King Lear and his Tragic faw

William Shakespeare, King Lear (1604-5?)
Genre: dramatic tragedy, a genre Marlowe's and Shakespeare's plays helped
to codify with their dramatic structure (a "rise and fall" plot eventually split
into fve acts like Lear, their use of !lank verse (unrhymed iam!ic
pentameter, for serious passages, their parallel plotting of ma"or and minor
characters in mirroring#intersecting actions, and their meditation upon
serious philosophical themes in the style of classical $reek tragic drama,
newly accessi!le to non%$reek%speakers in &umanist vernacular translations'
&owever, Lear also resem!les the "history plays" in that it derives from
(nglish chronicle histories and concerns itself with their main themes of
political wisdom, the rights and duties of su!"ects and kings, the courtier's
skills, and the accidents of fate' ()ote the *uarto +,-./0 version called it a
"&istory" and the 1irst 1olio of ,-23 called it a "4ragedy'" 5ould its author and
audience have changed their minds a!out its true purposes6
Form: !lank verse for high matters, prose for court !anter and naturalistic
"!ehind the scenes" dialogue, and tetrameter or trimeter verse for songs,
including much of the speech of Lear's famous fool, pithily named "1ool'"
Characters: Lear and his daughters ($oneril, 7egan and 5ordelia, the
daughters' suitors (8ukes of 5ornwall, 9l!any and :urgundy, and the ;ing of
1rance, Lear's courtiers (the (arls of ;ent and $loucester, $loucester's sons
(dgar and (dmund, 5uran, and unnamed knights, and the servants of
5ornwall, $oneril, (dmund, 5ordelia, and Lear, the most important of which
is the 1ool'
Summary: Lear, an aging pagan king of ancient :riton, seeks to divide his
kingdom among his daughters and their suitors according to a test of how
well they can e<press their love in words' 5ordelia, famously una!le "to
speak and purpose not," tells the unadorned truth a!out her love and Lear
furiously disowns her, giving all to the rhetorically sophisticated,
unprincipled, 7egan and $oneril, and their hus!ands, the e*ually treacherous
8uke of 5ornwall and the more no!le 8uke of 9l!any' 4hey *uickly run afoul
of Lear's savage temper and e"ect him from court to wander the heath in a
storm with the 1ool as his courtier' Meanwhile, $loucester's illegitimate son,
(dmund, launches a coup !y convincing his father that legitimate son, (dgar,
seeks to murder him' 4he wrong !oy is !anished, and (dmund "oins the
daughters !y turning in his own father as a "traitor" and secretly courting
!oth women, despite their "marriages'" ;ent and $loucester try to serve
Lear, !ut Lear's mad insistence upon his patriarchal authority and the sisters'
tyrannical government make Lear's service deadly' $loucester, too, su=ers
from the "1ather's Syndrome," and he learns only through incredi!le pain and
su=ering to e<press the humility which all humans owe each other in an
uncaring and violent universe' 4hings do not end well, !ut hey, it's a
tragedy> ?our "o! is fgure out why Shakespeare, at the peak of his career,
feels it imperative that @ames A, the court, the citiBens of London and all
$reat :ritain, and you should witness it' Af you get the right answer, it could
save your life'
Issues and Research Sources:
, "Dramatic tragedy" as a genre: Ce've seen a form of tragedy !efore
in "Maldon"'s heroes' Bealous defense of the fallen :yrtnoth and their
families' honor !efore the Diking onslaught, !ut that was a song intended to
!e sung to their descendants, honoring the fallen and condemning the
memories of those who ran away, saving their lives !ut losing their honor
forever' 4he poem makes sure of !oth outcomes, and is the social
mechanism !y which the fnal tallies of !ehaviors under the code of honor
were accounted' 8ramatic tragedy is not a song in the ear, !ut a living action
performed !efore our eyes !y persons whose skills vividly convince us to
accept them as raging pagan kings, !rain%addled fools, and poisonously
re!ellious princesses, even though all of them are mere men, not even
"gentlemen" (and certainly not women>, and all are liveried servants of
no!les like the Lord 5ham!erlain, the 9dmiral of the 1leet, or the ;ing,
himself' Like artists supported !y the )ational (ndowment for the 9rts, the
dramatic actor and author worked under political authority in a tense social
space within which !oth the crown's agendas and those of the commons
were given e<pression' &aunting it all (even today were the specters of
Eedipus, 5lytemnestra, 9ntigone, and the phallus%waving satyrs of the $reek
stage, with whose traditional apparatus the (liBa!ethan playwrights crafted a
new kind of theatre in (arly Modern (nglish' 8on't take its e<istence for
granted' Chy did the culture spend so much treasure and time to produce
such spectacles of cruelty and horror6 Chat are tragedy's limits, and how
can we tell when a play has e<ceeded them6 (Samuel @ohnson thought this
play did' Chat are we to get from reading such a play as a re*uired
element of $oucher's (nglish Ma"or, and how might it !e di=erent if we
watched a live performance of it6 Chat must the reader's imagination
provide and what is it likely to miss6
2 Dual lots and genre: 4he tragedy Marlowe gave the (nglish already
had found its typical !alance of high style and comic interludes which make
the return of tragic action so shocking when it happens' 4his use of "comic
relief" to !uild and release dramatic tension may have roots in drama as old
as 9eschylus' use of Erestes' nurse, prattling a!out cleaning his diapers
when he was a !a!y, "ust as the young man has entered the palace to kill his
mother in o!edience of his murdered father's vengeful 1uries (the second
play of the Erestia: 4he Li!ation :earers' &owever, !oth Marlowe and
Shakespeare (like 9eschylus have thematic purposes afoot in those comic
scenes, and it's important not to lose sight of the authors' guileful skill while
we're laughing' Look especially at the mi< of characters from act to act, as
the socially "low" characters !ecome mingled with their "!etters" and the
moral#political chaos intensifes' 8oes the play have "unity of action," that
famous 9ristotelian neo%classical value, and if so, how are the dual plots
