Welcome to my study site on Shakespeare's
King Lear (139K)
"Shakespeare took a story which had a happy ending, and gave it a
sad ending. He transformed a fairy-tale about virtuous and wicked
people into something morally ambiguous. He took a story of wrongs
being righted, and turned it into the story of painful discovery. He
included passages which deal with ideas instead of advancing the
Lear: "Come not between the dragon and his wrath." I.i.123
Lear:"Who is it who can tell me who I am?" I.iv.238.
Lear: "I can be patient." II.iv.229.
Lear: "Crack nature's moulds, all germens spill at once, That
make ingrateful man." III.ii.7
Lear: "I am a man more sinn'd against than sinning." III.ii.58
Edgar: "O matter and impertinency mixed! /Reason in madness."
Gloucester: "as flies to wanton boys are we to the gods;/ They
kill us for their sport." IV.i.37
Gloucester: "I have no way and therefore want no eyes; I stumbled
when I saw." IV.i.18-19.
Gloster: "let the man . . . that will not see Because he does not
feel, feel your pow'r quickly" 4.2.69
Edgar: "the worst is not,/ So long as we can say, "This is the
Edgar: "Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say." V.iii.321
Fool: -"Thou should'st not have been old till thou had'st been
- Teaching Notes © G. Smith 1996
See also Bradley
G. Harrison Shakespeare's
158-183. Dewey 822.33.
- Lear first played in spring 1606
- Elizabeth died 24 March 1603.; court degeneracy followed
- 1605 Gunpowder Plot led to universal horror & a great eclipse
and the trial of Father Garnet
- disgusting visit of the King of Denmark
- a feeling that the universal was corrupt and on the point of
- a universal gloom; a fear of vast and vague calamity
- Playing Lear demands power and maturity from the actor or else it
is tedious; most difficult and most concentrated of all Shakespeare's
- an elaborate plot and skilful characterisations
- a threefold story:
- - Lear by his own folly brought destruction on himself and his
- - Gloucester is destroyed by his own sins.
- - Edmund played for high stakes and lost.
- the "nothing' of Cordelia is a devastating paralysis of will.
- Scene I: three central characters
- Lear is not a sympathetic character: violent temper and foolish
- Yet Cordelia values something in him.
- Edmund is natural man - For him, Nature is the Goddess of the
Ruthless Beast. natural son of his father Gloucester. image of
the destruction of both fathers begins
with "nothing" I.i.91 &
To a man suffering intolerable grief and
strain are granted four
degrees of relief: words, tears, madness death.
- Lear quite mad
- Edgar simulated lunacy
- Fool's half witted barbs
King Lear is never a popular play : too
much horror too much
not for weakings. it's merciless - a
Lear from Knights Some Shakespearian Themes
84-119. © G. Smith 1996
Play has three features:
- timeless & universal
- crucial place - author's inner biography
- indicates a stage in the emergence of modern European
- Central issue: Is Nature a norm for conduct?
- Brutality, greed and passion compared with mercy, justice, moral
- For the 16th Century, Nature was ordered for the good of Man.
- Any erosion (of that order) leads to an amoral collection of
- The play presumes nothing but Nature, natural energies and
- The positives in the play are fundamentally Christian values.
- Othello 1604 - "revelation of character" - a new focus on the
- Lear - a universal allegory; certain permanent aspects of the
- The consciousness of Lear is part of the consciousness of humans.
- Voices echo one another.
- Interrelation of Man and the Cosmos; exploring the social body.
- "I have no way and therefore want no eyes;
- I stumbled when I saw." Gloucester IV.i.18-19.
- "Who is it who can tell me who I am?" Lear I.iv.238.
- The action of the play is designed to force the hidden conflict
in Lear into the open.
- Lear embodies perverse self will i.e., knows neither himself or
the nature of things.
- His perverse demands lead to (results in) distortion of the
- therefore he is deceived by appearances.
