King Lear

views updated May 29 2018

King Lear



King Lear was first acted on December 26, 1606, St. Stephen's Night, by Shakespeare's acting company, The King's Men, before King James I and the court at Whitehall; this is known because, on November 26, 1607, the play was entered along with that identifying information on the Stationers' Register, a journal kept by the Stationers' Company of London in which the printing rights to dramatic works were chronicled. In 1608, the First Quarto of the play was published by Nathaniel Butter who, along with John Busby, had made the entry in the Stationers' Register. The 1608 Quarto is called the "Pied Bull" Quarto because Nathaniel Butter's shop, where the Quarto was sold was in "Pauls Church-yard at the sign of the Pide Bull neere St. Austins Gate." There are twelve copies of the Pied Bull Quarto extant today, but they are not uniform because of the way proofreading was done. Sheets were read as the quartos were printed, resulting in the separate volumes having different corrected and uncorrected sheets bound together.

A 1619 edition of the First Quarto was printed, although falsely dated 1608, by William Jaggard for Thomas Pavier, reprinting one of the original 1608 editions. In 1623, King Lear appeared in the Folio volume of Shakespeare's work that John Heminges and Henry Condell, his fellow actors in The King's Men, published in tribute to him. The Folio text varies significantly from the First Quarto texts. The Folio text has an additional 300 lines that the first Quarto texts do not have and the Folio text is missing 100 lines found in the Quarto editions. The 1623 Folio is thought to have been printed from one of the 1608 Quartos that had been corrected and emended, probably by consultation with a manuscript quite close to an original by Shakespeare, perhaps his company's prompt book of the play. Authoritative contemporary editions of King Lear are consolidations and emendations of the two texts, using the Folio, adding the lines from the Quarto that it lacks, and comparing readings in the two texts when there is confusion about which is better. In 1988, Stanley Wells and Gary Taylor printed both Quarto and Folio texts individually in The Oxford Shakespeare, arguing that they were two substantially different plays, each by Shakespeare, with the Folio text being a revised version of the Quarto text.

There are a number of sources for the story of King Lear. The primary source is an earlier play, probably dating from around 1594, with which Shakespeare was undoubtedly acquainted, called The True Chronicle History of King Leir. The story of Lear and his daughters, however, can also be found in Geoffrey of Monmouth's Latin work, History of the Kings of England (c.1136), in the collection The Mirror for Magistrates (1574), in Holinshed's Chronicles (1577), in William Warner's Albions England (1586), and in Edmund Spenser's epic The Fairie Queene (1596). The source for the Gloucester plot is found in Book II, Chapter 10 of Sir Philip Sydney's Arcadia (1590). Samuel Harsnett's Declaration of Egregious Popishe Impostures (1603) is the source for much of Edgar's mad talk and references to demons.

King Lear has a strange performance history. In 1642, the English Parliament, politically at odds with King Charles I, and Puritanical in its religious inclination, ordered the theaters closed in London. And closed they remained during the English Commonwealth which the Puritan government established in 1649 under Oliver Cromwell. It was not until 1661, a year after the restoration of the monarchy, when Charles II ordered them to be re-opened. When the theaters reopened, the theater, as well as English culture itself, was quite different from the way it had been in Shakespeare's day. Boys no longer acted the parts of women—women did. The stage was no longer a bare stage—something like a platform at an inn yard—but a proscenium stage adapted to using, even depending upon, scenery. Most significantly, with the restoration of the monarchy, the grim universe of King Lear, with its plot about the defeat of a king, did not fit the official temper of the time. Although it was presented on the stage in its original form a few times, in 1681, Nahum Tate revised King Lear giving it a happy ending. Lear and Cordelia do not die; Lear is restored to the throne and Cordelia marries Edgar. The part of the Fool is excised completely. This version of King Lear held the stage in place of Shakespeare's version for a 150 years, until 1834, when William Charles Macready at the Drury Lane in London performed Shakespeare's unaltered original play.


Act 1, Scene 1

As King Lear begins, Kent and Gloucester are talking about "the division of the kingdom" and apparently about competing interests regarding that division. Then, pointing to a younger man, Edmund, who has been quiet, Kent asks Gloucester if he is not his son. Gloucester introduces him to Kent, saying he acknowledges him brazenly now for he was often ashamed to do so. Gloucester lets Kent know that Edmund was conceived out of wedlock, noting coarsely how enjoyable his mother had been. Gloucester adds that he does have an older son who is legitimate. Although Gloucester says he loves his sons equally, his behavior might indicate otherwise: Edmund has been away from home for nine years before now and soon will be sent away again.

Their conversation is interrupted by the entrance of the court. The king, Lear, commands Gloucester to escort the King of France and the Duke of Burgundy into his presence. Lear then turns to the business of the gathering, and the first lines of the play come into focus. Lear intends to abdicate and turn over his power to his three daughters and their husbands. He wishes to keep for himself only a train of 100 knights and all the ceremonial honors due a king. Otherwise, he explains, he wishes to shake off all earthly cares and "crawl toward death." His plan is to divide his kingdom in three and give a section to each of his daughters. The ceremonial part of this transfer of power, Lear explains, will entail a profession of love from each of his daughters telling the extent of her love for him. The eldest, Goneril, speaks with stilted eloquence about the hardly-describable depth and breadth of her love. Lear offers her her portion of his kingdom. Regan, Lear's second daughter, speaks much as her sister had. She says, however, that her love is more concentrated and intense than her sister's. Lear presents her, in turn, with her section of the kingdom.

While her sisters are speaking, Lear's youngest daughter, Cordelia, makes asides to the audience indicating that she will not be able to speak with their oiliness, that her love is not lightly to be spoken of, but that she is sure her love for her father is no less than theirs. When Lear turns his attention, in front of his entire court, to her and asks her to recite her devotion, telling her how dear she is to him, she disappoints his expectations and says that she can say nothing. Astonished he repeats the word, "nothing," questioningly and she affirms it. Enraged, he banishes her from his sight and divides her portion between her sisters. When the Earl of Kent, whose conversation with Gloucester and his bastard son Edmund had opened the scene, intervenes, telling Lear he is making a mistake and that Cordelia does not love him less than her sisters, the enraged Lear repulses Kent's counsel and banishes him from his kingdom upon pain of death. When the King of France and the Duke of Burgundy are led in and told that Cordelia is now dowerless, has no inheritance, Burgundy withdraws his offer for her hand in marriage, but the King of France willingly accepts her, stating that, in herself, Cordelia is a dowry.

When the court withdraws, Cordelia bids farewell to her sisters, voices anxiety about how they will care for Lear, and departs for France. Goneril and Regan, in a private conversation, confirm for the audience the suspicion that they have spoken flattery to their father and have no love for him. They talk about his instability, his rashness, his lack of self-knowledge, and how they must watch out for and deal with unruly behavior from him.

Act 1, Scene 2

Edmund, Gloucester's bastard son, who had seemed so personable and courtly in his few words to Kent in the first scene, enters alone. In a soliloquy addressed to the goddess Nature, whom he professes to serve, he expresses his outrage at being denied all the rights and privileges that sons enjoy because he is a bastard. He takes an inventory of his attributes and proudly finds that there is nothing inferior about him in mind or body to a man conceived in wedlock. He then addresses his brother in his imagination saying that he [Edmund] must have his [Edgar's] inheritance, and that he has a plot devised in order to accomplish his ends.

Edmund's cogitations are interrupted by his father's entrance. Gloucester is troubled and speaks of the recent ill-occurrences at court. Seeing that Edmund is reading a letter, Gloucester asks what news it conveys. A little too openly making a show of what he wants to appear he is doing surreptitiously, Edmund pockets the letter and says over-calmly, as if trying to conceal his nervousness, that there is no news. Gloucester's curiosity is whetted and he asks why Edmund then made such an effort to hide the letter. Finally, Edmund relents and, with seeming reluctance, gives his father the letter that looks like it has come from Edgar. Gloucester reads it. It is an invitation to Edmund from Edgar, which Edmund has forged, to join in a conspiracy to murder Gloucester and share his wealth. Questioned about the letter, Edmund confesses with apparent reluctance that Edgar has previously spoken to him about such things as are in the letter. But he advises his father not to be too hasty in judging his brother and offers to "place you where you shall hear us confer of this," and hear with his own ears what Edgar's intentions are.

Gloucester leaves, disturbed and attributing the ill that seems to be settling on the court—Lear's trouble with his daughter, his own with his son, Kent's banishment—to recent solar and lunar eclipses. Alone, Edmund mocks his father's superstitious attribution of human misfortune to cosmic forces. He declares that he is the architect of himself; his fate, independent of his horoscope. When he sees Edgar approaching, Edmund pretends to be in deep melancholic contemplation. Edgar asks what is preoccupying him. Edmund echoes what Gloucester had said, wondering what next the current eclipses will bring. Edgar asks good naturedly how long Edmund has been a believer in astrology, but rather than answering, Edmund asks him when last Edgar saw their father, if he parted from him on good terms, had he seen any indication that Gloucester was upset with him. When Edgar tells him that nothing seemed amiss, Edmund informs him that Gloucester is in a rage against him. Edgar speculates that "some villain" has wronged him, and Edmund with concealed irony tells him that is his fear, too. Showing great concern for his brother, Edmund instructs him to hide in his [Edmund's] lodgings where he will bring their father so that Edgar can overhear a conversation between them. He tells Edgar, furthermore, to "go armed." Alone, Edmund congratulates himself on his father's gullibility, his brother's noble and unsuspecting nature, and his own power to fashion his own destiny.

Act 1, Scene 3

Goneril complains to her Steward, Oswald, of her father's behavior, claiming that he and his knights have become "riotous" and that Lear is contentious. She resents that Lear still wishes to exercise his authority. She orders Oswald to treat her father and his knights with disrespect, saying that it is perfectly all right, even desirable, if he provokes a quarrel. She adds that if Lear does not like how he is treated, he can go stay with Regan, who, Goneril adds, agrees with her about the treatment of their father.

Act 1, Scene 4

Determined to continue to serve Lear rather than go into exile, Kent appears in disguise. Lear enters commanding one of his attendants to make sure his dinner is ready and that he will not be kept waiting. Noticing Kent, Lear asks him who he is and what he wants. Kent tells him he is a plain, honest and loyal man, neither too young nor too old, who wishes to serve him. Lear accepts his service provisionally. As they speak, Goneril's steward, Oswald, passes by and Lear asks him where Goneril is. Disrespectfully, Oswald ignores him and leaves the stage. One of Lear's knights follows him and returns saying that Oswald said that Goneril was not well and adds that it seems that Lear is not being treated with the affection, kindness, or respect he has come to expect. Lear is grateful to him for giving voice to what he himself has noticed. And he calls for his jester, the Fool. The knight tells him that since Cordelia has gone to France, the Fool has been greatly dejected. Lear is pained to hear what he has noticed himself and sends the knight to tell Goneril that Lear wishes to speak to her. As the knight leaves the stage, Oswald, the steward who has just slighted Lear, re-enters. When Lear asks him as a reprimand if Oswald knows who he is, disrespectfully Oswald answers, "My lady's father." Lear is angered by his rudeness and strikes him. Oswald protests that he will "not be strucken," at which point Kent trips him. Lear is delighted, thanks him and accepts him as his servant. At this moment, the Fool enters and says that he will hire Kent, too, and that he ought to take the Fool's cap because he is a fool to follow one "that's out of favor." Taunting Lear and talking backwards, the Fool says Lear has banished two of his daughters and given the third a blessing. The Fool continues in bitter jests to express his own and Lear's grief. When Lear challenges him for calling him Fool, the Fool retorts that he has given away all his other titles.

When Goneril arrives, Lear asks her why she is frowning. The Fool points out Lear once did not have to worry about whether she frowned or not. Goneril rebukes the Fool and complains to Lear that his train is composed of riotous knights and demands that he reduce their number. In his astonishment at the change that has come over Goneril since her profession of love for him, Lear wonders who he is and who Goneril is, for, the way she is acting, she cannot be his daughter and the way he is being treated, he cannot possibly be the king he thought he was. In a rage, he demands his horses be saddled for him to set out for Regan's house, where he believes he will be better treated. When Goneril's husband, Albany, enters, he tries to placate the king and admonishes his wife when she argues that she fears Lear's train poses a threat to their safety. She ignores her husband and is cold to her father. Lear begins to realize he was mistaken to find fault with Cordelia and banish her. In rage he curses and threatens Goneril. She maintains her composure. And Lear, in his fury, begins to feel his impotence. When Lear leaves for Regan's castle, Goneril sends Oswald ahead with a letter informing her of what has gone on and encouraging her to adopt the same policy towards Lear that Goneril has.

Act 1, Scene 5

Lear sends Kent ahead with letters for Regan. Kent departs and Lear is alone with the Fool, who continues to tease and chide him, but Lear begins to sense the depths of his troubles. As the Fool banters, Lear says to himself, "I did her wrong," and the audience knows he means Cordelia. As the scene ends, Lear is praying that he not go mad.

Act 2, Scene 1

At Gloucester's castle, Edmund learns from one of Gloucester's men that Regan and her husband, the Duke of Cornwall, will be arriving and that there is talk of war between Cornwall and Albany. Alone on stage, Edmund considers that their arrival can be used to advance his own plot against his brother, Edgar, who is hiding in Edmund's lodging. Edmund warns Edgar that he better flee, now, undercover of night, advising him that Cornwall is on his way and questioning whether Edgar has spoken against him. Edgar is sure he has said nothing. Edmund then says that he sees Gloucester coming and that he must draw his sword against Edgar and Edgar must seem to defend himself and flee. As Edgar does flee, Edmund calls after him as if trying to catch him, "Yield! Come before my father." And before Gloucester arrives, Edmund wounds himself in the arm to make it look as if Edgar had done it. Gloucester enters, demands where Edgar, "the villain," he calls him, is. Edmund tells him he fled, shows the wound and says that Edgar inflicted it when Edmund refused to participate in Gloucester's murder. Edmund adds that when he reproached Edgar for his lack of filial devotion, and threatened to inform Gloucester of his plot, Edgar called him a bastard with no possessions or rights whom no one would believe. Gloucester promises to make Edmund his heir and sends servants to find and seize Edgar.

Regan and Cornwall arrive and commiserate with Gloucester over the news of Edgar's apparent betrayal. Regan emphasizes that Edgar is Lear's godson in an effort to discredit both of them and asks if Edgar were not in fact a "companion with the riotous knights / That tended upon my father." When Gloucester answers that he does not know, Edmund intervenes to say that Edgar "was of that consort." It is then that Regan notices him and understands that he is an ally. She asserts that Edgar's companionship with her father's knights naturally would corrupt him and complains about their behavior. Gloucester talks more of his grief and Edmund's virtue. Cornwall praises Edmund, and Regan, once more commiserating with Gloucester, tells him they have come for his advice since there has been a quarrel between Lear and Goneril, and she (Regan) prefers to meet her father away from home.

Act 2, Scene 2

Kent disguised as Caius, and Oswald, messengers from Lear and from Goneril, arrive simultaneously at Gloucester's. When Oswald asks Kent where they may put their horses, Kent begins a quarrel with him, insults him, and finally draws his sword, challenging him to fight. Oswald shrinks from the challenge and cries out for help. Kent, angered by what he sees as cowardice in Oswald, who had been so bold in his impudence to Lear, beats him. Edmund, Gloucester, Regan and Cornwall rush in. Edmund, with sword drawn, orders them parted. The company demand an account from the men Regan recognizes as the messengers from Lear and Goneril. In narrating what happened, Oswald appears the victim. Kent, still hot with anger, speaks bluntly and insults his interrogators. Cornwall orders Kent put in the stocks till noon. Regan insists it be all night. Gloucester begs them not to put the king's messenger in the stocks, arguing that, although Kent is at fault, the punishment is an insult to Kent's master, the king, who himself will correct him. Regan retorts that her sister, too, may take offense at her servant being "abused" and "assaulted" when he is carrying out her business. When they are alone, Gloucester commiserates with Kent (although he does not know the messenger is Kent). Kent, for his part, is calm. Alone in the stocks, he reads a letter from Cordelia, who has heard of the troubles and who knows that Kent is still serving her father in disguise. Before falling asleep, Kent addresses the goddess Fortune, who is always pictured with a wheel, and beseeches Fortune to "Smile once more, turn thy wheel" and bring better times.

Act 2, Scene 3

The scene changes to a place in the woods where Edgar has been hiding. He speaks to the audience saying that he has been hunted and has managed to escape. Now he will strip himself of his identity and his clothing, begrime himself with earth, wound and scratch his flesh and go about in the guise of a madman, Poor Tom.

Act 2, Scene 4

Lear arrives at Gloucester's castle, puzzled. He has been to Regan's castle and not found her at home. But why, he wonders, did she not send back his messenger informing him of that? And then he sees Kent in the stocks. It is another blow to his dignity and he cannot believe it. Kent explains what has happened, providing the audience and readers a clear sequence of the events that have been going on in the previous scenes, particularly the itinerary of the characters. Kent went to Cornwall and Regan's castle with letters from Lear. At the same time, Oswald came with letters from Goneril. Seeing the letters, Regan set out immediately for Gloucester's and told the messengers to follow. Oswald and Kent then met, quarreled, and Kent was put in the stocks. When Lear asks to see Regan and Cornwall, Gloucester informs him that they refuse to speak with him. Lear rages at Gloucester, thinks better of it, but rages again when he again looks at Kent in the stocks. Gloucester goes to speak with Regan and Cornwall again, and this time they do come out to meet him. Lear tries to believe that Regan is still true to him and her profession of love. Quickly he learns it is not so and that she is indeed "made of that self mettle as my sister." (act 1, scene 1) As they are speaking with Lear, who demands to know who put his servant in the stocks, Goneril arrives. The sight of his two daughters confederated against him in their arguments and accusations, showing no sense of their obligation to him, or of gratitude for what he has given them, causes a rage in him of the proportions of the actual storm that is beginning outside and the sounds of the "tempest" play a wild counterpoint to his prayers and curses. When Lear storms out of the castle into the actual storm, despite Gloucester's appeals, Regan orders the castle gates shut against him and declares whoever attempts to aid the king a traitor.

Act 3, Scene 1

Kent and a Gentleman encounter each other on a heath outside Gloucester's castle as a storm gains strength. Kent asks after Lear, and the Gentleman, whom Kent recognizes and trusts tells him the king is out on the heath, "contending with the fretful elements," and is accompanied by no one except the Fool. Kent tells the Gentleman that French spies in Albany's and in Cornwall's service report that the two dukes are possibly preparing to make war against each other. He asks the Gentleman to go to Dover, where Cordelia and a French force have landed to report to her how things are with the king. He gives the man money and a ring to show to Cordelia. The Gentleman promises to go on the mission and they both leave the stage in search of the king.

