A sympathetic character in literature is someone whom the writer portrays as able to identify with and care about others. In William Shakespeare’s play, King Lear, sympathy is a theme shown through the character development of King Lear and Gloucester. Lear is the King of Britain who is accustomed to absolute power and constant flattery from his subjects is not someone who accepts differences of opinions lightly. King Lear is a senile, cruel ruler who gave up his title and divided his land between his two villainous daughters while exiling his third honest daughter.
Gloucester, a nobleman loyal to King Lear, is an adulterer who fathered a bastard son. Gloucester’s story runs parallel to Lear’s – they both begin the play without an understanding of their children. Lear and Gloucester are very similar to each other in several ways, especially with their fate; they both misjudge which of their children to trust and end up getting what they deserve and realize what they have done wrong. Shakespeare undoubtedly intended for King Lear and Gloucester to mirror each other, and by comparing their characters and outcomes, it is shown how closely related they are especially with their sympathetic quality developing throughout the play.
Both characters are quick to anger, and thus their honest favoured children are exiled early on. Lear begins as an unsympathetic character who has never experienced hardship, but throughout the play, he experiences several tragic life experiences which change him into a sympathetic person. Gloucester is also an unsympathetic character, but remains unsympathetic until a series of disastrous events happen to him. The transformations of King Lear and Gloucester through the course of the play by way of their words and actions in response to their own personal extreme hardships changes the reader’s view of them from unsympathetic to sympathetic characters.
For the first two-thirds of the play, Lear is a haughty, imperious, narcissistic king who shows a complete lack of sympathy. He expects to be treated like a king with the enjoyment of the title, but he does not want to fulfill a king’s duty and instead repudiates his kingship and divides his kingdom. Lear is surrounded by wealth and power and is unsympathetic to those who have neither. The play begins with Lear dividing his kingdom between his three daughters based on whom he believes loves him the most. Cordelia, the only honest daughter, in the first scene demonstrates her sincerity and honesty when she tells Lear “I love your majesty according to my bond, no more nor less.” (1. 1. 92-93).
Lear then decides to divide the kingdom between Regan and Goneril (Lear’s other lying daughters) because they were the ones to tell him they love him more than anything. “Hence, and avoid my sight! So be my grave peace as here I give her father’s heart from her.” (1.1.127). Lear speaks this with the anger overwhelming inside towards Cordelia and exiles her from the kingdom because she did not treat him up to his standard. When Kent (Lear’s most loyal servant) warns Lear to not banish Cordelia, he ends up kicking out Kent as well. Kent has been one of the most loyal characters toward Lear and has proven to do anything for him even when the King kicks him out.
“Hear me, recreant! On thine allegiance… shall not be revoked.” (1. 1. 170-182). When Lear says this, it proves how he is only blinded by the attention and power that he even trades in his only truthful daughter and loyal servant, Kent, for a fake kiss from his two horrid daughters. At this point, Lear shows he has no signs of sympathy and as he is being completely unreasonable. Gloucester starts off as a self-absorbed unsympathetic character who shows a lack of respect for his illegitimate son. “His breeding, sir, hath been at my charge. I have so often blushed to acknowledge him that now I am brazed to it.” (1. 1. 8-10).
When Gloucester says this, he is not only saying that he used to be ashamed of his illegitimate son, but also he is self-absorbed to the point of not even considering how Edmund must be feeling. Thus Gloucester is an unsympathetic character who cares more about his reputation than his son’s feelings which is proven in this scene early on. Gloucester is also hasty in dismissing his truthful son Edgar, when Edmund forges a letter from Edgar to Gloucester saying he wants his father dead so he can take over his land. Gloucester was quick to anger and immediately disowns Edgar without a second thought: “Let him fly far. Not in this land shall he remain uncaught. And found—dispatch. The noble duke my master, my worthy arch and patron, comes tonight. By his authority I will proclaim it that he which finds him shall deserve our thanks, bringing the murderous coward to the stake. He that conceals him, death.” (2. 1. 61-67).
