Of all Shakespeare’s great tragic heroes, Lear is perhaps the least typical. Macbeth is a man of middle age, grizzled and tough in appearance, a man of noble bearing. Hamlet is a young man, fine of feature, noble also in bearing, and often played as a sensitive intellectual. Antony is middle-aged, a man whose very stature speaks of the power to the audience, one of the three pillars of the ancient world. But Lear when we first see him is already an old man; his best days have passed, though doubtless there is still about his person a certain regal carriage. He comes on stage with his entourage dressed as a king, looking the part of a royal ruler, but almost as soon as he speaks we discover that he is a petulant, almost senile old man.
Lear wears the proper cloak; the outward and visible signs of royalty are clear, but the inward and spiritual graces that make a king are absent. His petulant behavior betrays him, and soon, when he engages his three daughters in the dreadful game of flattery, wherein Goneril and Regan swear the whole allegiance of their hearts to a father, leaving nothing for a husband, it becomes clear that Lear is something less than natural. When Cordelia, the daughter closest to his heart, refuses to engage in the awful process and answers him “nothing,” he banishes her. Lear has assumed one of the least attractive roles in Shakespearean literature, that of a bad father.
Already we have enough to force the play quickly to a tragic dimension, although it seems unlikely at the beginning that Lear will be able to arouse either pity or fear in the audience. But Shakespeare soon adds another aspect to his characterization, the Renaissance preoccupation with appearance and reality. Lear is forced to the verge of madness until it is impossible to tell when he is mad or sane. After the dreadful, moving storm on the heath, Lear seems truly insane, but as we see in the mock trial the line between madness and sanity is a fine one. There is method in his madness. Appearance and reality become intermixed.
At the end of the play, Shakespeare restores Lear’s sanity and shows him in truly regal light, when he bears the dead Cordelia in his arms. But otherwise, Lear lacks greatness almost from the opening scene of the play. At the very end of his life, he attains at least a shadow of the regality he might never have lost had he not misjudged others and had he recognized and accepted reality.
The high position is an easy way for an author to indicate the stature of a character in a play, but Shakespeare was seldom satisfied with mere formal signs. Often his heroes are capable of great emotions, as Antony is of grand passion, or fine intellectual achievements, as Hamlet comes close to accomplishing. But Lear is never an intellectual, and his great deeds are mingled with madness, as when he runs bareheaded into the storm. Lear is a strange protagonist, but he does arouse our pity as the play progresses and, by some peculiarly Shakespearean magic, our fear, and admiration.