Act 3, Scene 2

Lear is bareheaded in the middle of a barren heath, a brutal storm pelting him and the Fool. He rages, commanding the heavens to storm, defying their power, and condemning them for being like his two daughters, forces oppressing him. Shivering, the Fool cries out against the pitiless night, advises Lear to beg shelter from his daughters, but Lear, refusing that, vows to "be the pattern of all patience." Kent finds Lear in this state and as Lear continues to rant and call down justice on all who have been criminal, branding himself as "more sinned against than sinning," Kent leads him to a hovel on the heath for protection from the elements. As he is led, Lear becomes calm. He feels himself going crazy and he turns to the Fool and asks him how he is, if he is cold, says he is cold himself, and expresses compassion for the Fool's suffering. As they leave, going towards the hovel, the Fool recites a comic verse essentially saying that open, virtuous, and honest relations are impossible between people and that cheating, dishonesty, and hypocrisy are in fact the rule, and confusion is the result.

Act 3, Scene 3

Inside his castle, Gloucester complains about the lack of pity Cornwall and Regan have shown Lear, and tells Edmund that when he, Gloucester, asked their permission to help Lear, they took control of his house and household away from him. Edmund expresses outrage at their "savage and unnatural" behavior. Gloucester tells Edmund of a growing enmity between Albany and Cornwall, that he has received letters it is dangerous to speak of regarding help for the king, and that they must side with the king. But after Gloucester exits, Edmund resolves to tell Cornwall and Regan of his father's disloyalty to them and, thereby, advance his own interests.

Act 3, Scene 4

Guided by Kent, Lear and the Fool arrive at a hovel, and Kent invites Lear to go inside. Kent's kindness and devotion, so different from the scornful and brutal indifference his daughters had shown him, moves Lear to pity himself. Lear tells Kent that the storm is nothing compared to the turmoil within that oppresses him, and he recalls again the ingratitude of his daughters. Kent encourages him to enter the hovel and Lear gently tells the Fool to go in first, that he will stay outside a little while and pray, and then he will sleep. In his prayer, "Poor naked wretches," Lear confronts himself for the first time; he pities the suffering of others, identifies with it, and chastises himself for never having realized it before, or taken pains to help others by giving something of his from the excess of his possessions to those who have nothing. This human action is what makes the justice of heaven, he says.

The Fool rushes out of the hovel in fear as a mad voice is heard within. It is Edgar, in the disguise of Poor Tom. Seeing the madman, Lear takes him for a kindred soul and asks, "What, has his daughters brought him to this pass?" Edgar and Lear exchange what seems to be deranged conversation but, in effect, each is relating his misfortunes through that distorting medium. Lear admires Poor Tom's strange freedom, owing no one anything because he possesses nothing. Lear considers him "the thing itself, unaccommodated man," and tears off his own clothes, too. The Fool tries to tell Lear to take care and not expose himself so. As he speaks, the Fool notices Gloucester coming towards them, carrying a lantern, seeking the king to give him aid despite Regan's injunction against helping her father. Gloucester leads Lear, who insists that Poor Tom, whom Gloucester does not recognize as his son Edgar, the Fool, and Kent accompany him to where there is food and fire, telling Kent that he understands the king's mad grief, considering how his daughters have treated him and that he himself is nearly mad with grief at the treachery of a once beloved son.

Act 3, Scene 5

Inside, the treacherous son to whom he has given his love, not Edgar but Edmund, has just informed on his father, and Cornwall, in furious response, vows to take revenge on Gloucester before he leaves his house. Edmund pretends to grieve at his betrayal of his father, calling it the victory of loyalty (to Cornwall) over nature (a son's loyalty to his father). Cornwall confers on Edmund all of Gloucester's titles and possessions. Then Cornwall tells Edmund he will find in him the father he has lost in Gloucester.

Act 3, Scene 6

Gloucester brings Lear and his companions to a farmhouse and leaves them with Kent. Poor Tom speaks of the demons which possess him and Lear sets up a mock trial to arraign his daughters and then he falls asleep. Gloucester returns, and tells Kent that he must carry Lear to Dover because he has discovered that Cornwall and Regan are plotting to kill the king and all those who aid him. Kent and the Fool leave, bearing Lear. Gloucester goes back to his castle. Alone, Edgar speaks a soliloquy in his own voice, not as the mad Tom. He meditates on the power of the mind to cause intense suffering and how seeing Lear's suffering, despite the similarities of their situations ("He childed as I fathered"), lessens his pain because of the companionship in suffering. He prays for the king's safety and realizes he must now wait.

Act 3, Scene 7

Cornwall gives Goneril letters he tells her to take swiftly to her husband, Albany, informing him that the French army has landed at Dover. Cornwall sends Edmund along with her, telling him it is not fit for Edmund to see what Cornwall will do to Gloucester, his father, whom he calls a traitor. Before Goneril and Edmund depart, Goneril's steward, Oswald, informs Cornwall that Gloucester has had the king conveyed to Dover for his safety. Cornwall orders servants to find Gloucester and bring him bound before him. In their presence, Gloucester begs them to consider that they are his guests. Regan and Cornwall curse and vilify him, however, order him bound to a chair, and interrogate him about what he knows and where he has sent the king. To Dover, Gloucester tells them. When they ask why, he answers he did not wish to see Regan's "cruel nails / pluck out" Lear's eyes. Gloucester adds that he will see their cruelty avenged. "See't shalt thou never," Cornwall responds; he orders servants to hold Gloucester still in his chair and gouges out one of Gloucester's eyes. Revolted, one of Cornwall's servants draws his sword against his master to prevent him from causing Gloucester further injury. Cornwall and the servant fight. Regan takes a sword and stabs the servant in the back, killing him. Cornwall, whose injury is fatal, gouges out Gloucester's other eye and orders that he be thrown out of doors. Then Cornwall dies. Gloucester's servants take him outside and decide to ask Poor Tom to be Gloucester's guide. One of the servants goes to get egg whites to apply to Gloucester's eye sockets.

Act 4, Scene 1

Alone, Edgar is contemplating his own misfortunes and the vanity of life. He has achieved, he thinks, a state of contentment. He is at his lowest. He does not need to be deluded by hope. Change in his fortune can only be for the better. But as he speaks he sees his father in the distance, being led. Gloucester tells the Old Man with him to leave him. The man is reluctant. He tells Gloucester, "You cannot see your way." Gloucester responds, "I have no way and therefore want no eyes; / I stumbled when I saw." It is possible that Edgar overhears these and Gloucester's next words. It is possible he does not. There are no stage directions in the text. Directors and readers can shape the nuances of the following scenes between Edgar and Gloucester according to their own determination. What Gloucester next utters is a prayer for Edgar. He wishes he could touch Edgar again. It would be like seeing. Edgar, returning to his previous thoughts, now says to himself that it is impossible to say something is the worst, for upon seeing his father mutilated, he realizes things are worse than ever. It is arranged between the Old Man, Gloucester and Edgar, whom they take for Poor Tom, that Edgar will serve as Gloucester's guide and lead him to Dover.

Act 4, Scene 2

Goneril and Edmund arrive at Goneril's house. Oswald reports that Goneril's husband, Albany, is a changed man—he is disgusted with what is being done against the king. Goneril realizes she cannot rely on him and sends Edmund back to command Cornwall's forces while she takes her husband's place at the head of her forces. She also takes Edmund as a lover, and he vows he is "Yours in the ranks of death." He leaves. Albany greets Goneril with reproaches for her behavior. She dismisses them. He condemns her behavior, and her sister's, towards Lear. She disdains him and his manhood. Their fight is interrupted by a messenger with news of Cornwall's death and news of the blinding of Gloucester. Goneril considers Cornwall's death to be an impediment to her pursuit of Edmund since her sister is now a widow. Alone with the messenger, Albany learns, too, of Edmund's betrayal of Gloucester. In a prayer he thanks Gloucester for helping the king and vows to avenge his eyes.

Act 4, Scene 3

Kent meets the Gentleman he had dispatched with letters to Cordelia at Dover. He listens as the man describes Cordelia's heartbreaking responses to the story of Lear's ill-treatment. Kent tells the Gentleman that Lear is in Dover and, when he is lucid, refuses to see Cordelia because of his deep shame that he has harmed her. Kent takes the Gentleman to look after Lear, and then goes about some secret business for the sake of the king.

Act 4, Scene 4

Cordelia describes her father's condition to a doctor and some soldiers; he is running around the meadows and hillsides of Dover decked with flowers. She asks the soldiers to find him and bring him to her. Of the doctor she inquires what remedies there are. He tells her of the healing power of sleep and of the herbs he has which can induce sleep. A messenger tells Cordelia the British powers are marching toward Dover. Cordelia says she knows that already, and that the French army is in England only to rescue Lear, not to conquer English territory.

Act 4, Scene 5

In conversation with Goneril's steward, Oswald, who is carrying a letter from Goneril to Edmund, Regan tries to get him to show her the letter, but he remains loyal to his mistress and refuses. She, however, reveals her interest in Edmund and instructs him to tell Goneril of it and to deliver a message to Edmund from her, too. In closing she reminds him that if in the course of his journeys he should encounter Gloucester, there is a reward for killing him.

Act 4, Scene 6

The scene opens on a field in Dover with Edgar trying to assure his blind father that the ground they are walking upon is not flat but that they are climbing to the top of a steep cliff. Gloucester, his despair so great, wishes to fling himself from its summit. Edgar has not revealed himself to his father. He says that he "trifles" with his father's despair in order "to cure it." As Gloucester jumps, he calls out a blessing for Edgar. Of course he only falls to the ground at his own feet, but Edgar speaks to him now in a different voice from Poor Tom's, tells him what a great distance he has fallen, and that he saw a fiendish figure with twisted horns and eyes like moons upon the summit of the cliff from which Gloucester has just fallen, miraculously without injury. Gloucester allows himself to believe that his own self-destructive wish was the influence of the fiend and promises his apparently new acquaintance that from now on he will "bear / Affliction till it do cry out itself / 'Enough." As Edgar is telling his father to "Bear free and patient thoughts," he sees Lear, decked in flowers, wandering through the meadows. The account of the meeting between the blind Gloucester and the mad king, which starts at line 85, continuing for some one hundred lines, does not advance the plot. Rather, with an astonishing beauty and intensity of language, it conveys the themes, the texture, the tone, and the feeling of the play. Lear discusses his mortality, condemns hypocrisy, power, and the injustices of authority. Most strikingly, he vents a rage against female sexuality and lust in general, extrapolating from the behavior of his two elder daughters. As he is speaking, Cordelia's men find him. Lear exits running as they pursue him.

Edgar questions one of Cordelia's men, who tells him that the armies of Goneril and Regan are quickly approaching. Gloucester prays for patience and asks Edgar who he is, but Edgar only identifies himself as "a poor man made tame to fortune's blows," that he has learned pity through his own suffering. As they are speaking, Oswald enters. Seeing Gloucester, he draws his sword and goes to kill him. Gloucester blesses his effort, but Edgar intervenes, kills Oswald, and saves his father. Dying, Oswald asks Edgar to bury him and gives him his purse and a letter to give to Edmund. Edgar unseals and reads the letter. In it Goneril, proclaiming her love for him, reminds Edmund to kill Albany, her husband, so that she can be his. Edgar pockets the letter in order to show it to Albany; hearing the approaching army, Edgar conveys his father to the care of a friend and safety.

Act 4, Scene 7

Cordelia enters with Kent, commending his goodness and telling him he may cast off his disguise, but he begs her to let him remain hidden a little longer. She agrees and asks the doctor how Lear is. He suggests they wake him. Music is played and Cordelia hovers above him, speaking gently to him, pityingly, and offering her kisses as restorative medicine. Waking, Lear thinks he has come back from death and says it is wrong to bring him back to life. He is dazed and speaks gently, admitting that he is a foolish man, perhaps not in his right mind, and he thinks that Cordelia is with him. "And so I am, I am," she weeps in gladness. Lear says he is ready to take poison which he expects she would want to give him since he has in fact wronged her. Whereas he has done no harm to Goneril and Regan, she has cause for anger. "No cause, no cause," she whispers to him. And he repeats that he is old and foolish and begs her to bear with him. She leaves with him, taking him for a walk. Kent is left with the Gentleman who asks him for news, if Cornwall was killed, if Edgar is with Kent in Germany. They agree the coming war will be bloody, but Kent says to himself that the war will determine things for good or ill.

Act 5, Scene 1

Edmund is with Regan, expecting the arrival of Goneril and Albany, and concerned that Oswald has not arrived. She begins questioning Edmund jealously about the nature and extent of his relationship with Goneril. He assures Regan that he has not been unfaithful. Goneril and Albany arrive. Albany makes it clear that he is not in a war against Lear and Cordelia or any of their party, but only against the French army since it is on British territory. Edmund tells him he speaks nobly and they arrange to meet soon to make battle plans. When Albany is by himself, Edgar appears, disguised, gives him a letter, and tells him to read it before the battle. After the battle, if his side is victorious, Edgar tells him to have a trumpet sounded and he will come and, in battle with Edmund, prove the truth of the accusations against him. Edgar departs and Edmund re-enters. He and Albany discuss strategy. Alone, Edmund tries to decide which of the two sisters he ought to choose and decides that if Goneril wants him, it's up to her to do away with her husband, but Edmund will ally himself with Albany for the battle. As for the mercy Albany intends to show Lear and Cordelia should he defeat them, Edmund says, they will never see it: they block the path of his ambition.

Act 5, Scene 2

Edgar leaves Gloucester, away from the field of battle, by a tree, and promises to bring good news if he returns. There is a battle. Lear's supporters lose. Lear and Cordelia are taken prisoner. Gloucester falls into depression. Edgar chides him for having bleak thoughts, saying that death comes at the time it ought to come. And Gloucester accepts his words.

Act 5, Scene 3

Edmund orders guards to take Lear and Cordelia to prison and wait for further orders. Cordelia comforts Lear, saying "we are not the first / Who with best meaning have incurred the worst," She says, in addition, that she is not concerned about herself, that she can bear what fortune brings, but is "cast down" because of his suffering. But Lear responds that there is nothing to regret and says that in prison they will be like birds in a cage. They will sing, tell stories, receive each other's blessing, and watch with detachment as others carry out the business of the world. He vows that now that they are reunited, they will never be parted. Edmund orders them to prison and sends a captain after them with orders to kill Lear and Cordelia. Albany enters, commends Edmund's valor in battle, and asks him to turn Lear and Cordelia over to him. Edmund says he has sent them to prison. He argues that if they are freed they will rouse such sympathy that the people will turn against Albany and Edmund. Edmund adds that the question of what to do with Lear and Cordelia ought to wait until they have recovered from the battle. In anger, Albany informs Edmund that he was an ally in war but has no further authority. Regan intervenes, says Edmund led her forces, and because of Edmund's alliance with her, may be called Albany's brother. Goneril interrupts her and the two sisters quarrel over who shall have Edmund. In the course of their argument, Regan says she cannot give her full strength to the quarrel because she does not feel well. When Goneril asks Regan if she intends to marry Edmund, Albany intervenes and arrests Edmund on charges of treason and announces that Edmund has already engaged himself to marry Goneril. He then orders a trumpet to be sounded and says that if a champion does not step forward to do battle with Edmund, he will. Regan again complains that she feels sick. Goneril in an aside lets the audience know she has poisoned her. At the third trumpet, an unidentified champion steps forward, challenges Edmund. He says his "name is lost," but he is noble. They fight and Edmund falls. Goneril protests. Albany silences her with her letter to Edmund plotting Albany's murder. She leaves the stage refusing to say anything further. Albany sends a servant after her to watch her because, Albany says, "she's desperate."


  • The 1953 television film version of King Lear is a seventy-five minute film starring Orson Welles as Lear. In this severely cut version, broadcast by CBS, the Gloucester plot is entirely eliminated.
  • In 1970, a Russian film of King Lear was produced. The English subtitles were written by Boris Pasternak, who translated back from the Russian translation.
  • Peter Brook directed a 1971 production of King Lear, with Paul Scofield playing Lear. This film adaptation of Brook's staging of King Lear was inspired by Jan Kott's vision in the 1964 book Shakespeare, Our Contemporary of a bleak, existentially godless and meaningless world for the play. The film was produced by Athena Films.
  • In King Lear, a Channel 4 television broadcast in 1983, Sir Laurence Olivier, at seventy-five, gives a deeply moving performance as Lear in his last Shakespearean role.
  • Ran, which premiered in 1985, is an adaptation of the story of King Lear set in sixteenth-century Japan. Akira Kurosawa's film tells the story of a seventy-year old warlord, Hidetora, who is toppled by his three sons. The film was distributed in the United States by Orion Classics.
  • In King Lear (1987), produced by Cannon Films, the great New Wave French filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard used King Lear as the basis for a film that moves very far away from the original and includes a cameo performance by Woody Allen as an alien.
  • A Thousand Acres, which was released by Touchstone Pictures in 1997, is a film adaptation of Jane Smiley's novel. This version of the story resituates King Lear on a vast American farm.
  • Ian Holm played the title role in a 1998 British Broadcasting Corporation re-creation of a highly acclaimed London stage production of King Lear.
  • My Kingdom (First Look International, 2002) is set in contemporary London. Lear becomes the head of a crime family who divides his operation among his daughters. The elder two lead unsavory lives, and Cordelia is a reformed drug addict and prostitute who is trying to go straight.
  • In King of Texas, (TNT, 2002) Patrick Stewart of Star Trek fame plays John Lear in a television adaptation set in frontier Texas.

Edgar reveals himself and forgives Edmund, who admits his guilt. Albany embraces Edgar and says he never hated Gloucester. Edgar tells him he knows that. Then Albany asks how he has survived and how did he know about Gloucester's "miseries." Edgar tells him the story of how he cared for his father and how, before the fight he revealed himself to him and how Gloucester died torn apart by the passions of joy and grief. He tells also that he has seen Kent, who in disguise has cared for Lear. As he speaks, a Gentleman runs in with a bloody knife and announces that Goneril has poisoned Regan and stabbed herself. Edmund confesses that he was engaged to both sisters and that in death the three of them marry. Kent enters then, saying he has come to bid farewell to Lear and is surprised not to see him among the company. "Great thing of us forgot!" Albany cries. Edmund confesses that he has sent someone to kill Lear and Cordelia and orders a messenger to run to the prison and prevent the killing. It is too late. Lear enters bearing Cordelia dead in his arms and howling in grief. He announces he killed the man who hanged Cordelia and remembers the days of his strength. He looks to see if Cordelia is still breathing, and as he laments for her and recalls his lost strength, he dies pointing to her lips. When Edgar attempts to revive him, Kent says to let him be; he is free of the world's tortures. Albany proclaims that Kent and Edgar will now rule together. But Kent says that he must follow his master. Edgar becomes king and speaks a eulogy saying those living will never bear as much as Lear has "nor live so long."



The captain, Edmund's subordinate, takes Lear and Cordelia to detention when they are captured and kills Cordelia in the prison.


