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An Optimistic Tragedy

An Optimistic Tragedy

By Patricia Truxler Coleman

While it may be saying a great deal to call Shakespeare’s King Lear the most optimistic of his tragedies, it is certainly not saying too much. For in this play, we are given two views of man and his place in the universe: the pessimistic view which is characterized by Gloucester’s observation that the gods enjoy seeing us suffer (“As flies to wanton boys are we to th’ gods, / They kill us for their sport” [4.1.36-37]) and the optimistic view which is characterized by Lear’s thinking on his and Cordelia’s suffering (“Upon such sacrifices, my Cordelia, / The gods themselves throw incense” [5.3.20-21]). Clearly, it is Lear’s view with which we most sympathize in this play.

In King Lear, the intricate double plot gives us an opportunity to see the universe in its enormous complexity. Because this play is organized around the juxtaposition of scenes and characters, the inversion of ideas, and the artful alternation of private and public lives, we are able to watch the action from many points of view, at various times sympathizing with nearly every character. Yet, in the end, it is with Lear and Cordelia that we most identify. Lear is an old man, “fourscore and upward” and very foolish. Though old, he is not wise. And his fall from grace is the fall of one exhausted by the demands of life. Cordelia is a young woman, well-intended but equally foolish. Though young, she is not tender. And her fall from grace is the fall of one whose youthful zeal blinds her to the possibility of honest but pragmatic behavior. As she observes to her father toward the end of the play, “We are not the first who with best meaning have incurr’d the worst” (5.3.3-4).

Thus, King Lear is a play which speaks to all of us—old and young alike. For in the characters we can see our own potential for human failure. And yet this potential is not all we see. Through at least Lear and Cordelia, we see much more. This is not a play just about the nature of sin, of human failure, of hopelessness. It is much more. It is a play about human potential for reconciliation, and our attention is, of necessity, drawn to those scenes in which we find Lear and Cordelia mending their relationship.

In many of the other tragedies, Shakespeare focused on the nature of the tragic flaw, of sin, and of its effect on human beings. To that end, in plays like Richard III, Titus Andronicus, and Macbeth, the playwright examined the way in which, as Richard puts it, “sin will pluck on sin” (4.2.64). But not so here. This play seems to operate instead from the premise which we are taught in Proverbs: the just man falls seven times a day. And, given that, Shakespeare draws our attention to the hope of atonement and reconciliation. To miss this would be to miss the play itself.

For by the end of the very first scene, Cordelia has made her mistake, and by the middle of the second act, Lear has made all the mistakes he is going to make. The rest of the play is given to the consequences of these mistakes: Lear’s mad rage, his disaffection from Goneril and Regan, the disintegration of the family and the kingdom, the invasion of the French army, and—most importantly—Lear’s and Cordelia’s reconciliation.

What we are given in this play, then, is not just a case study of sin and the effects of sin, but rather a promise, a hope, that each of us has in ourselves the potential, so long as we are alive, to atone for our past indiscretions and to reconcile with those we have wronged.

If Lear and Cordelia are morally superior to any other of Shakespeare’s tragic heroes and heroines it is simply for that reason: they dare to hope. Unlike Gloucester, who tries to commit suicide not once but twice, neither Lear nor Cordelia ever contemplate taking their own lives. Once they are reunited, they find new meaning in their lives—even in prison. They learn to “forget, and forgive” (4.7.83). And in the end, we know that they have, indeed, suffered so heroically and impressively that “upon such sacrifices . . . / The gods themselves [must] throw incense” (5.3.20-21).