By Alexandra Cunningham
The questions of William Shakespeare’s King Lear may, at times, be greater than the answers. In King Lear the question of identity lies at the heart of the play. The titular character’s journey toward self-knowledge forms the text’s overarching goal. Through Lear’s character, Shakespeare examines the extent to which self-knowledge is possible. Lear’s loss of dignity and consequent descent into temporary madness arises from his confused and conflicted idea of the self. Shakespeare emphasizes the notion that suffering and vulnerability are the enabling forces behind an understanding of the self. Through Lear’s quest, Shakespeare raises a seemingly simple but absolutely necessary question: who are we as humans? Through an exploration of this question, Shakespeare conveys the universality of Lear’s journey to self-knowledge.
Shakespeare does not introduce Lear as a man undergoing a loss of identity, but rather as a man confused with his notion of self. Regan’s commentary on her father in the first scene suggests this idea: “he hath ever but slenderly known himself” (Shakespeare 1.1.284-285). Lear has two notable statuses that he believes define his identity: his role as a king and as a father. His existential confusion is initially portrayed by Shakespeare as stemming from a misunderstanding of his responsibilities. Lear’s desire to abandon his role as king is evidenced in his first lines:
We have divided
In three our kingdom, and ‘tis our fast intent
To shake all cares and business from our age,
Conferring them on younger strengths while we
Unburdened crawl toward death.(Shakespeare 1.1.32-36)
He plans to bestow his kingdom to his daughters, and to lose the responsibility demanded by his kingship in his old age. However, Lear does not think this through fully. Although he does not want the responsibilities of a king, he still thinks he will be regarded as kingly and maintain his status. Yet if Lear is not king, then he is necessarily a subject.
Lear not only grants his daughters his responsibilities as a ruler, but also as a parent. He longs to be nurtured by them, and live out his remaining years in “rest,” dependent on his daughters’ “kind nursery” (Shakespeare 1.1.117-118). Lear thus inverts his role as parent to become child and his role as king to become subject. However, Lear is also hesitant to give up his kingship and fatherhood completely; he wishes to maintain the sense of authority these roles provide. Lear therefore attempts to occupy various conflicting roles, and begins the play not with a loss of identity, but rather with a conflicting and contradictory view of the self.
The first step in Shakespeare’s process of self-knowledge is Lear’s reassessment of what it is that defines him. The love-contest Lear holds at the beginning of the play represents, perhaps on an unconscious level, his need for “some reassurance of identity”. Lear wants to be told he is loved, “the deepest and most certain evidence that [he is] wanted and needed” (Jorgensen 95). So, even in the beginning, Lear is unknowingly asking those around him who they think he is.
The confusion Lear experiences leads to his suffering. His lack of self-recognition is what enables his initial downfall. After bestowing his kingdom on his daughters Regan and Goneril, Lear finds himself suffering the same rejection he presented to Cordelia. His daughters refuse to meet any of his needs. The needs Lear is conveying are not those of a basic sort, but rather those which enable him to have some concept of selfhood. Shakespeare emphasizes a difference between human needs and basic animal needs through Lear’s speech to his daughters:
O reason not the need! Our basest beggars
Are in the poorest thing superfluous.
Allow not nature more than nature needs,
Man’s life is cheap as beast’s. Thou art a lady;
If only to go warm were gorgeous,
Why nature needs not what thou gorgeous wear’st,
Which scarcely keeps thee warm. But for true need—
You heavens, give me that patience, patience I need.
You see me here, you gods, a poor old man,
As full of grief as age, wretched in both.(Shakespeare 2.4.258-266)
In begging his daughters not to see his needs through reason, Lear is appealing to the idea that this human sense of need is beyond practical understanding. Regan and Goneril are not able to see his true needs as necessary constituents of his sense of identity. This could signify that identity is something strictly personal, and that understanding what makes us who we are is something only accessible to ourselves. If, perhaps, Regan and Goneril are not able to recognize that, then they may be “the most vicious characters Shakespeare ever drew. At the heart of their evil beats a will to strip others of dignity” (Driscoll 140).
When need is understood only to be that which is necessary to a human’s survival on a basic level, man can be reduced to beast. In treating someone as requiring only the most rudimentary needs of survival, we are perhaps not recognizing them as fully human. The implication here is that humanity requires more than mere survival. Lear comments on Regan’s gorgeous clothes, which do not serve to keep her warm, but rather provide some sort of social elegance and dignity. Lear is able to “learn about unaccommodated man—his unwarranted pride and his frailty—through inquiring into man’s necessities” (Jorgensen 118). Lear’s “true need” is something different from basic necessity. He requires dignity, love, and respect; his struggle is that of a man who wants “to retain the self, the stature, and the dignities he has achieved” (Bennett 154). The dignity Lear longs for is necessary to his understanding of selfhood: “it is the consequence and evidence of the essential social nature and unique consciousness of the human animal” (Driscoll 140). Thus, it is this denial of human dignity that leads Lear on his quest for self-discovery.
