Published on May 7th, 2013 | by Thompson0
Tragic Errors of King Lear
Unlike Hamlet, King Lear is the perfect example of a decisive leader but much more tragic. Hamlet loses everyone around him but is disgusted they’re alive. Lear sincerely loves his daughters when faced with Death, so losing them is all too tragic. But Lear learns something, which is why King Lear is the quintessential story about learning from error.
King Lear should in fact been called King Learn. There are multiple indications that Shakespeare wanted his audience to know learning is driven by error, but that we are blinded by our own certainty. Schulz says “we feel that we are right because we feel that we are right: we take our own certainty as an indicator of accuracy” (74). This eternal rightness is a result of the decisions we make to survive everyday. It’s the small things like finding our keys, driving to work, feeding ourselves when we’re hungry. We use our own survival as a reason for our correctness. “Well, I’ve smoked weed everyday for years, and I’m still alive, so weed must be healthy.” I know, it sounds silly, but we do it everyday and don’t even realize it. “To be blind without realizing our blindness is, figuratively, the situation of all of us when we are in error” (68). All too often we don’t know how wrong we are until it’s too late, but if we are more careful in our decisions (like Hamlet), more conscious of our mistakes and embrace them rather than avoid them (like the mechanicals), we can live a longer, fuller life. But Lear isn’t conscious of his mistakes, and it takes Death for him to admit he’s wrong.
“You must bear with me.
Pray you now, forget and forgive.
I am old and foolish” (King Lear, IV-7, 3006-8).
Lear isn’t the only character that learns (far too late) the folly of his ways. Gloucester only realizes how blind he was after he loses his sight.
“I have no way, and therefore want no eyes
I stumbled when I saw. Full oft ’tis seen,
Our means secure us and our mere defects
Prove our commodities. O dear son Edgar,
The food of thy abusèd father’s wrath,
Might I but live to see thee in my touch,
I’d say I had eyes again!” (King Lear, IV-1, 2268-74).
“Our mere defects prove our commodities.” You couldn’t say it better. Our deficiencies are what make us all the unique snowflakes our kindergarten teachers assured us we were. It is not our successes that separate us from the pack, but our failures, and our failures are what we should be cherished and loved for, because, hopefully, we’ll learn from them.
Through err we find truth. This is evident in the literature, but why haven’t we taken it to heart? According to Schulz, “In literature, it is always the fools (those who never had any sense in the first place) and the madmen (those who lost it) who speak truth to power” (39). Have we been ignoring the lessons of Lear and Gloucester the last 400 years, or are we so wrapped up in money and power that failure is no longer an option? Times have changed, but we are all just as lost as we were then.
Like Gloucester and Lear, we are all just wanderers. Lear wanders out into a storm and Gloucester off a “cliff,” and in doing so both men come to realizations about the nature of men and the nature of themselves. Schulz says, “To err is to wander, and wandering is the way we discover the world; and, lost in thought, it is also the way we discover ourselves,” (42) but I like the way she says it a page later. “To fuck up is to find adventure” (43).
I made this my motto years before reading Schulz’s words. I used to be a perfectionist. I could never seem to finish anything I was working on, whether it was an essay I was writing, a drawing I was working on, or a painting. Hell, it used to take me hours to cut the lawn because the lines didn’t look like those of a Major League Baseball field. Then I started fucking up and getting into trouble, and life got interesting. I worried less about the lines on the lawn and more about the time I was wasting chasing after perfection. I was curious if I still exhibited signs of perfectionism, so I took a survey included in Alina Tugend’s Better By Mistake.
Randy O. Frost, a professor of psychology at Smith College, designed the Multidimensional Perfectionism Scale for a study he was doing about Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. The survey measures perfectionism based on six categories: Concern Over Mistakes, Personal Standards, Parent Expectations, Parental Criticism, Doubting of Actions, and Organization. I scored above average on five of the six. Some of the categories I don’t have a problem scoring highly, like Personal Standards and Organization, and some of it is actually out of my hands, like Parent Expectations and Parental Criticism, but despite my attempts to dump my perfectionism, it persists. (Joachim Stöber, a psychology professor at Penn State actually suggests the Parental categories be combined as well as the Concern and Doubting categories.) The most important category to me, though, “Concern Over Mistakes,” I scored below average. Tugend states, “Highly perfectionist people fear making mistakes before and during a task, and they beat themselves up after they’re finished,” so at least I’ve eased off the throttle in my chase of perfection, and I think that’s healthy (35). Having high standards is not perfectionism, and the fact that I doubt my actions but don’t let my errors eat me up is a good sign. We should forever live in doubt (like Hamlet) and never let our errors be a burden, but a blessing (like the mechanicals).
Lear, on the other hand, is never in doubt and has no concern over mistakes because he’s never mistaken. He would have scored zeros on the Doubting of Actions and Concern Over Mistakes scales (but if there was a Daughter Criticism scale, he would have scored higher than anyone). Lear is clearly not a perfectionist, so he errs often and he errs tragically, but his most fatal flaw is a lack of empathy. He cannot learn from his errors because he has no concern for those he wrongs until they’re gone.
Though Frost’s survey may not be an ideal model for determining whether we’re perfectionists, there are certainly parts of it that determine qualities that hinder us from learning from our mistakes. It takes Lear the majority of his life, and madness brought on by old age, to finally realize his errors. And it takes Death for him to be sorry for them. Had he taken time to consider his decisions before making them, or adopted some qualities of a perfectionist (like Hamlet), his daughters may have lived. Instead, his arrogant decisiveness led to errors that brought about his demise and the demise of his daughters – a perfect example of how being conscious of our errors can avoid tragedy. It is unfortunate tragedy was necessary for Lear and Gloucester to learn. For your own sake, don’t make the same mistakes they did, and if you do, admit them, embrace them, apologize, and learn, just as they did far too late.