According to the Greek philosopherPlato, human behavior flows from three main sources: desire, emotion, andknowledge. (Plato Quotes) The result of one’s foolishness or folly leads tocatastrophic circumstances that often destroy or nearly destroy human beings asa consequence of ill-considered judgment. In the poem Helen by Hilda Doolittle and the play King Lear by William Shakespeare, the protagonists bring upontragic ends for themselves, their families, and their people with selfishdecisions entirely based upon their desires. Although in Helen, it was written with the intention to enunciate an individualfollowing the aftermath of the tragedy, while King Lear depicts the gradual descent into madness of the titlecharacter and the tragedy that follows. The poem Helen is about Sparta’s backlash towards Helen of Sparta for beingthe cause of the war between the Greeks and the Trojans. Helen of Sparta was themost beautiful woman of her time, whose abduction from her husband, King Menelaus,by the Trojan prince Paris started the Trojan War.
Paris was promised the mostbeautiful woman by the goddess Aphrodite, and so without considering the foolishnessand repercussion of his decision, he refused to return Helen to Menelaus. Menelaushad gone through the selection of many suitors and even an oath to the godswith the other suitors to support one another no matter who would take Helen astheir wife. By the oath they had taken together, Menelaus callsupon the aid of all the other suitors to take Helen back from Paris whichstarted the Trojan War. Paris ultimately causes the death of himself in the war,the downfall of Troy, and the greatest tragedy in Greek mythology. After the war, Menelaus took Helen back toSparta, where she lived out her years until death. The bitterness voiced in firststanza, “All Greece Hates”, the second stanza, “All Greece reviles,” andthe third stanza, “Greece sees, unmoved,” paints an image of unforgivinghateful Greeks.
Helen’s people refuse to feel sympathy for her until she dies,because as long as she is alive, she is a painful reminder of the devastationthey had suffered, and. But they are not vengeful, as there is a way that theycan forgive her. In the poem, a white motif is used to describe the physical featuresof a lifeless Helen, whose physical beauty has been burned out until nothing isleft but ash. The ash symbolizes physical death, and is nothing more than the whiteand gray color of pale powder left from cremating her body. It is ironic howher people can only love her in death.
Further description of Helen is expandedin the second stanza where Greece sees weakness in the beauty of the enchantresses’face. And they begin to wonder if Helen looks weak because she also suffersfrom melancholy and sorrow in the memory of “past ills”. In this poem,Helen can be seen as the symbol of Greece itself.
(Modern American Poetry) On the other hand, King Lear is a play where most of the protagonists’actions are devoid of any significant purpose outside of achieving their ownselfish goals; they are too consumed by their pursuit to gain power and prideto think about the consequences of their actions and the poor treatment ofthose around him. The characters pursue these goals at the expense of all else,and the lives of other people including their own families are utterlydisregarded. This behavior results in a complete segregation of the family in King Lear, and the result of thisbreakdown is devastating for the characters in the play as nearly all of themmeet a dreadful fate. Perhaps no character is morerepresentative of this lack of meaningful purpose than Lear himself. Lear is aking who couldn’t care less about the people he rules over; he is onlyinterested in maintaining his grand ego and ensuring that he is able to maintainthe kingdom without all the accompanying responsibility of the crown whileliving a carefree and comfortable lifestyle. At the beginning of the play Learpits his daughters against each other to display their undying affection forhim in a contest, asking each of them to proclaim that they love him more thantheir sisters do.
He wanted to divide his kingdom among his three daughters,the size of which to be determined by how much they gratified him. It is clear thatLear values appearances over reality, and he likely never thought that thewords coming out of his daughters’ mouth may be fraudulent. The two eldest daughters-Goneril and Regan profess their love for Lear to be “boundless” in speeches offlattery, and his youngest daughter- Cordelia simply states that she loves himaccording to her bond, no more. Out of anger, Lear foolishly disowns Cordeliaand splits the control over his kingdom between Gonreil and Regan. AfterCordelia, the only daughter who truly loved Lear is banished; Goneril and Reganbegan to strip away Lear’s power, control, and influence over the kingdomlittle by little until he is left with nothing. Gloucester is another character in King Lear who isdepicted as a foolish old man. He was unable to see through Edmund’s lies abouthis legitimateson, and makes the same mistake of casting him away like Lear did to Cordelia.
Bymistaking Edmund’s motives, Gloucester is blind to the events occurring aroundhim. He is not intuitive or quick enough to comprehend the plotting or crosscurrentpresent around him. Gloucester puts the blames on the stars when something goeswrong, and thus, he absolves himself of any responsibility for his actions.
When he is caught in the schemes of Edmund, Goneril and Regan, he becomes helplessagainst them. In a duel, Edmund gets killed by Edgar, and Edgar reveals histrue identity to Gloucester who dies from a heart unable to take both grief andjoy. And Goneril, who poisoned Regan so that Edmund would be hers, commitssuicide. Helplessly standing by as theirchildren turned on each other, both Lear and Gloucester failed as parents. Thelast tenuous hold on his sanity, his kingdom, and his family was all lostbecause of Lear’s petty selfishness. Gloucester’s blindness toward Edmund’sneed for praise resulted in his son’s wicked manipulations and subsequent death.The forces of betrayal, jealousy, and death had done their work in the end.
Lear eventually entered a stage of dead bodies, howling in grief as a servantlaid Cordelia, who had tried to save him from her sisters on the bier. Hisfalse hope of Cordelia showing signs of life was excruciating to watch, and hesettled himself beside his beloved daughter and succumbed to his heartbreak. Both endings for the protagonistsin Helen and King Lear are catastrophic, brought upon by their foolishness and disastrousdesires. Paris, out of lust for the most beautiful woman caused a tragic warand got his own city sacked, and even died in the process.
He had lost hisrational at the promise of Aphrodite, and never reflected on the weight of hisactions before he went and abducted King Menelaus’s wife. Lear and Gloucester senselesslycast away their only children who loved them from the bottom of their hearts, towhich they all end up dead. Lear did not accept the love that Cordelia spoke ofin honesty; he would rather drown himself in the false poisonous flattery ofGoneril and Regan that was coated with greed and underlining ambitions. Gloucesternever second guessed Edmund when he told him that Edgar was plotting againsthim. His fear of losing power made him gullibleto Edmund’s lie and cunning deceptions. As we can see, from the poem Helen and the play King Lear, the foolishness or folly of oneself can bring uponcatastrophic circumstances that can destroy a city, a kingdom, or a family.
Theprotagonists let themselves become slaves to their desires, pride, and power,which led them to their destructions. In the end, they gained nothing, losteverything, or even ended up dead. Consequences of ill-considered judgments oftenlead to unexpected dreadful results that often destroy or nearly destroy humanbeings.