The Psyscholinguistic Semiotics and Metanormative Ethics of Suicide and Death in Shakespeare's King Lear

By Conner R. Hayes
2017, Vol. 9 No. 05 | pg. 1/1

The fascination with death and the sensationalizing of suicide are prevalent metaphysical themes which traverse all Shakespearean tragedy. These brooding themes, despite their ubiquitous portrayal, take on an idiosyncratic ethical meaning in King Lear. Though naturally nihilistic and bleak, these sentiments serve as more than mere evidence of the existential longing plaguing the psyches of many of Shakespeare’s characters. The yearning to die, and moreover, one’s ability to die, explicates the very metaethical framework and normative ethical epistemology of the play. The characters long for death as a means of psychic and physical catharsis; the true tragedy of the play is that the majority of them fail in their pursuit of this existential “nothingness.” The play probes one of the melancholy truths of the human condition: man is a somatic creature incapable of metaphysical transcendence. Even Lear, in his visionary, quasi-spiritual episodes into madness, is resuscitated back to the realm of consciousness and reality where, he so laments, “Men must endure” (5.2. 9).

This paper does not intend to engage in a metaphysical treatment of morality and in King Lear in any traditional philosophical sense. This study, rooted in a normative ethical approach and incorporating meta-ethics in explicating the poetical semiotics, reads the play through a theoretical framework grounded in notions of Sartrean existential ethical responsibility and the tangibility of moral consequences regarding the characters’ actions. This approach, which will incorporate a semiotical perspective towards textual explication, serves more lucid in illuminating the dialectical correlation between a character’s moral virtue and their ability to die in King Lear than a typical metaphysical approach.

Even Lear, in his visionary, quasi-spiritual episodes into madness, is resuscitated back to the realm of consciousness and reality where, he so laments, “Men must endure.”

Perhaps most elucidating of Shakespeare’s ethical paradigm is that all of the play’s characters are futile in their attempts at suicide, all except Goneril. This paper examines the elusive, enigmatical nature of death and the moral-ethical implications derived from the characters’ urgings to nihilate their Being. By first delineating the semiotics of suicide and death and considering the play’s poetics of “nothingness,” the ethical epistemological conventions of the play are uncovered. Goneril’s ability to commit suicide is not a mere plot device; it is, if viewed metaethically, evincing his ethical . Shakespeare posits the intriguing philosophical question, perhaps even subtly rebuking his Elizabethan audience’s cultural fascination with the often sensationalized spectacle of suicide: is wanting to die truly ethical? More specifically, the authorial position regarding this philosophical question is evinced by examining who Shakespeare allows to die. In King Lear, the morally good are doomed to live despite all their urges towards the contrary and the lone character of moral destitution, Goneril, is allowed to die.

Existential criticism, despite its limitations in comprehensively understanding the thematics of a literary work, is applicable in probing the psychological proclivities of King Lear’s characters towards self-nihilation. It fails, however, to ultimately understand the manner in which tragedy mocks the ironical struggle of the individual to die. The true tragedy of the play is not warring familiar dynamics or Lear’s descent into madness; the tragedy, however paradoxical to conventional understanding of the genre, is not even death itself. These are but frivolities to the true misery of the play− the anguish of existence. This “anguish” arises from the characters’ realization of their existential responsibility and the revelation that their actions are all that exist in a physicalistic world. There is no escaping the corporeality of their condition for the characters of King Lear nor is their absolution from the ethical realities engendered of their actions.

The French existential philosopher, Jean-Paul Sartre, believed one, when faced with the epiphany of “existence precedes essence,” eventually comes to the nihilistic recognition of the instability of ethics and the inevitability of the human confrontation with the “nothingness” of existence itself: “Man is condemned to be free. Condemned because he did not create himself, yet is nevertheless at liberty, and from the moment he is thrown into this world he is responsible for everything he does” (“Existentialism is a Humanism” 29).

