A.C.Bradley on King Lear (1957)
Actual etext
Canadian summary

in Kermode (Ed.) Shakespeare's King Lear pp. 81-117, London: Aurora 1970.

This play is different for its scope, mass and variety of intense experience, interpenetration of pathos, humour, passion and atmosphere.


1. The three-fold division of the kingdom was already public (lines 38, 197, 245)
Cordelia reverses Lear's expectation and his childish scheme to gratify his love of absolute power and hunger for assurances of devotion.
2. absurdity of his plan to live with his three daughters; only ever intended to live with Cordelia in the central opulent portion.
3. the blinding of Gloster is proper in imagination, but a blot on it as a stage play.
4. the unhappy ending: where Truth and Virtue do not at last succeed.
Does Lear need to die? aren't the tragic emotions stirred enough?
this catastrophe is not inevitable
Is a fair dismissal (= death) better than a life of continued anguish or perhaps peace and happiness by Cordelia's fireside; the whole play would not lose its significance if Lear did not die.

Structural weaknesses:

1. too many characters, their movements too complicated, readers' attention is strained with too many centres of interest changing too quickly . . . leads to emotional fatigue.
2. central battle scarcely affects Lear.
3. last two Acts too vast
4. too many and gross improbabilities in this play e.g., fate of the Fool.
a carelessness? or deliberate vagueness?
Was the fate of Lear deserved? shocking tragic yes
our pity moves to horror at his hubris (blindness to human limitations) and his presumptuous self will.
Shakespeare's first study of a choleric temperament
  • Action moves on the nexus of his errors and his calamities
  • Setting is not a fantastical world but one of law and reason leads to our horror
  • Theme: title should be "The Redemption of King Lear" because it is a progress where he learns to feel his own humiliation, learns to feel and pray for the homeless; learns to pierce below rank to the common humanity. How all things are vanity except love. see V.iii.


Insanity in Lear

- domination of a fixed idea
I looked it up again upon your question. Read at page 100
". . . domination of a fixed idea. What ever present itself to his
senses, is seized on by this idea and compelled to express it; as for
example in those words "Poor naked wretches whereso'er you are" which
first show his mind has actually given way:
"Hast thou given all / To thy two daughters? And art thou come to this?"
(He notes in a footnote this is in prose not verse then Lear reverts to
Bradley observes that the next action is surely insanity - the tearing
off of clothes.
What do I (Greg) make of this?
That Shakespeare portrays a fixed idea of insanity but today we know it
is a variety of changing states and still not understood
Lear is dominated by the fixed idea of the moment - the immediate is all; loss of
perspective, loss of personal memory and history, loss of capacity to
relativise, or value appearances, to weigh them appropriately
Lear's insanity means his senses dominate, reason fails, insanity results in confusion and
- Shakespeare recognises lunatic, lover and poet are similar; genius is allied to insanity.
His insanity stimulates moral perception and reflection.
Note simplicity of Lear's dying speech: monosyllables, brief, plain, familiar, poignant
not the grand flourish of Othello or Hamlet.

 The issue of Cordelia

appears in only 4 of its 26 scenes; says a scant 100 lines
enhances her mystery; her reverence and her pity
her assertion of truth and right compels not just respect but in her loving nature is adorable.
she is so deeply wronged yet so defenceless.
unable to speak for herself. young slight voice soft and low.
she knew least of joy; learned early to repress her emotions
we do not try to justify or blame her just feel fear and pity for her.
symbol of the dumbness of love, her hatred of hypocrisy
Why should she die?
an innocent victim swept away in the convulsion caused by others.
she is set free by death; a spirit beyond, untouched by tragedy
she is closer to the heart of life's meaning; all that matters is what she is.
she focuses theme: prosperity versus goodness
the greater her death, the nobler is her soul. maior mors, maiora anima (G. Smith)
in the real world, appearances are nothing; what counts is what's inside.
theme: the outward is nothing, the inward is everything.
a crushed flower yields its fragrance
warm room in a castle is hell, a tumultuous heath is a sanctuary.



In Shakespeare's day, Cordelia would be a Catholic or a Puritan =
averse to commodious conformity.
Historical precedent for the division: a cause celebre in the courts in 1588-9:
Sir William Allen divided his estate between his daughters
theme of play: fault of haste and indiscretion leads to results beyond all bounds.


Major motifs in King Lear:

  • exposure
  • vivisection
  • punishment
  • concealment
Source: Coleman introduction to Challis Shakespeare:
Notes by G. Smith 11/4/99.

Character revision exercise


Relationship to the other

Role in the play

What finally happened to each

Lear and Gloucester




Goneril and Regan




Edmund and Edgar




Cordelia and Kent




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Bradley on Lear