused for this man is of great importance because of his
exalted position. His fall is awesome and overwhelming. When
tragedy, as in Lear, happens to two such men, the effect is even
greater. To intensify the tragedy of King Lear, Shakespeare has not
one but two tragic characters and four villains. As we have seen, the
sub-plot - concerning Gloucester, Edmund, and Edgar - augments the
main plot. Gloucester undergoes physical and mental torment because
he makes the same mistake that Lear does. Like Lear, Gloucester is
neither completely good nor completely bad. There is, for instance, a
coarseness in the earl, who delights in speaking of his adultery. But
he has good qualities as well. He shows, for instance, concern for

Kent in the stocks, and he risks his life to help Lear. Gloucester\'s
punishment, his blindness, parallel\'s Lear\'s madness. These two
tragic stories unfolding at the same time give the play a great
eminence.

The important element in tragedy is action, not character. It
is the deeds of men that bring about their destruction. Lear calls
upon the "great gods," Edgar and Kent blame Fortune, and Gloucester
says that the gods "kill us for their sport" (IV.i.37). But in
reality the calamities that befall both Lear and Gloucester occur
because of the actions of these men. Their actions, it is true, grow
out of their characters: both are rash, unsuspecting, and vengeful.

But the actions themselves are the beginnings of their agony, for
these actions start a chain of events that lead to ultimate
catastrophe.

A tragic hero gains insight through suffering. Neither Lear
nor Gloucester realizes he has committed an error until he has
suffered. Lear\'s suffering is so intense that it drives him mad; it
is on the desolate health that he fully realizes his mistake in giving
the kingdom to his two savage daughters and disowning the one daughter
who loves him. It is not until Gloucester has been blinded that he
learns the truth about his two sons. These two characters