Knowledge of the Aristotelian tragic hero reveals much about Shakespeare’s intentions in the tragedy King Lear

The tragic hero is a staple to the quintessential tragedy according to philosopher Aristotle which follows a protagonist on his downwards spiral into tragedy, hence the name the ‘tragic’ hero. The tragic hero could be defined by a character having a fatal flaw in conjunction with their excessive pride to create a reversal of fortune which leads them to their inevitable downfall. This device is supposed to cause catharsis in the audience watching the journey and conclusion of the tragic hero; supposed to invoke an emotion of fear and pity for this hero. This exact theory from Aristotle on tragedy can be perfectly reflected onto the character of ‘King Lear’ in his self-titled novel to show Shakespeare’s intention for this tragedy; he wanted to tell a story of a flawed hero in order to invoke emotion in his audience and even a reflection of life of his time-period and of life as we know it now

Parallels between the perfect Aristotelian tragic hero and king Lear resembles a carbon copy of Aristotle’s words “a person who must evoke a sense of pity and fear in the audience. He is considered a man of misfortune that comes to him through error of judgment” Shakespeare shows us this through Lear’s ‘fatal’ flaw of arrogance and ignorance and his path of tragedy. Lear throughout the story makes ignorant decisions which is something that makes the audience winch at. Decisions like banishing his daughter Cordelia from the kingdom due to the fact that Lear believes she is going against him by not sugar-coating how much she loves him “I love your Majesty. According to my bond; nor more nor less” when in reality she does love him but doesn’t want to make it a competition of deceit between her sisters. The other characters try to tell that what he’s doing is a choice out of ignorance “When majestic falls to folly. Reserve thy state And in thy best consideration check This hideous rashness Answer my life my judgement Thy youngest daughter does not love thee least Nor are those empty-hearted whose low sound Reverbs no hollowness” but the arrogant Lear replies “Kent on thy life no more” just to shut it out as it was some type of insult. This is a showcase of Lear’s hubris as it shows Lear’s with a lot of false pride believes that what Kent was saying to him was to go against him when in actual fact Kent was just seeing what Lear wasn’t. It shows the audience an action that makes us feel pity for him. The reaction to this is the hamartia of Lear which leads us down Lear’s downfall towards insanity. Shakespeare’s tragic hero of King Lear is a replica of Aristotle’s tragic hero, one that shows us a morally just man metaphorically falling off a cliff due mistakes caused by his own flaws but on a grander scale, it shows that even a king is prone to mistakes which makes him feel more human than a godlike being which Shakespeare has used to make the audience realise that they are human like the rest of us and suffer betrayal, heartbreak and death like the rest of us. An imitation of life so to speak.

Taking the focus away from Lear, the plot of “King Lear” is not actually centered around Lear, the tragic hero himself, but is actually centered around the actions in the ‘world’ that the tragic hero lives in. A tragedy according to Aristotle is “the imitation of action…not of men, but of an action and of life” and Shakespeare translates this by simulating the world that he himself lives in then realised in the play, which shows us the readers in the new millennium how life was back then. To make the audience feel connected to them, Shakespeare put things in like the “Great chain of being” in King Lear which, as primal as it is to us now, was relevant throughout the world during the in-need-of-a-higher-being-obsessed Victorian era where humanity was structured: with God being on top, kings being below god but on top of all humans, then princes, nobles, men, animals etc… People believed in this structure as it was believed that it was the way that ‘god had supposed it to be’. It is also an intention by Shakespeare as a reflection of the human nature with people in power that even we experience now like with US president Donald Trump drawing similarities to Lear’s flaws of arrogance and ignorance as he thinks of himself to be doing the right thing
due his excessive pride even when being told by others that he’s doing the wrong thing which could even mean that’s he’s on the tragic hero’s path as we speak. It shows that the King Lear has a sense of human relatability is more of a depiction of real life rather than a fictional world.

Rhythm at first glance might not seem to be present in the tragedy but upon closer inspection has actually been used throughout the entirety of the play not just to make it sound fancy but instead represent meaning through the use of the iambic pentameter. As Aristotle’s says “every tragedy, therefore, must have six parts, which parts determine its quality – namely, plot, character, diction, thought, spectacle, song” so what would a tragedy be without a rhythm? The iambic pentameter is a series of stressed and unstressed syllables in a set of five, and is used in King Lear by a person of significance as a way to show the power of that character  like for example because Lear is the king (being at the top of the great chain of being) he speaks in verse “since NOW we WILL diVEST us BOTH of RULE ” every second syllable is stressed in speech but then we see the character of the Fool speaking without rhythm in prose “Thou wast a pretty fellow when thou hadst no need to care for her frowning; now thou art an O without a figure” as he is a character that is of lesser being in the great chain of being. Although during Lear’s anagnorisis, the point where he has been kicked from his own castle by his daughters and is left with nothing, he starts to speak without rhythm “Is man no more than this? Consider him well. Thou ow’st the worm no silk, the beast no hide, the sheep no wool, the cat no perfume. Ha! Here’s three on’s are sophisticated” Shakespeare manipulates the rhythm in Lear’s speech by making lear break out of verse and into prose to show us his peripeteia. This is symbolic in the way that you expect a king, as a person of significance, to be talking in verse as he is the highest man in the chain of being but instead he is speaking the word of the normal man. What this represents is the breaking of the great chain of being and furthermore as a result of this Lear’s journey he has put himself on from the mistake of banishing Cordelia has resulted in Lear’s total insanity as he breaks back and forth between verse and prose showing a truly broken person. Shakespeare is putting forth again the idea of human nature and how fragile it is and even how a slight variation in speech is a sign of total insanity.

All in all, through knowledge of Aristotle’s tragic hero, Shakespeare’s “King Lear” intended to be a homage to Aristotle’s philosophy on the tragic hero and tragedy as a whole, a reflection of the nature humans and to also make out a cathartic experience for the audience to emote, exactly as Aristotle had visioned for the perfect tragedy; “An imitation of life”.

Join the conversation! 2 Comments

  1. Hi Callum,

    A nice start, well done.

    Please ensure that you edit your work for technical accuracy towards the end of this assessment time. Pay particular attention to your punctuation and syntax.

    Also ensure that you are using the correct vocabulary when describing elements of the text and the theory.

    I will update you on the assessment decision regarding your dislocated arm by the beginning of next period.

    Mrs. P

  2. Hi Callum,

    During your final assessment periods, I encourage you to think about:

    – Completing the bulk of your analysis. You are on the right track this but you need to ensure you get the work done. Ensure you do not use the plot to drive your analysis but the devices in the language that you have articulated and identified in during your classwork on the play.

    – Avoid using the plot to drive your analysis. When using quotations, explain how they support your ideas.

    – Ensure you are exploring the impact on the reader/audience that this character type has. Explicitly address what Shakespeare was trying to achieve with this text via the details that he embeds in the language of the script. You have said to me that his work is like art- show me the brushstrokes!

    Mrs. P


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