unifed6 (4he other neoclassical "unities" were character +i'e', tight focus on
one0, place +in the most famous cases, only one0, and time +again, in the
most famous cases, a single day0'
4hose who see Marlowe as a "precursor" to Shakespeare, a true
"upstart" whose short career didn't ena!le him to develop dramatic tragedy
to its most su!lime perfection (i'e', the Shakespeare worshipers ought to
compare their use of spectacular violence' Look at the scene in which the
&orse 5ourser pulls o= 1austus' leg in comparison with 5ornwall's !ar!arous
optical "surgery" on $loucester, perhaps the most notorious instance of such
violence in Shakespeare (though not in (liBa!ethan%@aco!ean theatre%%ask
@e= Myers>' (ach poet uses violence against the !ody sym!olically, "ust like
Sophocles did when Eedipus !linded himself, !ut unlike the $reek poet, they
o!eyed no tacit prohi!ition against showing such violence on stage' 5ompare
that with the modern de!ates upon the uses and e=ects of violence in
modern cinema and television%%are there good reasons for showing it, and
can it !e a!used6
3 !odern and "aco#ean resonses to characters: 4he play has !een
thought imperfect !ecause of the ferocity of Lear's rage, the !leak
hopelessness of his end, and the a!sence of any reward for the good
characters, though the !ad are punished' 9ristotle taught, and the (nglish
neoclassicists !elieved, that tragedy was the fall of a great man from high
social position into catastrophe through some kind of common human Faw'
4ragic audiences are supposed to identify with the protagonist's plight, and
to !e moved to pity and terror at his fate' &owever, some might argue that
we can't easily identify with Lear !ecause of his outrageous temper, his cruel
testing of his daughters, and his arrogant ina!ility to accept facts (e'g', his
strange de!ate with ;ent a!out the cause of ;ent's !eing put in stocks,
AA'G',,%2G' Ethers fnd 5ordelia too prim and coldly virtuous to arouse strong
sympathies as she shares her father's doom' 7eaders who react this way
tend to read 7egan and $oneril with a touch of sympathy as daughters
driven to savage reaction !y their father's !ehavior, and they sometimes fnd
(dmund's choice of Machiavelian villainy understanda!le in light of
$loucester's crude "esting a!out the (dmund's mother and the !oy's !astard
!irth' (dgar, like 5ordelia, seems at frst too gulli!le, too confdent in his own
secure state in the world, and in need of !eing shaken up' 8oes the king's
pagan violence tempt us to imagine the enormities we might !e capa!le of if
not restrained !y our democratic civility6 5ould the daughters' claims of
motivation perhaps remind us of our own capacity for self%"ustifcation in
*uarrels when familial rivalries and our own egos urge that defense6 5ould
the (dgar%(dmund pro!lem !e a reFection of our own discomfort with
goodness and our ina!ility to forgive the casual indignities of ordinary life,
treasuring up our outrage until time o=ers opportunity for revenge6
@aco!ean audiences would have !een likely to react more to 7egan's,
$oneril's, 5ornwall's, and (dmund's open espousal of Machiavellian political
logic' 4he @aco!ean theater was fond of watching as the deceptive, ruthless
"machiavel" laid traps for unwary characters who espoused more
traditionally "no!le" values like loyalty, love, honor, and trust' Chile the
machiavels usually were !rought down !y the end of the ffth act, the heart
of the play was given over to watching them !ehave !adly, !ut successfully,
destroying the society around them' Chat does this mean a!out the social
forces at work in early seventeenth%century London6 &ow the courtiers or
city folk might !e motivated to Fock eagerly to such dramas6 5an you see
anything in modern entertainment history which resem!les this
G The Fool and word$lay: 4he play's plot forces us to see language as
an unsta!le and unrelia!le medium for transmission of truths' Many
characters succeed !y misrepresenting reality in language, or !y !ending
language far from literal truthfulness through the use of irony, paraphrase,
metaphor, and simile' (verything seems to depend upon the *uality of the
interpreter's insight, especially in cases when the speaker is lying or making
foolish errors' 1rom 9ct A Scene ,, even relatively wise "udges of character,
like ;ent and $loucester, make dangerous errors, calling !oth no!le 9l!any
and the treacherous 5ornwall e*ually worthy of Lear's trust (3%H and calling
(dmund "proper" (,H' 4he 1ool, protected !y his role as folly's e<emplar,
and (dgar in his disguise as 4om o' :edlam, work language like a game of
puns, nonsense and intentional misunderstandings, meanwhile managing to
tell the truth when professed "truth%speakers" like ;ent and 5ordelia are
una!le' See, especially, the 1ool's dialogue with ;ent when the latter is in
stocks (AA'G'G.%/G' Shakespeare goes !eyond these naturaliBed distortions of
language !y plot when he charges the dialogue with strange repetitions and
su!stitutions, like the *uintuple repetitions of ")othing" and ")ever" in
scenes with Lear and 5ordelia (A',/I%J. and D'3'3./' 4he 1ool is the central
fgure in this linguistic distortion, !ut (dgar must "oin him to evade detection
and death which would result if he were to use his normal idiom' 4hus, clear
speaking !ecomes dangerous to all !ut fools, and distorted speech !ecomes
more common than clarity as a direct conse*uence' 4his raises important
*uestions a!out language's limitations, and the "!ond" (to use 5ordelia's
term under which we use language' Lying and Fattery are commonplace,
today as in ,-.H' 9!solute truthfulness, even when the truth does needless
harm, is a standard few would recommend' 4he society we live in and the
people who dwell there with us are constructed !y the language we use, and
to the degree that we deviate from truth we create false realities, traps, and
lures with une<pected conse*uences' 4o further e<plore this pro!lem, look
for instances in which "politeness" or "proper speech" codes are invoked to
silence a truthful speaker, or those in which !eautifully adorned speech is
suspected of treasonous deception' 5an you fnd instances in which truth
and falsehood are mingled6 (dmund is especially good at this%%might it !e a