The characters of King Lear exemplify this existential paradox; they act as free-willed humans with apparent agency, yet the ethical responsibility deriving from their of free choice, a philosophical notion the play does not either confirm or refute in any explicit sense, torments them and leads them wishing to absolve themselves of ethical responsibility through death. Choice, coupled with their human condition in an uncertain universe devoid of universal meaning, cripples them and leaves them wishing to die. Sartre expounds upon this concept of anguish in the face of existence: “the for-itself [i.e, the human consciousness] apprehends itself in anguish; that is, as a being compelled to decide the meaning of being… most of the time we flee anguish in bad faith” (Being and Nothingness 556). The characters of King Lear, in their quests to die, embody this Sartrean “bad faith.” Upon his upon his return to existence and reality, Lear notably demonstrates this existential mentality of “bad faith,” stating, “You do me wrong to take me out o’ the grave” (4.7. 45). Moreover, Gloucester, yearning for death on the Cliffs of Dover, responds to Edgar’s existential question of “What are you, sir?” with his famous “Away, and let me die” (4.6. 49-50).

The characters of King Lear exemplify this existential paradox; they act as free-willed humans with apparent agency, yet the ethical responsibility deriving from their power of free choice, a philosophical notion the play does not either confirm or refute in any explicit sense, torments them and leads them wishing to absolve themselves of ethical responsibility through death. 

Gloucester does not acknowledge the “what” of Edgar’s question− to him, the question itself is superfluous and does not warrant addressing. He is, as a conscious being, a being in misery, suffering the existential anguish resultant from his recognition of his hamartia and the consequential realities of his free will. Gloucester attempts to flee this anguish in a manner similar to Sartrean “bad faith” rather than face the existential and ethical consequences of his actions. Death, as he imagines, is the only escape from the suffering of his existence and the paralyzing burden of choice.

The “thrownness” of existence, a concept introduced by Heidegger in his work, Being and Time, is another existential element which permeates the play. Heidegger elaborates on the ontological phenomenology of this existential notion, delineating an anomic mood called “Angst,” a feeling which arises in humans when they find themselves “thrown” into existence without their consent. One simply finds themselves whirled into the world, a prescribed social class, gender, race−nothing is chosen, all is inherited, and the choice to exist is beyond one’s agency. Agency, as existential philosophy posits, only becomes a reality upon one’s recognition of their own existence.

Lear’s statement, in his dialogue with Gloucester, elucidates the manner in which the “throwness” of reality and the anxiety inducing psychological consequences this attitudes wields on humans: “When we are born, we cry that we are come/ To this great stage of fools” (4.6. 176-177). This remark not only demonstrates the disparaging “cry” of existence which humans lament upon self-awareness of their existence in the world; it also highlights the absurdity of existence itself with its dramaturgical . The characters have no choice but to exist, and, as the line goes, they exist on a “great stage of fools.” Paradoxically, however Shakespeare does not offer ethics as absurdist accessories to existence on a “stage” nor are they trivialized or reduced relativism. Ethics are, among other things, intrinsically and inescapably tied to existence itself in the play.

The characters, like humanity more broadly, were simply “thrown” into existence without any choice. The ethical realities of their actions, while certainly not existing as universally ostensible, are resultant of their freely chosen choices. Such a compulsory existence explains the characters’ begging of death in the play; death and existential “nothingness” promises to absolve them from ethical consequences. Death, as opposed to existence, is a choice. Moreover, why should the characters feel any obligation to continually exist when they didn’t choose to exist in the first place? But the characters, despite all their suicidally pervasive proclivities to the contrary, may not be as existentially anomic as such a philosophical inquiry infers. There is more than the paralytic suffering of nihilistic recognition in their “anguish.” There is a yearning for transcendence from death and life itself, a striving for “something” in the “nothing.”

An etymological consideration of the language of “nothingness” in the play is prudent to understanding what lies behind this anguish. The perpetual presence of existential “nothingness” is seen most strikingly in the esoteric poetics and the inefficacy of language to convey any true semiotic meaning in the play. A strict existential interpretation of the ethical elements of King Lear fails to allow for further exploration into the meta-meaning of death and suicide. Rather, in the poetics of “nothingness,” a tantalizing hint of a “something” exists. Cordelia’s “nothing” ceases to be the absence of all−it, however paradoxical, becomes the elusive insinuation of this “something.” Loevlie, in her kenotic examination of King Lear, reflects that “nothing can also be emblematic of a feeling of love and dedication that surpasses words” (85).

