Shakespeare’s intentions with the story of King Lear are defined by the guidelines laid out by Aristotle. They are understood better in this context compared to what we may understand as a tragic hero. Aristotelian’s idea of a tragic hero was specific and the pinnacle of thinking during that time and still is. Shakespeare followed these guidelines to build his play and they help define the intentions of King Lear, as his drama script goes against the natural order. By exploring what a tragic hero is and combining this with a classical view we see how Shakespeare interpreted these characteristics and then conveyed them it into his writing. Shakespeare also grabs the audience through the use of the natural order and challenging the common beliefs of the time.
An Aristotelian definition of a tragic hero is far more complex than mine or an uneducated person. A tragic hero is a character who is good at heart and through a series of events transitions from happiness to misery. The Aristotelian definition is a character who through a choice of their own suffers as a result. Their own decision making and judgement has caused destruction upon them. This destruction upon themselves has come as a result of one of their flaws and disobeying the natural order. In Aristotelian culture, the native language was Greek. Hamartia, meaning “miss the mark”, is often the drive for revenge towards another character. Finally, the character must receive a greater fate than deserved. When the character is placed in a situation where they are under pressure to act, is often when this becoming a tragic hero occurs. A vital piece of being a tragic hero is that they remain pure-hearted and good. Aristotle also has a few other traits and requirement for a tragic hero. They must (extract from Aristotle’s manuscript) “suffer more than he deserves, be of noble nature, be doomed from the start, understand his doom, must be physically or spiritually wounded by his experiences, the hero’s story should arouse fear and empathy and must be faced with a serious decision he has to make.” Reversal of fortune is displayed later on in the play when Lear begins his fall. We see his loss of fortune and the death of all his Kingdoms officials, by the switching between prose to verse. When he is still King he talks in prose, commonly spoken by rich and powerful people. When he falls as a result of his hamartia he begins to speak in verse, those spoken by common people, representing what Lear has now become. The Greeks also believed in the chain of being. Meaning everything has a natural order and if broken there would be a consequence. The natural order was not to be broken, they believed the King was there to reign until death, therefore by passing off his responsibilities before his death he is going against the natural order, thus his consequence will be far greater than deserved. This will also come into King Lear and aid the further understanding of using Aristotle’s definition of a tragic hero.
Shakespear knew that the five characteristics laid out by Aristotle were important and by remembering them while viewing his works would help us to understand his meaning. The five characteristics define the story of King Lear and how to story ends. In King Lear, the second scene where King Lear asks his daughters to confess his love for him is a great example. Cordelia refuses to take part, “Nothing.” – Cordelia, Nothing will come of nothing: speak again.” – King Lear. This is significant for a few reasons. A daughter is refusing something of her father, and later we see this correlates to Aristotle’s characteristics. In these times it was seen as highly disrespectful to disobey your superiors and against the natural order. The natural order or chain of being is a hierarchy system where gods are at the top, followed by angelic beings, Kings, people, animals, so on and so forth. The King had rule over all the people and beings on earth and for someone to disobey him, is now under his wrath. This leads to the first characteristic, hamartia. Lear makes a judgement error and his flaw of pride causes him to make a decision he cannot reverse and ruins him from then on. This allows us to see that Lear’s reversal of fortune is as a result of his own doing. His decision to disown Cordelia by Aristotle’s definition is a key point of the story as it signifies the start of King lear becoming a tragic hero. When his two remaining daughters, Regan and Goneril overthrow him, this is the first stage that he receives his fate. His fate must be greater than deserved. At the end of the script, perhaps the pinnacle of the story King Lear meets his fate, which is far greater than deserved. “Why should a dog, a horse, a rat, have life, And thou no breath at all? Thou’lt come no more, Never, never, never, never, never!” – King Lear, his family and friends have all been killed, the gods have delivered their hand, and King Lear dies. Without the five characteristics to show us that this is a requirement we would not fully understand the meaning Shakespeare envisioned. If this were viewed in modern perspective than we would still see a tragic hero but the depth Shakespeare wants us to see may be lost. He has had to watch his Kingdom, friends and family die before him, finally then he is able to die, this all because he went against the natural order.
The story of King Lear must also be viewed in a classical context to fully understand its meaning. By combing the classical view with Aristotle’s traits required for a tragic hero we can gain the understanding Shakespeare wants us to. The modern meaning of this text is vastly different from the classical. Many people would today do not see a huge problem with Regan and Goneril disobeying. The chain of being also highlights this as the daughters are below Lear in the natural order. “‘Tis his own blame; hath put himself from rest, And must needs taste his folly.” – Goneril. “For his particular, I’ll receive him gladly, But not one follower.” – Regan. The sister decides King Lear was going to give most of the kingdom to Cordelia so they conspire against him, eventually overthrowing him. They leave him with nothing. All these combined create a deeper understanding of Shakespeare’s intentions with King Lear as the classical view provides background to Aristotle’s characteristics. Lear’s flaw displayed at the beginning of the play is that he values appearances above reality, and this extract from the drama script shows Lear being served his fate with his daughters about to cast him out. He wants to remove himself from responsibility but still be treated like a King. A classical understanding would tell you that Kings were supposed to reign until death. With a modern understanding, you would likely miss this detail and assume he was doing a good deed by entrusting his daughters with the kingdom. “That we our largest bounty may extend” – King Lear, meaning he wants to give away his responsibility but keep his title and respect. If you were caught conspiring against the King you would likely be killed. Throughout the play, the daughters and others conspire against King Lear. Aristotle’s characteristic of a fate greater than deserved to bring greater meaning to this. Lear is a man more sinned against that he has sinned. His only mistake, admittedly which is very large, is to disown his daughter and give power to his remaining two. His fate must be greater than deserved and half his kingdom conspires against him means Shakespeare wanted to raise the tragic hero up and then let him fall into a bottomless pit, death. The classical view and Aristotelian understanding of a tragic hero allow us to see the example Shakespeare was trying to make out of King Lear, and why King Lear is a tragic hero.
Aristotle’s five characteristics combined along with a classical view bring a deeper understanding of King Lear and why he is a tragic hero. My understanding of a tragic hero has been influenced by the Aristotelian definition. They key moments to which we realise or receive a glimpse that King Lear is a tragic hero is at the very beginning when four of the five characters are displayed, throughout his fall when he realises his mistakes, and the end when the fifth characteristic of a great fate than deserved is fulfilled as Cordelia lays dead in his arms. King Lear has been taken from the pinnacle to the depths of hell in only a matter of weeks, showing that the gods and the natural order have the last say.
Aristotle, 1920, Poetics, Translated by Ingram Bywater, A. Scholtz, Oxford England
Linda Alchin, nd, scirpt of the play King Lear, http://www.william-shakespeare.info/script-text-king-lear.htm