King Lear and Beowulf: Compare & Contrast Essay

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English literature contains wonderful works related to royal families as well as common individuals that teach the readers ethical principles, moral lessons and codes of leading a dignified life on the one hand, and wide-open new horizons of intellect and wisdom to them on the other. The same is the case with the two renowned tragedies in the history of English Literature i.e. King Beowulf and King Lear. Both these tales serve as the best tragedies ever produced in the global literature and portray the doleful life spent by the two kings under constant woe and sufferings at the hands of others. In the same way, both the two magnificent pieces of literature maintain similarities as well as dissimilarities in plot, depiction, diction, characterization and theme.

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Though man’s personal mistakes and blunders give way to his misfortunes, and the selfish people take full advantage of their woes, yet the nature creates some characters that appear as their supporters and lovers who remain as firm and dauntless in order to guard and protect them at the hour of the need. The same is the case with the two plays mentioned above. It is often discussed which king presents the more sublime part of character between the two. The credit surely goes to King Beowulf, who sets out to save the Danish people from the disaster created by the monster Grendel. Hence, the great warrior i.e. Beowulf’s character as a tragic hero is more appealing than King Lear, as the former is determined to put his own life in jeopardy for the benefit of the others, while the latter divides the royal inheritance between two of his elder daughters on the basis of their flattering, and deprives the youngest one from her legal right of share in the inheritance because she has refused to flatter the king on the patterns of her elder sisters.

Beowulf is the magnificent creation of Anglo Saxon era, which was considered as the initial stage in the history of English literature; it is therefore, its authorship is unknown and critics attribute the epic poem Beowulf to different authors. On the other hand, written by predominantly a study of evil, King Lear is one of those four Shakespearean tragedies, including Hamlet, Othello and Macbeth, which are regarded as his greatest work. There is no play, according to Dr. Johnson, which keeps the attention so strongly fixed; which so much agitates our passions and interests our curiosity like King Lear. Similarly, Beowulf is also regarded as the wonderful epic that successfully portrays the heroic deeds of the protagonist Beowulf while destroying the monsters. Grendel, in the epic poem, jeopardizes the peace and prosperity of the Danes, by keeping in the state of constant fear and anxiety. There is large number of evil-doers and villains in the poem Beowulf including Unferth in the beginning of the poem and before his encounter with Grendel, who always ridicules Beowulf and tries to prove him unworthy of overcoming the monster. In the same way, killing off the monster’s mother adds to his reputation as a splendid fighter. But his difficulties in the third phase of his life as the King of Geatland during his last years are different in nature, where he has to exercise his abilities in a more critical situation. Wiglaf, Beowulf’s confidant and kinsmen, supported the King while his encounter with the dragon. On the other hand, in the play King Lear, Lear encounters the characters, which creates problems and difficulties for the protagonist Lear throughout the play turning last part of his life full of grief. These characters include his two daughters Goneril and Regan, the steward Oswald, Edmund and his son-in-law the Duke of Cornwall. In the same way, there appear some noble characters too, which stood by him by supporting him personally and morally. These characters included his youngest daughter Cordelia, Kent, Earl of Gloucester and his elder son Edgar and the Fool. Beowulf displays his valor while fighting against the monster and his mother, while Lear undergoes difficulties and problems because of his own foolishness. Beowulf is a brave young man full of energy and passion, and is always ready to save others at the hour of need. On the contrary, Lear does not maintain such sublime qualities. Rather, he seeks reward from his own daughters out of the favors he had done to them. Beowulf wins applause on his return from the Danes and the King Hygelac and Queen Hygd for his valiant deeds, while King Lear is rebuked and censured by Goneril and Regan because of keeping large number of knights with him. Beowulf declined the Queen Hygd’s offer on sitting on the throne of Geatland in the life of the sons of King Hygelac, while King Lear abdicated the throne in favor of his thankless and selfish daughters. The old age of the King Beowulf is full of adventures, where the dragon challenges the very survival of his kingdom. Though Beowulf has turned old, and his present physical condition does not allow him perform such gallant deeds as he has done in his young age, yet his ambitions and passions are as young as of a young man like Wiglaf. In the same way, King Lear also stands firm, determined and dauntless in the face of hardships at the moment when he is kicked out of the palace and territories belonging to his thankless daughters. The number of companions, as well as enemies in the epic Beowulf, is very limited, as the natural calamities like monster, his mother and dragon serve as the rival for the warrior king. On the contrary, King Lear gets sincere and loyal persons like Kent, the Fool, the Earl of Glucester, Edgar and his youngest daughter Cordelia in the end. The Earl loses his eyes, while Cordelia sacrifices her life for the cause of the King. In the same way, both Goneril and Regan turn out lustrous, greedy, cunning and voracious, and not only turn out their father from their palace, but also become rivals to each other, in order to win the heart of Edmund, the illegitimate son of the Earl of Gloucester. Both Kent and Edgar guise themselves to conceal their identity, and support the old king in his adversity and misery at the moment when once the King of a large empire, Lear has neither shelter nor warmth while facing the thundering storm outside as well as an inside storm of hatred and misery rising in his mind and heart turning him insane and mad. Similarly, his son-in-law Cornwall plays the most filthy and awkward role in the play.


There are similarities and dissimilarities between Beowulf and Lear. The former appears to be more elegant, modest and heroic in character and performance, while the latter sticks to his principles, determination and courage.



Shakespeare, William. King Lear.