King Lear is often described as Shakespeare’s most tragic play. This is based on the final scene, in which Lear, the father, mourns the loss of his beloved daughter, Cordelia. I agree it is one of his most tragic plays, but I believe the real tragedy occurs in Act I, Scene I as soon as the play opens. It is the complete breakdown in communication that occurs between two people who love each other the most, Lear and Cordelia, and at the most critical moment in their lives: when Lear decides to give up his throne. The tragedy is the inability of Lear to communicate his need for complete assurance from his favorite daughter at a time of his highest vulnerability, and her inability to intuit what he seeks from her. The plan he devises, ensuring she would inherit the largest portion of his kingdom, comes suddenly crashing down when she utters her famous response to his question: “Nothing.”
Lear’s foolproof plan blows up in his face. He devises a contest in which he gives his most loved child the opportunity to gain an advantage and she totally misses his cue. At the very moment when he envisioned the answer she would give, she utters one word. With his expectations at their highest peak, she expresses the complete antithesis of what he wished and planned for. He is in shock, but when he gives her the opportunity to change her answer she repeats, “Nothing.” Would any answer that she would have given him be satisfactory? In his state of high anxiety, almost any answer was destined to disappoint. I doubt that he knew what the correct answer would have been.
Embarrassed and angry, he flies into a rage.
“Let it be so…”
“Here I disclaim all my paternal care…”
“And as a stranger to my heart and me”
“Hold thee, from this, forever… as my sometime daughter.”
Not only is he completely caught off guard by her response, but it is done in public. He is now in a position to have to save face. He prepares the contest in front of his court to show everyone how much he is loved and revered ̶ particularly by his favorite Cordelia ̶ and she publicly embarrasses him. The deed is done and all that follows continues the tragedy.
Even as he gives up power, Lear attempts to use his contest to control the outcome. He hides behind a façade of control ̶ his plan ̶ but, in fact, is terrified; not recognizing how fragile he is.
Lear, blinded by his overwhelming need for security, his fear of giving up power, loses control. At this point in his life, when his need for reassurance is the highest, the one source he thought he could count on lets him down. Not getting the response he expected causes him to completely break down.
Again, Shakespeare is able to illustrate the subtleties of human behavior so brilliantly: here, the miscommunication between two people who love each other and believe they know the feelings of the other. How many married couples discover too late how they miscalculated the feelings of their partner when they were hurting? Even in very close relationships, people often cover up their true need, leaving them extremely fragile, insecure, and shaky.
Reflecting his heightened need and anxiety, his response is extreme. But Cordelia still does not read his feelings. This is the tragedy.
Sadly, garbled communication is common, particularly between two people who take each other for granted. And, when sudden decisions are made at that heightened moment, the result can be tragic.