Both Shakespeare’s King Lear and Dante’s Inferno explore the reasons for, and results of, human suffering. Each work postulates that human suffering comes as a result of choices that are made: A statement that is not only applicable to the characters in each of the works, but also to the readers. The Inferno and King Lear speak universal truths about the human condition: that suffering is inevitable and unavoidable. While both King Lear and the Inferno concentrate on admonitions and lamentations of human suffering, one of the key differences between the works is that Inferno conveys an aspect of hope that is not nearly as prevalent in King Lear.
Through Lear, Shakespeare expertly portrays the inevitability of human suffering. The “little nothings,” seemingly insignificant choices that Lear makes over the course of the play, inevitably evolve into unstoppable forces that change Lear’s life for the worse. He falls for Goneril’s and Regan’s flattery and his pride turns him away from Cordelia’s unembellished affection. He is constantly advised by Kent and the Fool to avoid such choices, but his stubborn hubris prevents him from seeing the wisdom hidden in the Fool’s words: “Prithee, tell him, so much the rent of his land comes to: he will not believe a fool” (Shakespeare 21). This leads to Lear’s eventual “unburdening,” as foreshadowed in Act I. This unburdening is exacerbated by his failure to recognize and learn from his initial mistakes until it is too late. Lear’s lack of recognition is, in part, explained by his belief in a predestined life controlled completely by the gods: “It is the stars, the stars above us govern our conditions” (Shakespeare 101). The elder characters in King Lear pin their various sufferings on the will of a higher being; The concept that it is by their own action that they suffer is foreign to them: “These late eclipses in the sun and moon portend no good to us” (Shakespeare 14). By not recognizing their own hands in the events taking place, Lear and Gloucester cause additional turmoil for themselves and those around them. Similarly, in Inferno, Capaneus is a man whose punishment comes as a result of his own defiance. Zeus struck down Capaneus for defying a prophecy stating that he would not conquer the city of Thebes. As a result of his arrogance, Capaneus’ anger becomes his own punishment:
“O Capaneus, since your blustering pride will not be stilled, you are made to suffer more: no torment other than your rage itself could punish your gnawing pride more perfectly” (Dante 198).
Capaneus remains defiant of the Gods, and is one of the only sinners to do so, even as he lies in hell with the other blasphemers: “What I once was, alive, I still am, dead!” (Dante 197). Both Lear and Capaneus show repeated instances of hubris and stubbornness throughout their respective stories, and both fail to see their own faults. Each was forewarned about the consequences of his actions, yet each traveled down the path that would bring...