linguistic symptom of his !irth%condition6
H %agan characters on a Christian stage: )one of Shakespeare's
audience would have considered openly espousing even the mildest of
dou!ts a!out the truth of revealed 5hristian religion' 5hristopher Marlowe
was investigated !y the Star 5ham!er 5ourt (sort of the 1:A and &K95,
com!ined merely on the rumor that he made statements in favor of atheism
and homose<ual love' &owever, &umanism and (nglish translations had
e<posed a larger audience of (nglish readers to the wisdom of $reek and
7oman pagans whose polytheism we see reFected in Lear's use of oaths to
9pollo and @upiter (e'g', A',',-,, ,/.' &ow would the 5hristian (nglish
audience understand the world%view of a pagan king, and what di=erence
does that make in the plot6 Some authors manage to invoke 5hristian
themes like charity, divine providence, sin, and fnal "udgment after death,
!y drawing upon pagan notions from various sources which early 5hristian
thinkers found compati!le with their doctrine' 4hough 5ordelia and (dgar get
to articulate some of these "5hristianiBing" pagan notions, they do not
succeed in Lear's world' An e=ect, we're shown the reigning moral doctrines
of Shakespeare's time as they spectacularly fail to control anarchy and evil'
8oes this increase our capacity to identify with Lear if we are atheists or
agnostics or !elievers in another religion, or does it diminish it if we are
- Llaying Lear at 5ourt, at the $lo!e, or at :lackfriars6 %% :y the time Lear
was frst produced, Shakespeare had three possi!le stages in mind' 4he
play's premiere was !efore the royal court, !ut the open%air stage at the
$lo!e would have !een the great popular venue for those who could a=ord
only one or two pennies admission, and the upscale, indoor theater at
:lackfriars would have o=ered a radically di=erent environment from either
the respectful austerity we might imagine at @ames A's court, or the rowdy
populist environment of the $lo!e' 5lick here for a ,%minute video in which
Maynard Mack (?ale K' uses a model to illustrate the $lo!e's stage position
relative to its audience' (Link re*uires $oucher network frewall access via
DL) or on%campus use' 5lick here for 9nnina @okinen's Luminarium we!
page illustrating and e<plaining the :lackfriars' indoor theater' 8uring
several periods in its history as a playhouse, this former monastery hosted a
theater company of child%actors who competed with the adult troupes
performing at the outdoor theaters' Lerformance at :lackfriars would have
closely resem!led court performances' 4hink a!out how this intensely
intimate setting would inFuence staging of any scene in this play'
I Chy do we love (dmund6%% E;, you may hate him, !ut many readers
report his refreshing directness a!out his am!ition and his willingness to do
whatever he must to succeed reminds him of modern anti%heroes who, !orn
disadvantaged !ut struggling to !etter themselves, turn society upside down
to get what others were !orn possessing' 9udience a=ection for (dmund
may !e mingled with severe disgust when he !etrays his !rother and father,
!ut even in his dying moments he seems capa!le of turning to the good
(making him "round" rather than a purely Fat Machiavellian' 5ontemporary
audiences might have seen in him a very familiar type of person they had
met at courtM one we met in a previous reading where he seemed an
admira!le sort' 5astiglioni#&o!y's 4he 5ourtier' 5ount 5anossa says: "so
shall our 5ourtier steal this grace from them that to his seeming have it, and
from each one that parcel that shall !e most worthy praise ' ' ' +9nd0 there
were some most e<cellent orators which among other their cares enforced
themselves to make every man !elieve that they had no sight in letters, and
dissem!ling their cunning, made sem!lant their orations to !e made very
simply, or rather as nature and truth made them, than study and art, the
which if it had !een openly known would have put a dou!t in the people's
mind, for fear lest he !eguiled them' ?ou may see then how to show art and
such !ent study taketh away the grace of everything" (HI/, HIJ' &ow might
(dmund's career !e understood as a commentary upon the courtly practice
Stephen $reen!latt has called "7enaissance self%fashioning"6 Chich are the
characters who cannot "self%fashion" while appearing to !e "natural," and do
you see any who learn to do so in the course of the play6 8o you see any
who try to "self%fashion" !ut are detected in the act of doing so6 Chat is the
penalty for that failure to self%fashion or that detection in this play6 1or a
consummate display of (dmund's spreBBatura, see 9ct ,, Scene ,, when this
!astard son responds graciously to his father and to ;ent "ust after hearing
his mother pu!licly descri!ed as se<ually pleasing and hearing his own
future dismissed as a life of permanent e<ile'
/ Chy does ;ent hate Eswald6%%Chile serving Lear in disguise as "5aius"
after his !anishment in A',, ;ent often su!"ect's $oneril's servant, Eswald, to
ver!al and physical a!use' An fact, ;ent's dislike of Eswald drives him to
titanic rages similar to those Lear su=ers from when thwarted !y his
daughters' Many a scholar has worked to decode the masculine#feminine
and father#daughter language with which Lear reveals his psychological
loathing of $oneril's and 7egan's !ehavior, !ut few pay similar attention to
;ent's language when insulting Eswald' (ven in his frst insults ("!ase
foot!all player"66, ;ent invokes "estate" (M( or "class" (Mod( values to
denigrate the servant for acting "a!ove his station'" (specially in the
e<tended "Fyting" or "doin' the doBens" speech in AA'2, and in his
interrogation !y 9l!any, ;ent descri!es Eswald in ways that e<pose
courtiers' an<ieties a!out social mo!ility' 4hink a!out &o!y's translation of
5astiglioni, especially 5ount 5anossa's strategy for "stealing graces" from
one's superiors, as a recipe !y which a low%!orn man like Eswald might hope
to rise, !y service, to the heights of the aristocracy' (dmund actually
accomplishes this feat, for a while' Chat e<actly are the !ehaviors with
which ;ent attempts to associate Eswald, and what makes them socially
shaming for an upwardly mo!ile courtier%servant6 Af you are interested in
Shakespearian (nglish insults, it's a skill you can learn with practice'
