Like Hamlet and Macbeth, King Lear is a tragedy, which is a genre that has some basic rules and conventions. What are these basic rules and conventions, you ask? Let's take a look at our nifty checklist and find out.
Dramatic work: Check. King Lear is most definitely a play.
Serious or somber theme: Check. Lear isn't referred to as one of the "bleakest" plays in the English language for nothing. The end of the play especially (when Cordelia dies) is so depressing and hopeless that some scholars have argued that Lear is actually an absurdist play (like Beckett's Endgame or Waiting for Godot), a play which demonstrates that human life and suffering are ultimately meaningless.
Hero's got a major flaw of character or conflict with some overpowering force: Hmm. Let's see. King Lear exercises a serious lack of good judgment at the play's beginning, which causes his entire world to fall apart, so check. His decision to divvy up his kingdom among his daughters so he can enjoy an early retirement is disastrous and brings about a civil war.
Then, when Lear stages a love test to determine who loves him the most, he's under the impression that words have more meaning than they actually do. Lear's also not so good at detecting lies—he actually believes Goneril and Regan when they lie about how much they love him. In other words, Lear's lack of good judgment is sounding like a serious character flaw to us.
Hero is destined for destruction and downfall: Checkity check check. As we've said, Lear's poor decision making (dividing up the kingdom, taking an early retirement, and banishing Cordelia) has some terrible consequences that bring about Lear's downfall. But, we also want to say that King Lear just can't seem to catch a break—it often seems that no matter what Lear does, his downfall is unavoidable.
Lear (and many other characters) come to realize that his misery is inevitable—in the play, the gods (or some other divine being) are either absent or, they just don't care about human suffering.
Shakespearean tragedies always end in death... but usually with some promise of continuity: Not all tragedies end in death but all of Shakespeare's tragedies do.
At the end of King Lear, Edgar stabs his brother Edmund, Goneril poisons her sister Regan, Gloucester has a heart attack and dies, Cordelia is murdered by Edmund's henchman, and Lear dies of a broken heart.
Despite all the human carnage that typifies Shakespearean tragedy, Big Willy Shakespeare usually throws the audience a bone so they don't leave the theater feeling hopelessly depressed. (At the end of Hamlet, for instance, Prince Fortinbras is left with the task of taking over the throne of Denmark and Horatio promises he will live to tell Hamlet's story.) In the case of King Lear, however, it's not entirely clear that there's any hope at all for the future... which we talk about in "What's Up With the Ending?"