King Lear as an Arthur Miller Tragedy
If we seek to justify Shakespeare's King Lear as a tragedy by applying Arthur Miller's theory of tragedy and the tragic hero, then we might find Lear is not a great tragedy, and the character Lear is hardly passable for a tragic hero. However, if we take Aristotle's theory of tragedy to examine this play, it would fit much more neatly and easily. This is not because Aristotle prescribes using nobility for the subject of a tragedy, but, more importantly, because he emphasizes the purpose of tragedy -- to arouse pity and fear in the audience, and thus purge them of such emotions.
Arthur Miller, in his famous 1949 essay, "Tragedy and the Common Man," states the following as the nature of the tragic hero:
…The tragic feeling is evoked in us when we are in the presence of a character who is ready to lay down his life, if need be, to secure one thing -- his sense of personal dignity. …The underlying struggle is that of individual attempting to gain his "rightful" position in his society. … Tragedy…is the consequence of a man's total compulsion to evaluate himself justly.
Now some people may find it doubtful whether Lear fits the above description. True, he is displaced from his "rightful position in society," namely, that of a king, but he has brought about displacement by himself. In addition, he shows few signs of struggling to regain that position or striving to "evaluate himself justly."
Lear is not forced, like Richard II is, to give up his crown. Although he is very old, he is not obliged to hand his power over to anyone, let alone divide his kingdom into three. Not only is he not obliged or compelled to do so, Kent even openly warns him against the act in Act I Scene i. Likewise, Lear unnecessarily stages a love-auction with his three daughters, which directly results in his dependence to Goneril and Regan, and the loss of his kingly dignity. Since he himself, not the environment surrounding him, is responsible for his misfortune, there cannot be a struggle between Lear and the society/environment, as Miller describes in his essay.
As for trying to regain his rightful status, King Lear has done little. At first he does not even understand his mistake. In [1.4], when he leaves Goneril because she cut his one hundred knights down to fifty, and then decides to return because Regan will allow only twenty-five [2.2], he is the same foolish Lear in [1.1] who banished Cordelia and believed flowery lies. He has not tried to evaluate himself justly at this point, or even acknowledge his misjudgment.
When he understands his mistake, realizing that Goneril and Regan are both heartless liars, and only Cordelia truly loves him, he starts to go mad. In his better moments he remembers to curse Goneril and Regan and lament his suffering, while in worse moments his utterance hardly make sense. Both are passive reactions to his misfortune, not active struggle for re-establishing his...