Lerformers at "7enaissance 1aires" routinely learn to produce these learned,
paraphrastic insults according to forumlae'
King Lear&s mis'udgement
The main lot
Lear is king of :ritain' &e is an old, highly successful warrior king' (Car is an
institution that we despise, "ust as Shakespeare clearly despised it' :ut
!efore !irth control or real personal security, population pressures made war
and even genocidal conFict a fact of life' Like &amlet and Ethello, we are
impressed with him !ecause of what others say a!out his !ackground' (?ou
can fnd e<amples' 9t the end of the play, we will learn that despite his
advanced age, he can still kill a young, armed man with his !are hands' ;ing
Lear has decided to retire and to divide his kingdom among his three
daughters and their hus!ands' &is stated intention is to prevent future
conFict' 4his is really not very smart, since it actually invites war !etween
the heirs' Shakespeare's audience (having "ust !een spared a civil war
following the death of (liBa!eth would have realiBed this'
;ing Lear has staged a ceremony in which each daughter will aNrm her love
for him' Chether this has !een rehearsed, or the daughters forewarned, we
can only guess' $oneril and 7egan may have !een em!arrassed' $oneril
says she loves her father more than she can say' ;ing Lear thanks her and
gives her 4hird LriBe' 7egan says that she loves her father so much that she
doesn't like anything else' ;ing Lear thanks her and gives her Second LriBe'
5ordelia says that she loves her father e<actly as a daughter should' ;ing
Lear goes !allistic and disinherits her, and !anishes the (arl of ;ent for
speaking in her defense' 1irst LriBe is divided !etween the other two
?ou can decide whether ;ing Lear is showing early signs of mental illness (as
his other daughters think, or whether he "ust wanted an e<cuse to give
5ordelia the !est share of the kingdom and she "ust spoiled it' 5ordelia has
!een courted !y the 8uke of :urgundy and the ;ing of 1rance' :urgundy
says he will not marry a woman with no property' 1rance is more clever' &e
swears that he loves 5ordelia, and marries her' 4his is an o!vious plan to
make a claim on the :ritish throne, and Shakespeare's audience would have
realiBed this' Ce'll see the proof later' 1rance may or may not !e sincere in
loving 5ordelia' Ce won't know'
9s the !asis of his retirement agreement, ;ing Lear has stipulated that he
will live alternately with his daughters, who will support him and ,..
followers' Chen he leaves, $oneril and 7egan e<press their understanda!le
concern a!out hosting a mentally%im!alanced father and his personal army'
;ing Lear goes to live with $oneril' 4he frst daughter's steward Eswald yells
at Lear's "ester, and Lear punches the steward' $oneril decides to assert
control' Chen the play is staged, a good director might have Lear's retinue
disrespecting $oneril %% whistles, catcalls, lewd remarks, or whatever' ;ent
returns in disguise to serve Lear, and we meet the "ester ("1ool"' 1or some
reason, "ust like ;ent, the "ester is loyal to the king, even though you can fnd
hints that the king has not always !een kind to the "ester' 9 court "ester
might !e a comedian%entertainer, or simply a retarded person kept as an
o!"ect of amusement' Lear's "ester is specially privileged to speak the truth,
which he does ironically
Eswald is rude to Lear, and one of Lear's knights makes an indignant speech
a!out the king not !eing cared for properly' (4his knight, and all the others,
will soon a!andon their king' Lear yells at Eswald, ;ent trips Eswald, and a
scene ensues in which $oneril demands that Lear reduce the num!er of his
followers %% evidently to H.' $oneril (rightly points out that her own people
can care for him "ust as well' (4here's a su!tlety here' An the original story,
the daughters send the knights away, i'e', refuse to pay to support them'
&owever, if you read closely, the knights are already leaving ;ing Lear,
!ecause they can tell what is going to happen' 4he king is showing lapses in
"udgement, and has no way of forcing his daughters to honor their promise to
support him' An a time of warlords, soldiers will desert when the leader shows
signs of !eing una!le to lead and#or guarantee their salaries' Lear curses
$oneril and departs for 7egan's' &e sends ;ent !efore him, and $oneril
sends Eswald'
7egan and her hus!and have gone to visit the (arl of $loucester, and when
;ent and Eswald meet at the (arl's castle, ;ent picks a fght and 7egan's
hus!and puts him in the stocks' 4his is a serious !reach of protocol, and
when Lear arrives, he is furious' (;ent's diNcult phrase ")othing almost sees
miracles !ut misery", !y its conte<t, seems to mean that when things seem
to !e going really !adly, it's common to receive une<pected, seemingly%
miraculous help' $oneril arrives and Lear curses her again' 7egan says she
will allow him only 2H followers' Since Lear no longer has a source of income,
his followers are leaving en masse anyway, !ut Lear evidently does not
realiBe this' Lear says he will return to $oneril, !ut now she will not even
allow 2H, and the daughters re%enact the fairy%tale plot !y alternately
reducing the num!ers, and asking "Chy do you need even one follower,
when we can care for you ourselves6" Ef course, they are right, !ut Lear says
that he measures his personal worth in terms of his possessions' "7eason not
the need> Eur !asest !eggars are in the poorest things superFuous' 9llow
not nature more than nature needs, Man's life is cheap as !east's'" Danities
give meaning to life and this is what raises us a!ove the level of animals'
;ing Lear, now alone e<cept for ;ent and the "ester, starts to cry and runs o=
as a storm !rews' 4he daughters lock him out of the castle to teach him a
Lecturers who en"oy talking a!out "4he (liBa!ethan Corld Licture", in which
orders of nature reFect human law and its !reakdown, will tell you that the
ensuing storm mirrors the chaos in :ritain' 4he (liBa!ethans paid lip%service
to the idea that kings were magic, and actually knew that a sta!le monarchy
was !etter for every!ody than civil war' (Lawful democracy would !e devised
later' ;ing Lear yells !ack at what proves to !e a preternaturally severe
