Lear as a tragedy of errors

‘He hath ever but slenderly known himself’

Authored by: Garry L. Hagberg

The Routledge Companion to Shakespeare and Philosophy

Print publication date:  October  2018
Online publication date:  October  2018

Print ISBN: 9781138936126
eBook ISBN: 9781315677019
Adobe ISBN:


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In this paper I consider King Lear as the tale of a moral disaster induced by linguistic limits. Lear is a character who, taking language only as a blunt instrument for the naming and describing the outside world, both cannot truly hear the words of others (his earnest daughter, most centrally) and cannot understand himself. He is a character deaf to a person’s words and to the special way words can accrue meaning or deepen for a user over time. From him, utterances and pronouncements erupt without a sense of composure or inner reserve or a reflective life behind them. And Lear frequently utters sentences about others that in a revealing sense have grammatical form but no authentic or humane content. Portraying Lear as the opposite of a cultivated moral imagination, Shakespeare herein captures the intrinsic connection between language and character. Indeed, late in the play we see Shakespeare developing this theme explicitly, where personality is discerned in speech, and where a change of language indicates a change of person. And the progression of the tragedy is marked by Lear’s repeated inability to truly hear the words of others.

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