Backgrounding The Tragedy of King Lear
Historical Context
24 March 1603 Elizabeth died
1605 Gunpowder Plot Guy Fawkes
1605 "Black Year" unlimited freedom; breakdown of court finances: 4,000
pounds for one masque, unworthies get knighthoods
eclipse of 1606 and the visit of King Christian of Denmark - great
depravity: "ripeness is all"
1606 plague 30K died
this play written in summer of 1606.
Cultural Context
Elizabethans show a movement from divine right to "what help prosperity"
the common good?
a godless preChristian England - rampant ambition, warrior King has what he
has won, bullied wrested from others
his goal is his welfare so thereby his people are secure
Lear having to undo this warrior 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
king divinely chosen defines God's social order to maintain stability
harmony justice
truant king defies God's order for the world - disharmony, division,
our judgement on a truant, negligent king's 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 expressed Man's state, mood
Nature almost as a character in the play
Dramatic Context
the storm scenes Act III:
buckets of water
howling of winds storm
grass in hair
Redemption of Lear, & Gloucester and even at end a hint of kindness /
change in Edmund
© G. Smith 2001

King Lear: Setting, Symbols, and Style

The setting of Shakespeare's King Lear is in a mythical England. The time
period is an era that has never existed. This age is similar to the time
period of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight when kings rule the land and
knights fight to protect their king's lands.
There are four main symbols in King Lear. The first symbol is the letters
that the characters constantly circulate between each other. These letters
symbolize the betrayal of the characters and the revenge that many of the
main characters take against each other.
The second symbol is eyes. Eyes symbolize knowledge. When the Duke of
Cornwall gouges out the Earl of Gloucester's eyes, he is trying to force out
the knowledge that the Earl of Gloucester is hiding from the Duke of
The next symbol is the weather. The weather depicts the turmoil of the
characters. When King Lear is in self pity and on the verge of insanity, the
weather is stormy and threatening.
The final symbol is the flowers. The flowers emphasize the inner peace of
the characters. After King Lear escapes from Dover, he runs off to a field
of flowers. In the flowers, King Lear finds peace from the insanity that is
taking over his mind and body.
William Shakespeare utilizes many aspects of style in his writing. In King
Lear, Shakespeare uses many examples of allusions and imagery. Shakespeare
employs the use of such contemporary and famous stories as "Jack the Giant
Killer" and Samuel Harsnett's "Declaration." Some images that Shakespeare
uses are several demons of various types and references to serpents.
Irony and humor fill King Lear. One such example of irony is the fool. A
traditional fool is a naive comic used to entertain the king. Yet King
Lear's fool is intelligent and filled with intellectual observations. In
addition, the fool often creates a humorous atmosphere with his satirical
remarks toward the king.
Shakespeare appears to enjoy the use of metaphors and similes in King Lear.
Shakespeare uses similes and metaphors as often as possible. In one such
case, Edgar addresses the fool as a "jolly shepherd."
Another technique of style that Shakespeare manipulates are apostrophes.
King Lear is constantly addressing nonhuman objects during his period of
insanity. In one such case, King Lear calls upon the storm to cast a
lightning bolt down from the heavens to kill him.
Finally, and most importantly, is Shakespeare's writing style for his
dramas. Shakespeare writes in a poetic style. He uses iambic rhythms and a
pentameter line style. This gives his dramas a defined rhythm. In addition,
he uses free verse, which excludes the use of rhymes.

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