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McGann1

MeaghanMcGann
Dr.Coolidge
BritLit215
18December2013
TakeHomeExam3
Beowulf
,
SirGawainandtheGreenKnight
,and
KingLear
,eachdepictthepowerthat
choicehasinmansrelationalandexistentialstruggle.Ineachoftheworks,theprotagonists
identityistiedupinthechoicestheymakeregardingtheirhumanrelationshipsandtheircallto
duty.In
Beowulf
,theherounderstandshisidentityinhisrolesasthaneandcyningand
consistentlymakesselfsacrificialchoicesthatlateraidhiminthefulfillmentofhisduty.
Gawain
sstoryisinmanywaysacomingofagestoryinwhichhegrowsintohisidentityashe
makesselfishandselflessrelationalchoicesthateventuallyallowhimtogoaboveandbeyond
hisduty.In
KingLear
,theprotagonistatfirstmakesseveralinitialdecisionsoutofdesireto
preservehisperceivedidentitythatinrealityconfusehisidentityfurtherandultimatelyhamper
himfromfulfillinghisdutyasfather,king,andevenhuman.
Thestrugglesoftheprotagonistsin
Beowulf
,
SirGawainandtheGreenKnight
and
KingLear
,suggestthatwhenonedoesnothave
atrueunderstandingoftheiridentitytheyareleadtomakerelationalchoicesoutofselfish
motivationandarethushamperedfromfulfillingtheirduty.
Intheprimaryepic,
Beowulf
,theherouseshisidentityasthaneandthenlater,ascyning,
asthebasisforhisrelationaldecisions.Throughout
Beowulf
,theherosmaingoalistofollow
thegermaniccode.Asathane,Beowulfsjobistobeutterlyloyaltohiscyning.Beowulf
understandshisidentityasthaneandisthusenabledtopursuethegermanicidealfully.Inorder
topursuethisheroicideal,Beowulfleaveshiscyninginanefforttoexpandhisrenown.Inanact
bothheroicandsacrificial,BeowulfimputesHeorothallofbothGrendelandhismother.This

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actionnotonlygeneratesthefavorofKingHrothgarandtheDanes,butalsograntsBeowulfthe
germanicgloryhewasinsearchof.AfterBeowulfssuccesses,KingHrothgarproclaims,I
firmlybelievetheseafaringGeatswontfindamanworthierofacclaimastheirkingand
defenderthanyou,ifonlyyouwouldundertakelordshipofyourhomeland(127).Afterhis
victories,andwithhisnewfoundfame,Beowulfcouldhaveveryeasilyoversteppedhisroleas
thaneandchallengedthepowerofhiscyning.However,Beowulfsunderstandingofhisdutyas
thaneallowedhimtohaveanappropriatethanecyningrelationship.Whenhereturnshometo
hiscyningafterhisgloriousendeavor,ratherthanharponhissuccesses,Beowulftruthfully
recountshistalesandplaceshislongsoughtaftergloryontheking:[I]woncreditforyou,my
king,andforallyourpeople(143).Beowulfsrightfulbehaviorregardinghiscyningand
successwithinthethanerelationshiplaterpavethewayforhimtobecomethenextcyning.It
soonbecomesevidentthatBeowulfsunderstandingofhisidentityisnotlimitedstrictlytohis
identityasthane.Ascyning,Beowulfsroleshiftstothatofkeeperofthegoldandtheprotector
ofthepeople.Inthissensehebecomesmoreofareluctanthero.Beowulfunderstandsthatinhis
identityascyning,hisquestforfameislimited.BecauseheistheprotectoroftheGeats,
Beowulfislessfreetosacrificehisownlifeforthepursuitofglory.Inhisencounterwiththe
dragon,Beowulfrealizesheverywellmaydie,butinordertoprotecthispeoplefromthe
villainyofthedragonandtosecurethemgold,hecourageouslyfacesthefirebreathingbeast.In
thislastactofheroism,Beowulfdefeatsthedragon,butforfeitshisownlife.Beowulfscallto
dutygoesbeyondhisdesiretosecurefameforhimself,oreventopreservehisownlife.His
understandingofhisidentityasthaneandcyning,andtheselfsacrificenecessarywithineachof
theseroles,presenthimwiththeopportunitytopursuethegermanicidealinamannerthat