Lear now sees himself and the world without the reassuring notions of power, respect, and dignity he had previously possessed. Without these comforts, Lear can begin to understand his selfhood. After his initial anger at his daughters’ rejection subsides, Lear is faced with the realization that he is the cause of his own suffering: “O most small fault, / How ugly didst thou in Cordelia show! . . . Beat at this gate, that let thy folly in, / And thy dear judgment out!” (Shakespeare 1.4.221-227). Lear is only able to see that his actions were wrong when he begins his pursuit of self-discovery. The suffering caused by this realization may be even more agonizing than the rejection Lear faced from his daughters. Although Lear had initially displayed an un-examined view of his responsibility, he is now forced to grasp the full extent of his situation. He must confront the harsh reality that he is the one at fault, that it is he who brought his situation about. It is thus this realization that leads Lear into his bout of madness: “O fool, I shall go mad” (Shakespeare 2.4.279). Shakespeare presents Lear’s madness as a necessary component of his pursuit of self-knowledge.
Suffering is portrayed as having a crucial role in achieving self-discovery, serving as both the cause of self-knowledge and the price of self-knowledge. Lear’s suffering is essential to his own redemption: “there is nothing more noble and beautiful in literature than Shakespeare’s exposition on the effect of suffering in reviving the greatness and eliciting the sweetness of Lear’s nature” (Bradley 24). It seems as though Lear’s upset was essential to his pursuit of self-knowledge. Although Lear could have been content relying on Cordelia’s “kind nursery,” the suggestion by Shakespeare is that he would not have attained self-knowledge. Living in comfort and in normalcy are not sufficient for us to understand who we are. Shakespeare is proposing that only through hardship are we able to come to self-knowledge. Lear is able to achieve some degree of enlightenment through his suffering, and he recovers what is most important to him: Cordelia. He is able to recognize that love is one of his true needs. Although it is clear from the love-contest that Lear has always been concerned with familial love, he is only able to understand, on a deeper level, the true nature of love when he is put through so much suffering. Dignity, as has already been established, is a uniquely human conception. The lack of dignity is vulnerability. It is only in these moments of human vulnerability that we can start to find answers to a seemingly basic but imperative question: who am I?
Lear’s important question occurs early on in the play: “Who is it that can tell me who I am?” (Shakespeare 1.4.189). While this question is personal for Lear, it is also pertinent to our understanding of the human condition. A question so necessary to human life cannot be understood on the minute scale of one character. It appears as though Lear’s question pertains to humanity more broadly. Josephine Waters Bennett conveys the grandiosity behind Lear’s insight:
The storm within Lear’s mind goes beyond good and evil, beyond the narrow world of preceptoral morality, to the imponderable realities of cause and effect, of man’s ignorance, his weakness, his blindness, and his blundering and suffering through life to his release from ‘the rack of this tough world.’ (153)
As humans, we are all inherently searching for the answer—potentially non-existent—to this question of identity. Lear’s struggle is thus universal to all of us, and, if we take his question to be essential to our nature, his quest is on behalf of all of humanity. Lear is not only asking who Lear is, but is asking who we are, as humans—what is our nature?
By the end of the play and his life, Lear has become partially enlightened but has not been able to fully answer his question. This may be because there is no easy answer to the question of identity within the confines of one play. To simplify and complete his transformation would force the play to lose some of its complexity. The question of identity is one that is “powerfully raised and examined,” and the play would lose some of its meaning if “Lear had finally left the stage as a fully rational and enlightened man” (Jorgensen 115). Although Lear achieves some sort of self-transformation by the end of the play, he is not able to reach wholeness.
Lear does, however, learn to identify what is most important to him. In the beginning, Lear grappled with what exactly it is that he needs, perhaps unknowingly asking what exactly it is that makes him Lear. He now discovers that love is what is necessary for him, particularly the love of Cordelia. Shakespeare seems to be suggesting that love is something essential to us as humans; the form this love takes on for Lear is embodied in his daughter. The change from King Lear’s opening scene to the titular character’s final lines is remarkable, too. Initially, Lear had demanded attention from all, and the public love-contest spoke to his ego. Now, his dying words call attention to Cordelia, someone other than himself: “Look on her! Look, her lips. / Look there, look there” (Shakespeare 5.3.283-284). He recognizes Cordelia as something more valuable than himself, and her love and existence as something necessary. Lear has thus expanded remarkably on the depth of his self-knowledge. Through his suffering, Lear is able to learn about his notion of self and of love.
Shakespeare’s King Lear concerns, above all, Lear’s journey to self-discovery. Shakespeare emphasizes the frail nature of identity, and develops the possibility for self-knowledge through Lear’s progression in the play. Lear’s confused identity enables his rejection and loss of dignity by his daughters. This loss of what it is he believes makes him Lear drives him to madness. Shakespeare suggests, however, that through suffering and vulnerability, self-knowledge may be attainable. Although Lear does not undergo a complete transformation, his partial enlightenment occurs because of his suffering. His understanding of such notions of love and selfhood are enhanced through an acceptance of vulnerability and responsibility. King Lear allows Shakespeare to explore a necessary and universal question on the small-scale of one man: who are we? Shakespeare seems to suggest that the extent to which we can understand this crucial question may be limited.
Bradley, A C. “King Lear.” Twentieth Century Interpretations of King Lear: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Janet Adelman, Prentice-Hall, 1978, pp. 22–33.
Driscoll, James P. Identity in Shakespearean Drama. Bucknell UP, 1983.
Jorgensen, Paul A. Lear’s Self-Discovery. University of California Press, 1967.
Shakespeare, William. The Tragedy of King Lear. Edited by Jay L. Halio, Cambridge UP, 1992.
Waters Bennett, Josephine. “The Storm Within: the Madness of Lear.” Shakespeare Quarterly, vol. 13, no. 2, 1962, pp. 137–155. JSTOR, doi: 10.2307/2866783.