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“King Lear’s downfall was his own – he ignored the rules of Kingship.” How far do you agree with this viewpoint?

A-Level: English

Title:  “King Lear’s downfall was his own – he ignored the rules of Kingship.” How far do you agree with this viewpoint?
Description  “King Lear’s downfall was his own – he ignored the rules of Kingship.” How far do you agree with this viewpoint?
Word Count:  1350


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In typical Aristotelian tragedy, the tragic hero usually appears initially as a good person and falls from grace through an erroneous judgement. In Shakespeare’s ‘King Lear’, however, although King Lear enters with an air of grandeur, the audience is immediately presented with an egoistical autocrat with a “darker purpose” to divide his kingdom in order to “shake all cares and business” in his old age – surely a mistake, which will inevitably have negative consequences, that Lear himself cannot foresee. Through his foolishness Lear loses loyal followers, including his daughter Cordelia and his faithful servant Kent – and when he is humiliated and left alone to battle with the elements in a storm by those whom he trusted to care for him, he loses his sanity, too. Only when he sees through his own folly and sees himself for what he is, a “poor, infirm, weak, and despised old man” (III.ii.20), does the audience feel sorry for him – especially that, given a final chance at happiness with his true daughter Cordelia, she dies and Lear dies of a broken heart. The question is: does Lear deserve it? Did he bring such misfortune on himself, or is he just a poor “old and foolish” man at mercy of others, a man “more sinned against than sinning” ? (III.ii.60)
Lear himself certainly seems to think that he is being punished for the mistakes of others. He seems to think that it is the fault of the Gods:
“You see me here, you gods, a poor old man,
As full of grief as age, wretched in both;
If it be you that stirs these daughters’ hearts
Against their father …” (II.iv.267-270)
Perhaps more importantly, although the main “storm and tempest” rages in Act III, which has traditionally been the crisis act, it begins at the end of Act II Scene 4, directly after both Regan and Gonerill forsake their father, leaving Lear alone outside with “scarce a bush” for protection from the “wild night”. Since the earth was often seen to be a reflection of heaven, the storm, symbolising a disruption in nature’s harmony (a sign of gods’ displeasure), suggests that it is the two daughters, the “unnatural hags”, which are in the wrong, and not Lear.
Despite this, it would have been clear even to an Elizabethan audience - perhaps more so to a modern audience - that Lear’s downfall was his own fault. As Sue Doss claims, “Lear is a tragic hero responsible for his own ruin. To be sure, he is sinned against, but his flaws are several” and although others exploit the situation, it is these flaws that lead directly to Lear’s downfall. Even Lear himself realises that he has acted imprudently: “O Lear, Lear, Lear! /Beat at this gate that let thy folly in /And thy dear judgement out!” Unfortunately for him, however, he fails to see exactly where he has gone wrong.
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