- Lear goes mad because he is a mind in conflict; a ferocious
- Imagery of beasts of prey whenever mentions of Regan and Goneril.
- Recurring themes are lust and cruelty.
- Pessimism symbolised by blind Gloucester "a ruined piece of
- stripping away of layers of appearance v. love and forgiveness of
- the achievement of honesty and humility (true knowledge of self
and one's real place).
- THEME: Neither Man's reason or his perception operate separate
from his personality (quantum sumus, scimus) = How he feels relates to
what he feels.
- attitudes have to break through the hard crust of his own will
(commands, threats, imperatives, curses)
- leads to: "I am a man more sinn'd against than sinning."
- indifference of nature and all the disreputable impulses that
find a home in the heart of man.
- THEME: How to cope with a world so revealed is the question of
- tirades of Appetite and Authority IV.vi.110f & 151ff.
- Subplot of Gloucester is an intensification, a projection of Lear
on a smaller plane.
- Gloucester learns "to see" in his blindness.
- his decision to help Lear is deliberate and heroic.
- THEME: Gloucester learns to suffer, and to feel and in feeling to
- The Fool's role is to
- disturb with glimpses of confounding truths.. the truth he tells
is disguised, paradoxical.
- clarify the difference between intellectual and emotional 'seeing'
- cast doubts on the audience's certainties
- sort out wisdom for themselves and 'fools' of loyalty
Act IV the mutual treachery of competing egotisms.
- Life is a meaningless comedy of pain.
- Folly is a word with different meanings depending on your
standpoint of the speaker.
- Three recurring references to birth: cry, fright and protest.
Cordelia's love is freely given
- Centre of the play's Action is a complete endorsement of love
- love = self forgetful concentration on the other
- without love, life is a meaningless chaos of competing egotisms.
- love is the energising centre of a character and it engines
- THEME: How to effect personal renewal.
- Notes © by G. Smith 1998
- Historical Context
- 1606 Plague 30,000 died; a Black Year = court finances empty;
irregularities in appointing knighthoods, visit of King of Denmark a
- 1603 national grief, loss of Elizabeth
- feeling the power of nothing, bareness, barrenness, abandonment,
force of loss,
- Cultural Context
- Elizabethans show a movement from divine right to "what helps
prosperity" for the the common good?
- Shakespeare presents the world of Lear: a godless preChristian
England - rampant ambition, warrior King has what he has won, bulied
wrested from others; his goal is his welfare so thereby his people are
- Lear having to undo this worrior thinking, careless about
himself, naked in the storm; unable to take shelter, unable to do the
natural instinctive thing,; unmindful of his own welfare
- Metaphoric Context
- A king divinely chosen defines God's social order to maintain
stability, harmony, justice
- But what if a truant king? He defies God's order for the world -
- Poses what is our judgement on a truant negligent king in his
deliberate dereliction of his god-given duty
- his duty to the country, his people, breaks their trust in him?
- culture v nature- overturned in Edmund proud of bastard nature
- art v human nature
- pathetic fallacy = nature in sympathy with human feelings- nature
expresses Man's state, mood
- Nature almost as a character in the play
- Dramatic Context
- the storm scenes Act III: require buckets of water, drums,
howling of winds, storm
- grass in hair
- Redemption of Lear, & Gloucester and even at the end a hint
of kindness / change in Edmund
What's its theme? What's it all
"the stage is empty
throughout: there is nothing,
except the cruel earth, where man goes on his journey from the cradle
to the grave. The theme of King Lear is an enquiry into the
meaning of this journey, into the existence, or the non-existence of
Heaven and Hell." Kott The Bottom
Translation p. 118 (1987).
