King Lear: References To Aristotelian Tragedy

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The Aristotelian tragedy of King Lear serves as a device to reflect Shakespeare’s context while resonating with a modern audience. It is the skilful use of universal themes and organic unity within the construction of Shakespeare’s King Lear that not only reflects Jacobean concerns of the time but also allows the text to maintain its textual integrity. By observing the reception of King Lear over time from a number of perspectives, it is clear why the play remains relevant to this day.

Shakespeare provides insight into the human condition through the integration of universal themes throughout King Lear. The theme of ignorance versus insight represented through the importance of self-knowledge and can be seen as one of the main ideas in King Lear.

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Shakespeare establishes the ongoing struggle of ignorance at the start of the play through Lear’s dismissal of Cordelia. When Kent attempts to persuade Lear to rethink his actions he is told to “Turn thy hated back Upon our kingdom,” bluntly and hatefully dismissing him. Just like Cordelia, he fails to see the truth within their words further exacerbating his ignorance. Although Shakespeare was educated pre-enlightenment it was an education based on rationalism and humanity. Shakespeare balances these new rational ideologies with traditional conceptions of the natural order in ‘King Lear’. By providing ambiguity of which approach in values is right or wrong he can represent his individual views through the text whilst also catering to the views of King James 1st. The character foil between Lear and the fool demonstrates these contradicting values. The fool covertly critics Lear’s irrational behaviour when he states, “not to give it away to his daughters and leave his horns without a case,” reminding Lear of the mistakes he has made. Lear later experiences the ramifications of his misjudgement, resulting in his eventual anagnorisis when he finally realises in a monologue: “I am a very foolish, fond old man..” Shakespeare is invoking pathos in Lear’s catharsis. King Lear’ maintains it’s textual integrity by establishing this universal struggle between ignorance and insight, reflecting the contextual struggle between rationalist and traditional ideologies.

Another way King Lear establishes its textual integrity is through the way it has been received over time. At the time the play was written King James 1st has just taken the throne and thus Shakespeare’s representation of Lear’s instability as a king represents Jacobean concerns of the new monarch. The Jacobean audience can resonate through Lear’s cathartic; “I fear I am not in my perfect mind”, as it contains significant relevance to their society. In addition, King Lear reflects both historical and contemporary ideas about power, greed and loyalty. By depicting characters like Goneril, Regan and Edmund as ‘evil’, Shakespeare is reflecting deeply ingrained societal values that still exist today in which society associates aspiration for power with malevolence. In doing so, Shakespeare develops the dynamics of the characters where we can no longer see them within the binaries of good and evil. Although Edmund is the villain of King Lear, there are avenues to sympathise with him through a contemporary perspective as birth-status restraints don’t exist to such an extent anymore. Professor Paul W. Kahn states, “if there is no justice in Edmund’s plan, neither was there any justice in Edgar’s legal entitlement,” demonstrating how the oppression of Edmund as a ‘bastard’ is the catalyst for his malicious actions. The textual integrity of King Lear can be understood by applying both contemporary and Jacobean receptions of the play.

Finally, it is the organic unity of the play’s structure, tone and content that allows the main ideas of the play to be received so well. King Lear perfectly fits the structure of the Aristotelian tragedy, through the establishment of his hamartia at the exposition of the play, through to his peripeteia and eventual anagnorisis within the climax and falling action. During the climax, Lear gives in to his madness with “O fool, I shall go mad!” the violent storm around him functions as a pathetic fallacy to the storm which rages in Lear’s mind as he loses his sanity. The falling action provides hope for Lear through his cathartic reunion with Cordelia “I’ll keel down, And of thee forgiveness.”. At this stage, Lear seems to be out of control when it comes to his sanity, and thus Shakespeare provokes pity from the audience. Aristotle defines this anagnorisis as “a change from ignorance to awareness of a bond of love or hate”. However, the resolution of the play reinforces the pessimistic tone again where both Lear and Cordelia tragically die. It is the renewal of Egar as King that provides the only hope to restore peace within the Kingdom. The tragedy of King Lear successfully achieves its aim in bringing out a catharsis from the audience. In doing so, Shakespeare creates a dynamic for all aspects of the play to link to the main ideas: of the struggle between ignorance and insight and the usurpation of power.

Ultimately, It is the skilful use of universal themes and organic unity within the construction of Shakespeare’s King Lear that not only reflects Jacobean concerns of the time but also allows the text to maintain its textual integrity. By applying the Aristotelian tragedy and establishing the struggle between ignorance and insight, Shakespeare allows ‘King Lear’ to resonate with a contemporary audience throughout centuries. 


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