Language itself, failing to convey meaning efficaciously, linguistically takes on a language of “nothingness.” This “nothingness” must not be confused with the utter negation of Being or a despondent surrendering to nihilism. Linguistic “nothingness,” however jointed to existential nothingness, are separate entities entirely. The “nothingness” of the language of King Lear becomes something ever on the edge of consciousness, on the peripheral limits of human comprehension, something of such transcendent quality that it is corporeally unattainable yet ostensibly existent. The language of the play itself begs the question of if a transcendent meaning can exist despite the ever present inclination towards self-destruction by the characters.

The referential function of language in the play becomes submissive to the poetical language; the primacy of poetics offers a language in which “nothing” is the sign expressed yet meaning somehow exists as the signified. Lear invokes this seemingly contradictory convention of language in his fits of visionary madness; his rhetoric transmutes from ornate, aristocratic, and sophisticated to a more monosyllabic and visceral dialect. After posing the nihilistically philosophical question, “Why should a dog, a horse, a rat, have life,/ and thou no breath at all?” (5.3. 306-3-07) Lear exclaims, “Never, never, never, never, never!” (5.3. 307) and “Look there, look there!” (5.3. 309). “Never, never, never, never, never” may seem like an empty pandemonium of hollow words, however, the line puzzlingly expresses the “nothingness” of life while still conveying a sense of semiotic meaning. This stated, the abstractness of the play’s poetics is not explicatory in itself. One must look to the meta-ethical meaning of the play’s poetics in order garner any illuminating insight into the ethical paradigm Shakespeare is positing.

Before his fainting, Lear leaves the reader to speculate on what it is that he sees by his outcry of “Look there, look there!” Lear’s madness grants him transcendent insight into viewing the world around him. The illusory world, like the poetics of language, possesses greater primacy than the literal even in this world of existential absolutism. Without recognizing the paradoxical “nothingness” and “somethingness” that Lear’s poetic language solicits, Lear is reduced to nothing more than a raving mad man−his prescient lunacy possesses no sublime element. Such a philosophically materialistic reading of Lear’s words in this scene fails to acknowledge the moment’s significance. Lear, in this world of physicalistic primacy, is granted a moment of transcendence.

The ironical appreciation of this transcendence is found most notably in the fact that Lear is allowed such sublime visionary awareness the moment prior to his death. Perhaps, however speculative it may seem, Lear is transported beyond his cogito and finds himself “outside of being,” accomplishing the true nihilation of the Self Sartre himself deemed impossible (Being and Nothingness 59). Lear is finally granted death, and, this time, he is not resuscitated to life and to the “tough world” that would “stretch him out longer’ (5.3. 314-315). Complicating the seeming cohesiveness of self-nihilation among the characters, Lear does not will himself to die in any self-inducing sense. In fact, in this world of existential agency and human responsibility, Lear is conspicuously absolved from these humanistic charges. He is, dissimilarly from the other characters, allowed to die.

Such a semiotic interpretation of Lear’s death does not insinuate that Shakespeare is championing social or theological determinism. The play, possessing many irreligious and atheistic elements, does not allow for such a theologically reductionist analysis. Rather, one’s ability to die in King Lear is predicated on their moral-ethical relationship to the world around them, a relationship established on the primacy existential realities and consequences to actions. Shakespeare charges his characters to endure and exist, however, he exonerates the character of moral despicability, Goneril, from this existential mandate. Goneril, most tellingly, is the singular character who succeeds in accomplishing her suicidal endeavors. The other characters are forced, much to their moaning, to suffer consciousness and the anguish of their human condition, ever yearning for a strangely unreachable death.

Is death, as Loevlie theorizes, the “something” that exists in the poetics of the play? Is the “something” simply “nothing” rendered in death form? Sean Lawrence, in “The Difficulty of Dying in King Lear,” observes pertinent insight by comparing the play to Hamlet: Hamlet is the character exception to the tragic futility of searching for death. He realizes, as Lawrence contends, the struggle of “escaping Being in his famous soliloquy, where the possibility of ‘not to be’ is replaced by the dreams which may come when we have shuffled off this mortal coil” (39). In King Lear, on the other hand, it is only when Lear becomes aware of Being without “breath at all” that he dies; before his death, Lear comprehends the sheer absurdity of the human condition and then faces his doom (5.3. 307). Kent asks in a line rhetorically rich with ontological meaning, “Is this the promised end?” (5.3. 263). Death, while appearing to be cathartic escape from the anguish of existence, is thrown into doubt and left uncertain whether it is truly existentially satisfying or tragically wanting.

