“King Lear” is a play very much based around the theme of tragedy and suffering. A lot of this tragedy is inflicted upon the King himself, and, at first glance, it would appear that he brings it upon himself. However, when one delves further into the mysteries surrounding this character one can see how it would be possible for Lear to be punished beyond reason with all of the torment that he has to endure.
There are several candidates who could be blamed for the tragedy, and few of them escape actually feeling some of the pain. Gonerill and Regan are designed to be the sadistic and evil characters in the play. It is clear we are expected to have little or no sympathy for them. They also mete out the vast proportion of the misery on the other characters. However, one must ask, do they actually start the tragic ball rolling, or, are they merely a tool of the tragedy? Of course, they do take the anguish to a higher level than necessary. As soon as they enter the play, we understand them to be sly, cunning and subversive as they participate in Lear’s egotistical and foolish love-test only in the search of material gain and power. They are very loving towards Lear when this gain is in the offing, but as soon as it is achieved, their true characters and desires are revealed with Gonerill stating that this is the “last surrender of his will” and that they should finish him off “i’th’heat.”
Lear’s daughters continue to act in an evil and malicious manner throughout the play, with both being involved in the blinding of Gloucester. However evil they may be, one is never wholly convinced that they are in control of the situation. They merely began with wanting to get land and power from their father, but they embark upon a slippery slope, wanting more and more by eliminating the other contenders from the equation. They marry Albany and Cornwall to achieve land and power, but it is clear that the sisters rule over these dukes;
“You may fear too far.” / “Safer than trust too far.” I.4.325
One can see that Gonerill cares little for the opinions of her husband, Albany, as she often corrects his statements, yet he does little or nothing to defend himself. This control allows the sisters to over-estimate their powers, soon wanting not only Lear destroyed, but also his supporters such as Gloucester and Caius (Kent). Next they are prepared to immerse all of England into war in order to gain power and status. Even though they appear to be the main perpetrators of wickedness, they never actually seem to be in a position where they might defeat Lear, who although he is always shown as being subdued, just keeps on coming, through thick and thin, and survives all but the final setback. Gonerill and Regan, however, commit a suicide pact at the first sign of a setback or defeat, suggesting that they do not have the stomach to withstand tragedy, signifying that they are most likely to be incapable of starting or being blamed for all of the tragic events in the play.
Lear is the character most often blamed for the entire tragedy, even though he is the one worsted by it. At the start of the play, he is shown to be and arrogant, foolish and egotistical tyrant, as is suggested by his awe-inspiring entrance, his love-test and his movements to strike Kent. He is incapable of understanding fully the true meaning of love or power, believing that one deserves the other and vice versa. Cordelia’s character gives Lear reason to understand love and happiness, but because he has not being educated to the contrary, he believes that she is impertinent and unloving. He believes supporter to mean that a one should always agree with him, never questioning his opinions, views or actions. Kent shows Lear his mistakes, that his “power to flattery bows,” and highlights his “hideous rashness.” His reward for such help is exile, but because he is a loyal subject of the king, he supports him under a new guise, that of Caius.
Lear quickly loses control of himself and the country after losing Cordelia and Kent by his own faults. When he looks to Gonerill and Regan for help, he is quickly made aware of his errors in trusting them, but blames these two sisters for all of his mistakes. However, as Lear wanders through the wilderness, he is ‘educated’ by the Fool, who reveals to him all of the mistakes that he has made, but indirectly rather than telling him straight out, as he knows that Lear will scold him for such insolence. In III6, Lear instigates a mock trial of Gonerill and Regan with the Fool and a madman as the judges. This scene represents Lear’s final slip into madness and when on line 81 he suggests that they should “go to supper i’the morning,” one can see that the entire world has been turned upside down.
This is where Shakespeare raises an interesting point. After this scene, the Fool is never seen again. This suggests that because Lear has turned the world upside down, he now plays the part of the Fool. However, because of the way the world was, Lear can be understood to have turned the world the right way round again, suggesting that this is when he finally realises his mistakes and wants to rectify them.
At this stage one would expect that Lear’s fortunes would turn around, but they do not. One has already seen a man, deserving of some punishment, have his life totally destroyed, and would expect him to now have more than paid his debt. Unfortunately for Lear, things can only get worse for him and the people around him. Gloucester’s eyes are put out and Lear thinks that Gloucester can no longer see. However, this brings a final revelation to Lear, as it did to Gloucester when Lear states that “a man may see how this world goes with no eyes.” The audience is now aware of Lear understanding everything, so the tragedy should be over. Lear has no such luck, because shortly after his meeting with Cordelia, she is killed.
Now this should be the end of the suffering for Lear, as all of the wrongdoers are now dead. However, in his final words we understand that Cordelia may still be alive, unlikely as it is, because Lear draws attention to her lips. Sadly, Lear dies at this instant form a broken heart, at the realisation that Cordelia was the one who had loved him, yet was the one he banished. His death does not leave him fully self-understood, or knowing that he has righted the wrongs, instead he dies in agony and suspense, which is his final tragedy, showing that he is definitely more sinned against than sinning.
Some of the tragedy described already cannot wholly be attributed to the characters already highlighted. Edmund exacts much revenge on this father, Gloucester and is half-brother, Edgar. He can be seen to be the opposite of Lear in his motives and actions. He starts the play maligned by everybody, even called a “whoreson” in his presence and is indirectly informed that he is going to be banished again. We are inspired to feel sympathy for him as he deemed to be a lesser human through no fault of his own. This pity is quickly quashed, because he decides to take his revenge through foul means rather than fair. He can be grouped with Regan and Gonerill in that he takes his wants too far and is doomed by his own actions.
In difference to the Lear’s daughters, he creates this particular tragedy himself, and is not a victim of convenient circumstance. His forming of the suffering to inflict on his father and brother is amplified when he brings about an alliance with Gonerill and Regan, creating more torment than even he could have imagined. Unlike Gonerill and Regan, Edmund is does not kill himself and as he is killed by the person he had so persecuted, he recognises and admits to his mistakes. This shows that although he can be blamed for this particular section of the tragedy, this misery is bought to a close because the characters involved are exonerated and the deeds righted.
In conclusion, it is difficult to blame any particular characters for the suffering caused during the tragedy. Because Gonerill, Regan and Edmund inflicted the torment, it would seem fitting to blame them for all that has happened. However, it is clear that they were but into the position to cause such events by the attitudes, actions and arrogance of Lear and, to a lesser extend, Gloucester, so these two characters should also take a large share of the blame.