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The term self-knowledge refers to the knowledge of one’s particular mental states. This would include; beliefs, desires, and sensations. It is also seen as the understanding about ones persisting self, whether it be by ontological nature, identity, and character traits.

Ohio State defines it as, “The problem of man’s understanding of himself is associated with that of a man’s insecurity, and it is treated in the larger frame of the difficulty’s of understanding the truth in general” The Ohio State of University 281. Self knowledge can also be described as self awareness. One that is knowledgeable of their self and their own personal wants and needs.Shakespeare wrote the play known as King Lear around 1605, between writing the plays Othello and Macbeth.

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On the contrary, the setting of King Lear is very different from the parameters of any of his other plays because it dramatized events from the eighth-century b.c. One of the events that may have possibly had an impact on the play King Lear was a lawsuit that took place  not very long before it was put in writing.

The oldest of three sisters attempted to have Sir Brian Annesley, her elderly father, declared insane so that she could have possession over his property. Annesley’s youngest daughter, Cordell, defended her father against her sisters and was very successful. Another occurrence that may have been impactful to the production of the play was the case of William Allen, the mayor of London during that time.

After choosing to divide his wealth amongst his daughters they in return treated him very poorly. This is similar to King Lear because in the play his daughters are put to the test to see which of them lives him the most. As a result of the test, the most deceitful daughters are rewarded and the one who is the most loyal ends up being banished. In the opening of the play, King Lear can be described as a naive old man.

This is the time where he is most uneducated about himself and the circumstances of his life. While King Lear and Gloucester both lack self-knowledge, the world around them quickly is falling into shambles. As a result of this, evil is given the opportunity to take over in both of their lives. Lear attempts to run an experiment amongst the three of his daughters so that he can award the largest portion of the kingdom to the daughter that loves him the most. When Cordelia, the youngest and one that loves him most, refuses to participate, Lear becomes so angry that he banishes her away from the kingdom.When Kent, his advisor, tries to make him aware that what he is doing is an awful idea, Lear ostracizes him too.

Due to Lear’s lack of self knowledge he unknowingly rejects the people in his life who love him and want to protect him by constantly letting his ego get in the way. Lear states, “Let it be so. Thy truth then be thy dower/ Here I disclaim all my parental care. Propinquity, and property of blood. And as a stranger to my heart and me/ hold thee from this for ever” (I, I, 110-118). Lear acts on the pleasure principle, the source of our wants and needs. For him specifically, the need for constant gratification.

For that reason, Lear demands love from each of his daughters. When his daughter Cordelia is unsuccessful at fulfilling his need for gratification, he lashes out at her. This first scene makes me the most forceful statement about King Lear’s lack of self-knowledge.

As the play progresses, the idea of madness is essential for the development of  King Lear as a former king, a father, and himself. In working to perfect his character, Lear starts to lose sight of who he actually is. His crisis with his identity is more clearly highlighted when he asks “Doss any here know me? Why this is not Lear. Doth Lear walk thus? Speak thus? Where are his eyes? Either his notion weakens, or his discernings are lethargied. Ha, sleeping or waking? Sure, ‘it’s not so. Who is it that can tell me who I am? ( I, 4, 218). In return the fool replies saying “Lear’s shadow” (I, 4, 218). The fools comment urges that Lear is standing in the shadow of his true identity.

In a sense, he is trapped and is unable to grasp his true identity. He is also masked by his wrong decisions and irrational behavior. As Lear begins to notice that he is indeed losing himself, he starts to panic and this is when complete madness occurs.

Lear winds up suffering in ways that could have been avoided and worst of all betrayed by his flesh and blood. On the other hand, it is needed for Lear to get to this point of “madness” so that in return he will be able to  gain a sense of self-knowledge to be able to understand both himself and his life entirely.By the closing of the play, King Lear acquires self-knowledge. King Lear is depicted as an egotistic man who only basks in his own self-importance and expects praise and assent solely from those around him. This is the point that confirms that Lear still has no clue about who he is. Lear chooses to hide behind his pride and authority as he battles with trying to keep confidence within himself. Lear’s obsession with his humanly appetite for attention and power throughout the play leads him to display qualities that point out he is bad tempered and impulsive.

