King Lear: The Tragic Disjunction of Wisdom and Power

Paul A. Cantor, “King Lear: The Tragic Disjunction of Wisdom and Power,” in Shakespeare’s Political Pageant, eds. Alulis and Sullivan, 189209


Many critics regard King Lear as the greatest of Shakespeare’s plays and also as his most tragic. Indeed, many would claim that it is the most tragic play ever written. And yet, curiously, in most critical accounts of the play, it is difficult to see why we should even regard it as tragic at all, whether we are using an Aristotelian or a Hegelian definition of tragedy. In the view of most critics, Lear is basically a pathetic old man, vail and foolish, rash in his judgment and incapable of controlling his emotions – and he is all these things from the very beginning of the play. This characterization seems to preclude viewing Lear on the Aristotelian model of a tragic hero, as someone raised above the ordinary level of humanity, except in the most conventional sense of his social status. Moreover, in the view of the majority of critics, the play charts the growth of Lear’s wisdom, as he learns the emptiness of worldly glory and comes to embrace the love of his daughter Cordelia as the one true value in his life. As consoling as this vision of Lear’s education through suffering may be, it leaves us with a sense that the dramatic issues of the play can in the end be fully resolved. But if that is the case, then Lear cannot be in a tragic situation as Hegel defines it, that is, he is not caught in the clash of two legitimate principles, a situation from which there is no simple escape, no matter how much he learns. In concrete terms, critics generally do not view Lear as caught between genuinely conflicting loyalties, his political and his personal obligations; on the contrary, in their reading of the play, Lear would simply be right to abdicate the throne and retire into private life.

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