King Lear is a perfect demonstration of the great consequences one man’s actions can cause. While there are certainly religious Christian elements to the story, the story is not one of morality or hope. King Lear is a lesson, making an example of what can come of a single, foolish, egotistical action. King Lear’s action is the surrendering of his throne to his daughters.
The element of Christianity enters here, because King is a God-appointed position, not to be given up. Lear, however, decides to disregard this fact, instead focusing on the immediate gratification he will receive from his daughters, and boosting his self-esteem while making him feel loved. Lear essentially offers his land and power for love, “Which of you shall we say doth love us most? That we our largest bounty may extend where nature doth with merit challenge,” forgoing his God-given position and rights.
Next enters the punishment, seemingly brought about by God. Because Lear has disregarded God’s wishes, he is made to suffer insanity and excruciating physical torment. Lear is even given multiple opportunities to revoke his decision, but rather than heed the advice of those trying to help him, he banishes them for questioning his selfish decision. This leaves Lear surrounded by the people looking only to better themselves by using the now vulnerable Lear.
Lear is estranged from his kingdom and friends, causing his loss of sanity. In the midst of Lear’s self-pity he is discovered by the fool. Fittingly enough the fool is the one able to lead Lear back to the normal world. He is made to appreciate the people who truly cared about him from the beginning. He sees that they were right all along, and repents from his foolish decision, though it’s too late to do him any good.
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Once more, the consequences of Lear’s single sin are felt. In a typically Christian or hopeful ending, King Lear would learn to listen to the caring friends he has, and become less selfish. Shakespeare, however, chooses not to end it so predictably or simply. Even after all of Lear’s suffering and repenting, he continues to receive punishment. Cordelia, who he has now realized truly loved him most, is killed. Lear is left feeling hopeless, saying, “I know when one is dead, and when one lives. She’s dead as earth,” which seems slightly to refer to his now cynical view of the earth.
In the end, all of Lear’s suffering can be traced back to his first and biggest mistake in the play. He is forced to live with this mistake to the bitter end, in this case, the end of his life. Lear is “old now, and these same crosses spoil (him).” After having gone through the worst, it becomes obvious to the reader that Lear has come to an understanding with God, in this instance the personification of religion. This provides not hope for the reader, but rather teaching.