The importance of self-knowledge and forgiveness is strikingly obvious in the play King Lear.
If we accept that the two characters most lacking in self-knowledge are Lear and Gloucester, we can examine how the importance of this quality for them is shown in the play. Whilst these two characters lack self-knowledge, the world around them quickly deteriorates. As a result of their lack of insight, evil is given space to breed and take over, and Lear and Gloucester are forced to suffer as “love cools, friendship falls off and cities divide.” Due to Lear’s palpable mistake in measuring the love of his daughters, he banishes the only child who truly loves him and seals his fate for the remainder of the play. Likewise, Gloucester is deceived by his dishonest son Edmund, and wrongly outlaws his loyal son Edgar, thus creating the conditions for his own suffering.
It is through his suffering in the storm scene that the importance of self-knowledge, for Lear, is most strikingly evident. Lear is a man who has become accustomed to “the name and all th’addition to a king”. He is used to being obeyed, respected and feared. Being king is his identity – for him, it is not a job, but who he is. He is shaken when his status as king is destroyed by Goneril and Regan, questioning “Does Lear walk thus? Speak thus? ... Who is it that can tell me who I am?” Tellingly, the Fool answers him with “Lear’s shadow”. Losing his position as king is ultimately the catalyst for Lear’s impending madness. Stripped of the trappings of royalty, Lear does not know himself. Without his unnecessary retinue of a hundred men, he feels naked and emasculated. This insecurity and complete lack of self-knowledge is most strikingly exposed in the storm scenes.
Having entered the storm in “high rage”, Lear is now open to the “fretful elements”. Nature does not differentiate between the “basest beggar” and king, and it is through the unforgiving “tempest” that Lear comes to an understanding of himself. While exposed to the wind and rain, Lear realises the thunder will not “peace at my bidding”, and therefore realises he is not divine. Out on the heath, “bareheaded”, he cannot hide from his emotions and his mind. Indeed, his great mind begins to break as he contemplates his daughters’ “ingratitude”, the hypocrisy of state and justice, and the suffering of others. It is only when he finally realises his culpability in all of this that he turns the corner to self-knowledge.
However, this change does not come easily. The storm scene is one of the most striking scenes in the entire play. The audience can only watch in awe as the once imposing Lear madly rages against the storm, demanding it to “crack nature’s moulds” and spill all seeds “that make ingrateful man!” The image of Lear shouting up at the skies, willing them to destroy mankind is unforgettable. As Lear journeys through the violent storm, he also journeys through his own deep despair. The storm is the physical representation of...