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 plot." Ed Friedlander

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 Unit materials
Summary worksheet
Notes: Harrison, Knight, Bradley
Setting, symbols and style
Exam preparation
Eulogy preparation
Essay topics
Sample student essays
Selected quotations
Munroe's Summary
Play text scene by scene with footnotes
My Question Forum
Teaching Notes © G. Smith 1996
  • 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." IV.vi.176.
  • 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 worst." IV.i.27
  • 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 wise."
  • See also Bradley by me

    G. Harrison Shakespeare's Tragedies pp 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 dissolution
    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 plays
    an elaborate plot and skilful characterisations
    a threefold story:
    - Lear by his own folly brought destruction on himself and his daughters
    - 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 judgement.
    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 Renaissance Man.

    the destruction of both fathers begins with "nothing" I.i.91 & I.ii.32.

    To a man suffering intolerable grief and strain are granted four degrees of relief: words, tears, madness death.

    King Lear is never a popular play : too much horror too much grief.

    not for weakings. it's merciless - a purgation.

    Lesson notes on Lear from Knights Some Shakespearian Themes pp 84-119. © G. Smith 1996

    Play has three features:

    Central issue: Is Nature a norm for conduct?
    Brutality, greed and passion compared with mercy, justice, moral excellence.
    For the 16th Century, Nature was ordered for the good of Man.
    Any erosion (of that order) leads to an amoral collection of forces.
    The play presumes nothing but Nature, natural energies and passions.
    The positives in the play are fundamentally Christian values.
    Othello 1604 - "revelation of character" - a new focus on the individual.
    Lear - a universal allegory; certain permanent aspects of the human situation.
    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 actual,
    therefore he is deceived by appearances.
    Lear goes mad because he is a mind in conflict; a ferocious egotism.
    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 nature" IV.vi.136.
    stripping away of layers of appearance v. love and forgiveness of Cordelia.
    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." III.ii.58.
    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 the play.
    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 see.
    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 growth.
    THEME: How to effect personal renewal.
    Notes © by G. Smith 1998
    Studying King Lear
    Historical Context
    1606 Plague 30,000 died; a Black Year = court finances empty; irregularities in appointing knighthoods, visit of King of Denmark a disagrace
    1603 national grief, loss of Elizabeth
    feeling the power of nothing, bareness, barrenness, abandonment, force of loss,
    Cultural Context
    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 - disharmony, division,
    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 about?

    "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).

    = 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 5 dead, Hamlet 4

    tragedy = a sudden reversal, ending or crash

    created in plot, character, diction, thought, spectacle.

    Elements: actors, place and spectators. Shakespeare had:


    King 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." I.iv-v.308
    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." III.ii.95
    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." IV.vi.176.

    King 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 Lear."
    Question 2: Character (700 -800 words)
    We learn about characters in the play through:
    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 the play.
    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.
    Selected quotations

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    Re: king lear site
    Date: Mon, 10 Apr 2000 17:23:59 PDT
    To: greg@thehub.com.au
    I just wanted to say: Thankyou so much!
    The information you provided about King Lear on your site was really concise
    and saved me a lot of time from wading through lots of other info. to find what I wanted.Thanks again. Erin
     [benefits] [bradley] [eulogy] [learsettings] [leartalk] [objections] [plotline] [relevance] [shakes-bacon] [surreal] [terminology]

    Written and prepared by G. Smith 27 January 1999 returned to web 28 Oct 2011.Revised May 10 2012