Cordelia is Lear's youngest and most beloved daughter. When she declines to flatter him by declaring her love for him in a public ritual, Lear disowns her. She marries the King of France and, when she hears of how her sisters have mistreated her father, she leads a French army to England to rescue him. When the French forces are defeated, she is captured and imprisoned with Lear. By Edmund's orders she is hanged in prison.


In Cordelia's camp, the Doctor takes care of Lear.

Duke of Albany

The Duke of Albany is Goneril's husband and Lear's son-in-law. As he witnesses the ill-treatment of the king by his daughters, Albany becomes disgusted by it and reproaches Goneril, calling her a monster. She characterizes him as "milklivered." After the defeat of Cordelia's army and the capture of Lear and Cordelia, Albany declares Edmund guilty of high treason.

Duke of Burgundy

The Duke of Burgundy is a suitor for Cordelia's hand in marriage. When Lear rescinds her dowry, Burgundy declines to accept her as a wife.

Duke of Cornwall

The Duke of Cornwall is Regan's husband and Lear's son-in-law. Because Gloucester has remained loyal to Lear, Cornwall gouges out his eyes. One of his servants, horrified by this act, intervenes, unsuccessfully, in order to prevent the mutilation. The servant kills Cornwall in a fight and is killed himself when Regan stabs him in the back during the fight.

Duke of Gloucester

The Duke of Gloucester is the father of Edgar and Edmund. He is a good-hearted libertine who in his old age is betrayed by one son and, after he has been destroyed, is cared for by his other son. Despite Regan's interdiction against aiding the king in the storm, Gloucester goes searching for Lear on the heath and brings him to shelter. For his support of Lear's cause, Gloucester's eyes are gouged out.


Edgar is Gloucester's legitimate son and Edmund's elder brother. When Edmund fools Gloucester into believing that Edgar desires to kill him in order to take possession of his lands and title, Gloucester proclaims Edgar a traitor. Edgar flees and takes on the identity of a bedlam beggar, a madman called Poor Tom. He and Lear meet on the heath during the storm and exchange mad conversation. After Gloucester is blinded, Edgar, as Tom, cares for him, tries to prevent Gloucester from falling into despair, and leads him to Dover, where Lear has been conveyed to meet Cordelia. After the French forces are defeated, Edgar reveals himself to his father and, without revealing his identity, challenges Edmund to single combat and kills him. After the death of all the principal characters, Edgar becomes king.


Edmund is Gloucester's younger son, born out of wedlock. He is courtly, proud, charming, handsome, cunning, and evil. He sets his father against his brother and then betrays his father. Edmund pledges himself to both Goneril and Regan, and leaves them to fight for who will get him. He is an atheist who believes that there is no law above nature and that he has the power and, consequently, the right to shape himself according to his will and to manipulate situations without regard to the welfare of others, solely for his own good.

First Servant

Cornwall's servant tries to prevent his master from blinding Gloucester. Regan stabs him in the back as he duels with Cornwall.


The Fool is Lear's jester. He is bitter because of Cordelia's banishment and he chides Lear ceaselessly for it, and for being so foolish as to give his power over to Goneril and Regan. The Fool speaks in riddles and comic verse and conveys a sense of wisdom and uncanny insight.


Lear's eldest daughter is a sharp-tongued, selfish woman of great appetite and bottomless cruelty. She betrays her father, her sister, and her husband. She goes from hypocritically proclaiming her love for Lear and devotion to him, to making war upon him in the course of the play. She dominates her husband and expresses her contempt for him when he opposes her.


Kent is a true and loyal servant to Lear. He incurs Lear's wrath when he insists on opposing Lear's furious and hasty banishment of Cordelia; Kent is also banished. Rather than leave Lear, he disguises himself and, as Caius, becomes Lear's servant. Kent remains in touch with Cordelia. When she lands at Dover with a French army, Kent conveys Lear to Dover, removing him from the power of his two elder daughters. Kent is the only character in the play who has contact with each one of the other significant characters.

King of France

The King of France is one of Cordelia's suitors. After Lear disinherits her, the King of France marries her despite the absence of a dowry.

King Lear

King Lear unleashes immense destructive forces when he resigns his throne, divides his kingdom between his two eldest daughters, and banishes his youngest after she refuses to utter her love in the ritual profession of devotion Lear demands be given him in a public ceremony. When Lear's two elder daughters betray their professions and Lear is cast out into a storm, he is overwhelmed with grief, bitterness, and a realization of his vanity. His elder daughters say of him that he is rash and does not know himself. Kent finds that Lear embodies the authority he wishes to serve. The Fool thinks he is a fool and ought to be punished for getting old before becoming wise. Cordelia loves him. After first pitying himself when Goneril and Regan betray him, Lear comes to grieve for having wronged Cordelia.

Old Man

After Gloucester is blinded, the Old Man leads him to Poor Tom.


Oswald is Goneril's steward and serves as her messenger to Regan and to Edmund. He is self-serving, cowardly, and disrespectful to Lear. When he finds blind Gloucester, he tries to kill him for the reward, but Edgar kills Oswald instead.

Poor Tom

See Edgar


Regan is Lear's second daughter and, in the ways of treachery and cruelty, she is a double of her sister Goneril. Regan is responsible for Gloucester's brutal blinding. She dies poisoned by Goneril in their contest over Edmund.

Second Servant

Cornwall's second servant voices outrage at the violence his master has done to Gloucester after Cornwall has gouged out his eyes. The second servant leads blind Gloucester to Poor Tom.

Third Servant

Cornwall's third servant takes it upon himself to aid Gloucester after Cornwall has gouged out his eyes by getting flax and the whites of eggs to apply to his eyes.



King Lear is divided between egoist characters like Lear (at the beginning of the play), Edmund, Goneril, Regan, Cornwall, Oswald, the Captain who kills Cordelia, Burgundy, and even Gloucester, in his sexual profligacy, and sacrificial characters who are motivated by love and adherence to laws above themselves. Cordelia, Edgar, Kent, the servant who defends Gloucester against Cornwall, the King of France, and Gloucester himself, in his loyalty to Lear, are such characters.

The Gods

Set in pre-Christian Britain, King Lear is concerned with the power and the nature of the gods. Lear and Kent hurl curses at each other in the first scene, swearing by Apollo, as Kent admonishes Lear, "Thou swear'st thy gods in vain." Gloucester believes in the power of planetary influence on world events, and thinks of the gods as capricious, killing us for sport the way boys kill flies. Lear sees, in his prayer on the heath, that the nature of the gods is partially defined by human action.

Varieties of Love

King Lear examines the varieties of love. Lear begins the play by demanding of his daughters that they say how much they love him. In his mind love can be measured—it is a quantity rather than a quality. In the last scene of the play, after Goneril and Regan are both dead, Edmund says, "Yet Edmund was beloved." His idea of love is not very different from Lear's in act 1, scene 1. To Edmund, love suggests others' recognition of his power and surrender to him. For Cordelia, love is a quality of tender recognition of the value of the Other, and it shows itself in self-sacrifice and devotion to truth outside herself. Love is also something guided by responsibility and obligation. Goneril and Regan experience love as lust, as a desire to possess. Unlike Cordelia, love for them is self-love. It is not in service to truth but to their wills and appetites. In his bleakest moments, thinking of his elder daughters, Lear sees love as vile and lust-driven rapaciousness. Edgar and Kent, like Cordelia, see love as self-sacrifice in service to truth and to others.

Loyalty and Betrayal

The desire for loyalty and the fear of betrayal run throughout King Lear. Lear's demand that his daughters speak their love is a test and public exhibition of their loyalty. When she refuses, Lear sees Cordelia as betraying him. In response, he betrays himself and his love for her. Goneril betrays her father, her sister and her husband. Regan, too, betrays both father and sister. Lear goes mad because of his inability to understand their betrayals. Edmund betrays his brother and his father, but Gloucester thinks of him, at first, as a loyal son and of Edgar as treacherous. Despite how his father wronged him, Edgar remains loyal to his father, just as Cordelia and Kent remain loyal to Lear.


The idea of madness, real and feigned, in the persons of Lear and Edgar weaves through the play. Lear fears going mad and apparently does, although there is much sanity and even wisdom in his apparently mad utterances on the heath and with Gloucester in Dover. Edgar's madness is assumed as part of his disguise, and his mad utterances are less expressive of the insights gained from extreme suffering than Lear's. Edgar shows the cleansing effects of suffering in his same utterances.

Ideas of Nature

Edmund calls Nature his goddess. By "Nature" he means the impulses of life, independent of any higher power. He takes his own will to be a force of nature and he sees it as sufficient for governing his actions. Cordelia is set against him. She is governed by forces above Nature: duty and love. Speaking of her in act 4, scene 6, a Gentleman says that she "redeems nature from the general curse / Which twain have brought her to." The two who have corrupted nature are Goneril and Regan, who in their cruelty to their father are deemed unnatural, if nature is defined as a moral force which binds children to their parents. According to Edmund's idea of nature, Lear's two daughters are completely natural, impelled and guided by no force but their own will. The other two that the word "twain" suggests are Adam and Eve, who in falling, corrupted nature. Cordelia, by her sacrifice, suggesting Jesus' sacrifice, undoes their damage and heals nature just as Jesus redeems mankind in Christian thought. Although King Lear is set in pre-Christian times, Christian allusions would resonate with Shakespeare's audience.

Seeing and Blindness

"See better, Lear," Kent cries out as Lear rages at him, "Out of my sight," as Kent tries to prevent him from erring in the division of the kingdom. After he is blinded, Gloucester says he "stumbled when he saw." Throughout King Lear Shakespeare sets vision and blindness against each other, extending the function of seeing beyond eyesight to mean perceiving truly and understanding correctly. Even Cordelia, in act 5, scene 3, confesses to a fault in vision when she says, "We are not the first / Who with best meaning have incurred the worst."

Sexual Revulsion

Sexuality is portrayed as a particularly grim and dangerous force in King Lear. Edmund the villain is a bastard, and his father, Gloucester, is portrayed in the first lines of the play as an unrepentant libertine. Goneril and Regan are portrayed as being sexually rapacious as well as power-hungry. Even in the first scene, as she is pledging her love to Lear, Regan introduces the idea of sexuality with an anatomically suggestive reference: "I profess / Myself an enemy to all other joys / Which the most precious square of sense professes." Both of them vie with each other for Edmund's love, and in each case, it is an adulterous passion and a passion which leads Goneril to poison Regan and then take her own life. In the storm, Lear cries out to the raging heavens, "Hide thee thou bloody hand, / Thou perjured, and thou simular of virtue / That art incestuous." Poor Tom, too, speaks of sexual vice. Lear's most severe indictment of sexuality comes in act 4, scene 6, beginning at line 112 in his speech about sexual licence, which concludes with a hellish vision of female sexuality:

    Behold yond simpering dame,
    Whose face between her forks presages snow;
    That minces virtue, and does shake the head
    To hear of pleasure's name;
    The fitchew, nor the soiled horse, goes to 't
    With a more riotous appetite.
    Down from the waist they are Centaurs,
    Though women all above:
    But to the girdle do the gods inherit,
    Beneath is all the fiends';
    There's hell, there's darkness, there's the sulphurous pit,
    Burning, scalding, stench, consumption;


  • Read The History of King Lear from the 1608 Quarto text, and The Tragedy of King Lear from the 1623 Folio text (available in Wells and Taylor's 1988 Oxford Complete Works of William Shakespeare. Then compare and contrast both works, focusing on the differences that appear to you with regard to plot, characterization, imagery, and overall mood.
  • There have been many filmed versions and adaptations of King Lear. Choose two different versions and compare and contrast them with each other as films, and also with the original play by Shakespeare.
  • Choose a scene in King Lear and using, the Quarto and Folio texts (available in Wells and Taylor's Oxford edition of Shakespeare's plays), make your own edition of that scene. Please explain your editorial criteria and choices.
  • Write an adaptation of King Lear set in contemporary times, in contemporary settings and with contemporary characters. Choose situations which reflect similar themes and concerns to those found in King Lear.
  • Make up a rap song or a folk song in which the story of King Lear is told.
  • Along with Desdemona in Othello, and Ophelia in Hamlet, Cordelia is one of Shakespeare's heroines who is in some way sacrificed to the wishes and passions of the lead characters in those plays. Compare and contrast the three women, focusing on their relationships to their fathers and their beloveds.


Blank Verse

Most of King Lear is written in unrhymed iambic pentameter, which is called blank verse. Pentameter means there are five feet in a line. A foot is composed of two syllables or beats. Iambic signifies the rhythm of speech. In an iambic foot the accent pattern is unaccented/accented. The iambic pentameter line "With reservation of an hundred knights," (act 1, scene 1, line 135) for example, is scanned like this, "with RE/serVA/tion OF/an HUN/dred KNIGHTS." Spoken English usually falls into an iambic pattern.


A soliloquy is a speech a character delivers when alone on stage. It is an address to the audience revealing the character's inner thoughts and feelings. Like many of Shakespeare's plays, King Lear contains several important soliloquies. An often-quoted one from act 1, scene 2, has Edmund proclaiming, "Thou, Nature, art my goddess; to thy law / My services are bound."

Double Plot

King Lear combines and integrates two separate plots—the Lear plot and the Gloucester plot. Until the end of act 3, the Lear plot predominates. At the close of act 3, the Gloucester plot becomes more prominent and begins to occupy more stage time than it had previously. As the play draws towards its end, both plots converge in the Edmund, Goneril, Regan triangle, and in Edmund's ambition to rise as high as Lear and Edmund's consequent need to have Lear and Cordelia killed.


Unlike classic Greek tragedy, in which violence is performed off-stage and only reported, tragedies in Elizabethan and Jacobean England presented violence as an on-stage spectacle. In King Lear, Shakespeare follows this practice with the on-stage crushing out of Gloucester's eyes.



Queen Elizabeth I of England died, unmarried and without an heir, on March 24, 1603. She had occupied the throne of England for forty-five years and had made no provision for an heir. It is likely her motive was to prevent the growth of factions contending for power and threatening her own power during her reign. Queen Elizabeth's reign, in fact, had been threatened from without and from within. Philip of Spain, whose marriage to England's Queen Mary made him king of England from 1554 until Mary's death in 1558, remained an external threat after Elizabeth ascended the throne. The internal threat was none other than Elizabeth's cousin Mary, Queen of Scots, who had conspired with a Catholic faction to assassinate Elizabeth. Mary was imprisoned for years until finally she was executed in 1587. After Elizabeth's death in 1603, James VI of Scotland, Mary's son and Elizabeth's closest relative, was chosen her successor—he became James I of England. Contention was avoided, although Philip of Spain believed that his daughter, Isabella, ought to become England's queen. Lady Arbella Stuart, James' cousin, as a direct descendent of Henry VII, might also have had a claim.

In France, the problem of succession had arisen, too, and taken a far more violent form than in England, with battles and the massacre of Protestants in August 1572. In 1589, Henri IV became king, but his ascension to the throne did not signal the end of strife. Nevertheless, Henri IV reigned until his death in 1610. It is likely that neither Shakespeare's royal nor his popular audiences would miss the topicality of Lear's desire to control the confusion and strife that had recently accompanied two significant monarchies at the moments of succession.


  • 1600s: Shakespeare's plays appealed to a mass audience and Shakespeare was regarded as one of the foremost playwrights of his era.
    Today: Shakespeare's plays still appeal to a mass audience and he is regarded as one of the greatest playwrights of all time
  • 1600s: Shakespeare adapted older plays, tales, and historical narratives in the composition of his plays.
    Today: Shakespeare's plays serve as the basis for new dramatic, cinematic, and narrative adaptations and re-workings.
  • 1600s: James I believed in the absolute power of the king and fought against the power of Parliament.
    Today: The English monarchy is entirely subservient to Parliament and serves only ceremonial functions.
  • 1600s: In 1605, political conflict set in the context of religious strife broke out between Catholic opposition to the Protestant king. On November 5, Guy Fawkes and a group of Catholic partisans planned to blow up the Houses of Parliament, but the Gunpowder Plot was discovered before it was carried out.
    Today: On July 7, 2005, Islamic partisans in London detonated a number of bombs on the London subway and on London buses as part of a world-wide political conflict that has taken on religious coloring and is often framed as a conflict between Christianity, Judaism, and Islam.


Before the Norman Conquest of England in 1066 by William the Conqueror, land in England was passed down from generation to generation in a way that was called "partible," which means that the land was divided or partitioned among all of a man's male heirs. After 1066, this practice was replaced in most of England by the French conquerors with the practice of primogeniture. Property, land particularly, under primogeniture is handed to the eldest son. This is the model of inheritance, to which Edmund objects, operating in the Gloucester story of King Lear. In the Kent region of England, which is located in the southeast and includes the cities of Canterbury and Dover, there is a channel crossing to France; however, primogeniture did not replace the old system. The old system was known as "Kentish gavelkind," which meant that upon his death, if a man died intestate, not having made a will, his land was equally divided among all his sons rather than passing by law to the eldest. "Gavel" has its root in the word give. Inheritance in the case of there being no sons but several daughters, as is the case in the story of King Lear, whether under the practice of primogeniture or gavelkind, was governed by a practice called "coparcenary," which resembles gavelkind. Under coparcenary, each female heir then inherits a part of the whole—this is what King Lear originally sets out to do with his kingdom.


The great nineteenth-century novelist Leo Tolstoy was very far from the nineteenth-century consensus when he condemned King Lear, saying he felt "a boundless tedium," when reading it, and also found the work "empty and offensive." His position is even further from the position of contemporary critical opinion than it was at the end of the nineteenth century. In 1904, A. C. Bradley, who found structural difficulties in the last acts of King Lear because of the double plot, bridged nineteenth and twentieth-century Shakespeare criticism and placed King Lear at the top of the world's literary pantheon:

When I read King Lear two impressions are left on my mind…. King Lear seems to me Shakespeare's greatest achievement, but it seems to me not his best play. And I find that I tend to consider it from two rather different points of view. When I regard it strictly as a drama, it appears to me, though in certain parts overwhelming, decidedly inferior as a whole to Hamlet, Othello and Macbeth. When I am feeling that it is greater than any of these, and the fullest revelation of Shakespeare's power, I find I am not regarding it simply as a drama, but am grouping it in my mind with works like the Prometheus Vinctus [Prometheus Bound] and the Divine Comedy, and even with the greatest symphonies of Beethoven and the statues in the Medici Chapel.

King Lear has been considered one of Shakespeare's greatest works at least as long ago as 1765 when Samuel Johnson wrote,

The tragedy of Lear is deservedly celebrated among the dramas of Shakespeare. There is perhaps no play which keeps the attention so strongly fixed; which so much agitates our passions and interests our curiosity. The artful involutions of distinct interests, the striking opposition of contrary characters, the sudden changes of fortune, and the quick succession of events, fill the mind with a perpetual tumult of indignation, pity, and hope.

