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.
Page 4 of 4
Shakespeare's King Lear
A. Activities

All Ability Levels:
All students can enjoy stage craft. Ask students to cast and perform critical scenes from the play. Luckily not everyone must act; set design, costuming, make-up, musical choreography, and directing are critical aspects of producing scenes from a play. Just as producers and directors do today, encourage students to create and recreate King Lear as they imagine it should be performed-perhaps Lear is a mafia boss in the 1940s relinquishing his "kingdom" to his children. For final production, don't hesitate to secure AV equipment and film the sequences.

Ask students to rewrite poetic passages into prose, possibly adding humorous or authentic regional dialects. Ask students to share their work in small groups or whole class discussions.

B. Reading Extension

All Ability Levels:
Have students compare the original stories of King Lear to Shakespeare's version. Discuss which versions are the most satisfactory and what makes them so. Excerpts from Holinshed's Chronicles, Sidney's Arcadia, and The True Chronicle History of King Leir are found in the Signet Classic edition (pp. 193-211).

Both Keats and Shakespeare use the imagination to illustrate the beauty that is held in sorrow and the suffering that is found in serenity. Compare Keats' works to King Lear, searching for the moments of beauty and suffering that excites speculation in the reader yet does not provide answers.

C. Related Reading

Since students will have spent some time learning and discussing King Lear, a good extension is to read books and plays that have similar themes or plots:

Lower Ability Levels:

Dickinson, Peter. The Blue Hawk. Atlantic Monthly Press, 1976. (loyalty, courage, and love)
Green, Hannah. I Never Promised You a Rose Garden. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1964. (self-knowledge)
Kerr, M. E. What I Really Think of You. New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1982. (self-knowledge)
Miller, Arthur. The Death of a Salesman. New York: Penguin, 1949. (self-knowledge)
Plath, Sylvia. The Bell Jar. New York: Harper & Row, 1971. (natural vs. unnatural)
Sarton, May. As We Are Now. New York: Norton, 1973. (aging in a youth-oriented world)
Zindel, Paul. The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds. New York: Bantam, 1984. (older generation)

Higher Ability Levels:

Austen, Jane. Pride and Prejudice. New York: Signet Classic, 1961. (appearances)
Galsworthy, John. The Forsyte Saga. New York: Scribner's, 1982. (materialism and confused affections in a family)
Giraudoux, Paul. The Madwoman of Chaillot. New York: Hill and Wang, 1958. (natural vs. unnatural)
Plato. The Republic. New York: Pengun Classic, 1977. (order and the individual)


Aristotle's Poetics, translated by James Hulton (1982). W. W. Norton & Company.
Burckhardt, Sigurd (1968). "King Lear: The Quality of Nothing." In his Shakespearean Meanings (pp. 237-259). Princeton University Press.
Frye, Northrop (1967). "Little World of Man: The Tragedy of Isolation." In his Fools of Time: Studies in Shakespearean Tragedy (pp. 77-121). University of Toronto Press.
Harris, Laurie Lanzen and Scott, Mark W. (Eds.) (1985). King Lear, Shakespearean Criticism, Volume 2 (pp. 85-295). Detroit: Gale Research Company.
Holman, C. Hugh and Harmon, William. (1986). A Handbook to Literature. 5th edition. New York: Macmillan Publishing Company.
Jorgensen, Paul A. (1967). Lear's Self-Discovery. University of California Press.
Leggatt, Alexander (1988). King Lear: Twayne's New Critical Introductions to Shakespeare. Boston: Twayne Publishers.
Mack, Maynard (1965). "Action and World." In his King Lear in Our Time pp. 81-117). The University of California Press.
Seiden, Melvin (1979). "The Fool and Edmund: Kin and Kind." Studies in English Literature, 19(2), 197-214.

Suggested Titles

The Signet Classic edition lists numerous readings on Shakespeare, his times, his theater, King Lear, and other miscellaneous references. The following is a list of criticism offering supporting and alternative criticisms of the readings published in the Signet Classic volume.

