The Truth of Suffering in King Lear


Edgar. O, matter and impertinency mixed,
Reason in madness! (4.6.192-93)
Reason in madness, truth in suffering, and sight in blindness all contain the same basic
meaning. In order to find and recognize our real selves and the truth, we must suffer.
These various themes are continually illustrated throughout Shakespeare’s King Lear.
Their effects are not solely felt by Lear and Gloucester. All sincerely “good” characters in
the play must, in some way, suffer before they can gain wisdom and truth. Some
characters are made to suffer more, some less. The truths and wisdom gained are what
give the drama its substance. These truths are universal. The “good” characters represent
everyone with their as they gain knowledge from suffering.
Lear, is the character most obviously made to suffer. In the beginning of the
drama, Lear is unable to see the good in his daughter Cordelia. He is so egotistical that
when Cordelia explains her love for him is that of a daughter for her father, he becomes
enraged. He desires to hear she loves him more than she could love anyone, ever.
Cordelia. Good my lord,
You have begot me, bred me, loved me.
I return those duties back as are right fit:
Obey you, love you, and most honor you........
That lord whose hand must take my plight shall
carry
Half my love with him, half my care and duty.
Sure I shall never marry like my sisters,
To love my father all. (1.1.105-15)
Cordelia’s plight is only one of the many truths Lear is unable to see. Since he is king, he
is told only what he wants to hear, not necessarily the truth. Slowly, as his other two
daughters shun him, he suffers through the storm, and is able to see. He is no longer
writing his own truths. He is forced to see and feel what many feel daily: rejection, deceit,
pain, etc. He slowly realizes Cordelia is his only truly loving daughter. He could never
realize this if he had not gone mad. His madness brings him to a place where he no longer
lives by the same code. In his madness, the truths are not necessarily what he wants them
to be. The storm allows him to not only realize Cordelia loves him, but also to come to an
understanding of what real love is. He recognizes that Goneril and Regan did not really
love him. In the storm, Lear also is able to comprehend that all people suffer.
Throughout his entire life he has been the one in control. In losing control to his madness,
he no longer has the power to hold off suffering. Without power, Lear is able to learn.
Gloucester also learns once he loses his power. The power he loses is the power
of sight. In his suffering, he gains knowledge of his sons. He is able to see that Edgar is
his true and good son, just as Lear learned to see Cordelia. With his loss of sight, he is
also able to see Edmund’s evil ways. With his blindness, comes sight, or moreover
insight. Gloucester, similarly to Lear, is not used to suffering. He feels his pain is more
unbearable than any other.
Gloucester. O you mighty gods!
This world I do renoune, and in your sights
Shake patiently my great affliction off.
If I could bear it longer, and not fall
To quarrel with your great opposeless wills,
My snuff and loathed part of nature should
Burn itself out. If Edgar live, O, bless him!--
Now, fellow, fare they well. (4.6.44-51)
Gloucester is so weak that he is incapable of handling his pain. After his suicide attempt
(an attempt to end his suffering) symbolically he dies. His despair is over and his sight is
restored. Physically he is still blind, however, it is not until after he tries to end his life that
he can see.
Edgar, Cordelia, and Kent are sincerely “good” people. Their suffering is very
different from that of Gloucester and Lear. They suffer simply by seeing other’s suffer.
Edgar’s pain comes from seeing his father in the state he is in.
Edgar. My father, poorly led? World, world, O world,
But that thy strange mutations make us hate thee,
Life would not yield to age. (4.1.10-2)
Edgar suffers just watching his father. His goodness prevails in his response to his own
suffering. He is able to look at it from an optimistic view.
Edgar. O gods, who is’t can say “I am at the worst”?
I am worse than e’er