Gloucester shows his unsympathetic side towards Edgar in the quote above. He does not want to discuss the alleged problems that Edgar was supposedly going to do and instead he wants Edgar dead. This was clearly an unsympathetic and rash decision made by Gloucester against Edgar and as he had no intention to verify the validity of what Edgar was saying. As the play progresses, starting with the troubles with his daughters, getting stuck in the storm, and seeing “Poor Tom,” we see Lear begin to transform into the sympathetic character he becomes at the end of the play.
Once Lear splits up his kingdom between Regan and Goneril, he decided to take turns spending time living in their houses. He begins to realize that Regan and Goneril do not really love him when they dismiss his soldiers and show a lack of respect towards him as both a king and a father. Goneril even demands her servants not show him any respect: “Put on what weary negligence, you please, you and your fellow servants.” (1. 3. 12-13). His daughters then banish him into a storm where he instantly plummets into madness.
In the midst of this terrible storm, Lear has an epiphany which allows his humanity to break through his authoritative King facade. When he fails to command the storm and realizes he has no power over it, he begins to comfort the Fool, who is shivering and would like to lead him to shelter: “My wits begin to turn. Come on, my boy: how dost, my boy? art cold? I am cold myself. Where is this straw, my fellow? The art of our necessities is strange, that can make vile things precious. Come, your hovel. Poor fool and knave, I have one part in my heart that’s sorry yet for thee.” (3. 2. 68-74). It is at this point he begins to show sympathetic characteristics after being betrayed by his daughters. Soon after, Lear finds himself meeting Poor Tom in a hut with his fool.
After Edgar is framed by his brother Edmund for the attempted murder of Gloucester, he must hide. He disguises himself as the beggar Poor Tom, who ultimately takes over the Fool’s role as a ruptured mirror for Lear himself. Stuck in the storm after having been betrayed, opens a new side of Lear showing sympathy as he is learning from his misery and starting to change himself into a better person and a real king. Gloucester goes through eye-opening situations that cause him to become more sympathetic. He finds himself on the bad side of Cornwall and Regan, who end up gouging his eyes out: “Alack, I have no eyes! Is wretchedness depriv’d that benefit to end itself by death? ‘Twas yet some comfort when misery could beguile the tyrant’s rage and frustrate his proud will.” (4.6. 60-64).
This quote is expressed by Gloucester as he does not know if he has fallen or not. After Gloucester is blinded and deceived by his own son taking advantage of him, he is left helpless and begins to show sympathetic characteristics. With all the self-pity and sorrow, he decides to try and commit suicide. He feels he is at the lowest point in his life where he begins to feel sorry for himself and wants to take his own life. ‘Let go my hand. Here, friend,’s another purse; in it, a jewel well worth a poor man’s taking: fairies and gods prosper it with thee! Go tho further off; Bid me farewell, and let me hear thee going.” (4.6 28-3).
At this point in the play, Gloucester has accepted his death, lost hope to ever hear from Edgar again, and has a ruined relationship with Edmund. He becomes sympathetic for this poor beggar who seems to have nothing and tells him he hopes he will be prosperous for the future. Similarly, Gloucester shows empathy when he begins pushing others away before he commits suicide so they will not feel pain or loss. Another of King Lear’s sympathetic characteristics show through at this point of the play when he says, “Ask her forgiveness? Do you but mark how this becomes the house?—(kneels) ‘Dear daughter, I confess that I am old. Age is unnecessary. On my knees, I beg that you’ll vouchsafe me raiment, bed, and food’.” (2. 4. 146-149).
After admitting he is worthless and old, he only asks for mercy, a bed, clothes, and food. This shows Lear to be completely broken and finally struggling more and more each day. “Be your tears wet? Yes, faith. I pray, weep not. If you have poison for me, I will drink it. I know you do not love me, for your sisters have, as I do remember, done me wrong. You have some cause; they have not.” (4.7.81-87). This is, maybe, one of the most poignant moments in the play. Lear has a strong awaken both physically and emotionally as he awakes and sees his daughter, Cordelia beside him. He acknowledges the way he has hurt Cordelia and confesses that she has “some cause” to wish him any harm.