Intransigently reading the play through existential criticism proves problematic for uncovering the moral-ethical semiotics of suicide and death. Lear’s inability to “will” his way to death through suicidal means defies fundamental existential notions of human freedom and responsibility. Conventional existential thought, grounded in the freedom and responsibility of choice, would surely allow Lear to choose to live and in turn choose to die. Gloucester is another character who vehemently yearns for death yet fails in his suicide, illustrating the existential critique’s convoluted theoretical complications to wholly account for the metaphysical and metaethical conventions of the play. In his blindness, Gloucester asks, “Is wretchedness deprived that benefit,/ To end itself by death?” (4.5. 61-61). The cast of characters, like Gloucester, know “Too well, too well” the stinging feeling of consciousness and the wish to escape such intense feeling (4.5. 66). The inclination to succumb to Sartre’s “bad faith” seems so natural to the human condition in King Lear.

The limits of human agency to endure existence are mocked in the play − suffering is, as evinced by its ubiquitous manifestations, integral to existence.

Furthermore, the limits of human agency to endure existence are mocked in the play−suffering is, as evinced by its ubiquitous manifestations, integral to existence. Lear briefly attains such reprieve from the anguish of his existence in the resulting scene, yet he is ultimately revived from his sleep and forced to endure. Upon his reentry into the world, Lear states, “You do me wrong to take me out o’ the grave” (4.7. 45). The characters of the play are recurrently depicted as not allowed to escape Being; they are bound to consciousness in the same manner that Lear is “bound upon a wheel of fire” (4.7. 46-47). The tantalizing fleetingness of death and the ironical struggle to die becomes the real tragedy of the play. It is this anti-existentialism, the inability of the human will to assert itself successfully in time and space, which emphasizes the all too human weaknesses of existence. Moreover, Shakespeare’s anti-existential emphasis elucidates the enigmatic ethical paradigm of the play.

Illustrated in absurdist terms, Lear, frustrated by his impotence to master the physical world around him, employs the pathetic fallacy. He invokes grandiose, apocalyptic imagery in symbolizing his existential anguish. While some critics contend that Lear is tragically unaware of his human inconsequentiality, Lear demonstrates all signs of a man tragically aware of his insignificance. Lear goes beyond exemplifying the pathetic fallacy in his poetical language; he demands that the storm emulate his psychological suffering. Lear beseeches the natural elements of the storm to “Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! rage! blow!” in correspondence to his tumultuous emotional state (3.2. 1).

Where Heidegger argues, in Being and Time (384), that grasping the capriciousness of one’s own existence and inevitable mortal demise is the most authentic of man’s thoughts, Emmanuel Levinas postulates that death is not an individual action but rather the end of human agency. Lear, in Levinasian philosophy terms, wishes to “drag into [his] death the totality of being,” pathetically implicating the storm and the cosmic fate of the world in his emotional angst and thus attempting to usher in a physical apocalypse that mirrors his wish for oblivion (Otherwise 3). Lear attempts to proclaim and impose his human freedom and will on an indifferent, natural world by globalizing his emotional agony. Lawrence explains that Lear’s supplication for the natural world to mimic his internal state is his way of striving for an ontologically significant death (“The Divine in King Lear”).

However, Lawrence fails to thoroughly illuminate the semiotic paradoxicality and satirical nature of this scene. On one hand, Lear offers up a nihilistic cry for death, pleading for the thunderbolts of the storm to “Singe my white head!” (3.2. 6). Despite his desperate yearning for suicide, Lear concurrently petitions the rains to “Pour on, I will endure” (3.4. 18). Lear discordantly demonstrates a suicidal nihilism along with an unwavering existential resolve to endure. This scene severely problematizes the certainty of the purported theory of Lear as a human being purely striving for death. Lear, and the very nature of death itself, is rendered much more complicated by his paradoxical psyche.