Nineteenth-century critics of King Lear like W.A. Schlegel, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Charles Lamb, William Hazlitt, and A. C. Swineburne all wrote of the play with awe as they considered its problems of hope, despair, evil, and suffering, and analyzed the depths of its characters. This sample from Charles Lamb can serve to illustrate the general tenor of the thoughts of the majority of nineteenth-century writers regarding King Lear:

The greatness of Lear is not in corporal dimension, but in intellectual: the explosions of his passion are terrible as a volcano: they are storms turning up and disclosing to the bottom that sea his mind, with all its vast riches. It is his mind which is laid bare. This case of flesh and blood seems too insignificant to be thought on; even as he himself neglects it. On the stage we see nothing but corporal infirmities and weakness, the impotence of rage; while we read it, we see not Lear, but we are Lear,—we are in his mind, we are sustained by a grandeur which baffles the malice of daughters and storms; in the aberrations of his reason, we discover a mighty irregular power of reasoning, immethodised from the ordinary purposes of life, but exerting its powers, as the wind blows where it listeth, at will upon the corruptions and abuses of mankind.

In the twentieth century, the introduction of psychoanalytic inquiry and, especially Sigmund Freud's own use of psychoanalysis in the interpretation of cultural symbols, including King Lear, gave new impetus and a new technique for the study of Shakespeare's characters. For Freud, Cordelia embodied the silence of Death. Scholars in the twentieth century also sought to understand King Lear as an intellectual statement about the nature of Nature itself, as John Danby did in Shakespeare's Doctrine of Nature. The drama has also been seen as a commentary about the nature of being-in-the-world, about what comprises being human, about the benevolence or malevolence or even the non-existence of providence, of goodness, of charity, and of hope. The inquiry into the play's vision of the place of the gods in the motives of mankind perhaps reached its peak—it is doubtful it reached its conclusion—with William Elton's study King Lear and the Gods, in which he argues against the position advanced by a number of Shakespeare scholars, like Kenneth Myrick, who argued that within the tragedy and bleakness of experience in King Lear, there is redemption, salvation, and marks of Christian optimism. By the last decades of the century, techniques like the New Historicism focused less on the meaning of King Lear as it might be revealed through a study of its themes, structure, images, and characters, and more on understanding the play in terms of its own time, how it fit into, interacted with, and appeared in its own original historical context. Thus Ben Ross Schneider, Jr., writing in 1995, examines the events of King Lear in "King Lear in Its Own Time: The Difference that Death Makes" in the context of the stoicism of Seneca and Montaigne. In 2001, Terry Reilly brought a study of inheritance laws and customs practiced in the Kent district of England in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries to bear on a reading of the play in "King Lear: The Kentish Forest and the Problem of Thirds."


Neil Heims

In the following essay, Heims suggests that the source of caprice and evil in King Lear is neither the gods nor the planets and the stars, but human beings who are impelled and shaped by social and psychological forces.

When Nahum Tate revised King Lear in 1681, he removed the Fool, made Cordelia and Edgar lovers, kept Lear and Cordelia alive, and restored them at the end of the play to their former stations. Samuel Johnson gave that change his critical and full-hearted imprimatur, in 1765, because he could not bear Cordelia's dying. Ever since these two events, King Lear has been prized or avoided for the power of its depiction of an unjust world, of a world ruled by capricious gods, a world where good has no more authority than evil and less of a chance, a world in which the good experience pain and suffering randomly and needlessly. King Lear is set in the kind of world in which Gloucester can say, "As flies to wanton boys are we to th' gods. They kill us for their sport." To take Gloucester's words as representing the outlook of the play—that everything is bleak because the gods are capricious at best or downright cruel at worst—is an inadequate way of looking at King Lear, however. Making any character's observation inside a work of the imagination serve as a gloss on the work's full meaning significantly reduces and misconceives both the work and the observation.

Some critics and commentators, trying to come to terms with the story's bleakness, have read King Lear as a Christian tragedy, a vehicle for presenting and transcending Christian pessimism, as Kenneth Myrick did in "Christian Pessimism in King Lear." Inside a Christian worldview, pessimism about life is appropriate but despair is not. Redemption comes through suffering. Triumph over the ills of the world comes by achieving bliss in adversity through the attainment of a divine vision, which results from being passed through a refiner's fire, as Lear and Gloucester, Edgar and Kent, to varying degrees, are. In a reading that sees the play as presenting a vision of Christian pessimism, Cordelia herself represents a version of the Christ figure, the one who takes suffering, adversity, and sacrifice upon herself for Lear's salvation. In order for this reading to work, Lear has to be seen achieving transcendence through the vision of Cordelia alive as he dies. Although it be a human mistake, when he dies, according to such a transcendental reading, Lear thinks there is the breath of life upon her lips when he points to them and says, "Look, her lips,/Look there, look there."

This is not, however, the only way to understand his dying words. The old king may be pointing at her lips in order to indicate that they are still, unmoving, that there is no breath upon them. Although at line 267 Lear says "This feather stirs; she lives," he adds, "If it be so, / It is a chance which does redeem all sorrows/That ever I have felt." He is grasping at hope: "If it be so." But forty-five lines later, in his final utterance, right before he points to her lips, Lear cries out in protest when he realizes there is "no life" in Cordelia, "Why should a dog, a horse, a rat have life, / And thou no breath at all? Thou'lt come no more, / Never, never, never, never, never." Then he points to her lips, to their stillness, not to their motion, and as he perceives that stillness of death, audience and readers may recall with ironic awareness the first time those lips were still, in the first scene of the play, when he misunderstood Cordelia's silence and unleashed the terrible human forces,—not celestial forces—which have silenced Cordelia's lips more thoroughly.

In contrast to the hopeful reading that grows out of Christian pessimism and postulates that in King Lear virtuous life and a vision of eternal salvation are achieved through the suffering that leads to the renunciation of the things of life, there is a non-Christian, although not an anti-Christian, reading. Dr. Johnson did not disagree with the portrayal of the gods as capricious and cruel. His objection to Shakespeare's text, and support for its alteration, resulted from his belief that the death of Cordelia, no matter how true to life, nevertheless is an aesthetic error. It deprives audiences and readers of the gratification of the human sense of justice, which Johnson understood to be a natural universal craving.

Both the Christian reading of King Lear and a reading that sees the play mired in hopelessness do not fundamentally challenge each other. Each chooses to focus on and to privilege certain utterances and events inside the play over others without reflecting that everything uttered in the play is uttered in the context of everything else that is said and that occurs. The essential problem for Christian and non-Christian interpretations of King Lear becomes 1) determining the nature of the gods that rule the world, 2) the nature of the world they rule, and 3) the human responses possible. This is an estimable task, but it may not actually be speaking to what is happening in King Lear. The questions to ask regarding King Lear are 1) how did these characters get into this mess? and 2) how do they think they got into it?

The answer to how they think they did, repeated by several characters throughout King Lear, is that humanity is governed by capricious gods and subject to astrological influence. But to focus upon the gods as unjust and the arrangement of the planets as having the power to influence the currents of human events, the way the moon controls the ocean tides, is inadequate because it is very clear in the play that misery is generated not by the gods but by the persons of the play. The astrological argument seems weak when Gloucester first presents it, as Edmund rather convincingly demonstrates in a soliloquy immediately after Gloucester advances it.

After Edmund hoodwinks Gloucester in act 1, scene 2, into believing that Edgar is plotting to kill him, Gloucester observes, "These late eclipses in the sun and moon portend no good to us." He is using astrological events in order to explain Edgar's alleged behavior as well as Lear's irrational banishment of Cordelia and Kent. Upon Gloucester's exit, Edmund addresses the audience with wiser-seeming words. "This is the excellent foppery of the world," he says, rather convincingly,

that when we are sick in fortune, often the surfeits of our own behavior, we make guilty of our disasters the sun, the moon, and the stars; as if we were villains on necessity; fools by heavenly compulsion; knaves, thieves and treachers by spherical predominance; drunkards, liars, and adulterers by an enforced obedience of planetary influence, and all that we are evil in by a divine thrusting on.

Edmund stands opposed to this relegation of responsibility to divine forces and celestial influences. He calls it an "evasion of … man, to lay his … disposition on the charge of a star." Of himself he says, "I should have been that I am," no matter what stars "twinkled" on his birth. It seems like an idea shaped by a commendable belief in taking responsibility for your actions and desires. (But in the early seventeenth century, when astrology was less suspect than it is supposed to be today, there would have been many in Shakespeare's audience who would be loathe to accept Edmund's repudiation. Undoubtedly, there are many who still are.) The doctrine of individual responsibility is put in the mouth, however, of a very attractive yet terrifically evil, heartless, and base character. That does not make it less true, but it does attach a very serious warning label to the idea. It is easily corrupted. And King Lear is an anatomy of the forms that corruption can take.

With the sanction of his philosophy, Edmund betrays his brother and then his father, and rejoices in their misery. Goneril and Regan, Cornwall, Oswald, and the captain who kills Cordelia, all behave as if their actions were grounded on Edmund's philosophy. Lear's original self-assertion in the first scene when he sets up the love-trial is, too. But Lear changes during the course of the play; when he says, during the storm, "Take physic, pomp; / Expose thyself to feel what wretches feel, / That thou mayst shake the superflux to them / And show the heavens more just," he asserts the importance of human will and human action, and he defines our idea of the gods' natures as dependent upon our behavior. Shakespeare weakens the force of Edmund's critique, moreover, by showing that Edmund himself shifts responsibility away from himself when he is defeated, and also by showing twice that Edmund is, in fact, not as self-determining as he asserts and, consequently, Edmund's doctrine is itself flawed. It is not the stars and the gods that have a formative influence, as Lear says in the storm, but is instead human actions.

After Edgar has vanquished him in single combat, Edmund says, "The wheel is come full circle; I am here." The wheel is the wheel turned by the goddess Fortune, the same goddess and the same wheel to which Kent refers when he waits in the stocks. As his father, Gloucester, had blamed the heavens for human treachery, now Edmund blames Fortune for his fall, rather than his own character or his own acts.

One hardly supernatural source of Edmund's attachment to evil, however, is presented in the first and in the last scenes of King Lear. In the first scene Gloucester speaks of Edmund to Kent, in Edmund's presence—and an audience cannot help but think how his words must adversely affect and shame Edmund. When Kent asks, "Is not this your son, my lord?" Gloucester answers, "His breeding, sir, hath been at my charge. I have so often blushed to acknowledge him, that now I am brazed to't." When Kent responds that he does not understand what Gloucester is saying, using the expression, "I cannot conceive you," Gloucester puns, using an alternate meaning of "conceive," to become pregnant, to respond to Kent jokingly, saying, "this young fellow's mother could: whereupon she grew round-wombed, and had … a son for her cradle ere she had a husband for her bed." Gloucester continues to say "there was good sport at his making, and the whoreson must be acknowledged." No matter how colloquially or however much in good spirits, Gloucester has just referred to his son Edmund as a whore's son. He concludes by saying that Edmund has been away the last nine years (undoubtedly why Kent had to ask who he was) and will be sent away again after the king's transfer of power.

In the last scene, as he is dying, when Edmund learns Goneril has killed Regan and herself in their struggle over him, he says, "Yet Edmund was beloved." The simple fact seems to be that he needed to be loved, and his father did not love or regard him. Despite Gloucester's protestation to Kent in act 1, scene 1, that he loves his sons equally, he keeps Edmund at a distance. Thus, when Edmund speaks of being who he is no matter what star shone at his birth, he is ignoring the fact that by his evil plots, he is responding to a buried need created by a disdainful father, rather than initiating independent actions—the pride which impels him is a compensation for the shame that blankets him. The self Edmund thinks he is creating is a response to the identity, bastardy, imposed upon him. He says as much in his first soliloquy without realizing that the ambition he believes is fundamental to him has been constructed by his circumstances.

Gloucester's faith in astrological causation has not gained in strength when Kent restates it in act 4, scene 3, line 83, "It is the stars, / The stars above us, govern our conditions." He is groping for an explanation of the difference between Cordelia and her sisters, ignoring both references in act 1, scene 1—one from Lear himself and one from Goneril—to Lear's favoring Cordelia with greater love than he has had for her sisters.

Not the gods nor the stars, but the characters themselves in King Lear make the misery that afflicts others and themselves. Albany says this quite clearly in act 4, scene 2, when he cries "Tigers," at Goneril, "not daughters." And he despairs that "Humanity must perforce prey on itself/Like monsters of the deep." The only possible redress Lear can imagine is for "the heavens … to tame these vile offenses" by "send[ing] down" "their visible spirits" to punish those who have acted monstrously. Even here, Albany is not blaming the gods for mankind's evil actions. He is calling upon them to be avengers. But vengeance in King Lear does not come from the gods. When it does come, it comes from mankind. The noble servant who opposes Cornwall as he is crushing Gloucester's eyes can be seen as an agent of the gods, but to do that brings in matter extraneous to the play. The servant himself, as he strikes, attributes his behavior to something more humanistic than celestial, suggesting Kent's first and equally despised service to Lear when he steps between the king and his wrath against Cordelia. "I have served you ever since I was a child," the servant tells Cornwall, "But better service have I never done you / Than now bid you hold." Lear avenges Cordelia's death by killing her murderer. Edgar, however, seems to be the principal avenger. Nevertheless, his defeat of his brother in single combat and Goneril's related suicide are not enough to save Cordelia and, consequently, Lear. But this is not because of the gods' injustice, but because once human malice is loosed, it takes its course. When Edgar says, regarding Gloucester's suffering, which is the result of Edmund's treachery, "The gods are just, and of our pleasant vices / Make instruments to plague us: / The dark and vicious place where thee he got / Cost him his eyes," he is talking, really, less about the gods than about the lines of force that are projected by human actions, customs, and institutions.

The evil characters in King Lear intend their evil. The characters who are not motivated by evil, like Lear and Gloucester and even Cordelia, herself, nevertheless without intending to do or cause evil, also unleash evil. Their fault is a certain degree of human blindness. It is Cordelia who probably comes closest to embodying Edmund's egoistic philosophy stripped, however, of its egotism, when she acknowledges the play of unintended consequences and says, realizing, accepting, and even forgiving her own fault, "We are not the first / Who with the best meaning have incurred the worst."

At that time in history, when science and nature, law and philosophy, art and religion were all undergoing evolution and transformation, in King Lear Shakespeare devised a complex depiction of the variety of ways to understand the experience of life, of the world, which he has Lear call a "great stage of fools," and of being human in that world to which, Lear notes, "when we are born, we cry that we are come."

Source: Neil Heims, Critical Essay on King Lear, in Shakespeare For Students, Second Edition, Thomson Gale, 2007.

Craig Bernthal

In the following excerpt, Bernthal discusses the several possible sources Shakespeare consulted for King Lear, particularly The True Chronicle History of King Leir and Arcadia. The critic examines how Shakespeare deviated from the "happier endings" of his sources "to make King Lear not just tragic, but horrifically so." Bernthal also analyzes the elements of nihilism and justice that have occupied other critics of the play.

… Shakespeare had several potential sources for Lear, including Holinshed and The Mirrour for Magistrates (1574), but for our purposes, two have special relevance. From an earlier dramatization of the Lear story, The True Chronicle History of King Leir (1605), he took the idea of the love contest with which King Lear begins. Goneril, Regan, and Cordelia are to compete with each other to say who loves Lear the most, and the one who makes the most impressive declaration of love will get a larger share of the kingdom for her dowry than her sisters. Cordelia, the youngest, says she cannot "heave her heart" into her mouth, and refuses to play the game, though she is the only daughter who truly loves her father. Her reward is banishment, after which Lear foolishly consigns himself to the care of Cordelia's older wolfish sisters, Goneril and Regan, who bar him from their homes and force him into destitution. In Leir, the king is rescued by his youngest daughter (Cordilla) and they live to see happier days, but in Shakespeare's Lear, Cordelia is hanged and Lear dies—apparently of heart failure—shortly thereafter.


  • Jane Smiley's 1991 novel, A Thousand Acres, transposes the story of King Lear to a midwestern American farm and turns the Lear figure, Larry Cook, into a father who has molested his two eldest daughters. Caroline, the Cordelia figure, is able to love him better than her sisters because she was not similarly abused and is, for most of the novel, ignorant of his past behavior. The novel was made into a film in 1997 with a stellar cast including Michelle Pfeiffer, Jessica Lange, and Jason Robards.
  • Death of A Salesman, Arthur Miller's 1949 play, is a modern family tragedy about a patriarch who looses his power because of age and social change. The play also examines the toll his fierce personality has taken on the formation of his sons.
  • In Shakespeare, Our Contemporary (1964), Jan Kott compares King Lear to Samuel Beckett's play Endgame (1957), which presents a bleak twentieth-century view of the human condition and the absence of God.
  • Nahum Tate's 1681 adaptation of King Lear held the stage for 150 years, although it is almost never performed today. Edgar and Cordelia become lovers. Lear is restored to his throne. The Fool's part is entirely removed, and Shakespeare's penetrating verse is made artificial and bombastic. Nevertheless, Tate's adaptation is skillful and reveals something of the spirit of his time. The text is readily available on the internet.
  • Le Père Goriot (Old Goriot or Father Goriot), written in 1835, is a novel by Honore de Balzac in which Old Goriot lives in poverty in order to keep his daughters, who return his kindness with scorn, living luxurious lives.

Shakespeare got his idea for the subplot involving Gloucester, Edmund, and Edgar from Philip Sidney's Arcadia (1590). Edmund, as the bastard son of Gloucester, convinces his father that Edgar, the legitimate son, is plotting patricide. Easily duped, Gloucester seeks to capture and punish his truly faithful son Edgar, who flees for his life. For attempting to help Lear, Gloucester is later accused of treason by Regan's husband, the duke of Cornwall. Edmund not only informs on his father, but leaves him to his fate, knowing that Cornwall has something dreadful in store. Cornwall gouges out the old man's eyes. Later, in trial by combat, Edgar wounds Edmund mortally (Edmund is carried off stage, clinging to life). Gloucester dies, his heart bursting with passion when Edgar reveals himself as the loyal son. The major difference between Shakespeare's version and Sidney's is that in the latter, the two brothers are reconciled.

We get a sense of Shakespeare's intentions by noting how determinedly he swerves from the happier endings of his sources. Shakespeare clearly went out of his way to make King Lear not just tragic, but horrifically so. The blinding of Gloucester, which occurs on stage, is perhaps the most excruciating scene Shakespeare ever wrote, and the ensuing carnage tops even that of Hamlet. A servant, appalled at what his master Cornwall is doing to Gloucester, gives Cornwall his death wound, and Regan kills the servant by stabbing him in the back. Edgar kills Oswald, one of Goneril's servants, and, finally, defeats Edmund in trial by combat. Gloucester dies offstage after his heart bursts. Goneril poisons her sister Regan out of jealousy for Edmund and then stabs herself to death when Edmund dies. The bodies of the two dead women are produced on stage. At this point, with the villains (and Gloucester) cleared from the boards, it would be easy for Shakespeare to follow his sources and give Lear and Cordelia a happy ending. Instead, Shakespeare makes a surprising move. Edmund has ordered that Cordelia and Lear be hanged, and before the order can be countermanded, Cordelia is executed. Lear carries her body on stage and dies at her side shortly afterward. "Is this the promised end?" asks Kent, Lear's faithful retainer. "Or image of that horror?" finishes Edgar. These are questions that many in Shakespeare's audience who were familiar with the traditional Lear stories, or the earlier Leir, might well have asked.

