King Lear is often viewed as one of Shakespeare’s more complex, enigmatic plays, with a well-defined and multifaceted titular protagonist, one who is steadily developed throughout the course of the narrative. As the story progresses, Lear is placed under constant, immense emotional and psychological stress as the situations and people around him change, and he, therefore, emerges at the end of the play as a different man.
Thus, he is an excellent example of character development, changing and learning new moral values over time. However, the character maintains a sense of realism, as he is not totally redeemed over the course of his journey. As per the conventions of tragedy theatre, his development is too late, and he ends up losing all that he holds dear. He begins as a powerful and proud king and finishes as a broken and sorry individual.
Shakespeare immediately establishes Lear’s character with the Love Test scene (Act 1, Scene 1), initially depicting him as authoritative and respected. As Lear outlines his plan to divide the kingdom between his daughters, Shakespeare writes Lear’s dialogue in an imperative tone, emphasizing his commanding nature.
However, we then realize that Lear wants to abandon his responsibilities as king, and only keep the titles and pleasures, as shown with the line “to shake all cares and business from our age, conferring them on younger strengths while we, unburdened, crawl toward death” Furthermore, Lear’s petulance and narcissism becomes quickly apparent, as he demands that each of his daughters profess their love to him.
This is clearly indicative of a need for gratification and shallow, ingenuine flattery. Despite Lear’s implied past wisdom, his ego and senility have clearly driven him to foolishness, as he immediately accepts Goneril and Regan’s declarations, despite the extremely articulated and practiced nature of their words, whilst Cordelia, the only of his daughters to act truthfully, and Kent, his most loyal servant, are banished.
Lear is next seen in Scene 3 of Act 1, during which his world begins to spiral out of control as people abandon him and he sees Goneril’s true attitudes towards him. Nevertheless, Lear still cannot realize the depth of his failure as a father and a king due to his yet unabated ego.
Lear enjoys spoils and pleasures at Goneril’s castle, accompanied by an outrageously large entourage of knights, but when he notices the disrespect that Goneril’s staff shows towards him and his men, he takes great insult, becoming enraged and violent towards servants. Lear is gracious towards a disguised Kent for his subservience and aid as he beats Oswald, further highlighting his childish aggression and pride. He lashes out at Goneril when she requests that he take control of his violent and boisterous knights, proclaiming her a “detested kite” and cursing her to have cruel and ungrateful children.
After leaving Goneril’s palace, Lear privately damns Goneril’s treatment of himself and his knights. He also expresses his belief that Regan will yet be a good daughter, kind and loving, and willing to take him in. Here, Lear’s foolishness is clear as he cannot see that he has essentially been tricked into giving away his power. Both his daughters despise him, but he refuses to acknowledge this, instead of convincing himself of the fantasy that Regan still loves him. His senility and ego have set him on a path of denial and self-destruction.
Lear’s next appearance comes in act 4, scene 2, wherein he learns of Regan’s betrayal and truly realizes the extent of his daughters’ manipulation. Not only is Lear forced to confront the decline of his power and authority, but he must also face the reality of his daughters’ hatred for him. Upon arriving at Regan’s palace, he finds Kent bound in stocks, a clear expression of disrespect and a challenge to Lear’s power.
Lear is furious, but he nevertheless maintains the fantasy of Regan’s love, which she promptly shatters, leading Lear to viciously renounce his love of both Regan and Goneril, calling them “unnatural hags” and declaring that his vengeance upon them will be the “terrors of the earth”. The scene ends with Lear angrily storming out of Regan’s castle.
At this point in the play, Lear has been reduced to little more than a raging old man. His power and authority have been stripped away, taken by his daughters. Lear commands no one’s respect (save for the Fool and Kent), and he now has no home to go to either. He has been violently broken down, the fantasies of his world shaken away and the reality of Goneril and Regan’s hatred towards him bluntly revealed.
The end of act 2 marks a significant turning point for Lear’s character, as all pretenses of power are washed away, as he must now confront the truth, and in doing so, will be humbled by the sum of his own follies. Lear has reached the “rock bottom” of his development as a character, in that he has been totally destroyed and the lies that he has surrounded himself with exposed. From this point on, Lear must learn the truth, and only once he has done so can he begin the journey towards redemption.