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Irrationality and the Human Condition in The Tragedy of King Lear

Updated on May 10, 2012

The Tragedy of King Lear is one of Shakespeare’s greatest dramatic masterpieces as well as a leading tragic play. Based upon the tale of the legendary king of Britain and drawing upon historical incidents from contemporary political happenings, Shakespeare waves a tale of family, love, honesty, and madness as the plot reaches its somber conclusion. The aged King Lear decides that he is too old to continue governing his kingdom and plans to split it up between his three daughters and their husbands. In order to receive their share of the kingdom, each daughter must publicly declare her love for the king. Goneril and Regan agree to flatter the king with praises of their love, but Cordelia is unable to express her love adequately in words. This fault of Cordelia causes the king to disinherit her, and the action is set in motion for the tragic events to unfold, as Lear is mistreated by his other daughter and descends into madness as the stormy sky rages above. The lack of honesty, madness, blindness, and family issues raise important themes about the human condition. In King Lear, flattery is preferred over honesty, revenge over justice, and madness afflicts kings, who are supposed to be the favored ones. In the end, Lear sits and holds Cordelia’s dead body, one wonders about the human condition and why humans do the things they do. The tragedy of Lear and his family could have been avoided through the use common sense and reason. This is not the case as irrational behavior is featured throughout the play. In concerning the human condition, King Lear expresses irrationality as an inherent part of the human condition.

Even before King Lear descends into madness, his actions are the embodiment of irrationality for more than one reason. The irrationality is shown when he plans to divide up his kingdom. He gathers them around to begin the proceedings: “Meantime we shall express our darker purpose. / Give me the map there. Know, that we have divide / In three our kingdom, and ‘tis our fast intent / To shake all cares and business from our age” (I.I.31-34). It makes sense to pass on the kingdom as he becomes older and less fit to rule, but it does not make sense to divide the kingdom into parts. Dividing it up makes it weaker, easier to attack, and causes jealousy between the subsequent rulers. Kingdoms are not perfect geometrical shapes that can be divided up fairly, and this usually leads to civil war between the rival factions for control of land and resources. They way that he goes about dividing up the kingdom is also highly irrational: “Tell me, my daughters / …Which of you shall we say doth love us most, / That we out largest bounty may extend / Where nature doth with merit challenge?” (I.I.43-49). King Lear is not too concerned with the future of the realm if this is how he is going to divide up the kingdom. The competency of the future ruler is not taken into account, nor are the views of the nobles or the people considered. There is not a more inane question that he could have asked his daughters.

King Lear’s irrationality continues to decline after he gives up his kingdom when he insists on keeping his large entourage. This enrages Goneril enough to kick him out, and off to Regan. She comments on his irrational behavior: “I would you make use of your good wisdom, / Whereof I know you are fraught, and put away / These dispositions, which of late transport you / From what you rightly are” (I.IV.179-182). Lear is irrational in that he refuses to adapt to his new way of life which he chose for himself. It was his choice to give up his kingship. He could have continued despite his age if he wanted to and keep the standard of living he became accustomed to. In marauding around, he gives up the noble behavior that should accompany a king. Lear’s alleged madness could be the answer to this sort of behavior. What is irrationality but a form of madness? There is something mad about choosing the option that goes against common sense and even one’s own wishes and desires.

Irrationality goes beyond the character of Lear in the play. On a larger scale, there is a view in King Lear of the world that is strictly absurd and irrational. After being blinded, Gloucester expresses the hopeless and powerless state of people: “As flies to wanton boys are we to th’gods; / They kill us for their sport” (IV.I.36-37). Humans are as insignificant to the gods as insects are to people. The order of the world is irrational because human’s importance in the grand scheme is allotted to the role of playthings used for the amusement of higher beings. Though the grand scheme appears to be irrational, irrationality hits the characters on a much personal level as well. Gloucester expresses his despair at the unjust experience he suffered like the unjust actions suffered by others. The committing of unjust acts is a sign of irrationality because injustice is the opposite of reason, the right thing to do. This presence of irrationality and lack of justice is a reoccurring problem for the characters throughout the play. In the last Act, Cordelia notes the lack of justice in the unfolding of the events that have transpired: “We are not the first / Who with best meaning have incurred the worst” (V.III.3-4). Their fortunes in the play, especially for Cordelia, are unfair and undeserved. The punishments she and others such as Gloucester receive are without merit and the products of irrationality.

Gloucester’s blindness comes to represent the human condition of irrationality. His eyeless situation gives him insight into human action that he was not aware of before: “I have no way, and therefore want no eyes: / I stumbled when T saw. Full oft ‘tis seen, / Our means secure us, and our more defects / Prove commodities” (IV.I.18-21). He comments on the common occurrence of human folly and stupidity. When he had eyes he could see, but he did not use them correctly. It took his eyes being plucked out for him to realize this. It is the classic case of knowledge after the fact that humans are all too familiar with. The awareness comes too late to be of any real use after irrationality has already done its damage. It is hard to be aware of something that is intrinsically part the self. Irrationality is so common for Gloucester that he did not have to think about it until it was in his face coming from someone else. Gloucester continues to comment on the irrationality of the human condition. This time he turns his wisdom toward more political ends: “’Tis the time’s plague when madmen lead the blind” (IV.I.47). The blind or the people follow the madmen or the rulers. The blind and the mad are both represented in the play, but this statement applies easily to most political situations where common sense and reason are cast aside in favor of persuasive tactics aimed at irrationality. The disastrous results are familiar, and are seen time and time again.

A familiar scene in Shakespearean tragedies, the end is filled with heartache and death. The perilous events of the finale as characters die or are killed off are all connected to the irrationality of the human condition. It is the cause of one mishap after another with the characters forsaking common sense and reason in the name of their own self-interest. It is astonishing what can be achieved when irrationality is the guiding force of motivation. The war that breaks out between Britain and France is fictional, but these two countries spent many years at war with each other. The Hundred Year’s War between the two started over a claim to the French throne, which led to 116 years of fighting. War is often the pinnacle of irrationality of humans on display, and World War 1 is a prime example of this. It is considered to be the first modern war and society was completely changed by it. Soldiers returned from the battlefield shell-shocked and unable to cope with the carnage they witnessed on the front thanks to new improvements in military technology. The soldiers had a hard time making any sense of the war themselves, as they were ordered to charge across No-Man’s Land into their deaths to advance the lines by a few feet. Some were not even sure why they were there to kill enemy soldiers they had never met and were probably just like them. War is still a constant reality for humans as wars and rebellions rage across the world. This violence and carnage is a part of daily existence because the irrationality that fuels it is part of the human condition.


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    • Der Meister profile image

      Der Meister 5 years ago from Virgo Supercluster

      It is definitely one of the darker of his plays.

    • bethperry profile image

      Beth Perry 5 years ago from Tennesee

      I think you've summed up the play's allegorical message pretty accurately. Admittedly, because of the broad scope of unfairness and patriarchal cruelty in Lear I've always found it one play that is difficult to enjoy.