- Gloucester: "as flies to wanton boys are we to the gods;/ They
kill us for their sport." IV.i.37
- Edgar: "the worst is not,/ So long as we can say, "This is the
- Edgar: "Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say." V.iii.321
= the play's indeterminacy resists
closure; no purposeful
coherence, no metaphysical summation; "King Lear is endlessly
open and endlessly renegotiated." Philippa Kelly
(1995) Shakespeare's King Lear p. 25.
- a man of his age
- enjoyed his own theatre, own plays, own audience
- gave them what they wanted without stirring up controversy
- has his own prejudice/ignorance
- held a pre-Copernican cosmology
- focused on kings, gods, vice regent level in society
- believed that all matter is either earth air fire or water
- believed that man is a microcosm of the universe's intricate
order of being.
Tragedy = blood for supper: in Lear
tragedy = a sudden reversal, ending or
created in plot, character, diction,
Elements: actors, place and spectators.
- 1. a profound moral sense - pity terror ideal sorrow joy; had an
instinctive sense of human behaviour
- 2. mortality, instinctive ability to feel pathos in human
- leads to universal experience leads to a complete cleansing
of the emotions.
Lear Exam Preparation
- Identify the speaker and context:
- 1. "Come not between the dragon and his wrath" I.i.124.
- 2. "He'll shape his old course in a country new." I.i.189.
- 3. "..that which ordinary men are fit for, I am qualified in, and
the best of me is diligence" I.iv.35
- 4. "Old fond eyes/ beweep this cause again, I'll pluck ye out,/
And cast you, with the waters that you lose,/ To temper clay."
- 5. "She will taste as like this as a crab does to a crab. Then
canst tell why one's nose stands i' the middle on's face?" I.v.18.
- 6. "O reason not the need: our basest beggars Are in the poorest
thing superfluous." II.iv.264
- 7. "This prophecy Merlin shall make; for I live before his time."
- 8. "Crack nature's moulds, all germens spill at once, / That make
ingrateful man." III.ii.8.
- 9. "I will persevere in my course of loyalty, though/ The
conflict be sore between that and my blood."
- 10. "Lest his ungoverned rage dissolve the life/ That wants the
means to lead it." IV.iv.19.
- 11. "O matter and impertinency mixed! /Reason in madness."
Lear Essay Questions
- Question 1: Themes and appeal (700 -800 words)
- "Shakespearian plays like King Lear have appeal, even
today, because of their universal
(identifiable throughout the world) and timeless (relevant in
every age) themes. How true is this statement? Justify your response
through frequent references (and even short quotations) from King
- Question 2: Character (700 -800 words)
- We learn about characters in the play through:
- what the character says
- what the character does
- what others say about him or her.
- Select one of the dramatis personae and discuss how
each of the above points applies to him or her.
- 3. Show that the Fool both emphasises and relieves the tragedy of
- 4. Distinguish between Lear's real and Edgar's simulated madness.
- 5. Character sketch
Cordelia. How true is it that the whole of the plot is not as important
as development of her character?
- 6. Compare:
- "When we our betters see bearing our woes,
- We scarcely think our miseries our foes." Shakespeare
- "Life is only froth and bubble
- Two things stand like stone:
- Kindness in another's trouble
- And courage in our own." R. L. Stevenson
- What attitudes to life's troubles are suggested here?
- 5. "I can be patient." II.iv.229
- What reactions do you have when Lear makes this claim?
- 6. "The Lear of Shakespeare cannot be acted. . .The greatness of
Lear is not in the corporal dimension, but in the intellectual. We are
Lear . . . we are in his mind" Charles Lamb p. 96. Discuss.
- 7."Every new reading of Lear implies a reconsideration
of the way audiences value and respond to the play" Discuss this
statement with reference to one scene and outline its impact on the
play as a whole.
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- Re: king lear site
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- I just wanted to say: Thankyou so much!
- The information you provided about King
Lear on your site was really concise
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through lots of other info. to find what I wanted.Thanks again. Erin
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Written and prepared by G.
Smith 27 January 1999 returned to web 28
Oct 2011.Revised May 10