He is also continually wanting recognition and respect for all that he has done. Failures in controlling his appetite lead to an imbalance inevitably leading to failure and tragedy. Due to Lear’s apparent mistake in measuring the love of his daughters, he banishes the only child who truly loves him and seals his fate for the remainder of the play. This change does not come without some karma. The pursuit of knowledge catalyzes the tragedy of King Lear, King Lear’s attempt to ascertain his daughters’ loyalties and Gloucester to a certain his sons’, that ultimately results in two fathers coming to false conclusions about their relationships. The storm scene is one of the most critical scenes in the entire play. During this scene Lear madly rages against the storm, demanding it to spill all of the seeds that create me that are “ungrateful”.

The imagery that one would get from this scene of Lear shouting up at the skies, demanding that mankind be destroyed shows the audience that Lear has reached his breaking point. As Lear journeys through this horrific storm, he also journeys deep down into his despair. The storm is the physical representation of Lear’s suffering.

King Lear shows his lack of self-knowledge in this scene in the fact that he has no clue about his daughters. He fails to recognize the manipulative actions of his two daughters while also failing to see the actual love Cordelia has for him. He even refuses to listen to Kent, who tries to reason with him about the sentiment of everyone involved. He is, figuratively speaking, blind to the truth. If he had acted on his original instincts and believed that Cordelia was his most loyal child, rather than attempt to experiment upon his beliefs in the interest of pursuing knowledge, the play might have ended very differently.

Shakespeare’s play King Lear commends knowledge towards the end as it relates to the storm. It is only as he gains this knowledge that the storm eases up and Lear is able to seek shelter in the haven, and also seek refuge from his turmoil. The change that overcomes Lear is remarkable. The storm symbolizes both the chaos in the country of Britain as well as the chaos inside Lear’s mind. The imagery that is provided by Lear screaming at the storm to “blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! Rage! Blow!” shows Lear has gone slightly mad already.

Also, after being stripped of his power and dignity by his remorseless daughters, he is shocked by his new realizations during the storm. Lear finds himself stripped of his power as king, having lost all his political influence. The storm and his new position humbles him and gives him the possibility to learn more about himself, starting to increase his self-knowledge. He finds that even a king is nothing. The lesson that is play offers is that knowledge can, unfortunately, can easily be manipulated, especially when humans try to acquire it consciously.

 Knowledge is also commended in the scene where Lear stripped himself if his old rags. During King Lear’s progressive shift to psychosis and reality, he always gains a new understanding. Insanity is needed in order for him to destroy his old self and transition into a new, wise Lear.

Lear’s stripping of his old clothes represents a rebirth crowning himself with flowers, Lear tells Edgar, “Through tattered rags, small vices do appear;/ Robes and furred gowns hide all” (IV, vi, 158-159). He literally and figuratively was stripped of his dignity , wealth, and sanity. This experience also humbled Lear and helps him gain a new perspective.

After coming to this realization, Lear begins to feel sympathy for the hardships faced by those around him, especially the homeless or less fortunate. When Lear sees the half-naked, shivering Poor Tom the beggar he realizes what true humanity is. Lear says to Tom, “This art the thing itself, unaccommodated man is no more but such a poor, bare, forked animal as thou art” (3.4.10). At this point, Lear realizes that at the core, people are no different and no better than animals. Lear coming to this realization and finally being able to understand others and their situations at this point in the play suggest that he has grown to understand himself.

Not only has he has the ability to be selfless, but he is being broken down to the level of those around to help him become more humble. Even as the storm begins to break him physically and mentally, it only helps further his understanding of the world around him. In conclusion, during the opening of the play, King Lear does not have any self knowledge because he is selfishly consumed by his need for attention and control.

But as the play proceeds, the “madness” ultimately is required for him to redevelop himself as an individual and be reborn. In the end, Lear achieves self-knowledge by becoming aware of his flaws and being humbled by the people and situations around him.


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