The mirror-like double plot of King Lear is another clue that Shakespeare's intention was to exhibit human depravity to an extent that far exceeded his previous work. Just as Lear casts off his loyal daughter Cordelia, Gloucester casts off his loyal son, Edgar; and just as Lear's ungrateful daughters seek to destroy him, Edmund seeks to destroy his father Gloucester. As A.C. Bradley notes, this does not just double the pain of King Lear, but suggests that there is a "malignant influence" in the land, and that what is happening in the households of Lear and Gloucester is no aberration.

Ending Lear with the death of Cordelia proved so distasteful to later audiences that in 1681, Nahum Tate rewrote the ending so that Lear and Cordelia survived, and Edgar married Cordelia. This played as the standard stage version of Lear until 1838. Audiences agreed with Samuel Johnson: Shakespeare's original was just too hard to take.

With the flourishing of academic criticism in the twentieth century came two versions of Lear. The first, which held sway from the beginning of the century to the mid-sixties, held that Lear was a Christian play about pre-Christian times, in which its audience, observing the play from a more informed Christian viewpoint, would have seen much dramatic irony: pre-Christians attempting to understand the world without the benefit of Christian revelation. Later readings took Lear's nihilistic element not as a subject of irony, but as a serious statement of universal meaninglessness …

But is the vision of King Lear really hopeless and nihilistic? Certainly, there is evidence in the play that can be marshaled in support of such an argument. A remarkably prescient Edmund seems to think the world works according to Darwinian principles. "Thou, Nature, art my goddess; to thy law / My services are bound" (1.2.1-2). For Edmund, nature is the realm of dog-eat-dog, and he believes he can get Edgar's inheritance because he is strong enough and ruthless enough to take it.

To the blinded Gloucester, the gods seem different at best, and sadistic at worst. He says, "As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods, / They kill us for their sport" (4.1.38-39). The duke of Albany, Goneril's decent husband, appalled by what she and Regan have done to Lear, says:

    If that the heavens do not their visible spirits
    Send quickly down to tame these vile offences,
    It will come:
    Humanity must perforce prey on itself,
    Like monsters of the deep.

Albany calls upon divine intervention many times in the play, as do others, such as the two servants who see Gloucester blinded. Referring to Regan and Cornwall, one exclaims, "I'll never care what wickedness I do / If this man come to good" (3.7.98-99); the other replies, "If she live long, / And in the end meet the old course of death, / Women will all turn monsters," implying that if there is no divine sanction against the wicked, people will infer that there are no gods, and do whatever they want …

But does the action of the drama consistently support declarations of nihilism and undercut speeches that assert the existence of justice? The deaths of Cornwall, Goneril, Regan, and Edmund might indeed be chalked up to divine justice. Albany gives the gods credit when he hears of Cornwall's death: "This shows you are above, / You justicers, that these our nether crimes/So speedily can venge" (4.2.79-81). Albany's assessment is the same when Goneril kills Regan and then herself: "This judgment of the heavens that makes us tremble/Touches us not with pity" (5.3.230-31). Many critics, however, feel that these apparent instances of justice are erased dramatically by the deaths of Cordelia and Lear. Kent's line, "Is this the promised end?" elicits three syllables from Albany: "Fall, and cease," which Foakes glosses to mean "in general terms, 'Let everything come to ruin, and cease to be.'" The final damage to the body politic is incalculable. Kent refuses to be king, and neither Albany nor Edgar seems to want the job. What, they might say, is the point?

The apparent absence of heavenly "justicers" in the final scene is paralleled by the absence, throughout the play, of any human institution for trying cases and dispensing justice. The only trial scene Shakespeare gives us is the product of Lear's deranged mind. In act 3, scene 6, Lear, deep in madness, imagines he arraigns Goneril and Regan. As Lear, Edgar, and the fool wait out the storm in a hovel, Lear seems to see a courtroom before him in which Goneril and Regan stand as defendants. The fool and Edgar, disguised as a madman, become Lear's co-adjudicators. As Lear gazes into this imagined scene, and begins to question "Goneril," the fool, looking in the direction of Lear's gaze, says to her, "Cry you mercy, I took you for a joint stool" (3.6.51). This is all that is left of institutional justice in the world of Lear—wish fulfillment. But even as wish fulfillment, Lear's dream goes astray, for the imaginary Goneril escapes the court: "Stop her there!" Lear cries to the bailiff, "Arms, arms, sword, fire, corruption in the place! / False justicer, why hast thou let her 'scape?" (3.6.53-55). In the plays we have examined, Shakespeare shows how judicial decision making can go astray, but in this scene the very possibility of justice is rejected. Justice is not even viable in the imagination.

But it is not only his desire to punish his daughters that motivates Lear's trial. Lear also wants answers. How could Goneril and Regan have become what they are? How could they be so evil? How could the gods allow such evil to exist? Lear says of his fellow judges, "Then let them anatomize Regan; see what breeds / about her heart. Is there any cause in nature that make / these hard hearts?" (3.6.73-75). This, of course, is another statement of the play's central question, implied every time someone invokes divine intervention or interprets events as if such an intervention had occurred. Does God exist? Does he pay attention? Then why is there evil?

Shakespeare, I believe, does suggest an answer to this question, for it is in suffering the consequences of evil and his own foolishness that Lear finally attains an understanding of himself and his obligations to the rest of mankind. It is because Lear can find no justice for himself that he begins to ask whether he has been just to others. Certainly he has not been just to Cordelia, and the knowledge of this is at the root of his madness. But Lear becomes aware of a far broader failure to the people of his kingdom. The first inklings of this dereliction occur on the heath, in the storm, where Lear commits his first unselfish act: he offers shelter to the fool and Kent before entering the hovel himself:

    [To Kent]
    Prithee go in thyself, seek thine own ease.
    This tempest will not give me leave to ponder
    On things would hurt me more …
    [To the fool]
    In boy, go first. You houseless poverty—
    Nay, get thee in. I'll pray …

Lear's prayer is essentially for forgiveness for ignoring the poor people of his realm, all of whom will shortly be given dramatic representation through Edgar, as Tom of Bedlam. For us, Tom translates as the homeless schizophrenic, wandering the streets, conversing fiercely with invisible companions. But Lear is aware of these people before Tom appears, and he now feels their poverty and their mental afflictions.

    [Lear kneels]
    Poor naked wretches, wheresoe'er you are,
    That bide the pelting of this pitiless storm,
    How shall your houseless heads and unfed sides,
    Your looped and windowed raggedness, defend you
    From seasons such as these? O, I have ta'en
    Too little care of this. Take physic, pomp,
    Expose thyself to feel what wretches feel,
    That thou mayst shake the superflux to them
    And show the heavens more just.

When Lear meets Edgar, who is smeared with dirt and apparently mad, he attempts to give his clothing to the poor man, but the fool and Kent stop him: "Unaccommodated man is no more but such a poor, / bare, forked animal as thou art," he tells Edgar. "Off, off, you lendings: / come, unbutton here" (3.4.105-07). Lear has come a long way from the infantile old man who wanted to retire as king but keep the glory of office. At the beginning of the play, when Regan comments that Lear "hath ever but / slenderly known himself" (1.1.294-95), she must be credited with telling the truth, but by act 4, the description is no longer accurate. In looking back at life as a king, Lear realizes that he was lied to from his earliest years, was always told what he wanted to hear, and that it warped him:

    They flattered
    me like a dog and told me I had the white hairs in my
    beard ere the black ones were there. To say "ay" and "no"
    to everything that I said "ay" and "no" to was no good
    divinity. When the rain came to wet me once and the
    wind to make me chatter; when the thunder would not
    peace at my bidding, there I found 'em, there I smelt
    'em out. Go to, they are not men o' their words: they
    told me I was everything; 'tis a lie, I am not ague-proof.

Lear's suffering is not useless. It finally makes him human.

Samuel Johnson characterized King Lear as "a play in which the wicked prosper," but is there really any evidence to support this view? Regan and Goneril are dead before they have a chance to enjoy their inheritance. Edmund's prosperity runs a very brief course before his brother kills him. Cornwall is killed by his own servant just one instant after he blinds Gloucester. And against this must be matched the good that is demonstrated in the play. Cordelia and Kent remain true to Lear, despite his rejection of them, as does Edgar to Gloucester. Though Lear dies, he is forgiven by and reconciled to Cordelia first, as is Gloucester to Edgar. Through suffering, Lear is "redeemed" on the heath, or at least ennobled, throwing off a childish egocentricity and finally thinking of the needs of others. Denied justice himself, he comes to realize that he has been less than just to others.

King Lear does not refute a Christian view of the world any more than Job does. However, the effect of Lear, appropriate to a great play, is that it arouses a complicated response. Shakespeare strongly introduces nihilism as a possibility, a shadow that haunts our best hopes. We see this in most of Shakespeare's great tragedies. Hamlet continually doubts the meaningfulness of life. Macbeth sees life as "a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing." The existence of a personal, loving God who gives meaning to life is not a foregone conclusion, and cannot be derived from the experience of daily life. If such were the case, there would be little need for injunctions to faithfulness, hope, and charity. Rather, it is because believers have doubts that these virtues are urged. King Lear honestly and openly portrays our reasons for doubt, but the steadfastness of Cordelia and the transformation of Lear give us better reasons to hope than to disbelieve. Evil is able to accomplish nothing in King Lear. The character defects of Lear and Gloucester let evil into the body politic. It exists parasitically on the good and is finally expelled, after much devastation all around. As in Shakespear's last plays, the tragicomedies, the certainty that justice will prevail is not emphasized so much as the hope and faith that it will. And although hope and faith—along with charity—are Christian virtues, certainty never has been.

Source: Craig Bernthal, "Conclusion," in The Trial of Man: Christianity and Judgment in the World of Shakespeare, ISI Books, 2003, pp. 262-71.

Marilyn Gaull

Gaull argues that King Lear depicts two kinds of love: divine love, associated with universal order, and erotic love, associated with chaos and destruction. When Lear abdicates his royal responsibilities, the critic asserts, he plunges his kingdom into a state of spiritual and emotional disorder. Gaull suggests that Lear's choice of corrupt, erotic love over divine love results in a transference of sexuality; the king becomes emasculated as he is gradually stripped of the symbols of his traditional role, while at the same time Goneril and Regan increasingly assume masculine attitudes. By contrast, the critic declares, Cordelia adheres to the principle of domestic and political hierarchy, and thus she becomes an agent of divine love in the play.

Placing King Lear in the intellectual climate in which the play was conceived, one finds a conflict on the thematic level between two kinds of love: divine love, expressed in an ordered cosmic, social, and spiritual hierarchy, and erotic love, a kind of subterranean energy which is the source of chaos, disorder, and destruction. Specifically, when King Lear assumed he could divest himself of responsibility, retiring as any lesser mortal to the obscurity of an "unburdened" old age, he committed an offense against universal order and thereby denied divine love. Then, when he allowed himself to be seduced of his kingdom by Goneril and Regan, he exchanged his role as king for that of love goddess, suffering all the consequences of a submission, however tacit, to the illegitimate order of eros …

[By] appropriating the privileges of position without the responsibilities, by preferring private interest to public obligation, by investing an inordinate amount of power in inferior indivduals, Lear created the conditions for rebellion by those whom he was enjoined to control. By extension, through his failure to be ruled by reason, he alienated himself from divine love and forfeited his sovereignty over his own baser passions. His abdication of responsibility released the destructive energies of eros in the social and political sphere and delivered him and all those upon whom his life impinged into psychological and spiritual chaos.

It is the three exiles in the play, Cordelia, Kent, and Edgar who, by maintaining the three basic relationships of an ordered society, express divine love. Displaced by the collapse of the social and political hierarchy, they are the most evident victims of Lear's truancy. Nonetheless, they continue to articulate and perform the services demanded by universal order. Thus Cordelia demonstrates woman's subordination to her husband; Kent, a subject's subordination to his king; and Edgar, a son's subordination to his father …

Gloucester and Albany may also be considered victims of Lear's truancy, more helpless than the exiles insofar as their fulfilling their roles in the universal order depends upon circumstance rather than a capacity for divine love. But because they are basically good and adapted, however passively, to their roles in the legitimate hierarchy, they cannot survive in the alternative and subversive hierarchy of eros. The gentle and ineffectual Albany allows his wife to dominate him, creating the conditions for his own cuckolding. And Gloucester, who suffers a defect of vision long before his blindness, was never able to distinguish between the legitimate and the subversive order. His acknowledgment at the opening of the play of the position he allowed Edmund, the product of an adulterous union, is an ominous concession to the order of eros which will ultimately betray him. He admits to Kent: "But I have a son, sir, by order of law, some year elder than this, who yet is no dearer in my account: though this knave came something saucily to the world before he was sent for, yet was his mother fair, there was good sport in the making, and the whoreson must be acknowledged" (I, i, 19-26). The desolating consequences of this emotional generosity are summed up by Edgar in the same speech in which he reveals his identity:

    The gods are just, and of our pleasant vices
    Make instruments to plague us:
    The dark and vicious place where thee he got
    Cost him his eyes.

If the three exiles, Gloucester, and Albany are victims of Lear's truancy, Goneril and Regan are villains for the same reason. In their mismanaged attempts to fill the vacuum created by Lear, they are simply fulfilling another principle of natural law. The chaos which surrounds them arises from the appetitive or erotic instincts by which they are dominated. But, after all, it was these very instincts to which Lear appealed when he invited his daughters' declarations of love, declarations which he made the qualification for possessing his kingdom. A comparison between Lear's overtures and Cleopatra's at the opening of Antony and Cleopatra suggests rather strikingly the role Lear had assumed. Like Lear, she asks, "If it be love indeed, tell me how much" (I, i, 14). And this Egyptian love goddess is admonished by Antony in terms peculiarly reminiscent of Cordelia's: "There's beggary in the love that can be reckon'd" (I, i, 15). What I am suggesting is that not only did Lear disregard divine love in favor of the profane but also that it was a profane love which was essentially perverted. This idea seems to be enforced by a fascinating transference of sexuality which gradually emerges in the interaction of Lear and his daughters. Lear's emasculation begins when he places himself in the custody of his daughters thereby forfeiting along with his kingdom his masculine role as superior, ruler, protector, and provider. After Goneril has abused her power over him, he begins to conceive of her as a man, calls her a "degenerate bastard," claims that he is ashamed of her "power to shake [his] manhood," and finally in his madness accuses both her and Regan of not being "men o' their words" (i, iv, 260, 304; IV, vi, 106). Simultaneously, Goneril and Regan assume increasingly masculine attitudes, particularly in their competition for Edmund's affection. Regan's masculinity is most evident in the passage in which, expressing decidedly female jealousy of Goneril, she adopts the spare terms of the battlefront: "I am doubtful that you have been conjunct / And bosomed with her, as far as we call hers" (V, i, 12-13). Goneril, on the other hand, like an intriguing courtier contrives to have her husband murdered so that she might better pursue Edmund. Her attitude reveals the destructive consequences of investing the political power of a legitimate hierarchy in female figures who are adapted to rule only in the subversive hierarchy of eros: "I had rather lose the battle than that sister/Should loosen him and me" (V, i, 18-19).

The Fool and Edmund, initially vagrants or aberrations in the official hierarchy, function as vocal adversaries in the debate between the two major opposing forces of order and chaos. The Fool with his detached and uncompromisingly literal perspective shrewdly if instinctively predicts and interprets the consequences of Lear's action, measuring it against the norms of hierarchy. For example, when Lear asks him "When were you wont to be so full of songs, sirrah?" The Fool replies:

    … e'er since thou mad'st thy daughter
    thy mothers; for when thou gav'st them the rod, and
    put'st down thine own breeches,
    Then they for sudden joy did weep,
    And I for sorrow sung,
    That such a king should play bo-peep
    And go the fools among
    (I, iv, 175-182)

The Fool's musical association is a significant one since it is an indication of his affinity with cosmic order, his instinctive harmony with natural law and divine love. Cordelia similarly uses music to restore Lear's rationality, to bring him back in tune with the divine principles of the universal hierarchy.

Finally, Edmund, the child of eros, serves not only as the voice of the anarchical group but also as the source of its daemonic energy. His superior rationality adapts him to his role of leadership, but his abuse of this faculty for self-advancement marks him as the most culpable. His is the only purely volitional offense against natural law. An unregenerate individual with an insight superior to Lear's, Cordelia's, Edgar's, indeed to that of any of the major candidates for heroic stature, Edmund ranks among the great literary villains who before their defeat contrive to express and to expose the great sanative values of the drama. As an illegitimate son, Edmund has no position in the social and political hierarchy, but this same condition eminently qualifies him to lead the subversive hierarchy of eros, chaos, and destruction. Having been indiscriminately admitted to the hierarchy by Gloucester, Edmund becomes an incipient threat to it, manipulating and exploiting it with a dashing expertise …

Ironically, it is by emulating the King that Edmund becomes the ruler of his illegitimate kingdom. He formulates his legal code on the authority of Lear's distortion of natural law: the prerogatives of youth and private interest over age and public responsibility. By the time Edmund articulates the rationale for his treason, he is only interpreting what has been empirically demonstrated by Lear: "The younger rises when the old doth fall" (III, iii, 26). This statement with its Machiavellian disregard of human feeling, its frigid recognition of what the modern temper regards as the inevitable pattern of social evolution, acquires its barb from the ethos of Lear's world. Although cosmic hierarchy illustrated and natural law proclaimed that age and the fullness of experience were the supreme virtues for wielding power, Lear voted for his own retirement, disqualified himself, relinquished the protection of a position he held by divine right. Then, he appealed to the very order which he had violated:

    O heavens!
    If you do love old men, if your sweet sway
    Allow obedience, if you yourselves are old,
    Make it your cause. Send down, and take my part.
    (II, iv, 188-191)

The corrective, the re-assertion of natural law in the development of generations, is offered as an admonition by Edgar to his suicidal father:

    A man must endure
    Their going hence, even as their coming hither:
    Ripeness is all.
    (V, ii, 9-11)

The battle lines between the forces of chaos, a grotesque paradox of the legitimate hierarchy, and the forces of order, assembled in the costumes of fools, beggars, and madmen, are clearly defined when Gloucester moves from the castle, now ruled by Edmund, to the moor, the storm, and the insane court of Lear. It is a powerful confrontation, for Gloucester is appealing to the very source of chaos when, disheartened by what he thinks is Edgar's treachery, he laments to Lear:

    Our flesh and blood, my Lord, is grown so vile
    That it doth hate what gets it.
    (III, iv, 148-149)

But in this kingdom of the absurd, even this multiple truth is an untruth, or at best a half truth. Fidelity is everywhere evident—in an anonymous retainer, a mad beggar, and an oracular fool. The central and compelling truth distorted beyond recognition is flung at a raging and primordial world by the alienated and insane symbol and minister of virtue, reason, and justice:

    I am the King himself …
    Nature's above art in that respect. (IV, vi, 84, 86)

Lear's insanity involves his recognition of the emotional basis of his relationship with Goneril and Regan, a love professedly filial but essentially corrupt, profane, erotic. Thus he passes from a fixation on filial ingratitude to one on lechery and adultery. This change is initiated when he meets Edgar disguised as Tom o'Bedlam and hears his factitious autobiography. Tom attributes his madness, the "foul field" which pursued him, to his life as a foppish courtier seduced by his mistress and corrupted by his passions:

A servingman, proud in heart and mind, that curled my hair, wore gloves in my cap; served the lust of my mistress' heart, and did the act of darkness with her; swore as many oaths as I spake words, and broke them in the sweet face of heaven. One that slept in the contriving of lust, and waked to do it. Wine loved I deeply, dice dearly; and in woman out-paramoured the Turk … Let not the creaking of shoes nor the rustling of silks betray thy poor heart to woman. Keep thy foot out of brothels, thy hand out of plackets, they pen from lenders' books, and defy the foul fiend. (III, iv, 85-99).

