King Lear- An Internal Debate and Ramblings on Who Should Have Died and Who Deserved to Live

Is it necessary for more than half of the characters to die to prove that this play is a tragedy? I’m not fully convinced. At the end of the play, Edmund, Goneril, Regan, Cordelia, Lear, Oswald, Cornwall, and Gloucester are all dead. Albany, Kent, and Edgar are the only remaining (main) characters. I do not believe that all of the characters who were killed off really needed to die; I think that maybe if a few crucial characters had died, the dramatic effect would have been just as gripping. For instance, if I had to choose, I would say that Cordelia and Edmund would have sufficed to be the only characters killed off. In this case, Cordelia’s death would have impacted her sisters Goneril and Regan as well as her father Lear, leading them to reflect on their past actions and their treatment of Cordelia. Their sadness in the loss of Cordelia would be tragic without being overdramatic. Edmund’s death would impact Gloucester, his father, and Edgar, his half-brother, causing them to reflect on their past treatment of Edmund, having regarded him as a bastard child, not a fully-fledged brother or son. I think that there would be more power in the death of Edmund than in the death of Gloucester, however, I do see the value in having Gloucester die. The fact that Gloucester’s eyes were gauged out proved to be highly symbolic to me. In the past, Gloucester was blind to the way he treated his sons, the way he favored Edgar and regarded Edmund as illegitimate thus less important and less deserving. When Gloucester learns that “Edgar” wants to kill him, he quickly changes sides, if you will, deciding to believe Edmund in fear of his life. This change of heart seems curious to me: if Gloucester cared for Edgar and knew his normal behavior and intentions, why would he be so quick and unquestioning of the forged letter? Is this to prove the naiveté of Gloucester’s character?

Cornwall could have chosen to kill or injure Gloucester in any way, but he chooses to gauge out his eyes, thus blinding him. I think that the physical, literal sense of blinding parallels the mental nature of Gloucester—he was blind to the way he treated his sons and the way he was easily persuaded. It is only when he is blinded that Gloucester finally begins to realized his past wrongs and has a change of heart and action. Interestingly, in both the characters of Lear and Gloucester, physical and emotional weakness served to make better, more aware and caring men, (it only took utter insanity and gauged out eyes for them to realize their wrongs…). I think that if Gloucester had been left blinded and had not died, the play would have been equally effective. However, I suppose I understand why he was chosen to die—Gloucester learning from his mistakes and misfortunes and living happily ever after just would not cut it in a tragic Shakespearean play.

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6 thoughts on “King Lear- An Internal Debate and Ramblings on Who Should Have Died and Who Deserved to Live

  1. Jeff Battersby

    Interesting thoughts! Although I'd argue, with you, that this doesn't really become a tragedy until Cordelia dies and Lear realizes what he has lost.Regan, Goneril, Edmund (much as I like his character), all die what you might call well-deserved deaths. They each receive the ends that they have earned. So, call me evil, but I didn't shed a tear when they died. But Cordelia… .We don't see her by way of a physical presence in the play. But she lives underneath everything that's taking place and when she dies Lear truly becomes undone. And perhaps if she'd been the only one that Shakespeare killed off the grief would have been to much for us to bear. So in some ways, maybe the other deaths offer us a kind of cathartic buffer to the truly devastating loss of Cordelia.Great post Allison! Thanks!P.S.- Sorry for the deleted post, but the only way to make a correction was to delete and recreate my comment.

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  2. AlissaKraft

    I agree that it seemed a little overboard to kill off more than half the cast but at the same time I don't think that it would have been sufficient to kill only Cordelia and Edmund. Goneril and Regan are too monstrous of characters to be racked with guilt and grief over the death of their sister. If they are willing to be kniving and manipulative to take the power from their father and concoct a plan to kill Albany, Goneril's own husband than they wouldn't be too upset that their sister died as a result of their actions. As for Edmund he definitely deserved to die but his actions are the main causes for several of the other losses in the play. It would be difficult to fully examine the affects of Edmund's scheming without the loss of lives.

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  3. Tony Mancini

    This is a good point. Some of the characters that died in the play could've stayed alive and the play would've remained a tragedy. For instance, if Goneril and Regan didn't both end up dying, the whole situation would not be great at all for all the good-hearted characters, as they would still be in power and still be just as despicable. Who knows what what be in store for Albany, Edgar, and Kent, if these two were alive?

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  4. Zan Strumfeld

    Interesting idea here. I mean, it's tragedy so I felt like it needed to end with a BANG, but at the same time, most of the characters don't HAVE to die. I think it's interesting how they adapted different versions and only some characters died in those plays.

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  5. Cyrus Mulready

    It's a really fundamental and interesting question to ask about tragedy: why does there need to be so much (an overwhelming amount!) of death? Several posts have touched on this, and we will be addressing this in class. But one thing to say here is that tragedy, as it originated with the Greeks, was meant to create an intense emotional response in the audience (what Aristotle called "catharsis"). The overwhelming sense of loss at the end of this play might be thought of as a way of creating such an emotional response.

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