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King Lear

In King Lear, by William Shakespeare, Lear retires from the monarchy and gives all power to his three daughters, resulting in a dramatic shift in his relationships and feelings of authority. This guide provides questions, themes, and synopses that are applicable before, during, and after reading the play.
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King Lear

by William Shakespeare


While King Lear is thought to be one of Shakespeare's more difficult works, the play is accessible to advanced high school students and certainly to most college students. The topics of (1) natural, (2) unnatural, (3) self-knowledge, (4) public perception, (5) written words, and (6) spoken words are accessible to both levels of student. Whether we can express our opinions or not, each of us has a basic belief about each of those topics. Sometimes the feeling is innate and inexpressible. Shakespeare questions this feeling and shows his Elizabethan audience what can happen if accepted belief is challenged. He turns events on their ear and plays out a tragedy that speaks as eloquently today as it did more than three centuries ago.

Naturally, accepted beliefs came from Elizabethan philosophy; however, many of those beliefs persist in our culture. The much studied Plato, Aristotle, and Cicero express a particular view concerning appearances: a person's countenance and station of birth are relative to the inner person–the more noble the birth, the more noble the soul; the more fair the countenance, the more fair the soul. Shakespeare's world was no less interested with a person's appearance and the flattery by which one would ply another. This yet is true, and often we define ourselves by our appearance or by what others say about us. In King Lear, appearances, station, and how what others think influences our actions are examined through relationships found in family and service: father and child; nobleman and servant (Bradley, p. 226). Even though we believe that what we look like and what we say are reflections of who we are, Shakespeare, in King Lear, shows that appearances and words are ever deceiving and are not clear indications of the soul or the mind. Even though Goneril and Regan are of noble birth, they hardly show noble souls; and although Lear can hardly be considered to have a fair countenance, he does develop a most fair and loving soul.

In a world dependent on words for communication, each of us comes to value the spoken and written word. Students of all ages can readily identify with a child who "says what his parents want to hear." Older, non-traditional students understand the need to hear a child's expression of love. Communication between the generations is complicated by our perception of the elderly. At what age is one "old?" When should a person retire? Older students identify with the desires of children to be successful and supplant the older generation in the power structure; the young express an impatience to be in charge and free from the ideas of the "older" generations. Yet, in their desires and expressions, they do not "appear" as dutiful or respectful children. A related issue the play explores is the granting of the power of an office to a younger generation without releasing the largess that attends that office. Can one retire from the position of CEO and retain the respect and authority given to a CEO? Elizabethans, three centuries ago, struggled with the same type of questions. In King Lear, Shakespeare offers a world where the natural and unnatural are intertwined, appearances and self-perception are confused, and words–written and spoken–are deceptive.



Act I, Scene i. [pp. 39-51]

King Lear's palace, Britain. The Earl of Gloucester and the Earl of Kent discuss how Gloucester loves his two sons equally: Edmund (the elder), gotten illegitimately; and Edgar (of questionable parentage), gotten before Gloucester married Edgar's mother. Although he loves both sons, Edgar is his heir. Their brief discussion frames the next, larger portion of the scene. Upon his entrance, King Lear announces that he will divest himself of the burdens of rule by dividing his kingdom among his three daughters: Goneril, Regan, and Cordelia. To measure which daughter deserves the bounteous "dower," he calls upon them to speak of their love for him. Goneril and Regan speak well and are rewarded equally. Cordelia, believing the evidence of her love is greater than her words, speaks "nothing." Lear disinherits Cordelia for her untender feelings and divides the remaining third–as well as his power–between Albany and Cornwall, the husbands of Goneril and Regan, respectively. When Kent tries to dissuade Lear from the rash decision, he is exiled from court. Even though Cordelia is dowerless, France accepts her hand in marriage for her "unprized precious" virtue.

Act I, Scene ii. [pp. 51-58]

The Earl of Gloucester's castle. Edmund introduces his plot to overthrow the claim of his legitimate brother Edgar by giving a forged letter to Gloucester that implicates Edgar in a scheme of patricide.

Act I, Scene iii. [pp. 58-59]

The Duke of Albany's palace. Goneril is irritated with Lear's rude, demanding behavior in her home. She instructs Oswald, her steward, to tell her servants to be less serviceable and colder to Lear and his knights. Goneril wishes to force Lear into a confrontation so that she may address his offensive behavior.