Lear's response suggests the essential bestiality which he senses he shares with Tom, both exiles from the protective order of society:

Thou art the thing itself; unaccommodated man is no more but such a poor, bare, forked animal as thou art. (III, iv, 108-110).

The "foul fiends" for Lear are Goneril and Regan who become more explicitly identified with lust and appetitive excess in the mad scenes of Act IV. Vainly grasping the remnants of his royal position, it is with crushing pathos that he confuses the blinded Gloucester with the pagan god of eros: "No, do thy worst, blind Cupid; I'll not love" (IV, vi, 139-140).

It is divine love, the love which created and maintained the cosmic order, embodied in Cordelia, which restores Lear both to his rationality and to his royal position. "Thou has one daughter," says her emissary to the nearly disabled king.

    Who redeems nature from the general curse
    Which twain have brought her to
    (IV, vi, 208-210)

Although her success in restoring Lear will be limited, since the "curse" was essentially self-inflicted, Cordelia is eminently qualified for her task. She comes from a politically ordered kingdom, suggested in the text by France's deserting her to fulfill his first obligation, the reparation of a breach in his own kingdom. (IV, iii, 3-6). Her reason for invading England, not "blown ambition" but "love, dear love, and our aged father's right" (IV, iv, 27-29), is one of the only two motives for war sanctioned by natural law. Self-defense, the other motive, is expressed, ironically enough, by her temporary opponent, Albany, exonerating him from a violation of natural law but creating an almost insoluable conflict (V, i, 20-27). While both causes are just, because Lear is too feeble to defend his right and because in the absence of France there is no military leader qualified to defend it for him, Albany with the advantage of strength succeeds. It is a facet of natural law which modern revolutionaries have espoused: force until right is ready.

Psychologically and emotionally, Cordelia exhibits the internal order of faculties which she expressed in her speech on proportion in the first act. Her response to the news of her father's suffering is described in appropriately political terms, suggesting the correspondent hierarchies in the internal and external kingdom:

    It seemed she was a queen
    Over her passion, who most rebel-like,
    Sought to be king o'er her …
    There she shook
    The holy water from her heavenly eyes,
    And clamor moistened: then away she started
    To deal with grief alone.
    (IV, iii, 14-16, 30-34)

Concomitant with this inner control, proportion, and order are Cordelia's clear perspective, her immediate apprehension of the sources of Lear's madness, and her unsuspected power to restore his sanity, his political identity, and his spiritual harmony with the order of the spheres. Thus she prays:

    O you kind gods!
    Cure this great breach in his abused nature.
    Th' untuned and jarring senses, O, wind up
    Of this child-changed father.
    (IV, vii, 14-17)

The cure is affected by three means, each symbolic of one of the major categories in the chain or order of being: sleep induced by herbs, suggesting the subjugation of nature; music, appealing to rationality and the sense of balance; and Cordelia's kiss, symbol of transcendent love.

    O my dear father, restoration hang
    Thy medicine on my lips, and let this kiss
    Repair those violent harms that my two sisters
    Have in thy reverence made.
    (IV, vii, 26-29)

Considering, therefore, Cordelia as symbol of the entire range of hierarchy and order, one ought, it seems to me, to be able to interpret Lear's awakening as a return to a proper relationship with that hierarchy and divine love. But he continues to challenge Cordelia, confessing thereby his failure to recognize the immutable cosmic bonds involved in the familial relationship.

    I know you do not love me; for your sisters
    Have, as I do remember, done me wrong.
    You have some cause, they have not.
    (IV, vii, 72-74)

Cordelia's response, "No cause, no cause," is less a volitional expression of Christian charity than the acquiescence of a sane and virtuous individual to the very sources of sanity and virtue, an affirmation of what Kent had described as "the holy cords … / Which are too intrinse t'unloose" (II, ii, 76-77).

But there is only a momentary stasis, a temporary suggestion of supernal peace before the violence with which the drama concludes. I would like to suggest several reasons why at the end of the drama Lear is subjected to such apparently unaccountable suffering, why he is unable to reclaim his kingdom, and why Cordelia must become the final though potentially most meaningful sacrifice. First, because Lear is redeemed not by the purgatorial experience of his madness but rather by Cordelia's intervention, he acquires only a passive immunity to further suffering. Secondly, he fails to recognize that his previous suffering was self-inflicted, a miscalculation of the responsibilities of his position which allowed the betrayal of Goneril and Regan. Thirdly, his instincts remain escapist, regressive, expressed in his rationalization of their prospective imprisonment. The pastoral withdrawal, the edinic vision which he depicts so lyrically is the ideal of the courtier rather than the vision of a king; it is a return to a lower order of nature, uncorrupted but outside the pale of human achievement:

    … Come, let's away to prison:
    We two alone will sing like birds i' th' cage:
    When thou dost ask me blessing, I'll kneel down
    And ask of thee forgiveness: so we'll live,
    And pray, and sing, and tell old tales, and laugh
    At gilded butterflies, and hear poor rogues
    Talk of court news; and we'll talk with them too,
    Who loses and who wins, who's in, who's out,
    And take upon's the mystery of things,
    As if we were God's spies: and we'll wear out,
    In a walled prison, packs and sects of great ones
    That ebb and flow by th' moon.
    (V, iii, 8-19)

Once more Lear disregards that he is by birth and by divine ordination king, God's minister, and executor of law and order in the secular sphere. In his sanguine willingness to adapt to his environment, to adjust to his surroundings, Lear reveals his decidedly terrestial inclinations. Since Cordelia's existence in the political order depends upon Lear's assuming command of himself and of his kingdom, she is for the second, and final time, a victim of his weakness.

Finally, the kind of love relationships into which Lear entered and the emotional bases on which he entered them suggest a kind of constitutional defect which prevented him from entering the transcendent emotional realm which Cordelia opened to him. This defect is perhaps best formulated in a statement from Saint Augustine's City of God, XI, in which appear many of the orthodox principles of cosmic order: we are "endowed with a kind of attraction for our proper place in the order of nature. The specific gravity of a body is, as it were, its love, whether it tends upward by its lightness or downward by its weight."

It is somewhat by natural selection that Edgar not simply survives but prevails at the end of the play. On a plane productively human he resolves the major conflict between eros and divine love, between chaos and order. If the sins of the father are truly visited upon the son, as Edgar's suffering at the hands of Edmund would suggest, then he frees himself and his kingdom of the "foul fiend" when he vanquishes his bastard brother, the ruler of the illegitimate order of eros. Moreover, in his guise as Tom o'Bedlam he has been purged in a preventive fashion of both the vice and the consequences of erotic love. But unlike Cordelia he is a terrestial creature committed to a human sphere, the only sphere in which a human being to remain human may work out his salvation. This salvation, earthly perfection, "ripeness" if you like, is made possible by the emotional affinity he shares with Cordelia, divine or transcendent love, and is the basis for the creation of a new and more stable order.

Source: Marilyn Gaull, "Love and Order in King Lear," in Educational Theatre Journal, Vol. XIX, No. 3, October 1967, pp. 333-42.

John C. McCloskey

McCloskey examines the association of images from the world of "animals, insects, and the more repulsive denizens" of the seas with the shifts in Lear's emotions. The king's selfishness and moral blindness, together with his inability to understand others, lead him into a world of disordered nature, the critic maintains. McCloskey notes that as Lear moves from resentment in Act I to indignation in Act II, and, finally, rage in Act III, the imagery changes to reflect the increasing intensity of his moods and to underscore the theme of unnaturalness.

It has been said that we must accept the passionate, irrational King Lear, with his plan for dividing his kingdom, and the devoted yet strangely reticent Cordelia as data not to be inquired into but taken on poetic faith. Yet Lear's "retirement" is a sensible thing in itself. What makes it fraught with tragedy is his misreading of human nature. Had all his children been like Cordelia, things might have turned out well. And here is the irony—that what is sensible in itself is made a foolish, senseless thing to do by the characters of those involved. Or to put it another way, imperfect, selfish human nature again wrecks ideals.

Consider that Lear is a king who loves his daughters and out of his egoism expects love in return, a king who believes simply that generosity begets gratitude, that children revere and honor their parents, that obedience is of the nature of the filial relation. A king who "hath ever but slenderly known himself", he has not known his courtiers either, for example, Kent. A king who is curiously naive in the ways of human nature, who has no subtlety in human relations, who does not even suspect that power may corrupt and that old age rendered helpless is a thing for contempt. A king who is not wise enough to protect himself but of his own volition throws himself upon the untender mercies of the evil, whom he does not even recognize as evil.

Yet Lear embodies the idealism of fatherly love as Cordelia and Edgar are emblems of filial devotion, Kent of loyal service, the Fool of conscience, and France of true love. But Lear's idealism is tainted by evil, by the moral corruption of self-deluding egoism, while the idealism of the others is not, and the proper end for Lear is, therefore, tragic disaster.

In the chaotic and hostile world into which Lear is precipitated by his acts of misjudgment, self-will, and wrath, the tragic disaster toward which he proceeds and which culminates in madness and death in a world against which he cannot contend, a world wild and ferocious, a world of negated values, moral blindness, and unnaturalness, is expressed to a remarkable degree by images from the padding, stalking, creeping, crawling, slithering world of animals, insects, and the more repulsive denizens of the waters, and the images are evoked to express or to intensify his anger, rejection, indignation, wrath, and vengeance.

The imagery of the lower animals, which suggests the moral derangement of the world in which Lear has hitherto thought himself secure, begins with the cooling of his reception in Goneril's home, when her servant Oswald neglects to answer Lear's question as to the whereabouts of his daughter. This breach of decorum and respect and reverence, for authority stirs a mild resentment in Lear, the first stage of the emotional turmoil which brings him at length to madness. His resentment and, perhaps, a touch of proper contempt, the genesis of which is Lear's instinctive awareness of the social disparity between his kingly state and the lowly status of a servant, are expressed in his epithet "mongrel", an image general, colorless, and uncommitted, since the offence is not at the moment identifiable with the attitude of the daughters or the moral problem of the play. When Oswald describes Lear as not the king but "My lady's father", Lear's indignation is spurred, and the imagery becomes more intense and particularized in its connotative derogation as "whoreson dog" and "cur". It is significant that Lear thinks in terms of such lowly, though commonplace images, since he has himself already entered upon his own descent, with the result that eventually his state is reduced as low, in the storm scene on the heath particularly, as that of the animal world in terms of the imagery of which his mind constitutionally reacts.

From the evocation of mere resentment and indignation the imagery becomes grimmer, more serious, and more vividly suggestive of Lear's destitute moral condition and the frightful eventualities of the future. The Fool's bitter statement,

    For you know, nuncle,
    The hedge-sparrow fed the cuckoo so long,
    That it had it head bit off by it young.

is not only a sharp and crude image of ingratitude, but it is also an image of Lear's own foolishness, his misjudgment, his improvident helplessness, and his egoistic blindness. The imagery implied in the verb "bit off" is by transference an image of human decapitation and a darkly prophetic forewarning of what Lear is to experience from his children. In the image is implicit the lack of gratitude and love and even common humanity which already are Lear's destiny. The image is so proper and so apt in its context that though Lear seems to ignore it, it succeeds immediately in condensing the whole moral problem which enmeshes Lear in its inevitable consequences.

As Lear enters the incipiency of his rage, irritated by Oswald and shocked by the callousness of Goneril, who desiring to teach him what is properly conventional to age refers to his actions as pranks, thus suggesting his senility, and demands that he be shorn of his knights, the imagery changes to correspond with his emotional state—his indignation and his anger at the filial ingratitude of Goneril, this "degenerate bastard". Since the natural order of things is here disturbed, the expression of this state of affairs, which is quite monstrous, receives its correspondency in its figurative presentment of ingratitude as a "hideous seamonster". This is reinforced by an appropriate shift in the imagery, though the correspondence of destructive intent and power is maintained, to "detested kite". For a kite is a falcon-like bird which preys on small quarry, such as is Lear without his kingship, without his power, moving down the scale from greatness.

Shifting from the image of the kite, Lear intensifies his emotion of frustration and rage, which seethes in him against his unnatural daughter Goneril, whom he has just cursed unnaturally, praying nature to make her sterile, by objectifying his rising obsession of ingratitude in the figure of a serpent's tooth. In thus juxtaposing images from the sky and from the crawling earth he suggests, perhaps, his subconscious awareness that both heaven and earth are against him. Having employed the images of sea-monster, kite, and serpent to vivify his referent, he gives further extension to the notion of Goneril's cruelty and sly, cunning nature by additional images from the animal world, "wolvish visage" and "fox", and these images for the first time blend with anger the passion of vengeance, for Lear wrathfully states that when Regan hears of this she will "flay" Goneril's wolvish visage and the Fool states that had one caught a fox like this daughter it would soon to the slaughter.

Now the imagery sinks below the animal stratum to the mollusk, thus intensifying the sense of the moral depths in which Lear, not yet pessimistically, helplessly wanders. The imagery of the snail and the oyster carries to the lowest pitch of figurative expression the blindness of Lear, his lack of judgment, the low order of the ratiocination from which proceeded his initial error. Then the image of the foolishness of Lear is carried upward to the animal stratum once again by "assess". If in this connection it is recalled that the animal stratum is often referred to as "the animal kingdom", the irony of Lear's position is painfully apparent.

Just as Goneril has been reduced in the area of imagery to a correspondence with animals that sting, bite, and destroy, organisms which are feral and inhuman, so her servant Oswald is dehumanized as a rat, a dog, a goose, the latter image being peculiarly appropriate to Oswald, who is remarkably consistent in the traits implicit in this figure.

With the momentary resurgence of Lear's old imperious attitude in his indignation at the stocking of his messenger Kent, the scale of the animal imagery rises from the stupid and compliant goose to horses, dogs, bears, and monkeys, thus suggesting the greater degree of the culpability of Cornwall and Regan by creating imagery belonging to animals on a higher ratiocinative plane and thereby rendering their guilt less excusable. Now again irony is blended explicity with the imagery which sets forth Lear's moral problem. His imperious indignation, in terms of the imagery, is as cogent as learning secured from an ant. His intensified anger becomes adulterated with helplessness, and his orders to Regan and Cornwall to come forth are as ineffective as the cockney crying to the eels when she put them alive in the pastry. While anger is often imaged forth in feral terms, blindness, stupidity, weakness, and helplessness are presented in images from the still lower stratum of animate things, that of the snail, the oyster, and the eel, and in the appropriateness of the imagery is apparent once again its integral relation to the total structure of the play.

When Lear, having fled to his "Beloved Regan", reflects upon his love and generosity to his daughters which proceeded from his heart and upon the unnatural ingratitude paid him by Goneril in return, the image which externalizes his emotional state of outraged paternal affection mingled with surprise and shock appears in the form of sharp-toothed unkindness, like a vulture, tearing at his heart, and in his rising anger at Regan's rejection of his claims and her injunction to ask Goneril's forgiveness and return to her, this image is reinforced in the collateral one of being struck with a serpent's tongue upon the very heart. In the psychological application of the imagery as expressive of Lear's emotive states at various stages of his mounting tragedy, the images of the wounding of his heart by vultures and serpents mark a crisis in the rising action, for after this there occurs, eventually in the storm scene, the loss of his wits, in other words, an ironic reduction of Lear himself to that unnatural state which is so essential a theme of the entire tragedy. His estrangement from normal human relations, consonant with the above, is further marked, in passionate reaction to Regan's rejection of him, by his refusal of her demand to dismiss fifty of his knights and by his determination, instead, to abjure all roofs and be a comrade with the wolf and the owl. Throughout the imagery runs an intensification of the theme of unnaturalness, the basis of which is, of course, filial ingratitude. Even the Gentleman discussing with Kent the storm on the heath uses imagery similar to Lear's as an atmospheric reinforcement of the psychological mood into which Lear has been precipitated; the stormy night into which Lear has emerged from the previous rejection scene is one from which the cub-drawn bear, the lion, and the belly-pinched wolf flee. Contending with the frightful elements, tearing his hair, striving to outscorn the wind, rain, and night, Lear is pursued by his heart-struck injuries. Also the unnatural cruelty of his pitiful state and the savagery of the night are figured forth, to some degree, in the aforementioned famished bear, fierce lion, and hunger-driven wolf.

The lowly imagery of the louse employed by the Fool, that of a small, wingless, blood-sucking insect, is an ironic image presenting a vivid, concrete manifestation of the contrast between Lear's impotent state and his rather imperial, though helpless, arraignment of the elements which have with his two pernicious daughters joined their battles against so old and white a head as his. The image of the louse is implicative of a descent from elevation, a contrast with the soaring evil of the vulture, and a descent from size, the massive evil of the sea-serpent; considered in its context it is also, in contrast with "head", indicative of a lack of intelligence and is, therefore, a further indictment of Lear's original irrationality. The imagery of the louse is both a presentment of Lear's impotency, the louse being on a lower level than that of the feral animals, a small wingless thing, almost insignificant though painful, and also a prefiguring of the pelican image which soon intensifies it, the image of a blood-sucking animate thing, implicit in the figure of the louse, having for its referent the daughters who have taken all and, draining his blood from him, seek his death. And in an extension of this idea and a logical transmutation of it, that of flesh feeding on the flesh that begot it, Lear's emotions express themselves in the metaphor of the pelican daughters. So admirable a consistency is there in the images and so vivid a reflection of Lear's psyche that it is evident that the imagery is of the very texture of Lear's psyche itself. Habitually and spontaneously his mind expresses itself in imagery, and when his mind is in a disturbed state the imagery is that of the animal world, or at least the world of animate, sub-human things.

