King Lear is often regarded as one of Shakespeare’s finest pieces of literature. One reason this is true is because Shakespeare singlehandedly shows the reader what the human condition looks like as the play unfolds. Shakespeare lets the reader watch this develop in Lear’s own decisions and search for the purpose of life while unable to escape his solitude and ultimately his own death. Examining the philosophies Shakespeare embeds into the language and actions of King Lear allows the reader a better understanding of the play and why the play is important to life today.
Because Lear is rooted in flawed epistemology, attempting to find the meaning of life, he can only create corrupted actions and policies. Not only does Lear’s epistemology only cause him greater problems, but this epistemology also relates back to the political nature of the play. Politics must be understood as a process of fabrication in which the end utopian goal justifies and underpins rulership, control and domination (Saurette). Nowhere is this better shown than when Lear decides to step down from the throne and give his seat on the throne to the daughter who “loves” him most (Damrosch 1361-1363) and when he does, the two daughters who fabricate their “love” for their father rule his former kingdom through authoritarianism and totalitarianism. This paper seeks to analyze distinct philosophies in King Lear, such as existentialism and nihilism, to allow the reader a better grasp on why certain actions in the play occur and why these political philosophies drive Lear further into his problems.
Although referred to as a distinct philosophy, it seems nearly impossible to find an exact definition for the term “existentialism.” This is primarily true because existentialist thinkers, such as Friedrich Nietzsche, Søren Kierkegaard, and Fjodor Dostoyevsky, could never agree what the definition of existentialism is or its terms. However, according to a definition provided by St. Aslem College, existentialist thought can be defined as being “thrown into existence first without a predetermined nature and only later do we construct our nature or essence through our actions (Banach).” Several concepts can be drawn from this definition. First, there is no predestined nature to control what one is, does, or finds valuable. Second, one is free of sway by outside influences and may act individually. Third, one constructs human nature through free choices through experience of emotions such as love, hate, and fear. And lastly, free choices form ones values. In the context of Shakespeare’s King Lear, Shakespeare touches on the existentials of the human condition, which shall be discussed later in further detail. Existentialism provides substance to the play as the reader watches King Lear shape his destiny through his choices.
King Lear is an exceptional piece of literature that provides insight into the human condition through existentialism. King Lear is challenged with existence in its...