Shakespeare’s King Lear and Machiavelli’s The Prince are centuries-old texts that have had a profound influence on the western literary world and the historical process of political progression. As time passes, they have been and continue to respectively be interpreted in a multitude of ways in the modern world. In this essay, I will be interpreting the texts from a contemporary standpoint and examining King Lear’s hamartia from an emotional point of view. Following this will be a discussion of what traits and outward displays of emotion a leader should exhibit to their people, with a focus on the catharsis that King Lear has. The examination of his catharsis will be informed by Machiavelli’s advice to rulers and compared to the catharsis other characters have.
A hamartia is known as a tragic flaw in the protagonist’s personality, and as is evident in King Lear, the King’s hamartia is his hubris (Glassberg 2017). The story begins with King Lear being a seemingly valued leader, who then spirals into his tragic fall from grace due to his excessive pride. His subsequent descent into madness occurs midway through the story, because the King’s hubris blinds him from making rational decisions and leaves him unable to detect the lies his daughters had emphatically declared to him. These empty lies disguised as adoration are the perfect match for an arrogant and greedy King, who does not know how to be humble. Later in the story, this hamartia culminates with the unnecessary deaths of many characters.
In The Prince, Machiavelli (2011, pp. 78-82) espouses a concept where leaders should be capable of having dual natures; where they should possess certain positive or negative attributes but be able to show the opposite when needed. He provides the example of being true to your word and valuing telling the truth, but also knowing how to lie when the situation is necessary. This concept is easily adaptable into the context of King Lear; if he wants to be prideful, he should have instead given his daughters a real reason to love him and have displayed a humble character. But despite his arrogance, the King, as I will discuss further later, is perfectly capable of repairing broken relationships and making amends with people he has wronged.
Chapter 23 of The Prince is dedicated to the avoidance of flattery. If the advice that Machiavelli gives princes had been followed, there would have been a major change to the way King Lear makes decisions. This means the establishment of a group of wise men to counsel him on important matters. The prince would then decide the course of action he wishes to take and follow it without wavering when and if there is hostility; irresoluteness will show weakness on his behalf. King Lear does not have this, and instead chooses to put his hubris on display as he gets his daughters to make embellished pronouncements of love and adoration in exchange for land in his kingdom. Cordelia refuses to lie to her father and ends up following the advice that Machiavelli offers regarding flattery (2011, pp. 105-108). He explains that excessive flattery will inhibit a prince from making sound and rational decisions. Thus, Cordelia’s actions are arguably more like the advice Machiavelli gives than the King’s, as King Lear’s actions eventually led to many deaths of the story’s characters.
Edgar, who is Gloucester’s legitimate son, is likewise capable of having dual natures. When he disguises himself as ‘Poor Tom’, a crazy beggar, he is simultaneously trying to avoid recognition and is lying about his identity. In act four, he meets his now blinded father Gloucester and after pretending to help him jump off a cliff to his death, he changes his voice and the two make amends (Shakespeare 2011, pp. 122-123). This shows his ability to demonstrate a merciful nature instead of cruelty (Machiavelli 2011, pp. 74-78).
Catharsis is a Greek word which means to purge or cleanse. A cathartic process is a well-known and integral feature of Shakespearean tragedies (Fendt 1995). Catharsis is only apparent in the protagonist; they engage in this process through an emotional purging or cleansing. This happens for the sake of a moral or spiritual renewal, achieving a state of liberation from anxiety and stress (Scheff 2007). King Lear undergoes his catharsis when he reunites with Cordelia, after discovering his daughters Goneril and Regan’s flattery had been lies. Although King Lear is incapable of exemplifying a humble nature, he was able to display dual natures when he reconciles with Cordelia (Shakespeare 2011, pp. 135-137) after she returns from banishment. This is thanks to the help of Kent, shortly before they both die. These actions demonstrate how he can be harsh but can make amends after a fight.
In conclusion, it is evident by studying both books that King Lear, Cordelia and Edgar follow Machiavelli’s advice. King Lear has dual natures and is capable of reconciliation, Edgar is merciful, and Cordelia avoids lying and flattery. Despite this, King Lear’s character is tainted by his excessive arrogance and his legacy is remembered by the unnecessary deaths and suffering he caused. King Lear was not a perfect ruler or father due to his arrogance and blindness that was caused by the praise his daughters gave him. The absence of a counsel of wise men made this incident worse. If he had one, King Lear would have been better informed before making important decisions. Machiavelli’s The Prince greatly helps to guide our contemporary interpretation of Shakespeare’s King Lear, because the advice that Machiavelli offers rulers has been widely studied and interpreted, which lends to its wisdom an accreditation of importance and profoundness, and has had a lasting impact on the world.
Fendt, G 1995, ‘Resolution, Catharsis, Culture: As You Like It’, Philosophy and Literature, vol. 19, no. 2, pp. 248 - 260.
Glassberg, R 2007, ‘Uses of Hamartia, Flaw, and Irony in Oedipus Tyrannus and King Lear’, Philosophy and Literature, vol. 41, no. 1, pp. 201-206.
Machiavelli, N 2011, The Prince, Collins Classics, United Kingdom.
Scheff, TJ 2007, ‘Catharsis and other heresies: A theory of emotion’, Journal of Social, Evolutionary, and Cultural Psychology, vol. 1, no. 3, pp. 98 - 113.
Shakespeare, W 2011, King Lear, Collins Classics, United Kingdom.