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A Bleak of Hope in King Lear, a Play by William Shakespeare

By considering the dramatic effects of King Lear, evaluate the view that “despite the appalling suffering, the world of the play is not without hope”.

In his play King Lear, Shakespeare presents a society in which none may emerge victorious. The end of the play somewhat serves as a lesson that tragedy makes no distinction between those who are good and those who are evil; for example, despite the constant contrast presented between Lear’s daughters, they are all subject to death in the end. Suffering is a recurring theme of the play, shown not only through the deteriorating mental state of the characters, but also through depictions of graphic brutal violence to symbolise physical suffering. Hope for humanity is not explicitly present in the play, but is nevertheless portrayed through the change of heart and development of certain characters.

A.G. Bradley argues that “the whole story beats the indictment of prosperity into the brain”. Indeed, hope does seem to be condemned at points throughout the play, perhaps most through the dramatic irony of Cordelia’s death, directly after Albany declares “the Gods defend her!” Such cruelty from the Gods is a recurring theme in King Lear, and as Gods may be viewed as the epitome of hope, a world with careless gods might therefore represent a world in which hope is utterly futile. The final loss in hope is signified by Gloucester’s loss of faith; as a character who seemed to have enduring belief, exclaiming “kind Gods”, even as he had been humiliated by Regan, it is surprising and somewhat unsettling to witness Gloucester conceding that “As flies to wanton boys are we to th’Gods; They kill us for their sport.” It demonstrates Gloucester’s complete loss of faith that he attempts to commit suicide, the most unforgivable of sins in Shakespeare’s time. The notion that in King Lear, even the most hopeful of characters will become desperate, suggests that the play is set in a hopeless world.

Nonetheless, it must be acknowledged that, while some characters lose faith due to the circumstances, others become better as a result of them. The protagonist of the play is a telling example of this, for before the suffering was endured, it seems he had been a careless and perhaps cruel man. At the beginning of the play, it was hard to sympathise with the violent and narcissistic King; initiating the “darker purpose” of the love test confirmed his inability to rule pragmatically, and his cruelty towards Cordelia and Kent, the play’s most loyal characters, depicts his misjudgement of others. Later on, however, Lear declares that he’ll “kneel down, And ask of thee [Cordelia] forgiveness”, showing his immense development in his ability to accept fault and feel compassion. This implies that suffering was necessary for Lear to improve himself; a Christian audience would have supported this message as being one that promotes hope, rather than destroying it, as redemptive suffering was an important aspect of religion. Edmund, too, is seen to change his ways by the play’s end. He says “some good I mean to do, despite of my own nature”, which denotes the attempt at defying his typically evil personality to regain morals. The act of redemption before death suggests that hope is in fact present in the world of King Lear.

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