Boas, Frederick S. "The Climax of Tragedy." In Shakspere and His Predecessors , pp. 409-53. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1896.
Bonheim, Helmut, ed. The "King Lear" Perplex. San Francisco: Wadsworth Publishing Co., 1960.
Burke, Kenneth "King Lear: Its Form and Psychosis," Shenandoah, XXI, No. 1 (Autumn 1969): 3-18.
Calarco, N. Joseph. "The Tragic Universe of King Lear." In his Tragic Being: Apollo and Dionysus in Wester Drama, pp. 81-120. Minneapolis: The University of Minnesota Press, 1968.
Campbell, Lily B. "King Lear: A Tragedy of Wrath in Old Age." In her Shakespeare's Tragic Heroes: Slaves of Passion, pp. 175-207. New York: Barnes & Noble, 1970.
Cavell, Stanley. "The Avoidance of Love: A Reading of King Lear." In Must We Mean What We Say? A Book of Essays , pp. 267-353. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1976.
Craig, Hardin. "The Ethics of King Lear." Philological quarterly IV, No. 2 (April 1925): 97-109.
Craig, Hardin. "The Great Trio: King Lear." In An Interpretation of Shakespeare, pp. 206-219. New York: The Citadel Press, 1948.
Danby, John F. Shakespeare's Doctrine of Nature: A Study of "King Lear". London: Faber and Faber, 1949.
Danson, Lawrence, ed. On "King Lear". Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1981.
Elton, William R. "King Lear" and the Gods. San Marino, CA: The Huntington Library, 1966.
Empson, William. "Fool in Lear." In The Structure of Complex Words, pp.125-157. London: Chatto & Windus, 1979.
Evans, Bertrand. "Practice as Diversion: King Lear." In Shakespeare's Tragic Practice, pp. 147-180. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1979.
Freedman, Sanford. "Character in a Coherent Fiction: On Putting King Lear Back Together Again." Philosophy and Literature, 7, No. 2 (Fall 1983): 196-212.
Gardner, Helen. "King Lear". London: The Athlone Press, 1968.
Greg, W. W. "Time, Place, and Politics in 'King Lear'." Modern Language Review XXXV, No. 4 (October 1940): 431-446.
Harris, Duncan S. "The End of Lear and a Shape for Shakespearean Tragedy." Shakespeare Studies IX (1976): 253-268.
Honigman, E.A.J. "Lear's Mind." In Shakespeare, Seven Tragedies: The Dramatist's Manipulation of Response, pp. 101-112). London: Macmillan Press, 1976.
Keast, W. R. "The 'New Criticism' and King Lear." In Critics and Criticism: Ancient and Modern, edited by R. S. Crane, pp. 108-137. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1952.
Knights, L. C. "King Lear as Metaphor." In Further Explorations, pp. 169-185. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1965.
Kreider, P.V. "Gloucester's Eyes." Shakespeare Association Bulletin VIII, Nos. 3 and 4: 121-132.
Maclean, Norman. "Episode, Scene, Speech, and Word: The Madness of Lear." In Critics and Criticism: Ancient and Modern , edited by R. S. Crane, pp. 595-615. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1952.
McNeir, Waldo F. "The Role of Edmund in King Lear." Studies in English Literature: 1500-1900 8, No. 2 (Spring 1968): 187-216.
Nevo, Ruth. "King Lear." In Tragic Form in Shakespeare, pp. 258-305. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1972.
Reid, Stephen. "In Defense of Goneril and Regan." The American Imago 27, No. 3 (Fall 1970): 226-244.
Siegel, Paul N. "King Lear." In Shakespearean Tragedy and the Elizabethan Compromise, pp. 161-188. New York: New York University Press, 1957.
Sisson, C. J. "The Quandary: 'King Lear'." In Shakespeare's Tragic Justice, pp. 74-98. London: Methuen & Co., 1963.
Soellner, Rolf. "King Lear: Valuing the Self." In Shakespeare's Patterns of Self-Knowledge, pp. 281-304. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1972.
Soellner, Rolf. "King Lear: Stripping the Self." In Shakespeare's Patterns of Self-Knowledge, pp. 305-326. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1972.
Spencer, Benjamin T. "King Lear: A prophetic tragedy. " College English 5, No. 5 (February 1944): 302-308.
States, Bert O. "Standing on the Extreme Verge in King Lear and Other High Places." Georgia Review 36, No. 2 (Summer 1982): 417-425.
Stewart, J. I. M. "The Blinding of Gloster." The Review of English Studies XXI, No. 84 (October 1945): 264-270.
Tamblyn, William Ferguson. "Tragedy in King Lear." The Sewanee Review XXX, No. 1 (January 1922): 63-77.
Vickers, Brian. "Tragic Prose: Clowns, Villians, Madmen." In The Artistry of Shakespeare's Prose, pp. 331-404. London: Methuen & Co., 1968.
Walton, J. K. "Lear's Last Speech." Shakespeare Survey 13 (1966): 11-19.
White, Richard Grant. "King Lear." In Studies in Shakespeare, pp. 183-232. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin and Co., 1896.


Leigh Ann Hern is an experienced high school English teacher, having taught in Georgia and Indiana. For the last three years she has concurrently headed a technology department. Presently a doctoral student at the University of Georgia, she received her B.S.Ed. and M.A. in English Education. Her research interests focus on students developing as readers and on preparing teacher candidates for the classroom.


W. Geiger (Guy) Ellis, Professor Emeritus at the University of Georgia, Department of Language Education, received his A.B. and M.Ed. Degrees from the University of North Carolina (Chapel Hill) and his Ed.D. from the University of Virginia. For most of his career, Guy has been active in teaching adolescent literature, having introduced the first courses on the subject at both the University of Virginia and the University of Georgia. He developed and edited The ALAN Review from 1978 to 1984, changing its focus from a newsletter to a referred journal. His research has had heavy emphasis on the content of literature instruction.

Currently Professor and Chairperson of Education at the University of North Carolina at Asheville, Arthea (Charlie) J. S. Reed has taught for over 20 years on both the high school and college level. She received her A.B. (Bethany College) and her M.S. (Southern Connecticut State University) in English and her Ph.D. (Florida State University) in Teacher Education. In addition to teaching, Charlie was The ALAN Review (NCTE) editor from 1984 to 1990 and served as Co-Director of the Mountain Area Writing Project (a part of the National Writing Project) from 1982 to 1988. She is also the author of Reaching Adolescents: The Young Adult Book and the School (Merrill, 1993), Comics to Classics: A Guide to Books for Teens and Preteens (Penguin, 1994), In the Classroom: An Introduction to Education (Dushkin/Brown & Benchmark, 1995), A Guide to Observation and Participation in the Classroom (Dushkin/Brown & Benchmark, 1995), and the forthcoming Presenting Harry Mazer (Twayne/Macmillan, 1996).

loading gif