Relevance of studying King Lear in the 1990s:
Why study Shakespeare at school?
Studying Shakespeare reveals what happens when .........
The dynamic of a play is much stronger than say a moral lecture. It involves us for that time in that space together. Without necessarily understanding all the words and references, each one understands the drama to his own level, being carried along to explore the consequences of the characters' own or others actions. Vicariously and in a dynamic way, the audience experiences what life could have dished out to us had we been in that situation.
We see people in human situations struggling with their conscience or their characteristic 'fatal flaw' of character or temperament to survive or achieve or reach some balance. That struggle either horrifies or involves us and to that extent the drama is successful. To the degree that we 'feel' the drama then to that extent can we experience the catharsis the ending brings.
Major Themes In Lear
1. The growing chaos of Lear's world is the distortion of familial and social ties. King Lear exiles his favorite daughter, Cordelia, for a trifling offense, and those daughters he does favor soon turn against him. The simple virtues of trust, care and respect are central; dismiss these and chaos follows.
2. Often characters refer to senses, particularly sight, whether as a comment on the necessity of sensing consequences before acting (as Lear does not), or as yet another of Shakespeare's comments (most apparent in Hamlet) on "seeming."
- The destruction of Gloucester's eyes and his subsequent musings ("I stumbled when I saw" (IV.i.19) etc.) are a more graphical presentation of this basic theme which originally appears in Lear's first scene.
- Goneril declares Lear is "dearer than eyesight" (I.i.56) to her (though she is the one who later suggests putting Gloucester's eyes out for his "treachery").
- Regan goes further, proclaiming "I profess / Myself an enemy to all other joys / Which the most precious square of sense possesses" (I.i. 72-74).
- Crossed in his wrath by Kent, Lear cries "Out of my sight!" (I.i.157), only to be reproved with Kent's "See better, Lear, and let me still remain / The true blank of thine eye." (I.i.158-9).
3. Lear's dialogue with Cordelia on "nothing" introduces yet another theme in the play's imagery, echoing, among other scenes, some of his later conversations with the Fool (I.iv.130 "Can you make no use of nothing, nuncle?") and others. Indeed, King Lear is, in many ways, about "nothing." Regan and Goneril seem to offer much in the beginning, but after whittling down the number of Lear's knights, they leave him with nothing, and in the end their "natural" affection comes to nothing as well. Lear is progressively brought to nothing, stripped of everything -- kingdom, knights, dignity, sanity, clothes, his last loving daughter, and finally life itself.
4. Studying Shakespeare offers many central insights on life, broadens experience of students, considers life issues, helps in a moral formation e.g, In Lear, what it means to be foolish:
- FOOL: I can tell why a snail has a house.
- KING LEAR: Why?
- FOOL: Why, to put his head in; not to give it away to his daughters. (I.v.30)
a. Can "nature" be a norm for conduct? Do we imitate Edmund and Lear?
What happens if passion not reason rules a kingdom? Appetites have limits - you can eat and drink only so much, satisfy passions only so often - the body has its limits and each body has different limits. So satisfying Nature can be no norm for society. We cannot base a society on satisfying desires and appetites. A civilised society needs morals and laws which cannot stem from these diverse and uncertain sources. A civilised society protects the weak and guards property; so naturally it has to set and defend observable limits.
b. What does it mean to be good? Is it:
- please everybody
- obey your parents
- obey the laws
- fear God, obey his commandments
- avoid punishment, reprimand, capture
- aim to do the right thing
- be a good citizen; live honestly
- show sportsmanship
- not be deceitful; do not lie, cheat or steal
- stick to your principles
- practise patience, honesty, self-control
- be moderate/ just/ fair in all things
- be authentic?
Was Lear a good king? Why/Why not? How does he measure up on the above criteria?
How was Cordelia 'good'?
- vulnerable; long suffering
- restrained; meek
- not false; not vain; not covetous; not aggressive; not assertive?
- motivated by love; living love; kind, patient, self-controlled; trusting
- considerate of her father's feelings and state.
© Greg Smith
So, it would be greatly appreciated if i could get some help with the question, because it is a fairly complex question and i'm just having a little difficulty pulling it apart and getting ideas. Thanks, anything would be great! : )
Q. Could this play be summed up as 'Lear's lapse'?
A. The desire for a catchy alliterative title hides the truth here. 'Lapse' is a weak word to describe the degree, depth and extent of the evil his division of the kingdom caused. Usually we speak of a 'lapse in concentration' or a peccadillo as a lapse from true form, the usual pattern of behaviour. We laugh when a lawyer in court defends his client for having a lapse when clearly the offence is a habit.
