Is King Lear nihilistic or hopeful?
Satisfying, hopeful, and redemptive: some critics would say that these adjectives belong nowhere near a description of King Lear. One critic, Thomas Roche, even states that the play’s ending is “as bleak and unrewarding as man can reach outside the gates of hell” (164). Certainly, Roche’s pessimistic interpretation has merit; after all, Lear has seen nearly everyone he once cared for die before dying himself. Although this aspect of the play is true, agreeing with this negative view requires a person to believe that Lear learns nothing and that he suffers and dies in vain. Indeed, this is exactly what Roche believes when he states that at the play’s end, “Lear still cannot tell good from evil . . . or true from false” (164). This nihilistic approach, however, not only disregards many of the play’s moments of philosophical insight, but it also completely misinterprets Shakespeare’s intent. That is not to say that Lear is without fault at the end of the play; as Shakespeare surely understood, Lear is still human, and as such, he is subject to human frailty. What is most important about Lear, however, is not that he dies a flawed man but that he dies an improved man. Therefore, although King Lear might first appear “bleak,” Shakespeare suggests that Lear’s life, and human life in general, is worth all of its misery because it is often through suffering that people gain knowledge about the true nature of their individual selves and about the nature of all humanity (Roche 164). From the very beginning of the play, Shakespeare suggests that King Lear has much to learn. As Maynard Mack explains in his essay “Action and World in King Lear,” the reader/audience is immediately invited to sense that Lear is “too deeply . . . comfortable and secure in his ‘robes and furr’d gowns’, in his rituals of authority and deference . . . and in his childish charades” (170). In other words, there is an immediate sense that Lear is not truly aware of the harsh realities of human life. For instance, when Lear says that he has divided his kingdom into thirds for each daughter so that he can retire and “Unburthened crawl toward death,” he shows that he is completely lacking in common sense by assuming that his plan will go according to his will and that the transition of power will run smoothly (1.1.43). Almost instantly, Lear is proven foolish when Regan and Goneril “hit together” and agree to “do something, and in the heat” to strip their father of any power that he has remaining (1.1. 306, 311). Mack calls this rapid string of events that follow Lear’s hasty abdication “the waiting coil of consequences [that] leaps into threatening life,” bringing with it the unmistakable message that Lear was terribly wrong in choosing to reward his false-flattering daughters with the gift of his kingdom (170). Lear’s gift to Goneril and Regan, whose quick deception shows the falseness of their affections toward their father, proves that Lear is unable to see the love, or lack thereof, that others have for him. Likewise, when he becomes enraged at Cordelia after she refuses to flatter him, Lear reveals that he, like Goneril and Regan, is unable to have altruistic love for another person when he says to Cordelia that it would have been “Better thou/ Hadst not been born than not t’ have pleased me” (1.1.235-236). In essence, his “. . . power [and his love] to flattery bows” and he is only able to love another person when that person appeals to his sense of vanity, so when those who truly do love Lear, namely Cordelia and Kent, refuse to appease his vain nature, Lear banishes them, “Without grace . . .love . . . or benison” (1.1.149, 266). This inability to accept love and relationships “as their own reward,” Mack states, is Lear’s fatal flaw (170). Mack argues that relationships can lead to happiness but that they lead to heartache and despair equally as often; in order to have any good...
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