Act I, Scene iv. [pp.60-73]

A hall in the Duke of Albany's palace. Kent returns disguised to serve his king faithfully. Within the scene, the Fool imparts wisdom (ln. 121-130) [p. 64] to Lear and in short tells Lear that he was a fool to give away his titles and land, placing himself in the care of his daughters (an unnatural position that the child should
"parent" the father). Goneril enters, demanding that Lear lose half of his retinue (50 men) if he is to stay with her. Lear roars at her ingratitude and then assails Albany when he enters, even though Albany is innocent of his wife's decisions. Lear resolves to live with his more "natural" daughter, Regan, and he leaves with his men. Over Albany's objections to not be so rash or harsh, Goneril calls upon Oswald to carry a letter to Regan informing her of what has transpired with Lear and asking her to stand with her sister against their father.

Act I, scene v. [pp. 73-75]

The Duke of Albany's palace. Lear sends the disguised Kent to Regan with letters explaining his side of the argument. The Fool engages Lear in a verbal battle in which the Fool admonishes Lear for his unnatural, unfatherly, unkingly behaviors.

Act II, scene i. [pp. 76-81]

The Earl of Gloucester's castle. Edmund learns that Regan and the Duke of Cornwall will be at the castle that night, thus setting in motion his new plan to usurp his father's title. Edgar enters. Edmund feigns knowledge of a plot against his brother and urges Edgar to flee. Edmund cuts himself and pretends upon his father's entrance that Edgar has attacked him because Edmund would not aid him in the patricide. Regan and Cornwell enter. Regan informs Gloucester that she has received letters from both her sister and her father and asks Gloucester to advise her.

Act II, scene ii. [pp. 81-88]

Before Gloucester's castle. Kent and Oswald enter; they trade insults and blows and are parted by Edmund, Regan, Gloucester, and Cornwall. Cornwall suggests that Kent should be placed in stocks while Gloucester advises against punishment since it would displease the king. Regan decides to favor her sister rather than her father and issues the orders to have him punished.

Act II, scene iii. [p. 89]

A wood. Edgar realizes that he will have no place of refuge as the "traitor son" of Gloucester; therefore, he resolves to disguise himself as a madman. "Edgar" will become "nothing."

Act II, scene iv. [pp. 90-102]

Before Gloucester's castle with Kent in the stocks. Enter Lear and the Fool to find Kent in the stocks. Lear is angered by Gloucester when he says that Regan and Cornwall will not see the king. Regan and Cornwall finally enter, releasing Kent from his stocks. Lear asks Regan to admit him and his retinue to her home. Regan tells him to return to Goneril, to apologize for his behaviors, and to ask her forgiveness. Goneril enters; the sisters side together against their father. In a fury, Lear exits with the Fool and Kent into a raging storm.

Act III, scene i. [pp. 103-105]

A heath. Still storms. Kent informs a Gentleman loyal to the king that there is a division between Cornwall and Albany and that France sends an invasion force to England.

Act III, scene ii. [pp. 105-109]

Another part of the heath. Still storms. Lear rants to the wind about the unnaturalness of daughters turning against a father. The Fool rhymes that Lear has caused all the trouble himself. Kent persuades Lear to take shelter in a hovel.

Act III, scene iii. [pp. 109-110]

Gloucester's castle. Gloucester confides the rift between Cornwall and Albany to Edmund, informs him of the impending French force, and advises him that they must side with Lear. Edmund plots to tell all to Cornwall, hoping to depose Gloucester and gain the title for himself.

Act III, scene iv. [pp. 111-118]

The heath before a hovel. Lear, Kent and the Fool meet Edgar disguised as "Poor Tom," a madman and beggar. Lear's madness and despondency at his situation deepens. Gloucester finds the king and tells him of Goneril's and Regan's commands-to lock Lear out from shelter in hopes that he will die in the storm. All go into the hovel for protection from the storm.

Act III, scene v. [pp. 119-120]

Gloucester's castle. Edmund reveals Gloucester's letters describing support of Lear and the French power to Cornwall. Cornwall grants the Earldom to Edmund who is now referred to as Gloucester by the parties against Lear.

Act III, scene vi. [pp. 120-125]

A chamber in a farmhouse adjoining the castle. Gloucester leaves to find better lodgings than the farmhouse. Lear holds a mock trial of the absent Goneril and Regan with Edgar as the Magistrate, the Fool as his partner, and Kent as one commissioned to dispel justice. Lear eventually sleeps. Gloucester returns with news of a plot to kill the king outright. He, Kent, and the Fool take up Lear in his sleep and begin a journey to Dover where they shall meet the French power and Cordelia.

