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Terror and Truth in King Lear

Sophocles’s Oedipus Tyrannus is certainly one of the greatest tragedies ever written. It’s a murder mystery whose solution turns into a search for the identity of the searcher himself. His pride of reason solves every riddle, but cannot save him from the blinding terror of knowing who he is and what he has done along the way (murder and incest) to become a knower and ruler.  King Lear is Shakespeare’s top of the mountain experience of tragedy. An old king and father administers a “love test” to his three daughters, to determine who loves him most, and to divide up the kingdom on that basis. He is not able to hear truth and love in the same words — why is that so hard? — and he makes a terrible mistake. To see the truth of the heart and to abide by the promptings of nature require, in this play, more blinding of eyes and suffering beyond human endurance. Both Sophocles and Shakespeare put in question the cost of knowing the truth about the things that matter most: love, family, wisdom, and rule. Therefore, they also must put in question the causes of things: freedom, fate, chance, and the gods.

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