Free Essay: Exploration of Human Suffering in Shakespeare's King Lear and Dante's Inferno

Published: 2022-10-14
Free Essay: Exploration of Human Suffering in Shakespeare's King Lear and Dante's Inferno
Type of paper:  Essay
Categories:  Literature Shakespeare
Pages: 6
Wordcount: 1399 words
12 min read

In many civilizations, sin has always been punishable. Different punishments are usually meted out for different sins. The two poems explore the different ways in which human beings may suffer for their sins. The authors however take completely different approaches in their exploration of human suffering. For instance, Dante's Inferno is a description of an imaginary journey through hell while Shakespeare's King Lear tells the story of a king who struggles with his three daughters. In both poems, the theme of suffering and justice is recurrent and both of them effectively help to deter sinners from sinning. The two poems help to illustrate that human suffering is caused by individual wrongdoings or sin.

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Shakespeare's King Lear explores human suffering on earth while Inferno explores human suffering in the afterlife. This is explicitly stated in Canto I, "ONE night, when half my life behind me lay" (Alighieri). Both works imply that individuals who cause problems to others eventually get punished for their actions. However, in King Lear, these individuals get to be punished while still living but in Inferno, they are punished in the afterlife. The nature of suffering in the two accounts is also different. In King Lear, the suffering is mostly emotional as opposed to Inferno where the suffering and punishment is physical. King Lear suffers emotionally when he discovers the treacherous ways of his daughters. He expresses his disappointment in Act I scene IV by stating that "Let is be so: yet have I left a daughter, Who, I am sure, is kind and comfortable :"( Shakespeare). It is evident that regrets the action of sending away his daughter Cordelia. He also regrets the decision to trust his other two daughters. His ultimate regret however is when he is forced to watch the death of Cordelia who was his favorite daughter. Cordelia also suffers emotionally. She truly loved her father unlike her sisters who were only after material possessions. She refuses to take part in the treacherous actions of her sisters and even accepts the punishment meted against her.

The news of her father's suffering emotionally disturbs her and forces her to go back to her home to help the father. The two sisters are also subjected to emotional suffering. They are both in love with Edmund and each one of them struggles to have him. This is evidenced in Act V scene 1 when Regan says "I never shall endure her: dear my lord, Be not familiar with her" (Shakespeare). She was asking Edmund not be romantically involved with her sister because she wanted him for herself. Out of jealousy and emotional suffering, Goneril poisons Regan then commits suicide. In Inferno, Dante struggles to find his way through a dark wood. He even tries to climb a mountain so that he could find his way home but he is blocked by three beasts; a lion, a leopard and a wolf. As Virgil takes Dante through hell on their way to heaven, he gets to witness various individuals being subjected to physical suffering for their transgressions. For instance, in the outlying region of hell, he witnesses individuals being bitten by hornets. Dante's work focusses more on the suffering than the actions which led to the suffering.

In the two works, there is a correspondence between an individual's sin and the punishment they receive. In Inferno, the Sullen would be seen choking on mud, the wrathful would be attacking one another while the gluttonous were forced to feed on excrement. In Canto VI, it is stated that "and the while above them roams and ravens the loathsome hound Cerberus, and feeds upon them" (Alighieri). The suffering or punishment was always equal to the sin that had been committed. Similarly, in King Lear, the king was subjected to suffering that was equal to the sin which he had committed. He was responsible for most of the misfortunes which befell the kingdom and therefore deserved the suffering which he received. Despite both works discussing human suffering as a consequence of sin, Dante's Inferno explores suffering in greater detail. In Inferno, there are various punishments corresponding to various sins but King Lear does not explore the various forms of suffering or punishment. Sinners and wrongdoers in King Lear, were mostly punished emotionally where they would be forced to live through the grief of losing a loved one. Death was also a common form of suffering for the wrongdoers. In Inferno, death by itself was not a form of suffering or punishment but merely marked the beginning of one's judgment.

There were also differences in how suffering was portrayed in the two works. In Inferno, punishment and suffering were only subjected to those who had sinned. However, in King Lear, human suffering was indiscriminate. It befell even the individuals who did not deserve to suffer. Cordelia had constantly done right by her father. She genuinely loved him yet she suffered defeat in battle and death. Gloucester was also a kind gentleman who did not deserve to suffer death. Cordelia's and Gloucester's suffering came as a consequence of other people actions. They were punished because of the mistakes made by King Lear. In inferno human suffering was a form of justice for one's actions. However, in King Lear, death and suffering were not always forms of justice. The suffering that was experienced by some of the characters made some of them to question whether justice really existed in the world. Gloucester even lamented that "as flies to wanton boys are we to the gods; / they kill us for their sport" (Shakespeare). Both works suggest that human suffering was controlled by powers beyond their understanding. They believed that it was only the gods who could bring about justice. Some characters in King Lear, did not despair even as they endured suffering and death. For example, Edgar watched many people around him die but he still trusted the gods to provide justice. He happily proclaimed that "the gods are just" and believed that individuals always got what they deserved.

The two works help to advance the notion that human suffering can befall a person regardless of the individual's denomination, faith or background. In Inferno, God is the provider of justice while in King Lear, justice is provided by the gods (Atherton). The difference in denominations does not prevent the course of justice. It also implies that many denominations or communities subscribe to the concept of justice by a superior being. In both works, human suffering seems to be a form of punishment for one's wrong doings. This implies that if individuals can avoid sinning or going against set societal values, they can absolve themselves of any suffering. In King Lear, Albany, Edgar and Kent were not subjected to any form of suffering (Singh). The three characters had not committed any wrongdoing and at the end as most of the individuals were being punished for their actions, the three remained unscathed and took over the administrative duties of the kingdom. Similarly, in Inferno, there is no suffering for those individuals who follow God's word. Punishment is only meted to the sinners.

The major difference between the two works in regards to human suffering is that one of them explores the notion of punishment and human suffering in the world while the other discusses human suffering in the afterlife. In both instances, the suffering is propagated by superior beings. The differences imply that as humans, we could be punished for our actions here on earth or during the afterlife. The two poems are admonishing in nature. They warn of consequences of our actions. In King Lear, justice is served swiftly as individuals are made to reap the repercussions of their actions before their demise. It is also possible that the individuals who engaged in wrongdoing while still alive may be subjected to further justice or punishment by the gods when they pass on. The differences in suffering in the two works implies that we should avoid wrongdoing and going against societal values as it could lead to suffering on earth and even in the afterlife.

Works Cited

Alighieri, Dante. The Divine Comedy: Inferno. Penguin Classics,

Atherton, Carol. "Character Analysis: the Villains in King Lear? Edmund, Goneril and Regan." The British Library, 6 2017,

Shakespeare, William. King Lear. Pelican Edition,

Singh, Simran. "An Analysis of Shakespeare's "King Lear"." Owlcation, 2 Nov. 2016,

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