storm' &is whole retinue has a!andoned him e<cept the "ester, who !egs
Lear to go apologiBe to his daughters and seek shelter, and ;ent, who sends
to 8over, where the 1rench army has landed in e<pectation of a :ritish civil
war' (ven though the "ester pretends to !e foolish, he always knows e<actly
what is going on, and what's more, he is loyal to the old king' ?ou'll need to
decide for yourself whether this is foolishness or profound wisdom'
An the frst storm scene, which is diNcult, Lear is going craBy' &e: frst calls on
the power of the storm to steriliBe the human raceM then accuses the storm
of taking sides with his daughters against his dignity and !eing their
degraded slaveM then, realiBing that people have deceived him, says the
storm must !e "the gods" 's way of fnding and punishing secret evildoers,
and that he is "a man more sinned against than sinningOM then comments,
"my wit !egins to turn", i'e', he realiBes he is going craBy %% in literature,
!ecoming insane is often a metaphor for changing the way you look at
yourself and the worldM notices the "ester is cold, and comments that he is
also coldM this is the frst time Lear has !een responsive to the needs and
concerns of someone elseM accepts ;ent's suggestion to take shelter in a hut'
9lready inside the hut is "one of the homeless mentally%ill'" 4he play is
pro!a!ly !etter if, as it is sometimes staged, there are several lunatics all
ranting together' (4his one lunatic is actually a sane man in disguise, seeking
refuge from private in"ustice' 4he "e<tras" who served as knights in the frst
and second act and who will !e in the !attle scenes at the end can !e the
e<tra lunatics' Chen he sees the hut, and !efore seeing the lunatic(s, ;ing
Lear realiBes that what is happening to him now is what he has allowed to
happen to the poor throughout his reign' "Eh, A have taken too little care of
this'" &e suddenly realiBes that his lu<uries have !een maintained at the
e<pense of his poorest su!"ects, and that "ustice is only now !eing served on
Chen he sees the lunatic(s, Lear cracks, and says he#they must have given
everything to their daughters and !een turned out also' :ut the onset of
madness confers a deeper insight' Lear sees in the naked lunatic someone
who has taken nothing wrongfully from anyone, and is the essential human
!eing' Saying that "unaccommodated man is no more !ut such a poor, !are,
forked animal as thou art," the king rips o= his clothes'
An the third storm scene, ;ing Lear holds a trial of his two daughters,
evidently mistaking a stool for $oneril, something else (A've seen a chicken
used for 7egan, and so forth' An one 7oyal Shakespeare 5ompany
production, the king mistook a pillow that the "ester was holding for 7egan,
and sta!!ed the "ester to death through the pillow' 4he good (arl of
$loucester comes and urges ;ent to take the king (who has passed out to
8over, since his daughters' people are planning to kill him' 9t the end, ;ent
tells the "ester to follow Lear' 9s often played, ;ent discovers the "ester to !e
dead' 4he "ester has no more entrances or lines, and perhaps the same !oy%
actor played 5ordelia and the "ester in the original production' ?ou can read
more a!out 7o!ert 9rmin, the !eloved comedian who played Shakespeare's
"esters at the time, elsewhere online'
;ent and Lear reach 8over and 5ordelia, who loves him' 5ordelia
accompanies an invading 1rench army' She may not realiBe this, !ut sending
her is pro!a!ly a cynical, no%lose move !y the ;ing of 1rance' Af his forces
win and kill the other heirs, he is now also ;ing of :ritain' Af his forces lose,
the heirs will kill 5ordelia and he will !e rid of a wife who is no longer of any
political value' At seems to me that this is why the ;ing of 1rance suddenly
had to return to his own country !ecause of some sudden !usiness that was
more important than con*uering (ngland' Kh huh' &e has left his wife either
to do it for him, or !e killed' (Shakespeare's (nglish audience mostly did not
like the 1rench' E!viously Shakespeare couldn't show a con*uering 1rench
king on his stage' :ut having the king land and then leave "suddenly" lets
Shakespeare make the foreign king look machiavellian' ?ou'll have to decide
a!out this for yourself'
;ent tells a friend that ;ing Lear, in his more lucid moments, is too ashamed
to see 5ordelia' 4he king reappears in a feld where the (arl of $loucester
lies, his eyes having !een gouged out !y 7egan and her hus!and' ;ing Lear
is now crowned and decorated with weeds and wild Fowers' &e wavers
!etween hallucinations and accurate perception' 9t the same time, he talks
a!out his world, focusing on how fake ordinary human society is' Chen he
coins money, only his royal title makes him other than a counterfeiter' Leople
pretend to !e modest and virtuous, !ut even the animals commit adultery'
4he law is concerned with protecting the rich and concealing their
mis!ehavior, not with promoting "ustice and fairness' 7egan and $oneril
have played and humored him' &e learned the truth only in the storm' &e
says that "when we are !orn, we cry that we are come to this great stage of
fools'" 5ordelia's people come to !ring him !ack to their camp, and they
chase him down'
Ce ne<t see ;ing Lear asleep under the care of 5ordelia' &e awakes, and
thinks %% correctly %% that he recogniBes her' :ut he thinks that they are !oth
dead' "4hou art a soul in !liss, !ut A am !ound upon the wheel of fre, that
mine own tears do scald like molten lead'" 5ordelia kneels, Lear tries to do
the same (as in the older play, !ut 5ordelia prevents him' Lear says he
knows he is not in his "perfect mind", and that he is !ewildered, and that if
5ordelia wants him dead he will drink her poison' Chen 5ordelia says she
has no cause to !e angry, !ut merely wants to help him, Lear says "Lray
now, forget and forgive' A am old and foolish'"
;ing Lear is not a!out wrongs !eing righted' Af Shakespeare were a
&ollywood writer, his king might have returned to rulership and ("having
learned to !e sensitive, and that it is all right to cry" !ecome a champion for
the poor in his own country and set up a social agency to deal e=ectively
with other dysfunctional families' An contrast to the happy ending in the
