Is King Lear Nihilistic or Hopeful?

3440 Words Nov 21st, 2012 14 Pages
Is King Lear nihilistic or hopeful?

Satisfying, hopeful, and redemptive: some critics would say that these adjectives belong nowhere near a description of King Lear. One critic, Thomas Roche, even states that the play’s ending is “as bleak and unrewarding as man can reach outside the gates of hell” (164). Certainly, Roche’s pessimistic interpretation has merit; after all, Lear has seen nearly everyone he once cared for die before dying himself. Although this aspect of the play is true, agreeing with this negative view requires a person to believe that Lear learns nothing and that he suffers and dies in vain. Indeed, this is exactly what Roche believes when he states that at the play’s end, “Lear still cannot tell good from evil . . .
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Indeed, Lear would have been very happy living his remaining years without any meaningful knowledge about love or relationships, surrounding himself in a “childish charade” of false love and false truth; from this point forward, however, Lear will have to learn the consequences of his blindingly ignorant actions (Mack 170). The ignorance about life and human nature that Lear demonstrates in the play’s first scene, then, leads to his largest mistake, the mistake that serves as a turning point from which all other actions are the direct consequence. As Mack explains, because Shakespeare put the turning point at the beginning of the play, “The meaning of action [in Lear] lies rather in effects than in antecedents, and particularly in its capacity, as with Lear in the opening scene, to generate energies that will hurl themselves . . . in reverberations of disorder” (170). That is, because Lear’s fatal flaw presents itself early rather than later on in the play—as is customary for Shakespearean tragedy—the meanings and consequences of his actions, as well as Lear’s own thoughts/awareness, have a longer time to evolve. How the early turning point in Lear helps to emphasize Lear’s learning experience is clarified by comparing the play with another Shakespearean tragedy; the turning point in Othello, for example, occurs in act 3, scene 3 when the seeds of jealousy that Iago has planted throughout the first three acts finally take root inside of
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