No, Lear's fault is more serious than a 'lapse.' True it was a one-off and decisive but it also was a serious dereliction of his duty as king. He changed the very nature of the form of government, a god-given order of society, changing it from monarchy to oligarchy. Naturally, then this breach in the nature of reality opened a Pandora's box of other evils. To the Elizabethans, just emerging from centuries of medievalism (where it was taught that God made and shaped the world into a given fixed pattern), this 'revolution' would be seen as a grievous and wilful undoing of God's order of things, besides the lawless outbreak of the appetites and ambitions of the Goneril party that it allowed. So the partition could be entitled Lear's Grievous Offence against Kingship, Family and Mankind. Of course, it is dramatically necessary so as to construct The Redemption of King Lear.
Q. What about this 'transcendence of the human spirit' we're supposed to see at the end of the play? Does it matter in the end anyway?
A. The play is contrived to a conclusion so that in the space of the three hours, we would experience the overwhelming evil of Lear's errors and, despite the unnecessary deaths of Kent, Edgar, Lear and Cordelia, we would come out of it experiencing catharsis or 'cleansing of the feelings', that is, strong emotions are explored and satisfied vicariously so that we are reassured that Good does overcome Evil, in fact, in the broad plan of things despite the fates of individuals. This does happen.
You can argue what relevance this outcome has for us today. Kosovo and tax cheats evidence that evil rages unchecked. Perhaps we see too much mixture of good and evil in our world and in ourselves ever to believe that individuals can be thoroughly good and courageous. We even doubt the concept of complete selflessness. But it is in that challenge that the play 'succeeds'; surely if we readers and watchers of the play can learn from Lear's mistakes and shun the Regan and Goneril and Oswald types, we can be persuaded to believe it is worth trying to be good in an uncertain world. Integrity, responsibility and peace are their own rewards. Virtue does matter. I see so many similarities like this for us here between the play and the world of 1999.
Smith 31 May 1999
Topic: Entertainments in The Globe Theatre, written principally by William Shakespeare, encompassed Histories, Comedies and Tragedies. How can watching a tragedy be an afternoon's entertainment? Outline your views in response by drawing on your close reading of one of his tragedies.
'Tis true for us today that for entertainment we usually turn to comedy, for in a serious world of commercial globalisation, the environmental emergency, the mass media and flow of refugees, we look to the lighter side for escape and relief. Believe me, I too seek and enjoy light entertainment. This discussion will draw out the claim that Shakespeare's The Tragedy of King Lear is indeed powerful entertainment, for it serves a great human need, telling us much about ourselves as faulty human beings, and reminds us that "there but for the grace of God go I."
It is true that the major sporting fixtures are entertainment-tragedies. Like real life, they play out real time dramas, involving irreversible factors like testing of loyalties, the injury of a lead player, the instant reversals in referees' decisions, the unpredictability of time and place, and the certainty of a win or loss result. They have their own committed followers, the fates of the players are detailed before, during and after the games, and the outcomes have enormous real (too often as 'commercial') consequences for players, clubs, fans and even towns (like Geelong and Townsville). Let's be frank, sport is seriously transformational, and sporting events contain tragedies, or in other words, they reenact the universal human drama before our eyes. Why else would great crowds come together and sometimes riot? So our argument here is that there are 'hot' and 'cold' entertainments defined by their degree of involvement. Thus, watching golf is colder than playing bridge or a video game. Watching drama can be a hot entertainment, as tragedy involves us fully, personally and transformationally.
So my contention is this: we are essentially hungry for answers to the perennial question: How are we to live? What makes a good life, what makes us happy? So my first point is that watching a Shakespearean tragedy satisfies this need. In vicarious ways in the theatre, our own lives are deeply touched by what the major characters undergo, what causes their falls from fame or virtue, and how they recapture or fail to grasp the balance needed to recover their lives. Shakespeare's Lear shows us what can happen when a king is derelict of his divine duty, to his subjects and to his own loyal blood. He comes to realise that his desire for empty flattery, his foolish trust in words, and his blindness to the loyalty of those nearest and dearest are what counts in giving us happiness. Those 'dog-hearted', 'pelican daughters' showed a filial ingratitude that broke Lear's heart. He came to regret his own blind rages, and the irrational exiling of Kent and Cordelia. Those he trusted with his future and welfare were not true to their word but allowed their own ambition, greed and lust to consume themselves and the divided kingdom. Shakespeare supplies answers to our essential questions by dramatising these consequences on a wider canvas. When finally asking, "Is man no more than this?" he is finally finding out that there is nothing more worth having, pursuing or promising than the love of one another. All else is folly.
The tragedy is entertainment in modelling our own emotional life journeys. On the heath, Lear is flung by his own foolishness into the raging hysteria he so dreads, and nature avenges him in the form of madness, with its storm and tempest and the cracking of nature's moulds (the destruction of the very foundations of an ordered universe). His foolish blindness, irrational rule and the dereliction in his abdication have brought him to the very edges of sanity, "to hovel with swine and rogues forlorn/ In short and musty straw" (IV.vii.45). The turning point of his redemption there is his prayer, a prayer to the dispossessed of the earth, in the person of the most marginalised in his erstwhile kingdom, Poor Tom. Lear finds his human dignity in a humble acceptance of his own faults and the good fellowship of Fool and Tom o'Bedlam, not in rage, hate, division and discord. The warrior dragon had to learn to temper his demands to the needs and feelings of others, so that he could reach "a truer sence of sorrow" (Webster The Duchess of Malfi III.v.84).