source, Shakespeare has the 1rench army defeated !y the :ritish, and Lear
and 5ordelia are captured' ;ing Lear looks forward to happy time with his
daughter in prison, merely laughing at the rest of the world' 9s the su!plot
concludes, all the villains are dead, !ut 5ordelia has !een hanged in prison'
;ing Lear kills the hangman with his !are hands' &e comes onstage, carrying
5ordelia's !ody and howling' ;ing Lear's surviving heir, $oneril's good
hus!and who is now sole head of the victorious army, returns Lear's royal
power, !ut Lear does not notice' Suddenly uncertain whether she is alive or
dead, ;ing Lear !ends to e<amine 5ordelia, !elieves she is alive, and falls
dead himself' 4he good survivors see the passing of a man who was larger
than life'
The secondary lot
;ing Lear's story is paralleled !y the story of the (arl of $loucester' Ce meet
him at the !eginning, introducing his illegitimate son (dmund with some
smutty "okes' Ce do not need to see (dmund's face to imagine how often
this must have happened, and how (dmund's feelings must have !een hurt
!y it' (dmund solilo*uiBes that he is as talented and as loved as his
legitimate !rother (dgar, and that the accident of his !irth is un"ust' &e
professes allegiance to "nature" rather than law or love, and decides that he
will try to gain control of the earldom !y removing his father and !rother'
(dmund takes a minute to ridicule astrology' Ce can ask ourselves whether
(dmund is simply making fun of superstition, whether he is talking a!out
"self%empowerment" like a ,JJ.'s person, whether he is disavowing a role for
heaven ($od, the supernatural, transcendent values, the ideals of religion,
whatever in his life, or whether he is denying their reality altogether' Later,
the good ;ent will look to the same stars to e<plain the di=erences in
attitude among ;ing Lear's daughters'
(dmund forges a letter, deceives his father into !elieving (dgar has frst
asked him to help murder $loucester, then pretends to have !een in"ured !y
the Feeing (dgar' $loucester declares (dgar an outlaw and (dmund his heir'
(dgar fnds refuge "among the homeless mentally ill" and later meets ;ing
Lear there'
Chen 1rance invades, $loucester talks to (dmund a!out taking ;ing Lear's
side, and (dmund !etrays him to $oneril and 7egan' (dmund shows an
incriminating letter to 7egan's hus!and and pretends to !e uncertain a!out
whether his father is a traitor' "4rue or not," is the cynical reply, "it hath
made thee (arl of $loucester'" Lretending !oth moral outrage and the desire
to follow proper legal procedure ("the form of "ustice", 7egan's hus!and
carves out $loucester's eyes' &e stomps one eye!all Fat on the ground for
fun, !ut is sta!!ed to death !y one of his own horrifed servants, who is
killed in turn !y 7egan's !acksta!' 4he dying hus!and calls on 7egan for
help, !ut 7egan likes (dmund instead' 9s the scene is usually staged, she
merely walks o= and lets him die' 4he director may even have her sta!
5ornwall again herself'
$loucester's servants tend his wounds and (dgar leads him, without
revealing who he is, to 8over, where he meets Lear and laments his
foolishness' 4hen Eswald fnds $loucester and attacks him, !ut is killed !y
(dgar, who fnds a letter incriminating $oneril for her adultery with (dmund'
8uring the !attle, (dgar fnally reveals the truth to $loucester and the old
man dies happy' 9fter the !attle, (dgar defeats (dmund in a duel (9l!any
makes (dmund fght, "ealous $oneril poisons 7egan and then suicides, the
!rothers forgive each other, and (dmund's last act is an attempt to do good
"despite his own +evil0 nature'" &e calls %% too late %% for Lear's and 5ordelia's
lives to !e spared'
4he su!plot seems to have !een inspired !y an episode in Sidney's 9rcadia
a!out the ;ing of Laphlagonia' Many details match, including the good son
persuading the !linded father not to "ump to his death o= a cli='
Some commentators, including (dgar, have seen $loucester's physical
torture as punishment for his se<ual sin' :e this as it may, ;ing Lear contains
the oldest torture scene that you'll see on the stage' Sensitive Dictorians cut
it from production' (ven !y today's movie standards, it is a shocker'
Since setting up this page, A've heard from a few students that their
instructors said "4oday we consider (dmund admira!le !ut in Shakespeare's
time his actions might have made the audience angry'" A am not making this
up' (vidently (dmund is admira!le !ecause he has a grievance and talks
a!out illegitimate sons !eing discriminated against, and is some kind of
nature%worshipper' 4his overshadows the way he treats every!ody around
him' 9n authentic li!eral would wish that (dmund had shown a little real
kindness to the genuinely needy people on his father's estate %% as ;ing Lear
ultimately wishes he had done' 9dmiring someone primarily for his
grievances is the politics of e<tremism' 1eel free to speak up in class' ?our
decent%minded classmates will appreciate it'
Themes and Image %atterns
Cho is it that can tell me who A am6 %% ;ing Lear
4he (liBa!ethans !elieved, or pretended to !elieve, that the natural world
reFected a hierarchy that mirrored good government and sta!le monarchy'
4his is a common enough idea in old !ooks from various cultures' (ven our
scientifc age talks !oth a!out "laws of nature" and "good government
through good laws", although of course we know the essential di=erence'
Shakespeare's era contrasted "nature" and "art" (i'e', human%made
decorations, human%made lu<uries and technologies, human%made artistic
productions, "ust as we talk a!out "essential human nature" contrasted to
"culture"' Shakespeare's era also contrasted "natural" and "unnatural"
!ehaviorsM the latter would include mistreating family mem!ers, opposing
the government, and various se<ual activities not intended for procreation'
;ing Lear deals with how children and parents treat each other, whether
human society is the product of nature or something we create so as to live
!etter than animals do, and whether human nature is fundamentally selfsh
or generous' )ot surprisingly, you can fnd various ideas a!out the
relationship !etween human !eings and the natural world'
?ou already know that HI di=erent animals are mentioned in the play'
