A Lesson Learned Too Late in King Lear
In the first half of the play, King Lear struggles with the problem of authority and the consequences of giving his own authority away. Lear’s eventual loss of sanity is a result of his ill judgement and unwillingness to part with his power as king. Yet, the issue of authority is not the only theme that is being dealt with in the play. King Lear is also about Lear’s search for identity and wisdom in his old age. The play explores the concept of the human worth in regards to Lear and the other characters associated with him. In addition, the play is about the shifting definition of Lear’s identity and human worth. Although the majority of the play is spent presenting the audience with these issues, the fact remains that the protagonist figure (Lear), and the other innocent character (Cordelia), die at the end although they are the characters who present the knowledge and issues of the play. It is necessary to understand the impact of the deaths of these characters because their deaths have the potential to cancel out the values and issues that they present and embody throughout the play. Yet, in the case of King Lear, the issues with which Lear struggles are not negated with his death. With the death of Lear and Cordelia, the audience gains more than a sense of loss from the deaths of these two characters who have finally come full circle and who have reconciled. The audience, more importantly, is presented with the tragic consequences of events that are set into motion and unable to be reversed or canceled. It is this main issue of consequence that is not negated with the deaths of Lear and Cordelia, but instead, strengthened with their deaths.
Lear’s struggle with giving up his own authority and lands is part of the irreversible aspect of the play. The fact that he is forced by Goneril and Regan to give up his knights and is unwilling to do so is an example of Lear’s struggle with his own decision to pass on his authority. Yet, Lear’s inability to accept the consequences of his choice prepares his character for change. Lear is portrayed as fighting first against his own decision, and then against fate and the forces of nature. In a sense, the heath scene represents a type of death for Lear. Lear’s unwillingness to accept the newly appointed authority of Goneril and Regan is in accord with his “battle” on the heath. In the heath scene, Lear challenges the elements with his “blow, winds, and crack your cheeks” speech (III.ii.1). His inability to accept his own fate is dramatized with this scene in which he is reduced to a “slave” of the elements and is made to see himself as “a poor, infirm, weak, and despised old man” (19-20). The heath scene marks Lear’s death as a king and he is (in his own words) reduced to a “poor, bare, forked animal” (III.iv.110).
Additionally, the progression of Lear’s character does not end with his self-recognition as a “poor,...