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satisfieshiscalltoduty.
Theromance,
SirGawainandtheGreenKnight
,depictsthecharactergrowththatstems
fromGawainsselfsacrificialandtheselfpreservationalchoicesandhissubsequentabilitytogo
aboveandbeyondhisduty.Thoughthestoryisinmanywaysacomeofagetale,atthestartof
theromance,Gawainalreadyexpressesanunderstandingofhisidentityregardinghisroleas
knight.GawainunderstandsthatasaknightofKingArthurscourthisutmostcallingistobe
loyaltoandprotecthisking.Thus,whentheGreenKnightpresentsKingArthurscourtwithhis
challenge,GawainstepsforwardsothatKingArthurneednotendangerhislifeandhonormay
bepreserved.ThischoiceisbothamanifestationofdutyandloyaltyasGawainexpresses,I
finditunfitting,asmyfellowknightswould,whenadeedofsuchdaringisdangledbeforeus
thatyoutakeonthistrial...Iamtheweakestofyourwarriorsandfeeblestofwitlossofmylife
wouldbegrievedleast(43).ThisinitialsacrificialchoicemarksthestartofGawainscharacter
growth.GawainsselflessnessregardinghisloyaltytoKingArthursuggestsamaturityalready
beyondhisyearsintermsofunderstandinghisknightlyduty.Althoughalreadymatureinhis
understandingofknightlyduty,Gawainisnotflawlessandevenexpresseshishumilitywithin
thispositionastheweakestofwarriors,andthefeeblestofwit.Gawainsrealizationofhis
needforgrowthandhiswillingnesstogrowallowshimtomaintainhisfocusonfulfillinghis
dutytotheGreenKnightschallengeandlatertoowhenhereturnstoKingArthurscourt.
Despitehismaturity,Gawainisnotfaultless.Wheninvitedtotakerespiteonhiswaytoanswer
theGreenKnightschallenge,abeautifulmaidenalmostensnareshim.Eachmorningafterthe
masterhasgoneouttohunt,themaidencomesandtemptsGawainwithherwomanlywiles.And
eachmorningGawainisabletoresist,boundbyhishonorandhishighcallingasaknight,until

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shepresentshimwithagirdlethatmaysparehisownlife.WhenGawainlearnsthatthisgirdle
beinggivencouldbejustthejobtosavehimfromthestrikeinhischallengeatthechapel(145),
heacceptsthegiftandchoosestolietothemasteroftheestate.Inthisinstance,Gawainloses
sightofhisidentityasnobleknightandchoosesinsteadtofollowhisownselfpreservational
instincts.Thislapseinidentityprovestobebothhisdownfallandhisstigmaforgrowth.When
theGreenKnightrevealsthatthetemptationsofthewomanweremereploysofhistrickery,
Gawainrealizeshisfailings.AstheGreenKnightputsit,itwasloyaltythat[Gawain]lacked:
notbecause[hewas]wicked,orawomanizer,orworse,but[he]loved[his]ownlife(179).
Gawainlostsightofhiscallingasknight,puthisowninterestsfirstandforfeitedhisloyaltyto
hisquest.However,Gawaindoesnotallowhisshortcomingstodefinehim,andvaliantlydecides
toreturnhomeandretellhistale.GawainshumblereturntoKingArthurscourtandhistruthful
retellingrevealhisgrowthintohisidentity.Gawainshumblenessisinmanywaysasacrificein
andofitselfherevealshisrelationalsacrificebyconfessinghisshortcomingspubliclyand
inspiringtheotherknightstoweargreensashesasremembrancesoftheirknightlyduty.No
longertheweakestandfeeblestoftheknightsoftheroundtable,Gawainhascompletedthe
GreenKnightschallengeandlearnedavaluablelesson.Gawainexpresseshissecuritywithinhis
identityintheboldnesswithwhichhechallengesthecourttolivelivesofintegrityandtofulfill
theirdutyhonorably.
Shakespearestragedy,
KingLear,
recountsthepoorrelationalchoicesthattheking
makesoutofhisconfusedidentitythatrenderhimunabletoperformhisdutyasking,fatherand
human.Rightatthestartoftheplay,Learconveysthathelacksanunderstandingofwhatit
meanstobeaking.Inanactuncharacteristicofastilllivingking,Leardividesuphiskingdom