Act III, scene vii. [pp. 125-130]

Gloucester's castle. Cornwall sends servants after the elder Gloucester and sends Goneril and Edmund after the fleeing king. The elder Gloucester is captured, brought before Cornwall, and interrogated. At Regan's goading, Cornwall attempts to pluck out the eyes of Gloucester as punishment. A servant tries to stop Cornwall but is run through in the back by Regan. Cornwall is hurt in the fray yet is able to finish the blinding of Gloucester. Afterward Gloucester is thrust out at the castle gate to "smell his way to Dover."

Act IV, scene i. [pp. 131-134]

The heath. Gloucester is led onto the heath by an old man, where they are met by Edgar (still disguised as Poor Tom). At Gloucester's urgings, Edgar agrees to lead him to a high cliff at Dover.

Act IV, scene ii. [pp. 135-139]

Before the Duke of Albany's palace. Oswald reports to Goneril and Edmund that Albany has changed his mind about his wife's ambitions and the plight of the King, expressing displeasure in her actions. Goneril promises herself to Edmund should Albany not survive the coming battle. Edmund exits and Albany enters. A messenger enters, informs the two that Cornwall is dead from the wound he received, and gives Goneril a letter from her sister. Albany is dismayed that Edmund does not wish to avenge his father's blinding. With further information of Edmund's perfidy, Albany appears to become more resolute against his wife.

Act IV, scene iii. [pp.140-142]

The French camp near Dover. A gentleman informs Kent that the King of France has returned home but has left the Marshal; that Cordelia was moved to tears when she read Kent's letters; and that shame prevents Lear (who is now in Dover) from seeing Cordelia.

Act IV, scene iv. [pp. 142-143]

A tent in the French camp at Dover. Cordelia sends a soldier to find her father to bring him under her doctor's care. A messenger tells her that the British Army is advancing toward Dover.

Act IV, scene v. [pp. 144-145]

Gloucester's castle. Oswald notifies Regan that Albany's army is on the march. Since Gloucester's condition would rouse public outrage against the sisters' reign, thus giving strength to the cause of Cordelia and the French, Regan advises Oswald to post a reward for anyone who kills blinded Gloucester. She bids him remind her already-wedded sister Goneril that Edmund is better suited for her widowed hand.

Act IV, scene vi. [pp. 146-158]

Fields near Dover. Edgar as Poor Tom pretends to take his father to a cliff edge where Gloucester "falls." This is done so Edgar may return to his father as a solicitous stranger and so Gloucester may believe himself "reborn" without the "fiend" that has possessed him, thereby achieving a catharsis of his troubled soul. Lear enters in wild dress, a "natural" man. After some discussion, the King begins the last step of his catharsis when Gloucester "recognizes" him as the King. When a gentleman from Cordelia finds Lear, he runs, unwilling to face "capture." Oswald enters with the intent to kill Gloucester; Edgar intervenes and kills Oswald in a fight. Edgar reads Goneril's letter and decides to give the letter to Albany.

Act IV, scene vii. [pp. 158-162]

A tent in the French camp. Lear has been dressed again in royal robes and wakes to speak with Cordelia. He asks her forgiveness. A gentleman reveals to Kent that Edmund leads Cornwall's troops.

Act V, scene i. [pp. 163-166]

The British camp near Dover. Edmund sends a gentleman to find what is Albany's "mind" and purpose. Regan questions Edmund about his intent with Goneril. Albany enters with his wife and soldiers. In an aside, Goneril confesses that she does not want to lose Edmund to her sister. Albany enjoins Edmund to use Regan's forces with his against the French. A disguised Edgar enters and delivers to Albany Goneril's letter that was intended for Edmund. Before leaving, Edgar instructs Albany to issue a challenge against Edmund's claim for Gloucester's title and land, revealing that someone (actually Edgar himself) will answer the call, proving Edmund's perfidy. In a soliloquy, Edmund vows to side with either sister who shows the most power and affords him the best opportunities for advancement.

Act V, scene ii. [pp. 166-167]

A field between the two camps. The French lose the battle, and Cordelia and Lear are taken captive.