The notion of descent, which inheres in the animal figures, is made explicit by Lear in his assertion that in Edgar's case nothing could have subdued nature to such a lowness but his unkind daughters. Expressive of this and showing the partial correspondency of Edgar's state with that of Lear on the stormy heath are the images employed by Edgar:

    … hog in sloth, fox in stealth, wolf in greediness,
    dog in madness, lion in prey (III.iv.96-98)

With Lear's climactic statement:

Ha! here's three on's us are sophisticated! Thou are the thing itself: unaccommodated man is no more but such a poor, bare, forked animal as thou art. Off, off, you lendings! (III.iv. 110-14)

the descent is accomplished, and the correspondency of Lear to the animal stratum toward which his psychic tragedy has been tending and in terms of images from which he has characteristically expressed himself is complete. Bereft of reason, mad, tearing off his clothes, Lear is now little better than the beasts. He has reached the bottom of the scale which his imagery has prefigured. The climax of descent in terms of animal imagery, if this is not too paradoxical a statement, coincides with the climax of the play.

When Lear appears at Dover mad, fantastically dressed with wild flowers, some of his imagery corresponds to his state of mind: crow-keeper, mouse, bird, gilded butterflies; this is the innocent, naive imagery of childhood or senility, a harmless, neutral, non-evocative imagery proper to one whose wits are gone. Yet in the subsequent imagery begins his reascent into partial rationality, his progress upward from the animal state with which in the climax he had identified himself. His memory, in the area of his emotions, reasserts itself and with it a reminiscent indignation and anger which bring into prominence once again his obsession of filial ingratitude: "They flattered me like a dog" (IV.iv.98). Blended with it, too, is a critical bitterness which is an image of his renascent awareness of his fallen state. The wren and the gilded fly, the fitchew and the soiled horse become images of copulation and adultery, and in the extension of causes into a relative complexity is suggested not only the advance of Lear's mind in a tentative way toward humanity once again but the substitution of cynicism for the violated and outraged affection which throughout the play had so obsessed him.

Lear's reascent to reason and, therefore, to humanity is arrested by a resurgence of tragedy—the death of Cordelia. The irony of his apparent moral victory in self-recognition, in his awareness of good and evil, and in at least a rudimentary sense of equity and of the real victory of the malevolence of his enemies, carries the essential tensions of the play through to the very end. Lear's reaction against the injustice of Cordelia's death, the needless waste of goodness in the world, his questioning of the why of things, are expressed through his characteristic imagery which presents his skepticism in regard to the moral system of the cosmos, an act of ratiocination which is, of course, on a human rather than an animal level:

    Why should a dog, a horse, a rat have life,
    And thou no breath at all?

And on the curve of his partial reascent toward reason and humanity, presented in terms of animal imagery to the last, Lear dies.

Source: John C. McCloskey, "The Emotive Use of Animal Imagery in King Lear," in Shakespeare Quarterly, Vol. 13, No. 3, Summer 1962, pp. 321-25.

Kenneth Muir

Muir discusses the theme of "reason in madness" in King Lear and outlines the king's descent into insanity. Goneril's sharp complaints, Lear's discovery of Kent in the stocks, and Regan's rejection progressively disorder his mind, the critic argues, and the sudden appearance of Edgar as Poor Tom pushes him over the edge. Muir maintains that Lear's subsequent attacks on hypocrisy and worldly justice "show profound insight" into the human condition. However, the critic cautions readers against assuming that these speeches represent Shakespeare's own point of view.

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Source: Kenneth Muir, "Madness in King Lear," in Shakespeare Survey: An Annual Survey of Shakespearian Study and Production, Vol. 13, 1960, pp. 30-40.


Bevington, David, ed., "Canon, Dates, and Early Texts: Appendix 1," in The Complete Works of Shakespeare, Scott, Foresman and Company, 1980, pp. 1623-24.

Bradley, A. C., "Lecture VII: King Lear," in Shakespearean Tragedy, Fawcett Publications, 1986, p. 201.

Danby, John F., Shakespeare's Doctrine of Nature: A Study of King Lear, Faber and Faber, 1949.

Elton, William R., King Lear and the Gods, Huntington Library, 1966.

Freud, Sigmund, "The Theme of the Three Caskets," in On Creativity and the Unconscious: Papers on the Psychology of Art, Literature, Love, Religion, edited by Benjamin Nelson, Harper Torchbooks, 1958, p. 75.

Johnson, Samuel, "On King Lear," in Four Centuries of Shakespearian Criticism, Discus Books, 1965, p. 490.

Lamb, Charles, "King Lear," in On The Tragedies of Shakespeare,, accessed January 25, 2007.

Myrick, Kenneth, "Christian Pessimism in King Lear," in Shakespeare, 1564–1964: A Collection of Modern Essays by Various Hands, Brown University Press, 1964, pp. 56-70.

Reilly, Terry, "King Lear: The Kentish Forest and the Problem of Thirds," Oklahoma City University Law Review, Vol. 26, No. 1, 2001.

Schneider, Ben Ross, Jr., "King Lear in Its Own Time: The Difference that Death Makes," in Early Modern Literary Studies, Vol. 1, No. 1 (1995), p. 1-49.

Shakespeare, William, The Complete Works, edited by Stanley Wells and Gary Taylor, Clarendon Press, 1988, pp. 909-74.

Shakespeare, William, The Tragedy of King Lear, edited by Russell Fraser, Signet Classics, 1963.

Troyat, Henri, Tolstoy, Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1967, p. 605.


Battenhouse, Roy W., "Moral Experience and Its Typology in King Lear," in Shakespearean Tragedy: Its Art and Its Christian Premises, Indiana University Press, 1969.

Battenhouse sees King Lear as a "medicine" against a fall from Christian belief by showing the grimness and pain which result from living in a world not governed by Christianity.

Bloom, Harold, "King Lear," in Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, Riverhead Books, 1998.

In his reading of the play, Bloom emphasizes Edgar's centrality.

Brooke, Nicholas, "The Ending of King Lear," in Shakespeare, 1564–1964: A Collection of Modern Essays by Various Hands, Brown University Press, 1964.

Brooke argues that Lear believes Cordelia to be alive and that that is necessary self-delusion in the face of impossibly painful despair.

Fraser, Russell, Shakespeare's Poetics: In Relation to "King Lear," Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1962.

Fraser discusses King Lear and its themes—among them Providence, Fortune, Anarchy and Order, Reason and Will, and Redemption—in the context of Renaissance thought.

Maguire, Nancy Klein, "Nahum Tate's King Lear: 'the king's blest restoration,'" in The Appropriation of Shakespeare: Post-Renaissance Reconstructions of the Works and the Myth, edited by Jean I. Marsden, St. Martin's Press, 1992.

Maguire interprets Tate's adaptation and revision of King Lear as a politically pro-Restoration response to the regicide of Charles I.

Taylor, Gary, Reinventing Shakespeare, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1983.

Taylor chronicles the way Shakespeare was understood, adapted, and performed beginning in his own time and extending to ours. Taylor charts the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century response to King Lear in detail.

Thompson, Ann and John O., "Animal Metaphors in King Lear," in Shakespeare: Meaning & Metaphor, University of Iowa Press, 1987.

The Thompsons study the animal metaphors recurring in King Lear and probe their significations.

Walton, J. K., "Lear's Last Speech," in Shakespeare Survey, Vol. 13, edited by Allardyce Nicoll, Cambridge University Press, 1966.

Walton interprets Lear's words about Cordelia's lips not as an indication that she is alive, but as a recognition of her death and the sacred quality of her original taciturnity.

King Lear

views updated May 21 2018

King Lear

by William Shakespeare


A tragic play set in ancient Britain around 800 b.c.e.; written c. 1605; first performed in 1606; published in 1608.


An aging king’s decision to abdicate and divide his kingdom among his three daughters leads to tragedy for the entire royal family.

Events in History at the Time the Play Takes Place

The Play in Focus

Events in History at the Time the Play Was Written

For More Information

William Shakespeare (1564-1616) was about 41 years old when he wrote King Lear, the tragedy that many deem his greatest. He created the play to be performed for King James, who had assumed the English throne shortly before, in 1603. Featured in the tragedy is a ruler who in some ways diverged sharply from James. James showed a commitment to peace and to preserving the integrity of and even unifying Britain, in contrast to Lear’s fatal division of his kingdom, which prompted bloodshed and war. Shakespeare wrote this tragedy well after the halfway point of his two decade career, at a time when his acting company, the King’s Men, was cementing its position as London’s preeminent theatrical troupe. Shortly thereafter, he would stop writing tragedies altogether. King Lear is therefore one of Shakespeare’s last great statements on the tragic potential in human life. Set in a kingdom of ancient Britain, the play is also one of his wildest, darkest, and most anarchic.

Events in History at the Time the Play Takes Place

Layers of time

The exact time period in which King Lear takes place remains imprecise. One of Shakespeare’s sources, Raphael Holinshed’s Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland (1587), places the story of King Lear at around 800 b.c.e., but the play shows few traces of early times. In fact, the handful of historical details that are in the play does not correspond to our understanding of life among the early Britons of the first millennium b.c.e. Anachronisms surface that are characteristic of medieval rather than ancient Britain, the influence perhaps of Holinshed’s source, the Historia Regum Britanniae (History of the Kings of Britain, c. 1135) by Geoffrey of Monmouth, which Shakespeare himself may have read. Even more prominent in King Lear are the reflections of social conditions and controversies from Shakespeare’s own age. Perhaps because of its dearth of historical detail, many have “seen the play primarily in relation to the Jacobean age,” that is, the age of King James (Foakes in Shakespeare, p. 13). Given the complication of three chronological layers—ancient, medieval, and Jacobean—the following survey moves from life among the ancient Britons as we understand it today, to the legendary history of King Lear as Shakespeare knew it, to the era of King James as it relates to the play.

Celtic life

Not organized into a single kingdom, the ancient British Celts, or Britons, consisted rather of individual peoples loosely affiliated by language and culture. These peoples immigrated into Britain in successive waves, from the early to the late first thousand years b.c.e., with the last major group appearing sometime before 100 b.c.e., ahead of the Roman arrival in 55 b.c.e. These ancient British Celts are the first group in Britain about whom historians have been able to glean some detailed information.


Among other anachronisms, Cordelia’s suitors are the king of France and the duke of Burgundy, but neither France nor the duchy of Burgundy existed in 800 b.c.e. The region that would become France was known then as Gaul, and pre-Christian Burgundy did not exist as a separate area, but simply as part of Gaul. Likewise, ancient Britain did not have a duke of Cornwall or of Albany—the duchy of Cornwall dates from 1337 and the first duke of Albany from 1458. But the two titles had particular resonance in the court of King James, who had two sons in these very positions: his son Charles had been made duke of Albany in 1600; his son Henry, duke of Cornwall in 1603.

Most of the Celts were settled farmers and herders. Their settlements were small and widely dispersed, with much of the population raising food for sustenance. But they also had a fairly well-developed system of trade and were skilled at working in iron, leather, gold, and clay to create goods for exchange (metal money was not in use by the ancient Celts before they came under the influnce of the Romans). Society esteemed military prowess, especially the young warrior-hero who succeeded in single combat. Also esteemed was intellectual prowess. The people boasted a highly developed oral literature. Heroes were well versed in the traditional knowledge and storytellers transmitted important information—codes of law, genealogies, and epic stories. However, the Britons were pre-literate; the various letters sent in King Lear are among the play’s many anachronisms.

The Britons were not unified under a single ruler. Instead, the basic unit of society was the large or small settlement, and its basic unit was the family. Society consisted of four classes: the king, nobles, free commoners, and the “unfree” (including, among other groups, slaves). While kingship was hereditary, it did not necessarily fall to the eldest son; any male relative of the current king could be designated his successor. In the noble class were druids, priests who intervened between the people and their pagan gods. Most of the free commoners were farmers and craftsmen. A woman did not enjoy the same rights as a man; her powers were limited, though the specific parameters remain unknown.

The Celts did not have the implicitly feudal system of government present in King Lear. Each Celtic clan owned its own land, which could not be withdrawn from the clan, though it could be lost by agreement or sale. In any case, land was not dispensed by a king in exchange for services, as it was under feudalism. The Celts did have another institution, “clientship,” by which a lord would provide a commodity (for example, land, military protection, or some other benefit) to a client in exchange for a service (crops, or military service, or hospitality). But the relationship was more cooperative and less dependent than in feudal society.

The Celts reached their historical pinnacle just before they were conquered by the Romans and then by Germanic tribes. Overrun twice, the Celts of continental Europe receded into the historical background. It was mainly on the British Isles that independent Celtic peoples survived, among groups inhabiting areas of Ireland, Scotland, and Wales.

From clientship to feudalism

As indicated, the few historical references in King Lear reflect life not in ancient but in medieval England, when society was based on feudalism. The institution first appeared on the island after its invasion by the Normans in 1066. In a feudal system, the king owns all the land and bestows it on tenants-in-chiefs, that is, lesser nobles than himself, in exchange for political and military service. The system came to England about 1070 b.c.e., when William the Conqueror introduced a professional army based on the mounted knight. He peopled this army with the help of his tenants-in-chief, who in exchange for a land grant, provided him with a specific number of armored knights for a certain amount of time each year. To secure the arrangement from generation to generation, society practiced primogeniture, which meant a tenant’s inheritance passed undivided to his eldest son. This preserved continuity in the services owed to the king. If a man had no son, feudal law dictated that his inheritance should be divided among his daughters, a custom that promised them a lower standard of living than the one in which they had been raised.

Legendary history as Shakespeare knew it

Lear is a legendary king, whose existence remains unproven. Holinshed’sChronicles, which documents the legendary history, identifies Lear as a descendant of Brutus, the alleged founder of the first British kingdom. A survivor of the Trojan War, Brutus’s forefather, Aeneas, is said to have gone to Italy, which led to his founding of Rome, and to Brutus’s subsequent trek northward to found a kingdom in Britain. In other words, Britain, like Rome, was the descendant of the doomed city of Troy. According to the Chronicles, Brutus first appeared on the island around 250 years before Lear, conquered a giant people there, established a kingdom, and governed it for 15 years. Before his death, he divided the island among his three sons. His eldest son, Locrine, ruled England next; followed by Locrine’s son Maden, followed by his son Mempricius, and so on through the generations (to Ebranke, Brute Greeneshield, Leill, Ludhurdibr, and then Bladud) until Lear, who became the tenth one to reign.

Described as an especially noble monarch, Lear governed England in great wealth, establishing the town Leicester (then called Caerleir). He had three daughters whom he loved dearly, favoring especially his youngest, Cordelia. In his old age, he seized upon the idea of having the three express their affection for him to determine which of them should be his successor. Cordelia’s answer vexed him so greatly that he married his two eldest daughters to the dukes of Cornwall and Albany, informing them that they could divide all his land between them after his death; half of this inheritance they were to receive immediately. Cordelia, on the other hand, was to receive nothing. Yet a king of Gaul (supposedly ruled by 12 kings at the time) desired her anyway and married her.

Unwilling to bide their time until his death, Cornwall and Albany rose against Lear. They seized the governance of the land from him, granting him an allowance that they reduced over time. Heartbroken, Lear grieved especially over the unkindness of his two daughters, who begrudged him everything. Finally, he fled into Gaul, where before seeing him, Cordelia sent ahead money so that he could attire himself and retain servants as befit his status. Welcoming him at court, she and her husband listened to the wrongs he had suffered, then raised an army to help him reclaim the land. War followed, leading to Cornwall and Albany’s deaths and Lear and Cordelia’s victory. Restored to his kingdom, Lear ruled for two or three more years, then died. Afterwards, Cordelia became queen, ruling Britain honorably for five years, during which her husband passed away. Her sisters’ sons, chafing under the rule of a woman, finally rebelled and imprisoned her, whereupon she committed suicide. So ends the legendary history, which Shakespeare adapts and diverges from in significant ways, complicating the plot with a subplot and with historical elements from his own time.

The Play in Focus

Plot summary

King Lear has a double storyline, involving two sets of characters who interconnect. The main plot features Lear and his daughters; the subplot, the earl of Gloucester and his sons. At the beginning of the play, the earl of Kent, a trusted advisor to Lear, talks with Gloucester about the impending division of Lear’s kingdom among his sons-in-law, the dukes of Albany and Cornwall. Interrupting the conversation, Gloucester’s bastard son, Edmund, appears and meets Kent. Despite his abilities, Edmund will inherit nothing from his father; Gloucester’s estate is slated to go to his eldest and legitimate son, Edgar.

Lear, his daughters, and their retinue enter. The king announces that today he will decide the issue of Cordelia’s marriage: she has two suitors, the duke of Burgundy and the king of France. But first, he will divide the kingdom among his heirs as their dowries, awarding the choicest portion to whichever daughter merits it best and loves him most. Goneril and Regan each claim to love Lear more than life itself, and so are rewarded with large, fertile thirds of the kingdom. Lear then turns to Cordelia, his favorite and the one with whom he hopes to live after abdicating. But she refuses to flatter him, saying only that she loves him “according to my bond, no more nor less” (Shakespeare, King Lear, 1.1.93). Enraged and uncomprehending, Lear instantly disinherits Cordelia. “With my two daughters’ dowers,” he tells Cornwall and Albany, “digest this third” (King Lear, 1.1.129). When trusty Kent attempts to defend the disinherited Cordelia, Lear banishes him too. The duke of Burgundy and the king of France enter, and Lear tells them of this sudden change in Cordelia’s fortune. Burgundy withdraws his proposal, but France accepts Cordelia even without a dowry. Taking leave of her sisters, Cordelia, who knows their true natures, admonishes them to care for their father. Alone, Goneril and Regan discuss Lear’s age and fitful ways; they resolve to form a united front against his capricious temper.

Elsewhere, the bastard Edmund vows to do whatever it takes to win Gloucester’s patrimony, including turning his father against his legitimate son, Edgar. After Gloucester enters, Edmund presents him with a letter—supposedly from Edgar—seeking assistance from Edmund in killing their father. Alarmed, the credulous earl asks Edmund to look into the matter, then leaves. A solitary Edmund rejoices in the success of his plan thus far and, when Edgar enters, tells him their father is murderously angry with him and advises him to flee.