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betweenhisdaughters,retaininghistitlebutbestowingallhisresponsibilitiesintothehandsof
hisdaughtersandtheirhusbands.Learfailstorealizethataskinghehastolooktotheinterests
ofhispeopleratherthanhispersonalconvenience.Whilestilldividinghiskingdom,Learalso
expresseshismisunderstandingofwhatitmeanstobeafather.Learaskshisdaughtersto
verbalizetheirlovetohimandwhenCordeliaspeakssimplyofherlove,hedisownsherashis
daughtersaying,Betterthouhadstnotbeenbornthannottohavepleasedmebetter(9).Lear
lackstheproperunderstandingthattruelovemaynotalwaysbeverbalizedandthatfamilial
bondscannotbeeasilybroken.Inthesetwomisunderstandingsofhisidentityaskingandfather
Learrendershimselfunabletoperformhisduty.Fortheseinitialrashchoices,Learhastopay
consequencesthroughouttheplay.AlreadyattheendofAct1,Learalreadybeginstoregrethis
decisiontodisownCordelia.WhenGonerilandReganrevealtheirduplicity,Leariscastoutof
hispalaceandforcedtoforfeithisknights.HeevenloseshistitlewhenOswald,Gonerils
servant,referstohimmerelyasMyladysfather(20),ratherthanhisrespectfultitle.Asthings
continuetogofrombadtoworseforLear,hestartstogomad.Ironically,inhismadnesshe
beginstoexpressabetterunderstandingofhisidentityandthedutythatthisidentityentails.In
ActIII,ashewandersabouttheheath,Learrealizeshehasbeenlaxinhisdutyashuman,
specificallyregardingthepoor:poornakedwretches,wheresoeeryouare,thatbidethepelting
ofthispitilessstorm,howshallyourhouselessheadsandunfedsides,yourloopdandwindowd
raggedness,defendyou...Ihavetaentoolittlecareofthis(62).Thoughinhismisfortune,Lear
beginstoseehimselfmoreclearly,itisnotenoughtorenewhisidentityorallowhimtotake
backhisduty.ItisonlythroughtherelationalsacrificeofothersthatsomeofLearsformer
identityfinallybecomesrestored.KentoffershisundyingloyaltytoLear,evendisguising

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himselfafterLearunjustlyexileshim.Kentnotonlymodelswhatitmeanstobeagoodfriend,
butalsoanhonorablehuman.Likewise,CordeliaunquestioninglyforgivesLeardespitehis
abandonmentofherproclaiming,Omydearfather!Restorationhangthymedicineonmylips,
andletthiskissrepairthoseviolentharmsthatmytwosistershaveinthyreverencemade(100).
InadditiontoofferingLearreconcilementwithinhisfatherhood,CordeliaprovidesLearwithan
armytotakebackhistitle.Cordeliaevenlosesherlifeforthesakeofrestoringherfathertohis
throne.KingLeardoesnotearn,butisofferedmanyopportunitiestoreclaimthedutymandated
fromhisidentity,andtosomeextenthedoesrestorehisidentityasfather.However,thisrestored
identityisnotlastingitstemsfromthesacrificeofKentandCordeliaratherthanLearsown
transformation.Despitethistemporaryrestoration,Learsidentityasfatheriscompletely
obliteratedbytheendoftheplaywiththedeathofCordelia,Goneril,andRegan.Inhismadness,
hisidentityashumanhasbeentwistedandheisnolongerabletofulfillhisdutyasking.Lears
lackofunderstandingofhisidentitycauseshimtomakeselfishdecisionsthatdestroyhis
relationshipsandultimatelyrenderhimunabletofulfillhisduty.
Beowulf
,
SirGawainandtheGreenKnight
and
KingLear
,eachdepictthestrugglesof
theprotagonistastheyusetheirunderstandingoftheiridentitytomakerelationalchoices
regardingtheirduty.Beowulfsunderstandingofhisidentityasthaneandcyningallowhimto
dutifullyfulfillhiscallingandtomakethesacrificialchoicesnecessarywithineachofthose
roles.Gawainswillingnesstogrowintohisidentityallowshimtohumblymakesacrificesthat
provideopportunitiesforhimtoinspireothers,aswellashimself,tofulfilltheirknightlyduties.
KingLearmakesseveraldestructiverelationalchoicesoutofaconfusedunderstandingofhis
identityasfather,kingandhuman,thateventuallyleadtothecompletelossofhisidentityandto

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madness.Thus,eachprimaryepic,romanceandtragedysuggestthatonesunderstandingof
identityplaysaroleinthesacrificeorselfishnesswithintheirrelationalchoicesandtheir
consequentabilitytofulfilltheirduty.