Act V, scene iii. [pp. 167-181]

The British camp near Dover. Edmund imprisons Lear and Cordelia. After they are taken off, Edmund instructs a Captain to hang Cordelia but to make it appear to be a suicide. Albany, Goneril, and Regan enter. Albany treats Edmund subserviently. Regan and Goneril argue, resulting in Regan offering herself to Edmund. Albany starts to intercede, and Regan encourages Edmund to battle for her. Albany challenges Edmund's claims to nobility and accuses him of traitorous behaviors. A herald issues a general challenge from Edmund to anyone of nobility in the army to disparage his claims. Edgar responds as planned; they fight, and Edmund falls. Albany charges Edmund with treachery, presenting Goneril's letter to him. Goneril leaves, and to save his soul, Edmund confesses all he has done. A gentleman enters with a bloody knife and reports that Goneril has poisoned Regan and then killed herself. Before he dies, Edmund reveals his orders to the Captain to hang Cordelia. A gentleman is sent to prevent the murder, but he is too late. Lear enters, carrying dead Cordelia in his arms. Lear believes that he sees Cordelia breathe, after which he dies. There is some question-and considerable discussion-about Lear's emotional state when he dies: joyous in perceiving Cordelia's life or grief-stricken in realizing Cordelia's death? Edgar and Kent are enjoined by Albany to take up the crown together. Kent refuses because of his age, and Edgar feels obligated to obey duty.

Elements of Tragedy In King Lear

True to Shakespearean tradition, King Lear borrows its tragic elements from several types of tragedies that were popular during the Elizabethan Renaissance. Even though King Lear is classified as a chronicle play (a type of drama which draws its English historical materials from the sixteenth-century chronicles-such as Holinshed's), Shakespeare uses elements of Senecan tragedy sometimes called Classical tragedy, and the morality play.

As a tragedy, King Lear portrays a protagonist whose fortunes are conditioned by his hamartia. As defined by Aristotle, the protagonist of a tragedy should be a person "who is not eminently good or just, yet whose fortune is brought about by some error or frailty." This error is not necessarily a flaw in character; hamartia can be an unwitting misstep in definite action or the failure to perform a definite action. Lear's hamartia is the capricious division of his powers and kingdom before his death-more particularly, the disavowal of Cordelia because she will speak "nothing."

To enhance this chronicle with a tragedy of character, Shakespeare incorporates a few Senecan elements: (1) the use of stock characters-a faithful male servant (Kent); (2) the employment of sensational themes drawn from Greek mythology, involving much use of "blood and lust;" and (3) stichomythia-dialogue that is conducted by two characters speaking in alternate lines (though strict regularity is not maintained). To balance the stock characters, Shakespeare also used characters that were consistently good or evil in their intent, echoing the pattern of a morality play. Edmund, Regan, and Goneril embody avarice, envy, anger, lust, and pride; while Edgar and Cordelia embody faithfulness and unconditional love.

Other elements which became unique to Elizabethan tragedy make King Lear a psychologically horrific viewing: most horrors are executed off stage to be reported by a messenger, yet Shakespeare keeps the blinding of Gloucester in full view of the audience, pandering to popular tastes. In all, the Senecan influence on English tragedy is seen most in drama as a field for the study of human emotion.

Note: Further study of Shakespearean tragedy is found in A. C. Bradley's seminal work, reprinted in the Signet Classic edition of King Lear, pp. 225-242.

Historical Context of King Lear

Geoffrey of Monmouth, in his Historia Regum Britanniae, written around 1137, was the first known writer to recount an integrated story of Lear and his daughters, though the figure of Lyr or Ler dates from ancient British mythology. In the sixteenth century the chronicler Raphael Holinshed adopted the story from Geoffrey and inserted it into his The Chronicles of England, Scotlande and Irelande, as did Edmund Spenser in The Faerie Queene and John Higgins in A Mirror for Magistrates, all of which have been suggested as probable sources for King Lear.

However, the principal direct source for Shakespeare's play appears to be The True Chronicle History of King Leir, despite the differences between the two. Whereas Shakespeare's drama ends on a tragic note, the old chronicle presents a happy ending in which Cordella's forces are victorious against the armies of Gonerill and Ragan, and Leir is restored to his throne, where he reigns for a few years and dies peacefully. Lear's madness was also not a part of the chronicle story, nor was the tragic subplot of Gloucester and his sons, a story Shakespeare adapted from Philip Sidney's "The Tale of the Blind King of Paphlagonia," published in his The Countess of Pembroke's Arcadia.

