Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

A reader's group devoted to the discussion of meaningful books.

Saturday, June 13, 2015

SHAKESPEARE: King Lear (Act V Justice and Tragedy)

By the time the curtain closes on King Lear seven of the main characters are dead.  Is this why we call the play a “Tragedy” because so many people died?  No.  It’s sad when people die but it’s not tragic in the classic sense of the word.  Consider the classic Greek tragedies we read in the Great Books: Antigone by Sophocles; Iphigeneia at Aulis by Euripides; Agamemnon by Aeschylus; Medea by Euripides; and Oedipus the King by Sophocles.  What do these plays have in common with King Lear by Shakespeare?  King Lear dies at the end.  So do Antigone, Iphigeneia, and Agamemnon.  But Medea and Oedipus don’t.  Obviously having main characters die in a play is not what makes it a tragedy.  How about this approach?  Lear was a king.  So were Agamemnon and Oedipus.  But Antigone wasn’t a king.  Neither were Iphigeneia or Medea.  So that won’t do either.  Maybe what we’re searching for in tragedy is something Aristotle loosely calls poetic justice.  For example, at the end of King Lear (and also at the end of all the Greek tragedies mentioned above) we put down the book with a gnawing sense that either a grave injustice has been done (Antigone, Iphigeneia); or else the price of justice was so high it makes us wonder if justice is worth it after all (Agamemnon, Medea, Oedpius). 

So maybe we should frame the problem by asking what happened to the characters in King Lear.  Then ask these two questions.  Was it a tragedy?  Was it justice?  Let’s look at what happened to each of them and try to determine if they got what they deserved.  Cornwall was killed by one of his servants.  Regan was poisoned by Goneril.  Goneril committed suicide.  Edmund was killed in a duel by Edgar.  Gloucester and King Lear died of broken hearts.  And Cordelia was hanged in a prison cell.  In a certain sense Cornwall, Regan, Goneril and Edmund were bad guys.  So those cases weren’t tragedies but they were good examples of poetic justice because they all got what they deserved.  Gloucester and Cordelia didn’t deserve what they got.  They were both good guys and they were both victims of injustice.  What happened to them was sad but those weren’t tragedies either.  (Our next reading selection (Aristotle On Tragedy) will explain why.) 

That leaves King Lear.  Did he deserve what happened to him?  That depends on how we answer a simple question.  Was King Lear one of the good guys or one of the bad guys?  The classic tragic hero has to be a good guy; at least most of the time.  All of the ancient Greek tragic heroes were good most of the time.  But they all suffered because of some flaw in character resulting in their sudden downfall, their own death, or some monstrous injustice falling on their loved ones.  This is the essence of tragedy.  The moment King Lear turned power over to Regan and Goneril he set the stage for a tragedy of epic proportions.  That makes Lear the only true tragic hero in this whole drama.  That’s why the play’s called King Lear and not Cordelia.  What happened to Cordelia was sad but it was King Lear alone who created the political environment for injustice to be carried out on such a massive scale.  It was King Lear alone who put power into the wrong hands.  Justice is the appropriate use of power and King Lear allowed power to be used inappropriately.  This is a theme Plato will explore more fully when we read The Republic in a couple of weeks.  Balancing Aristotle’s ideas about tragedy and Plato’s ideas about justice will give us far better insight into unraveling the deeper meaning of Shakespeare’s King Lear.  These are three of the true heavyweight champions of Great Books and it's a real tragedy more people don’t read them.      


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