There’s no putting it lightly: Shakespeare’s King Lear contains so much tragedy that it gives Game of Thrones a run for its money.
The play is brimming with family betrayal, loss, and struggles for status, wealth, and power that drive characters into utter madness. But if the tragedy of King Lear were nothing more than meaningless, chaotic mayhem, there’s no way it could have persisted for centuries as one of the most culturally significant Shakespearean tragedies.
I probably don’t need this spoiler warning, but just in case: Warning! Spoilers!
I don’t think many would disagree that King Lear is a serious contender for the “Worst Dad Ever” award. At his worst, Lear is a textbook narcissist obsessed with flattery and guilty of some very poor social, political, and parental decision-making (with disastrous consequences).
But for all his flaws, Lear actually drops some (surprisingly) profound knowledge throughout the play regarding love, loss, loyalty, nature, regret, madness, grief, sorrow humanity, and the importance of family.
Although Lear eventually descends into madness, the insight he gains from his loss actually makes him seem at times more sane than other characters. (cough Edmund, Goneril, and Regan, cough.)
So, let’s look at five times that Lear offered us some rather solid, if unconventional, advice:
1. Be Humble
Let’s face it, we often forget that we are tiny, transient specks in a huge world that doesn’t always have our best interests at heart.
But before we have an existential crisis, let’s consider that this humble reminder doesn’t have to be sad or upsetting. In fact, remembering that our current emotions, worries, and problems (though certainly valid) are temporary and somewhat small in the grand scheme of things, can be kind of comforting.
Lear learns this lesson early on, reflecting that nature, animals, and humans are really not all that different:
Allow not nature more than nature needs/ Man’s life as cheap as beast’s —act 2, scene 4
Lear points out, in a surprisingly philosophical critique of society, that an elevated sense of self-importance can lead to a lack of compassion for those who are suffering—and often, to a desire for power. Goneril and Regan could have definitely listened to this “dad wisdom.” Stay humble, my friends.
2. Beauty Is in the Eye of the Beholder
My own father almost lost his breath repeating phrases like this to me. To say that “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” is almost too cliched, but the idea persists largely because of its truth.
Likewise, King Lear shares this bit of advice with the world:
The art of our necessities is strange/ And can make vile things precious—act 3, scene 2
Nice things are, well, nice. But when we are truly desperate, things that we might have previously thought to be ordinary or shabby seem much nicer than before. The moral of the story here: Looks are not always what they seem, so don’t jump to conclusions (which Lear really would have benefited from learning earlier on).
3. Don’t Be Greedy, Be Grateful
Similar to the lesson in humility, Lear teaches us to be grateful and not greedy. When Lear’s “pelican daughters” (that is, “ungrateful daughters”) throw him out into the storm, Lear says:
Take physic, pomp, Expose thyself to feel what wretches feel—act 3, scene 4
Or in other words: “Pompous men, take a taste of your own medicine.”
Lear basically means that getting caught up in a quest for wealth, prestige, or prosperity makes us blind to those in need. Greed manifests itself in some very harmful ways in King Lear and in the real world. If we have a sense of gratitude for the abundance we do have, we can help avoid this. Thanks for another helpful dad lesson, Lear!
4. Admit Your Mistakes, and Learn From Them
We all make mistakes—although let’s all hope to never end up in this kind of Shakespearean disaster. However, what’s important is that we learn from these mistakes, apologize to those we’ve wronged, and try to do better in the future.
Lear makes some calamitous mistakes: he harms his family and the social and political order. But, he does admit his wrongs and gains a lot of insight from them. Toward the end of the play, he says to Cordelia, his youngest daughter, whom he wronged despite her loyalty:
You must bear with me. / Pray you now, forget and forgive.—act 4, scene 7
Better late than never, I guess. But a lot sooner sure would have been better.
5. Appreciate the Little Things
Ok, we know life can be chaotic and painful, and there is definitely no shortage of this reminder in King Lear. As Lear showed us in act 3, we can hurt one another deeply (sometimes unintentionally) in our endless desire for more and more (money, power, stuff, etc.).
If there’s another thing to take from Lear’s experiences, it’s that we must learn to enjoy the little things:
And take upon’s the mystery of things, / As if we were God’s spies—act 5, scene 3
In other words: There are many precious and beautiful things in the world, if only we decide to start looking into the “mystery of things.”
In his last bit of advice, Lear reminds us not to underestimate the little things. They might be some of the last memories we have of others.
Reaches for tissues.
Whew, ok. That was quite an emotional roller coaster through a tragedy that certainly no one would call “uplifting.” But, we’ve definitely found some wisdom in here that not only reminds us why King Lear endures as a classic, but that’ll hopefully better us by having read it.