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From Egoism to Humility in Shakespeare’s King Lear

In Shakespeare’s King Lear, Shakespeare paints Lear’s egotistic attitude, both of which made his life tormented and full of misery. Because of his poor judgement and excessive pride, he loses not only the kingdom that he takes pride in but most importantly, the daughter that loves him the most. However, as the play progresses, Lear journeys from egoism to humility and death.

Lear is a very egotistic man. In the beginning, the foolish king (who out of whim) issues a challenge to his children to which they must respond by trying to outdo each other in praising their father. The daughter who displays the most affection takes the largest part of the kingdom. He says, …Tell me my daughters Which of you shall we say doth love us most That we our largest bounty may extend Where nature doth with merit challenge.

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(I.i.38-39, 49,52-54) To this, his elder daughters (Goneril and Regan) both express their love claiming that despite being married, they love their father with their “all.” On the other hand, the youngest daughter Cordelia feels that her “love’s/More ponderous than my tongue” and says “nothing” when the king asks her to “draw/A third more opulent than your sisters.” (I.i.lines 88, 86-87) By refusing to offer praises to her father, Lear who is “injured” by the daughter “he loved…most” (I.i.line 291), disowns and disinherits Cordelia.

The first scene of Act I gives the readers a clear view of Lear’s egoism. He sees himself as righteous, and his decisions just. When the Earl of Kent tells him to reconsider his decision, he refuses to do so and goes as far as accusing Kent to being a “recreant” and banishes him from the kingdom, saying that “on the tenth day the following,/Thy banished trunk be found in our dominions,/Thy moment is thy death.” (I.i.lines 177-179) Even the King of France finds Lear’s “love test” absurd and Lear “unkind” and says that, “love’s not love/When it is mingled with regards that stands/Aloof from th’entire point.” (I.i.lines 239-241) Lear’s egoism is further highlighted when the Fool comments on Lear’s mistakes. The Fool castigates Lear for giving away his kingly authority and for disinheriting Cordelia. (I.iv.lines 101-108) However, instead of listening to the Fool, Lear reminds the Fool of “the whip” (I.iv.line113), a punishment for bringing a “pestilent gall to me.” (I.iv.line117) Lear’s egoism eventually causes his doom.

Goneril and Regan who both profess to take care of their father under all circumstances, complain, deprive Lear of his authority and tell him to “be wise” and not keep all his “knights and squires.” To this, Lear storms out of the castle and rages at the storm. Lear, left with his Fool, undertakes three important changes in his egotistic personality. First, he discovers that “the art of our necessities…can make vile things precious.” (lIII.ii.lines 70-71) Second, he recognizes his powerlessness, claiming that he has become “a poor, infirm, weak, and despised old man.” (lIII.ii.line 20) Third, he begins to take note of the miseries of others telling the Fool that he has “one part in my heart/That’s sorry for thee.” (III.ii.lines 72-73) However, at this point, he still refuses to recognize that his own suffering is because of his own doing–his love test, his disowning/disinheriting of Cordelia, his bickering with Goneril and Regan over his 100 knights–all of which are within his control.

Driven by the despair of having been spurned by both of his daughters to whom he trusted his life and care, Lear eventually succumbs to madness and transforms from being powerful and self-confident to being despaired and confused. Lear asks the winds to blow and “crack your checks. Rage, blow./You cataracts and hurricanes spout/Till you have drenched our steeples, drowned the cocks.” (III.ii.lines 1-3) Therefore, Lear’s attitude towards the wind reflects his question on whether or not nature, thus God, is good or bad to have treated him badly.

Lear’s madness eventually enables him to see the source of his suffering. Lear tells the thunder that he “tax you not, you elements with unkindness./I never gave you a kingdom, called you children;/You owe me no subscription.”(III.ii.lines 16-18) At this point, Lear humbly recognizes that his suffering is due to his own failings. He also acknowledges that he has not paid much attention to certain important things in his life. “O, I have ta’en/Too little care of this!” (III.iv.32-33) Moreover, in Lear’s encounter with Edgar, then disguised as Tom the Bedlam Beggar, he begins to acknowledge other’s respectability despite of appearances–that even though circumstances may deprive others of strength or luxurious living, the basic humanity remains and is worthy of respect and care. Thus, not only does he consider his position equal to that of Tom (by tearing his clothing), he also elevates Tom to the position that requires great respect, a philosopher or a “good Athenian.” (III.iv.line 177) His further transformation occurs when he is reunited with Cordelia. Lear, still with his elder daughter’s rejection of him in mind, humbly tells Cordelia that he is willing to submit to her wishes even if it means drinking the poison that she might have for him. “If you have poison for me, I will drink it./I know you do not love me; for your sisters/Have as I do remember, done me wrong./You have some cause, they have not.” (IV.vii.lines 72-74) After this he humbly asks her for forgiveness. “You must bear with me. Pray you now, forget and forgive. I am old and/foolish.” (IV.vii.lines 83-84) His transformation enables him to be content and happy with life, even in the direst moment. When Edmund imprisons Lear and Cordelia, Lear tells Cordelia that “we two alone will sing like birds i’ th’ cage./When thou dost ask me a blessing, I’ll kneel down/And ask thee of forgiveness. So we’ll live,/And pray, and sing and tell old tales, and laugh.” (V.iii.lines 9-12)

However, Lear’s happiness is short-lived for in the end, Edmund’s captain hangs Cordelia. Lear kills the captain and carries Cordelia’s body and grieves. “And my poor fool is hanged: no, no, no life?/Why should a dog, a horse, a rat, have life,/And thou no breath at all? Thou’lt come no more.” (V.iii.lines 306-308) With this, he asks Edgar to loosen Cordelia’s button and imagines Cordelia coming back to life. Then Lear himself dies.

Through madness, Lear, an egotistic man who acts out of foolishness in order to please himself and thinks himself righteous and just in his inane judgement, completes his journey from egoism to humility when he finally realizes that he is a man who “is more sinned than sinning.” Moreover, he realizes that his very egotistic attitude is what caused him his doom to which he loses all–his paternal authority, his crown and more importantly, his beloved Cordelia.

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From Egoism to Humility in Shakespeare's King Lear. (2021, Mar 03). Retrieved July 31, 2021, from https://essayscollector.com/essays/from-egoism-to-humility-in-shakespeares-king-lear/