Despite everything Lear has wrongly done towards her, she quietly responds with “no cause, no cause”. In the start of act five, scene three, Lear appears to be at his pinnacle point of happiness when he is reunited with his daughter Cordelia even though he is a prisoner. “No, no, no, no! Come, let’s away to prison. We two alone will sing like birds i’ th’ cage. When thou dost ask me blessing, I’ll kneel down and ask of thee forgiveness. So we’ll live, and pray, and sing, and tell old tales, and laugh at gilded butterflies, and hear poor rogues talk of court news, and we’ll talk with them too— who loses and who wins, who’s in, who’s out— and take upon ’s the mystery of things as if we were God’s spies. And we’ll wear out in a walled prison, packs and sects of great ones that ebb and flow by the moon.’ (5.3. 8-19).
In this quote, Lear talks about living out the rest of his days happily with Cordelia, revealing the result of Lear’s sanity after being driven into the scrubs by himself. Shortly later when Cordelia is dead, hung by Edgar’s orders, Lear is devastated and haunted by his guilt. “This feather stirs; she lives. If it be so, it is a chance which does redeem all sorrows that ever I have felt.’ (5.3. 266-268). As Lear holds Cordelia’s dead body, he reveals how angry and sad he truly is which makes the reader feel sorry and sympathetic towards him. Lear finally understands his wrongdoing with Cordelia and has a second chance to reconnect and fix their relationship, only for her to die shortly thereafter.
By losing Cordelia, Lear feels as if he has lost his only chance at redemption. He shows a huge amount of guilt once he realizes that it was all his fault. He ends up dying mourning over Cordelia’s death. The tragic nature of the Lear’s death having finally reached a true appreciation of life is so profound it provokes a strong sense of sympathy among readers. Everything that has happened to Gloucester has led up to this point where his character becomes more sympathetic. “As flies to wanton boys are we to th’ gods. They kill us for their sport.” (4. 1. 41-42). This was one of the most desperate lines in a desperate play spoken by Gloucester. To Gloucester, the gods are not only impassive to human suffering, but they are also unduly cruel causing human misery as easy and heedless as the ‘wanton boys’ may swat at the ‘flies’.
For the kindness he has shown the degraded King Lear on a stormy night, Gloucester is blinded by two of Lear’s enemies. Gloucester speaks these words as he wanders on the moor while after being blinded by Regan and Cornwall. It reflects the heartfelt despair that grips and drives him to desire his own death. Gloucester becomes increasingly sympathetic as his understanding of the world shifts knowing good people are dying along with the wicked. Gloucester also begins to show sympathy about himself when he says: “I do remember now. Henceforth I’ll bear affliction till it do cry out itself, ‘enough, enough,’ and die. That thing you speak of, I took it for a man. Often ’twould say, ‘The fiend, the fiend!’ He led me to that place.” (4. 6. 77-80).
Gloucester is exhibiting sympathy to who he was before the attempted suicide and how he wants to be a stronger person going forward so he doesn’t go through that pain again. Throughout the play, our impressions of both characters, Lear and Gloucester change significantly. We see an evolution in both of their abilities to be empathetic and sympathetic to others. Lear’s main flaw in the beginning, seems to be his value of appearances over reality. He initially wanted to be treated as a king with the enjoyment of the title yet he did not want to fulfill a king’s obligations. He was a selfish man who demanded praise from others, but as the play progressed, there is a noticeable change in Lear’s character which results in our feelings of sympathy for him as he is revealed to be just an old deranged man who only desires love from his daughters.
Similar to Lear, Gloucester becomes one of the most sympathetic characters in the play as he gets deceived by his son, has his eyes gouged out and wants to commit suicide as a result. Throughout the parallels of Lear and Gloucester’s stories, they both start as unsympathetic characters who develop into sympathetic protagonists who face unbearable challenges. Even relationships with their children become an issue as their faith is distorted by their deceitful children in spite of their honest ones causing further unnecessary hardships for both. Like Lear, Gloucester begins as unsympathetic and only after they have suffered greatly do they begin to understand the fragile nature of life and regain their human sympathetic emotions.