Lear tells 5ordelia that neither human nature nor royal dignity can tolerate
the way she has insulted him'
Lear tells the ;ing of 1rance that "nature is ashamed" to have produced a
child like 5ordelia, whose lack of love is so contrary to nature' ;ing Lear
e<pects people to !e naturally virtuous, in other words, to tell him the lies he
wants to hear'
4he ;ing of 1rance suggests that 5ordelia has Ptardiness", i'e', that
sometimes it's natural to !e inarticulate' 1rance sees nature as the source of
human frailties, rather than vice'
(dmund !egins, "4hou, )ature, art my goddess'" &uman law and custom
have treated (dmund unfairly !ecause his parents were not married'
(dmund intends to look out for himself, like an animal' (dmund sees nature
as the opposite of human virtue'
Stupid $loucester, deceived !y (dmund, considers (dgar's supposed plot to
murder him to !e contrary to nature ("unnatural", "!rutish"'
$loucester !elieves in astrology' $loucester thinks that the eclipses, which
result from natural causes, still have unnatural e=ects, causing the
!reakdown of human society' (dmund doesn't !elieve in astrology' &e says
he was !orn rough and self%centered, and that the stars had nothing to do
with it' Later, ;ent !elieves the stars must account for the ine<plica!le
di=erences in people's attitudes' Some (liBa!ethans !elieved that the stars
a=ected nature as supernatural agents' Ethers !elieved that they were
powerful natural forces'
(dmund remarks that (dgar's nature is gentle and naive, and (at the end
that he will do one last good deed "in spite of mine own nature'" 4his
reminds us of the ongoing scientifc and political controversies over how
much of an individual's !ehavior is genetically programmed, how much is
learned and conditioned, and how much one is responsi!le' (")ature vs'
nurture"M "innate vs' cultural"M and so forth'
;ing Lear, thinking of 5ordelia's "most small fault", laments the way it
scram!led his mind ("wrenched my frame of nature from its f<ed place"'
;ing Lear also calls on "nature" as a goddess, to punish $oneril with
infertility, or else give her a !a!y that grows up to hate her ("a thwart
disnatured torment"'
Lear says as he leaves $oneril's home, "A will forget my nature", perhaps
meaning he will !egin crying again'
$loucester "okes that (dmund is "loyal and natural"' 4he latter means !oth
"illegitimate", and that he cares for his own Fesh%and%!lood as a son should'
7egan's hus!and speaks of (dmund's "nature of such deep trust", i'e', his
trustworthy character is in!orn'
;ent tells the steward that "nature disclaims theeM a tailor made thee",
ridiculing his unmanliness and his o!se*uiousness'
Chen 7egan pretends to !e sick, ;ing Lear remarks that you're not yourself
when natural sickness a=ects you' "Ce are not ourselves when nature, !eing
oppressed, commands the mind to su=er with the !ody'" 4here's a
foreshadowing here'
7egan tells ;ing Lear that "nature in you stands on the very verge of her
confne'" An other words, you're getting too old to make your own decisions,
and 7egan's !ehavior is only that of a good, natural daughter'
Ce've already seen ("allow not nature more than nature needs'''" ;ing Lear
says that it is superFuous lu<uries that raise us a!ove the natural level of
animals' &e will soon change his mind'
;ent and the other !asically good characters see the treatment of Lear and
$loucester as unnatural' 9l!any says to $oneril, "4hat nature which
condemns itself in origin cannot !ordered certain in itself" %% i'e', if you
mistreat your own parent, what kind of person must you !e6 Criters who talk
a!out the (liBa!ethans !elieving in cosmic hierarchy and so forth will see a
moral warning against deviating from nature: Af you have violated nature !y
!eing less than generous to your parent, your self%centeredness will grow
and you will !ecome morally worse than an animal'
;ing Lear calls on the storm to "crack nature's moulds" and end the human
;ent urges ;ing Lear to seek shelter, since "man's nature cannot carry the
aQiction nor the force" and "the tyranny of the open night's too rough for
nature to endure'"
;ing Lear, craBy, asks whether 7egan's hard%heartedness is the result of
natural disease or chemistry or something perhaps cultural or perhaps
supernatural' "As there any cause in nature that makes this hardness6"
Chen Lear falls asleep in the last storm scene, ;ent sees his madness as
"oppressed nature" sleeping'
5ordelia is said to "redeem nature from the general curse" !rought !y the
other two daughters' Cith people like 5ordelia in the world, one could not
say the human race is generally !ad !y nature'
4he physician calls sleep "our foster%nurse of nature'" 7eaders may
remem!er Mac!eth, who after committing the "unnatural" crime of killing a
king !ecomes an insomniac'
;ing Lear, with the insight of madness, decorates himself with wild Fowers'
?ou can use these various ideas a!out what's "natural" and what's not to
develop a good paper'
4homas &o!!es o!served that the lives of wild animals and primitive people
are mostly "nasty, !rutish, and short"' 8espite romantic depictions, it would
!e hard nowadays to fnd anyone who would disagree' )owadays, most
people !elieve that culture is something that we invent so that we can fall in
love, create works of art and music, remem!er the past, and en"oy a
reasona!le prospect of good health, personal security, and choosing our own
paths through life' Af most of us no longer !elieve that a king's sovereignty
mirrors the harmony of a well%run natural world, we can still fnd fundamental
human issues treated in ;ing Lear'
;ing Lear tells 7egan that you're not human unless you have more than you
need' ("9llow not nature more than nature needs'''" 4hen in the storm, ;ing
Lear cries out that only the poorest person, who owes nothing to anyone (not
even the animals, is truly human ("''' the thing itself'" Chich do you think is
An A'iv', ;ing Lear himself introduces the *uestion, "Cho am A6" in the passage
that !egins "8oth any here know me6'''" and ends with "Cho is it that can
tell me who A am6"
9nd if you want to keep it very simple, "ust notice this' ;ing Lear and the
mostly%good characters talk a!out "nature" as making us care a!out one
