Self discovery in King Lear

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Alessandra Anzante

Self- Discovery in King Lear

Although King Lear is an estimable monarch, as revealed by the devotion of men such as Kent, he has numerable character flaws.  His power as king has encouraged him to be conceited and impulsive, as his oldest daughters Regan and Goneril reflect, "The best and soundest of his time hath been but rash..." and that "he hath ever but slenderly known himself” (Act 1 Scene 1).  When Lear decides to divide his kingdom between his three daughters, Cordelia, Goneril, and Regan in order to have less responsibility in his old age, he creates a situation in which his eldest daughters gain authority and mistreat him, and his youngest is criticised for not accentuating her love. Lear is unable to cope with his loss of power and descends into madness. While the circumstances in which Lear finds himself are instrumental in the unfolding of this tragedy, it is ultimately not the circumstances themselves, but King Lear's rash reactions to them that lead to his downfall. In this downfall, Lear is forced to come to terms with himself as a nothing but a mortal man.

Through the course of the play, King Lear goes through a process of attaining self-knowledge, or true vision of one's self and the world. With this knowledge, he encounters a metamorphosis of person. In the beginning, King Lear's vanity, and the image and exercise of power dominate his person. But a series of losses (based on his own bad decisions), and the death of the one who truly loved him, clear his vision and allow him to see himself and the world as they truly are. The pain and suffering endured by Lear eventually tears down his strength and sanity.

In the first few scenes of the play, King Lear portrays his need for praise by choosing to divide his kingdom amongst his daughters. The girl, who accentuates their love for him to an extent that almost seems artificial, shall receive the largest area of land. This is evident as he gives each daughter her land before even hearing the next daughter's praise. It is because of his love for admiration that makes him react so strongly to Cordelia and Kent when they do not act, as he would wish them to. In the play, this is shown in his banishment of Cordelia and Kent. Kent is one of the most loyal people in Lear’s Kingdom, and it is Cordelia that truly does love Lear. Nevertheless, due to the fact that they choose not to contribute to the appraisal, they are banished. In fact, he threatens to kill Cordelia if she is found in ten days. Lear says,” Upon our kingdom; if, on the tenth day following, Thy banished trunk be found in our dominions, The moment of thy death. Away! By Jupiter,"

This shows that at the beginning of the play, King Lear feels that his image is more important than the life of a daughter. This hunger for image attributes is further shown when Kent presents himself to the King after being banished, but in disguise. Kent strives to gain employment as a servant to the Lear and therefore uses the King’s gullibility to praise in order to win the position. In this case, it's the image of authority that Kent appeals and longs to aspire to.  

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King Lear continues to illustrate his need for a larger ego with his ‘keeping of a hundred knights’. These knights are hardly around for noble deeds as one might assume them to be doing. They are in fact merely Lear's fair-weathered friends who eat, drink, and go hunting with him. They provide a blanket of security, and offer him a chance to exercise command over. His need for them becomes more apparent when Goneril suggests to not keeping them. Lear becomes extremely angry with her, "Hear, Nature, hear! Dear goddess, hear! Suspend thy purpose, if thou dist intend to make ...

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