Some ramblings on King Lear (Shakespeare) and Oedipus (Sophocles)

lear and oedipus

For school it is a part of the almighty God-ruling, grade-deciciding AO scheme to compare Oedipus and King Lear — both as two separate, complex characters in their own right, and as two different plays from very different times.

It is often the latter that provides more marks (mainly due to the fact it allows for more hits into the AOs), so for the sake of my sanity (and revision for my exam on Tuesday) I’m going to go with the former for this comparison.

Since I’m better at analysing images than I am at the Shakespearean language, let’s start with the cover. My cover of King Lear (the Heinemann Advanced edition) sort of shows the three main prevailing themes of the play through three simple pictures.

Said edition.
Said edition.

The main image that catches your (or at least my) eye is the lightning bolt going through Lear’s crown. If you’ve read the play, then you’ll of course see the significance of this (and if you haven’t, go and fucking read it because it is such a wonderful play, but having to read it and analyse it to death for school sucks the life out of the enjoyment so read. it. before. it’s. too. late), the significance being the fact that it represents Lear’s sanity and mind, like the weather, is often unpredictable and uncontrollable, like a force of nature, and also foreshadows the onslaught of pathetic fallacy from Shakespeare. This insanity therefore leads to his inevitable downfall as king, but re-birth as a human being. Next is the image of the hanging man. What struck me about this image was that you do not know if this person has been hanged as a punishment, or if he has decided to hang himself. This can be interpreted in many ways, but for me, in the context of the play, it emphasises the theme of justice vs. injustice Shakespeare presents, as well as the idea that audiences need to be constantly questioning these characters and their motives: is it really Goneril and Regan who bring Lear to his downfall, or is it his own mind? Yes, Cordelia was murdered, but she very well knew the risk she was taking to come back to Lear – so really she went on a journey to inevitable death to help her father. These are characters who have a death wish, wether they are aware of it or not.

Similarly, these themes and ideologies follow through into Oedipus: Oedipus’ lack of desire to listen to anyone else but his own mind suggests his ignorance, stagnant mind-set, and arrogance; his hubris is his, to quote Aristotle, hamartia.

And, yes, while Oedipus is probably more mentally stable than Lear (this isn’t a competition guys!!), they are both just as bad at being a king as the other — Lear’s too unsure, whilst Oedipus is too sure. It seems tragedies are used to explore the idea of what would happen if a character/human being only had one facet, which is interesting as Kings and Queens are definitely seen as figures that almost always have one character-defining trait: resistance.

Kind Lear’s first words are not from Lear himself, but the trustworthy (completely love-able) Kent: ‘I thought the King had more affected the Duke of Albany than Cornwall’ – this opening line immediately shows the internal conflict in the family, Lear’s mind and the matters of inheritance and property law, whilst Oedipus’ ‘My children, fruit of Cadmus’ ancient tree’ connotes his role as a father figure to his kingdom, along with his confidence and authority. Yet, these characters end up going on a similar journey, resulting in the same ending.

Both of their last lines summarise the journey they have been on: Oedipus cries ‘Ah no! Take not away my daughters!’ and Lear asks ‘Why should a dog, a horse, a rat, have life, And thou no breath at all?’ Life cannot be lived without death.