Tragedy orients us to the realities of life, opening up wider perspectives above and beyond the drudgery of everyday life. The play dramatises paradigmatic battles in every human life, between God and Evil, shadow and substance, and between loyalty and foolishness. The fate of the tragic hero is to some extent our fate too. Goneril and Regan do not merely seek his death but his personal annihilation, the destruction of his heaven-and-earth world and the very memory of him. Not only is his old age rejected but his just complaints, his pleas for a fair go and his successful record as king are denied him. The play shows that we cannot just reject our pasts, that we each of us must come to terms with what we have made of life and what life has made of us. We cannot reject what is real; to do so is peril. Goneril's wolfish visage in the looking glass and her pursuit of every pleasure defines a turning point for post-Elizabethan society, trying to pretend to be in a past that had gone and grappling with an uncertain future. The Renaissance dream was over and the demands of real life, the demands of the central choice in life, What side are you on - for good or evil? must be faced, adopted and lived out. Life for all of us involves that personal struggle to define who we are, what makes us good, and what needs to be rejected as evil. Anger and lust are no substitutes for reason. Shakespeare's The Tragedy of King Lear does this eminently well.
Thirdly, watching King Lear is entertainment with a moral purpose: it could be styled self education. In it, we can live the extremes for a short time without personal injury. The play explores extremes for us:
Gloucester perishes between extremes of grief and joy at the knowledge that his son was 'miraculously' preserved (V iii 196); Lear dies between extremes of joy in his desperate illusion of Cordelia's lips moving with a feather breath and the grief in his emphatic knowledge that his daughter was needlessly butchered. (Elton, "Double Plot in King Lear")
The extremes of lust (Goneril, Edmund, Regan, Oswald) and anger (Lear) are explored to offset reason, justice, self denial and measured control as dramatised in The Fool, Cordelia, Edgar and Kent. It seems there is no limit to the extremes that are possible. Edmund connives with Regan. Oswald with Goneril, Goneril deceives Albany, Cornwall's long-time servant strikes at his master during the eye torture. Cordelia's "I love your majesty according to my bond" is a stark and enigmatic extreme too. Her cause was right but her relationship was in conflict to Lear's "darker purpose." His "Never never never never never!" was no substitute for her forgiveness and compassion: "How does my royal lord? How fares your majesty?" (50) Even Cordelia is given the line: "O thou good Kent! how shall I live and work to match thy goodness?" (IV.vii.1). Ultimately, through an education in the extremes, we learn that truth, modesty and reason are what is valuable: "Be govern'd by your knowledge" (Cordelia) and "Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say"(Edgar).
Finally watching a Shakespearean tragedy is an entertainment for its craft. The predictable five act structure is not real life, the richness of Shakespeare's language and imagery, in-depth characterisations, elaborate props and staging, and journeys of the imagination make it extremely rich entertainment. The Fool's banter, puzzles, ironies, cracks and philosophy tease and tantalise and entertain Lear. The mock court in the hovel despite its serious emotional need has some comic dramatic purpose in letting off steam. The play's language is richly textured. The few familar images of order 'drench'd our steeples' are drowned in so many interlocking images of disorder and chaos. Brute forces unleashed and reigning supreme upon a suffering world, and its beastiary, are excellently captured by the many different animal images in the play. This play has high drama, vile cruelty and heart-rending pathos. Who would forget the memorable scenes, Lear's mad ranting in the tempest, Gloucester's deoculations, or Lear carrying in Cordelia's slain body? Also, The Tragedy of King Lear, unlike Hamlet, give us some kinds of happy endings, that the fiend Edmund is fatally punished for his atrocities by his brother in reversing the Cain and Able mythology, Gloucester gives Edgar his forgiveness, Lear finally recognises Cordelia, and she forgives him. The craft, plot and resolution of tensions make King Lear excellent entertainment.
Like all Shakespearean tragedies, The Tragedy of King Lear is excellent entertainment for satisfying our need to have our own lives deeply touched by what the major characters undergo. It is entertainment through having a tragic hero model our own emotional life journeys. It offers wider perspectives on the demands of real life and the exigency of the central choice in every life that decides our happiness, and gives an education in morality by exploring the extremes vicariously. Lastly, it is entertainment for it enshrines our culture's best in its craft of plot, character and language. Tragedy is may be, but serious entertainment it cannot but ever be.
© by G. Smith 19 May 2001 with some use of Northrop Frye "King Lear: The Tragedy of Isolation" (1967) pp. 265-269, in Frank Kermode King Lear: A Casebook London: Aurora 1969 and W. R. Elton "Double plot in King Lear". 1509 words
Return to Lear Page
Composed by G.
Smith Brisbane Australia first put to web
30 April 1999.
Revised: 10 May 2012. Returned to web 28/10/11