Essay Question: Does Lear learn from his experiences?

King Lear is a not an obvious 'typical' tragedy in which the protagonist suffers a fall from pride due to a fatal flaw. Nevertheless King Lear still learns from his experiences - he gains self knowledge through suffering. Edgar's character is used to teach Lear the nature of evil and the Fool also helps Lear see the truth. By the end of the play, Lear has realised the truth about himself and reconciles with his loving daughter.

In the crucial first scene, Lear is as a 'powerful' man - he is the king and has been flattered and obeyed all his life. He can pick and choose Cordelia's suitor and her dowry. He is arrogant and through dramatic irony the audience is able to see Lear himself making the wrong decision in banishing Cordelia. His behaviour is childish and irrational.

Lear's lack of wisdom causes his self-esteem to take precedence over good intentions disregarding reason and justice. In saying "which of you shall we say doth love us most" Lear challenges his daughters but as Regan says, "he hath ever but slenderly known himself". Lear is lured into Gonerill and Regan's hypocrisy - he believes he is "dearer than eyesight"; he never considers their motives. From this first scene, the audience's impression of Lear is not favourable because it is obvious that Lear will bring about his own downfall.

Lear must learn that there can be a discrepancy between appearance and reality; and that he is a man like everyone else - he is not immune from evil. There is some conflict between Lear and other characters (his daughters, Oswald, Kent, Fool) because Lear wants to be treated as a king, but to the others he does not appear so - "Who is it that can tell me who I am?" At first he refuses to believe all that is happening to him - "Keep me in temper, I would not be mad!"

Lear is progressively brought to nothing by his daughters who gradually strip him of his kingship and dignity. This mistreatment occurs in Act Two - Gonerill and Regan bully Lear and do not make him welcome in their homes. At first he threatens to do "the terrors of the earth" but eventually does go mad when he realises how they manipulated him. "My wits begin to turn." This 'madness' is Lear's way of escaping the truth - his mind cannot bear such pain and he gives up struggling for his rights as a king and father.
In order to gain self-knowledge, Lear must lose his mind. The storm and the stripping of clothes is the representation of Lear's need to strip away the false notions (materialistic ideals) to see real human values. In his madness Lear learns compassion for the Fool and Poor Tom and that justice and power is granted according to people's appearances and social standing. He realises that he is far from invincible - his hand "smells of mortality". Lear also learns self-control and patience, when previously he had been a man of action. His suffering is worthwhile because he gains these insights.

It is Lear's experiences that trigger his madness, but the Fool and Edgar, as Poor Tom, point him in the right direction for his enlightenment. The Fool, acting as Lear's conscience, makes him think The Fool is no longer needed once Lear is totally mad because Lear then assumes the role of the Fool. Poor Tom, being a 'mad' outcast also provides an object of Lear's compassion.

By the end of Act Four, Lear is no longer mad, although weak. He reconciles with Cordelia. This is enough to achieve Lear's happiness - Cordelia's true love for him and her forgiveness for the way he treated her. At the conclusion of the play, he is happy until Cordelia dies.

At the beginning of the play Lear ultimately believes he has good intentions. He becomes "a man more sinned against than sinning" but also admits his errors. King Lear is essentially a tragedy about an old man who undergoes suffering to reveal the truth about himself and others. The main lessons Lear learns are ones which the 'good' characters knew all along - that appearances can be deceiving.