Two other important sources for King Lear were John Florio's translation of Montaigne's Essays and Samuel Harsentt's A Declaration of Egregious Popishe Impostures. Critics have pointed out that over one hundred words Shakespeare never used before he wrote King Lear can be found in Florio's translation, and that Montaigne's most famous essay, "Apology for Raymond Sebonde," contains references to the major themes presented in Shakespeare's play. Harsnett's Declaration, many commentators have acknowledged, provided Shakespeare with the name of the fiends Tom O'Bedlam mentions in Act IV, Scene i, [pp. 133-134] as well as other features of the three storm scenes. Finally, the true contemporary story of Sir Brian Annesley, who was unjustly treated by two of his daughters in a competency trial and defended by a third (remarkably named Cordell), has also been suggested as a possible source. (From Shakespearean Criticism, vol. 2, p. 88).

Note: Further study of the sources of King Lear is found in the Signet Classic edition,
pp. 190-211.

Shakespeare's Language

In the high school classroom, students tend to perceive Shakespearean language as "Old English." This perception allows for a short lesson that teaches the history and development of the language. Students can research each period (Old English, 449-1100; Middle English, 1100-1500; and Modern English, 1500-present) and present their findings to the class, providing examples of words that were added to the language. Advanced students can select dialects from each period (Old English-Northumbrian, Mercian, West Saxon, and Kentish; Middle English-Northern, West Midland, East Midland, Southern, and Kentish) and explain the linguistic development of the dialect as influenced by invading civilizations.

Once students learn that Shakespeare is considered "modern" and appreciate to some extent the manner in which the English language developed, they can more readily accept the dynamic use of English that was unique to Shakespeare's works. Equally amazing is that Shakespeare added several thousand words to the language as well as added new meanings to known words. This alone keeps Shakespeare's works from being considered stagnant. The dynamic aspect of language is well-documented by the editor's use of glossing for more difficult translations in the play. The glosses can be another example to students of the mutability of language. As an exercise, students can brainstorm words that are currently in use that did not have the same meaning for their parents' generation.

Shakespearean English can be difficult to understand, but the emotions tied to the words (love, hate, jealousy, sorrow) are readily understood by students of all abilities. Allow students opportunities to discuss and teach the meaning of the language and, thereby, the meaning of the play. The following are a few suggestions to engage students.

King Lear is replete with metaphors involving animals. Usually the animal is a reference to a behavior. Students should be familiar with this device as own their language carries similar metaphors-"Sly as a Fox," "Busy as a Bee,"... Students can search through the play for metaphors that decode behavior. Discussions can involve why Shakespeare chose that particular animal rather than another, leading to a more abstract concept of writing effective poetry. After these discussions, a natural activity would be for students to write animal metaphors of their own.

"that she may feel/How sharper than a serpent's tooth it is/To have a thankless
child." (Lear, I, iv, 294-96) [p. 70]

"When she shall hear this of thee, with her nails/She'll flay thy wolvish visage."
(Lear, I, iv, 314-315) [p. 71]

"Such smiling rogues as these,/Like rats, oft bite the holy cords atwain/Which are
too intrince t'unloose; smooth every passion/That in the natures of their lords
rebel,/Being oil to fire, snow to the colder moods;/Renege, affirm, and turn their
halcyon beaks/With every gale and vary of their masters,/Knowing naught, like
dogs, but following." (Kent, II, ii, 75-82) [p. 84]

"O Regan, she hath tied/Sharp-toothed unkindness, like a vulture, here."
(Lear, II, iv, 133-34) [p. 95]

"She hath abated me of half my train,/Looked black upon me, struck me with her
tongue,/Most serpentlike, upon the very heart." (Lear, II.iv.158-160) [p. 96]

"Because I would not see thy cruel nails/Pluck out his poor old eyes; nor thy fierce
sister/In his anointed flesh rash boarish fangs." (Gloucester, III.vii.57-59) [p. 128]

"I' th' last night's storm I such a fellow saw,/Which made me think a man a worm."
(Gloucester, IV, i, 32-33) [p. 132]

"Tigers, not daughters, what have you performed?" (Albany, IV.ii.40) [p. 137]

"They flattered me like a dog, and told me I had white hairs in my beard ere the
black ones were there." (Lear, IV, vi, 97-99) [p. 150]

"Edmund, I arrest thee/On capital treason; and in thy attaint/This gilded serpent."
(Albany, V, iii, 83-85) [p. 171]

Unlocking Shakespeare's Language: Help for the Teacher and Student (NCTE, 1989) is an excellent guide/workbook to help students understand Shakespeare's language. It contains explanations and planned activities engaging students in close study of his language.

Since actors perform the play's language, students can paraphrase the monologues and soliloquies and then act them out for their classmates. More able students may find it challenging to act the original work, giving meaning to the language through intonation and movement.