According to Sartre’s existential philosophy, Lear is binding himself to the external force of the storm to escape the anguish of freedom. Lear, unable to escape Being in a physical sense, remits his individual responsibility of existence by imploring nature to kill him. He diffuses his existential responsibility of his actions, soliciting nature to end his Being for him and absolve him from the ethical consequences of suicide. Yet his dauntless challenge to the natural elements and his cry of existence, “Pour on, I will endure,” remains perplexing. However, mental anguish, closely intertwined with physical anguish though disparate, is not absolute in the play. Nihilism is not, despite such stark suicidal ideation, the foregone conclusion to existential anguish and the misery of life. There is always the hope of an ever elusive “something”− the poetics of King Lear persistently insinuate that this “something” metaphysically exists in the subtext of the play.

In a Saussurean structuralist sense, the “something” is the implied binary opposition of the “nothing.” The tragedy of the play is the apparently futile striving for a transcendent “something” beyond the limits of human perception, beyond even the power of language itself. Derridean deconstructionism, differing from the Saussurean structuralist view aforementioned, would view the need for a “something” in relation to the “nothing” as a logocentrist construct, however, this neither credits or discredits the reality of a meta-“something” in the play. This position, a metaphysics of presence, by privileging presence over absence, further obscures the meaning of the “something” in the text.

Lear attempts to escape the existential reality of his anguish by anesthetizing methods, saying, “Give me an ounce of civet, good apothecary/ To sweeten my imagination” (4.6. 127-128). The play fuses emotional and mental clarity, moral catharsis, and spiritual serenity with existential anguish, grief, and dread. While the latter catalogue of melancholic emotions unequivocally possesses primacy in King Lear, the moments of existential lucidity and enlightenment complicate the seemingly primitive urges of the characters in their desire for death. The semiotics of death seem to exist in a binary oppositional sense where a transcendent life parallels a cathartic death. There is no noticeably intermediate state of existential contentedness the characters can reside in.

Gloucester’s failed suicide further problematizes a fundamentally existentialist reading of the play. The scene of Gloucester’s floundered suicide on the Cliffs of Dover illuminates the unrelenting quest of King Lear’s characters in searching for deaths of ontological meaning. As Jan Kott argues in his treatment of the scene, his (Gloucester’s) “suicide has a meaning only if the gods exist” (149). Gloucester, akin to Lear’s pathetical invoking of nature in his despair, implicates the gods in his attempted suicide:

This world I do renounce and in your sights

Shake patiently my great affliction off.

If I could bear it longer and not fall

To quarrel with your great opposeless wills,

My snuff and loathed part of nature should

Burn itself out. (4.6. 35-40)

Sartre, stating that “it is anguish that man gets the consciousness of his freedom,” offers the example of a man on the edge of a cliff contemplating jumping or falling into “nothingness” (Being and Nothingness 65). Moreover, Sartre, like Gloucester and many of King Lear’s characters, believes that “suicide would cause anguish to cease” (Being and Nothingness 69). Such philosophical thinking could not be further from the reality of Gloucester’s situation. Gloucester, in his pursuit of a death of cosmic significance, directly implicates the gods as observers of his expected demise; death, while able as a means of nihilating his physical condition, does not absolve him from facing the metaphysical realities of the afterlife that he presumably believes awaits him. Despite escaping his human condition he would be forced to the face the gods in his afterlife state. “Nothingness” for Gloucester, and the theistic belief systems of most of King Lear’s characters for that matter is truly impossible− the threat of a supernatural existence where they “must endure” if only in a spiritual realm ever looms. True nihilation is a delusion for them.

Like Lear yelling at the sky and nature in dramaturgical fashion and Gloucester melodramatically addressing the divine, the characters of the play sublimate their inner despair onto the Other and the exoteric world. Goneril, unlike Lear and Gloucester, does not submit herself to the judgments of others or the conditions of her social world: “Say if I do, the laws are mine, not thine./ Who can arraign me for’t?” (5.3. 156-157). Goneril ultimately succeeds in her attempt at suicide, unlike all the other characters of the play. There seems, due to the singular nature of her suicidal success, that an ethical message resides in this fact. It is telling that the most morally debauched character of the play, the character most socially detached from the existences and feelings of others, is granted the ability to die. Oswald’s final line demonstrates the deterministic and esoteric nature of death in the play: “O untimely death, death!” (4.6. 246).