another, especially our own families' (dmund talks a!out "nature" as making
us care only a!out ourselves'
Cho is right6 A can't tell you' ?ou have a lifetime to decide for yourself'
9nd so forth'''
Many people approaching ;ing Lear decided (dmund is their favorite
character' Shakespeare presents characters rather than caricatures, and our
sympathies are always divided' (dmund is charming, clever, and clear%
headed (when others are not' 9nd we see at the very !eginning how
hurtfully and thoughtlessly his father has treated him' An keeping with the
theme of the play, (dmund decides at the !eginning that human nature is
fundamentally selfsh' 9nd (dmund decides to act accordingly' An our world,
such people always present themselves as "having style", and in fact those
who pray certain liturgies specifcally renounce "the glamour of evil"'
(dmund treats others horri!ly' ?et at the end, (dmund fnds the decency he
thought he didn't have, and tries to do good "in spite of +his0 own nature'"
A've seen this sort of thing in real life, and perhaps you have too' 4here's a
good paper right here'
Ether image clusters in ;ing Lear include clothing # nakedness (are you more
yourself with your culture's clothes and the dignity they confer, or naked,
owing nothing to anyone6, fortune (is what happens to us dum! luck,
predestined, or whatever6, "ustice (many di=erent ideas, and eyesight #
!lindness # hallucination (a !linded character and a hallucinating character
!oth perceive things more clearlyM the play asks "8oes human nature make
us care only for ourselves, or for others6", our natural eyes may not give us
the !est answer'
9nd there's the recurrent theme of nothing' 5ordelia can add nothing to her
sisters' speeches' Lear says that "nothing" is the reward to 5ordelia and
:urgundy after 5ordelia says nothing' (dmund was reading "nothing", so
$loucester says "the *uality of nothing has no need to hide itself", and if it's
nothing, he won't need his reading glasses' Lear says the "ester's "ingle is
"nothing", and the "ester adds that Lear paid nothing for it' 9sked if he can
make use of nothing, Lear says again, "nothing can come from nothing'" 4he
"ester calls Lear a Bero without a preceding fgure, or "nothing'" 8eprived of
his identity, (dgar is "nothing"' 4he storm makes "nothing" (should this !e
"knotting6" of Lear's hair' :ut in the storm, Lear frst decides to "say
nothing", then admires the poor man who owes nothing to any other creature
as the true human !eing' ?ou can fnd several other e<amples, including
insults of the form "?ou're nothing !ut'''"' :ut ;ing Lear's speech on owing
nothing ends the image cluster' Lerhaps Shakespeare is telling us that there
is much of which we need to divest ourselves !efore we can fnd our real
)hat Sha*eseare Could (ot Say +enly,
Meantime, we shall e<press our darker purposes' %% Lear
?ou'll need to decide for yourself a!out what follows'
4he last lines of the play are puBBling, especially "Speak what we feel, not
what we ought to say'"
An Shakespeare's era, custom re*uired that the frst and last lines of a scene
!e given to the highest%ranking character on stage' 4he Ruarto gives these
to 9l!any (who is a duke, outranking an earl' 4his looks like an editor's
attempt to correct what he thought was an error' 4he 1olio gives them to
(dgar, who has "ust !een asked to assume the kingship !y 9l!any' $iving
(dgar a fnal word along with ;ent and 9l!any seems right'
A think A understand what (dgar is saying'
9t the time of someone's death, Shakespeare's contemporaries (and most of
ours will tell you that the survivors "ought to say" some conventional piety'
(dgar says, "Let's "ust tell the truth' 4his happened' 4his is sad'"
Shakespeare's (ngland did not a=ord its citiBens the same freedom of, or
from, religion that we possess' 9 few years !efore ;ing Lear, the playwright
4homas ;yd had literally !een tortured for e<pressing skepticism a!out
orthodo< 5hristianity' 5hristopher Marlowe, who ;yd implicated as a fellow%
freethinker, escaped a similar fate only !y getting murdered in a tavern
5haracters in ;ing Lear often talk a!out "the gods" (the setting is pagan
:ritainM "$od" is mentioned only once !y ;ing Lear, who fantasiBes
(unrealistically that he and 5ordelia will !e allowed to live and look at
ordinary people without !eing involved "as if we were $od's spies"'
&ypocritical (dmund pretends that he's warned (dgar of "the gods'" wrath,
;ing Lear swears !y 9pollo and @upiter (and ;ent, as a !itter "oke, swears !y
@upiter's wife @uno, and of course $loucester says that the gods play with us
as !oys play with Fies, killing us for fun' (dgar says (to (dmund, !ut for the
!eneft of the simple, good 9l!any that "the gods are "ust", and that
$loucester was punished for an episode of nonmarital se< !y having his eyes
gouged out' 4his is o!viously not "ustice'
An the most puBBling scene in the play, (dgar pretends to escort the !lind
$loucester to the white cli=s of 8over, where $loucester intends to "ump to
his death' (dgar tells him he is at the summit, $loucester "umps, and faints'
(dgar then changes his accent, waits for his father to revive, and tells him
that $od has saved his life miraculously' Ef course this is a lie, !ut it helps
$loucester fnd emotional peace' Shakespeare changed his source material %%
in the original, the son merely talks the father out of suicide'
(dmund didn't !elieve in astrology, !ut he considered him a product of
nature' (dgar's skeptical e<pression is kinder !ut seems even deeper'
At seems to me that Shakespeare is saying, as clearly as he can, what many
people in his own day must have !elieved secretly' 4here is no $od' 4he
comforts of religion are make%!elieve' )or are we good !y nature, or through
our laws and customs' 4he only hope for human !eings is that we can !e try
to !e decent and generous with one another'
Chether or not you agree (and A do not, this deepest message e<plains for
me why the "cosmic" tragedy of ;ing Lear still speaks to us so powerfully'
4o include this page in a !i!liography, you may use this format:
1riedlander (7 (2..3 (n"oying ";ing Lear" !y Cilliam Shakespeare 7etrieved
8ec' 2H, 2..3 from http:##www'pathguy'com#kinglear'htm

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