Ultimately, King Lear is not an existential tragedy, it is an ethical tragedy, which explores the depravity of the human condition, the anguish of existence, but most importantly, how one chooses to act in the face of such existential angst.

Death is not something the characters of the play can obtain through existential acts of human agency− it is something that exerts itself upon them. Moreover, Shakespeare’s suggestive allowance of Goneril to succeed in her suicide and his denial of suicidal agency to the other characters allows for an ethical interpretation of the play to be drawn. The real mystery of the play is not the ontological or semiotic enigma of death. Examining who Shakespeare allows to die serves a far more intriguing critical exercise for explicating the ethical meaning of the play. Characters of higher moral rectitude and sympathy treat the advent of their death in a dialectical relationship to the Other. They do not, at least completely, internalize their emotional despair and existential anguish. Lear cries to the sky and invokes nature and Gloucester implores the gods. These characters engage in a dialogue with something outside of themselves. However, Cordellia revels in megalomaniac individualism, imploring no external Other in her anguish and utterly internalizing her anguish. In this regard, Goneril represents the ultimate “nothingness” of the play; she is indifferent towards the social world around her, an antisocial being of perhaps pathologically sheer egoism outside the confines of society and perhaps even moral-ethical mores.

The majority of King Lear’s characters obtain death, confirming Lord Byron’s maxim that “all tragedies end in death.” However, the strangely postponed occurrence of death in the play trivializes, perhaps even negating, the existential human will and mastery of choice. The characters of King Lear cannot die despite their earnest efforts to. King Lear is both a play which examines the existential nature of the human condition and the epistemological nature of morality and ethics. While it is fruitless and misdirected exercise to ruminate on the authorial intentionality of Shakespeare, simply noting the realities of failed and achieved suicide lead to an unavoidable ethical interpretation of the play. Doomed to exist and suffer the all-too-human anguish of existence, the characters of the play yearn for “nothingness” in order to attain the fleeting “somethingness” that is ever elusive to them. The desire for transcendence from temporality, coupled with crippling existential anguish, fuels the psychological motivation of the characters towards suicide. Death awaits all the characters of King Lear− it is universally an inescapable part of the human condition. However, Shakespeare does not offer an utterly absurdist depiction of existence; despite the precariousness of existence and its inevitable anguish, he charges his characters the burden to “endure.” Enduring existence is the ethical choice Shakespeare charges his characters.

Gloucester philosophically ponders on the triviality of the human condition: “As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods,/ Thy kill us for their sport” (4.2. 42-43). Nihilism, nevertheless its nefarious presence in the psyches of the characters, is not the ethical answer Shakespeare posits. As Edgar states, “Men must endure/ Their going hence, even as their coming hither” (5.2. 9-10). It is this stoicism to exist that Shakespeare morally apotheosizes in his characters. Ultimately, King Lear is not an existential tragedy, it is an ethical tragedy, which explores the depravity of the human condition, the anguish of existence, but most importantly, how one chooses to act in the face of such existential angst. For, regardless of the play’s bleak deterministic philosophy and tendencies towards negation, choices, especially ethical choices, are never negated.


Baker, James V. "An Existential Examination of King Lear."College English (1962): 546-550.

Heidegger, Martin, Joan Stambaugh, and Dennis J. Schmidt.Being and time. SUNY Press, 2010.

Lawrence, Sean. "" Gods that we adore": The divine in King Lear (Shakespeare)."RENASCENCE-ESSAYS ON VALUES IN LITERATURE56.3 (2004): 143-159.

Levinas, Emmanuel.Otherwise than being or beyond essence. No. 3. Springer Science & Business Media, 1981. Library, 1956)330 (1956).

Loevlie, Elisabeth. "Poetic Language and the Expression of Nothing: Towards a Kenotic Weakening of Referential Language."Angelaki17.3 (2012): 85-96.

Sartre, Jean-Paul. "Being and Nothingness, trans."Hazel E. Barnes (New York: Philosophical Library, 1956)330 (1956).

Sartre, Jean-Paul, and Arlette Elkaïm-Sartre.Existentialism is a Humanism. Yale University Press, 2007.

Shakespeare, William. "The Norton Shakespeare: based on the Oxford edition." (1997).

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