Meanwhile, Lear has been staying with Goneril, who shows exasperation at her father’s supposedly unruly retinue of knights, and at Lear’s continuing exercise of the very rights he gave away. Hoping to anger him into leaving her house, Goneril encourages her servant Oswald to be less attentive and deferential to the king and his company. Elsewhere in the house, the banished Kent, disguised as the servant Caius, applies for a position waiting on Lear. Pleased by the blunt speech and forthright manner of “Caius,” Lear takes the servant on. Kent, as Caius, meets Lear’s outspoken fool, who engages the old king in a set of serious jests that probe into the folly of his giving up his power. The fool’s criticisms of the king’s shortsightedness prove justified when Goneril angrily demands that her father dismiss half of his 100 knights. Furious, Lear storms out of her home, vowing to take refuge with Regan. He is unaware, however, that his elder daughters have discussed the issue, and Regan is likewise prepared to curtail his “privileges.”

Meanwhile, Gloucester, now convinced that Edgar is plotting his death, plans to arrest his son. Edmund warns Edgar to flee, while pretending, for Gloucester’s sake, to attempt his capture. Alarmed, the unsuspecting Edgar obeys. Edmund then wounds himself and presents the injury to Gloucester as proof of Edgar’s murderous intent. Thoroughly taken in, Gloucester vows to make Edmund his heir. Now a fugitive, Edgar disguises himself as Poor Tom o’ Bedlam, a mad beggar.

Not finding Regan at home, Lear and his followers continue on to Gloucester’s castle. Regan and Cornwall have arrived there ahead of him, ostensibly to seek advice from the old earl. Kent, whom the king has sent before him with a message for Regan, encounters Goneril’s servant Oswald, and they quarrel. In the midst of the altercation, Regan and her husband Cornwall enter; displeased by Kent’s rough manner, they have him put in the stocks as punishment.

Lear arrives at Gloucester’s castle to find his servant Caius (really Kent) in the stocks, and Regan and Cornwall unwilling to see the king. At this point, Lear loses his temper. Regan and Goneril appear together and form a united front against him, demanding that he give up his entire retinue and submit to their authority. Heart-broken and defiant, Lear curses them and storms out of the castle with his fool as a storm approaches. Gloucester releases Kent from the stocks and offers to help him find the missing king. Later, Kent informs a trustworthy knight that a power struggle between Cornwall and Albany is imminent and sends a message with him to Cordelia in France, informing her of the new developments.

Out in the storm, Lear begins to go mad—“My wits begin to turn” (King Lear, 3.2.68). He exhorts the forces of nature to rise up and destroy his ungrateful daughters for their mistreatment of him. The fool sensibly notes that only those out of doors, meaning themselves, are going to be harmed by the rain. Kent, as Caius, enters, and leads them to shelter, a lean-to against the castle walls. There, Lear and the fool discover Edgar, half-naked and gibbering in his own disguise as Poor Tom. The deranged Lear quickly enters into a bizarre colloquy with Poor Tom, seeing in the supposed beggar’s condition a reflection of his own woes: “Didst thou give all to thy daughters? And art thou come to this?” (King Lear, 3.4.50-51). Edgar maintains his masquerade, claiming to have once been “a servingman, proud in heart and mind, that curled my hair, wore gloves in my cap, served the lust of my mistress’ heart, and did the act of darkness with her” (King Lear, 3.4.83-86). As Poor Tom, he raves about the demons that now torment him.

Meanwhile, Gloucester informs Edmund that a French army has landed at Dover, intending to restore Lear to power. Even though this is treason to England’s new rulers, the loyal Gloucester ventures forth to send Lear on to his rescuers at Dover. Edmund betrays his father to Cornwall for his own advancement. Unaware of this latest treachery, Gloucester locates the disguised Kent on the heath and arranges for him to take Lear to Cordelia’s forces at Dover. Returning home, Gloucester is ambushed by an enraged Regan and Cornwall, who bind him, accuse him of treason, and gouge out his eyes. Horrified by the monstrous act, a servant tries to stop Cornwall, losing his life but mortally wounding Cornwall in the process. Conscious now of Edmund’s betrayal, the blinded Gloucester is thrown outdoors. He encounters Edgar, still disguised as Poor Tom, who, stricken by his father’s injuries, leads the despairing earl to Dover.

Cornwall’s death inaugurates the disintegration of Goneril and Regan’s power. Disillusioned by his wife’s cruelty to her father, Albany turns against Goneril, who has anyway settled her affections elsewhere. Goneril falls in love with Edmund and secretly plans to eliminate the mild mannered Albany. Regan too falls in love with Edmund.

Meanwhile, at Dover, Cordelia prepares for war and searches for her father, who has escaped his keepers and is running madly through the fields. Edgar and Gloucester reach Dover, where Edgar cures his father’s suicidal despair by pretending to lead him to the cliffs, then letting him “jump” and informing him of his “miraculous” survival. Unaware of the ruse, Gloucester resigns himself to life for the time being. Just then, a deranged Lear, decked in weeds, enters. Still teetering between sanity and madness, Lear recognizes Gloucester, and they have a brief, poignant reunion before madness overtakes the king once more. Finally, some of Cordelia’s attendants enter and lead Lear to safety. Journeying onward, Gloucester and Edgar encounter Oswald, sent to kill the blinded earl, but Edgar slays the steward instead, finding on his body a letter from Goneril asking Edmund to kill Albany.

Cordelia and a remorseful, now lucid Lear finally reunite at Dover, while Goneril and Regan muster their army for battle against the French forces. By now, Edmund has captivated the widowed Regan as well as Goneril. He tries to decide which sister he wants and, as a commander


Lear’s fool would have been a familiar figure to Shakespeare’s audiences. Indeed, the figure of the court fool dates back to ancient times, and their absurd antics while in the service of their masters have been recorded in history. Tradition taught that fools were touched by God, because some had a physical or mental impairment, and therefore deserved privileges. However, the vast majority of professional fools had no handicap at all, but were skillful masters of a repertoire of bawdy songs, acrobatics, repartee, and/or clever jests. From medieval times, fools were often employed to provide entertainment for noble and royal houses. They were expected to gibe at and question, as well as amuse, their masters, the way Lear’s fool does in the play. In Shakespeare’s day, King James himself had a fool, Archie Armstrong, who was treated indulgently and enjoyed great license.

of the sisters’ army, makes his own plans to kill Lear and Cordelia, even though Albany has promised to spare them.

The battle is joined, and the French are defeated. Lear and Cordelia suffer capture and imprisonment, but try to take comfort in each other’s presence. Fearing the sympathy his prisoners will evoke in the people, Edmund charges a captain to sneak into Lear and Cordelia’s cell and kill them. Meanwhile, dissension erupts in the victors’ camp: Regan and Goneril quarrel over Edmund, whom Albany summarily accuses of treason. Astonished, Edmund demands to know who has laid this charge. Edgar appears, his identity still hidden, and challenges Edmund to single combat. Invoking the “rule of knighthood,” Edmund accepts the challenge and they fight (King Lear, 5.3.143). Edmund is mortally wounded, whereupon Edgar reveals his true identity and informs his half-brother of their father’s recent death. Acknowledging his crimes, Edmund resigns himself to death. More tumult follows as Kent arrives on the scene and messengers announce that Goneril has poisoned Regan and stabbed herself on witnessing Edmund’s defeat. Their bodies are brought forth and laid beside the dying Edmund, who at the last moment admits his plot to kill Lear and Cordelia. But even as Albany dispatches a messenger to countermand Edmund’s order, Lear enters, bearing the dead Cordelia in his arms. Having lost his tenuous hold on sanity again, the broken-hearted king does not seem to notice Goneril and Regan’s corpses or the now undisguised Kent’s presence. Lamenting the death of his beloved Cordelia, Lear expires over her body. Left to tend the realm under the shadow of this apocalypse are two battered survivors, Edgar and Albany: “The oldest hath borne most; we that are young/Shall never see so much, nor live so long” (King Lear, 5.3.332-33).

Changing world views

The “late eclipses in the sun and moon portend no good to us,” observes Gloucester, blaming the heavens for earthly discord and showing a pagan fear of supernatural forces that he does not understand (King Lear, 1.2.103-104). Out of earshot, his son Edmund disagrees:

This is the excellent foppery of the world, that, when we are sick in fortune, often the surfeits of our own behaviour, we make guilty of our disasters the sun, the moon, and stars … I should have been that I am had the maidenliest star in the firmament twinkled on my bastardizing.
(King Lear, 1.2.124-32)

The two attitudes reflect the view Shakespeare’s world held of earlier, pagan society, as well as religious controversies of Shakespeare’s own era. Society in his day regarded pagans as superstitious and fearful, or atheistic, or saved by a commitment to truth and similar virtues (Elton, p. 115). In the above instance, Gloucester embodies the superstitious; Edmund, the atheistic. Aside from this difference, the two also reflect an emerging skepticism in Shakespeare’s day in relation, for example, to how the Bible explained creation. “Nothing can be made out of nothing,” says Lear in the play (King Lear, 1.4.130). Clearly a pagan, Lear invokes various gods in the play, but he also utters a line that might have easily been voiced by Renaissance skeptics, such as Thomas Harriot (1560-1621) who questioned God’s creation of the world out of nothing. A mathematician, Harriot “did not like … the old storie of the Creation of the world. He could not beleeve the old position” (Aubrey in Elton, p. 187).

Other debates in Shakespeare’s day concerned astrology (whose validity the general public first began to doubt in the early seventeenth century), the existence of miracles, and possession by evil spirits. Through Edgar’s character in King Lear, “demonic possession and “miracles” are shown to be frauds” (Elton, p. 93). As Poor Tom, Edgar raves about demonic possession. But he is an avowed dissembler; the audience knows he is faking it. He likewise dissembles about the so-called miracle of his father’s survival when he fools the old man into thinking he has jumped from the cliffs at Dover. “Thy life’s a miracle,” says Edgar, knowing full well that it is a miracle he manufactured (King Lear, 4.6.55). In his own writings, King James condemned belief in miracles and other superstitions, so that by addressing them in the play, Shakespeare spoke directly to the monarch’s concerns.

Sources and literary context

Shakespeare drew on the drama as well as the history of his day for sources, most notably the anonymous play The True Chronicle History of King Leir (c. 1590). He also, as indicated, drew on Raphael Holinshed’s Chronicles of England, Scotland and Ireland (1587), which took its account of Lear from Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae (c. 1135). Apart from these sources, Shakespeare’s main plot may have been partly inspired by a contemporary event. In the early 1600s, Brian Annesley, a former courtier of Queen Elizabeth, suffered a “distemperature of mind and memory,” and the eldest of his three daughters, Grace, planned to have him declared insane and “altogether unfit to govern himself or his estate” (Wildegos in Bullough, p. 309). Annesley’s youngest daughter, Cordell, intervened, writing to one of King James’s chief ministers, Lord Cecil, on her father’s behalf. Cecil came to the rescue, and Annesley lived out his days in the care of a friend (Sir James Croft). Annesley died in 1604, willing most of his possessions to Cordell. From this real-life incident, Shakespeare may have derived the idea of Lear’s madness, which has no precedent in the earlier plays or histories.

The subplot of Gloucester is adapted from Sir Philip Sidney’s Arcadia (1590), a knightly romance that was among the most popular of Renaissance England. In the second book of Arcadia, the heroes encounter a young man named Leonatus leading his blind father. This father had been king of Paphlagonia until he was tricked, deposed, and blinded by his bastard son Plexirtus. Left to wander, the former king encounters Leonatus, the legitimate son he had abandoned. The parallel with the Gloucester plot is clear, although Leonatus is not disguised. Again, a real-life incident may have been influential. In 1604-1605, Sir Robert Dudley, the bastard son of a favorite in Queen Elizabeth’s court, tried to certify his legitimacy in court. His father had not admitted marriage to his mother so as not to anger the queen. The case, which Dudley lost, created a stir in England. Finally, Edgar’s masquerade as Tom o’Bedlam in the play was Shakespeare’s invention, although he drew on Samuel Harsnett’s Declaration of Egregious Popishe Impostures (1603) to furnish details of Tom’s professed punishment by demons.

Events in History at the Time the Play Was Written

England’s poor

At the time King Lear was written, almost half of England’s population consisted of the poor. There were the visible poor (maimed soldiers, the sick, survivors of natural disasters like fire, and households overburdened with children), and there were the invisible poor—average, humble families who labored for an insufficient pittance. “When they have worke,” said a 1638 report on the laboring poor in Hertfordshire, “the wages given them is so small that it hardly sufficeth to buy the poore man and his familye breed,” and so people starved (Bridenbaugh, p. 376). The result was intense suffering, an escalating problem since the 1590s, aggravated by depressions and crop failures. In the cloth trade, unemployed spinners would take to the road, wandering through town and country, begging for scraps. On farms, crop failures led to food shortages that, in turn, led to starvation and sometimes death for children. This kind of suffering had become widespread by Shakespeare’s day and “must be understood entirely apart from the better-known problem of the visible poor” (Bridenbaugh, p. 377).

The growing population, along with other developments, exacerbated the situation from the sixteenth to early seventeenth centuries, causing consternation among government authorities and churchmen alike. To stop people from starving—and rioting—poor laws were passed in 1598 and 1601. Each parish, according to the poor laws, had to take responsibility for its own poor. The laws authorized the parish to levy rates on parish dwellers for relief of the destitute, the amount depending on the value of each property, in accord with the Anglican tenet that everyone is responsible for almsgiving according to his or her ability. Attempts were made to contain the number of poor in a parish, using methods like


The origin of the Bedlam beggar harks back to c. 1247 when the priory of Saint Mary of Bethlehem was first built in London. By 1402, the priory was being used as a hospital for the insane, and the institution came to be called “Bedlam,” a corruption of “Bethlehem.” By Shakespeare’s day, the term referred not only to discharged mental patients licensed to beg, but also to those who feigned madness and prior institutionalization. they “commonly walked ‘bare-legged and barearmed,’ and called themselves Poor Tom” (Foakes in Shakespeare, p. 238). In King Lear, Edgar, in his disguise as Poor Tom, professes possession by demons—Flibbertigibbet, Modo, Mahu, Frateretto, and Hoppedance are fiends who prey upon him. The image plays on a superstitious belief that an addled person was possessed by evil spirits.

the census to limit the number of recipients on poor relief. Vagrants and recent arrivals in a community would be sent back to their home parishes.

For the most part, society frowned on vagrants like King Lear’s Poor Tom, believing that idlness drove them to “seek their meate … with Begging, Filching, and Stealing’ when they should be laboring” (Bridenbaugh, p. 385). In fact, vagrancy was an offense whose perpetrators suffered punishments such as branding (with a V) and ear-boring, two penalties prescribed by laws in 1572 and 1604. There was widespread fear in society of the criminal vagrant, which made people reluctant to give alms to any vagrant. The general perception was that vagrants were shiftless, despite the reality that many of them did not avoid labor but were itinerant laborers or temporary workers. At the same time, a growing faction of society showed genuine concern for the poor, and sought reform. Homilies, or sermons of the era, exhorted worshippers to “open their hand unto their brethern that were pore” and admonished those who “have great plentie of meats and drinkes, great store of moth-eaten apparel,” but will not “part with any peece of your super-fluities to helpe and succor the poore, hungry, & naked” (homilies in Elton, p. 227). There were people who heeded the homilies, and attempted to improve conditions. Some communities established almshouses, but such efforts were mostly directed at the visible poor. Still, the countryside remained riddled with unidentified impoverished, respectable persons whom neither the poor laws nor the reformers ever detected. In sum, a large share of the era’s misery “passed unnoticed,” which brings to mind King Lear’s self-recrimination for the poverty he never knew existed until he himself experienced it (Bridenbaugh, p. 376):

… Oh, I have ta’en
Too little care of this. Take physic, pomp,
Expose thyself to feel what wretches feel,
That thou may shake the superflux to them,
And show the heavens more just.
     (King Lear, 3.4.34-38)

Addled parents and defiant children

From about the 1580s, England began to take a heightened interest in suicide, the insane, and milder mental and emotional disturbances such as melancholy. Bethlehem (also spelled Bethlem) Hospital became infamous for its inmates, thanks in no small part to Jacobean playwrights. In reality, it was far less imposing than its image suggested. The asylum, called Bedlam in the popular vernacular, was actually a small structure housing fewer than 30 inmates, who “languished there for years, living in squalid conditions without adequate medical treatment” (MacDonald, p. 2).

Courts were fairly scrupulous about who was declared mentally deranged. They usually appointed relatives or friends to care for an insane landowner. And before the insane man’s property could be turned over to a guardian, a jury had to declare that the man was too deranged to manage his estate and had been for a year or longer. King James himself took special interest in the insane, instructing the courts to make sure such unfortunates were “freely committed to their best and nearest friends, that can receive no benefit by their death” and that committees be “bound to answer for … the very just value of their estates … for the benefit of such lunatic (if he recover) or of the next heir” (James in MacDonald, p. 5). As suggested by this edict, insanity was considered a temporary state, a perception that sheds light on Lear’s moments of lucidity in Shakespeare’s play. When a madman recovered, taught the law, his property ought to be restored to him, minus the amount expended on his care. Paupers who were mad received attention too. By the time King Lear was written, the government had ordered parishes to consider the impoverished insane as part of the so-called deserving poor, who, like the physically disabled, could not work through no fault of their own.

What was thought to cause lunacy in early 1600s England? Exhibiting superstitions of the age, people pointed to witchcraft, possession by the devil, and astrology. Physicians invoked more rational explanations, tracing mental disorders to emotional disturbances, which they, in turn, traced to family issues—unrequited love, marital disharmony, the death of a child, perhaps even “filial ingratitude” (King Lear, 3.4.12-15).

“It is the duty of the child,” taught Alexander Nowell, dean of St. Paul’s in London, “to frame their life according to the will of their father” (Nowell in Greaves, p. 282). Catholic and Protestant families alike raised children to revere and obey their elders, and to relieve parents in times of economic or physical distress. Of course, there were exceptions—uncaring children who shirked their duties to elderly or infirm parents, as Lear’s daughters do. But generally children fulfilled their obligations to parents, which must have made Goneril and Regan’s spurning of Lear seem particularly egregious to the audience in Shakespeare’s day.

Aside from family strife, emotional disturbances were seen as the consequence of old age. The aged, it was thought, became children again, difficult to please, easily angered, given to talking to themselves. When Goneril speaks of her father’s “unruly waywardness,” which “infirm and choleric years bring with them,” she invokes this perception of the elderly (King Lear, 1.1.299-300). Interestingly, children like Goneril who challenged parental authority were considered delusional themselves. People actually spoke of the defiant child as being “brainsick” (MacDonald, p. 165).

From disunity to the promise of unity

In contrast to the divisiveness featured in King Lear, King James stressed the importance of unity in Britain. Referring back to the legendary first British kingdom and the friction that ensued after Brutus divided it among his heirs, James admonished his son, Prince Henry, to refrain from dividing it further:

And in case it please God to prouide you to all these three Kingdomes, make your eldest son Isaac, leauing him all your kingdomes; and prouide the rest with priuate possessions: Otherwayes by deuiding your kingdomes, yee shall leaue the see of diuision and discord among your posteritie; as befell to this He, by the diuision and assignement thereof, to the three sones of Brutus.…
(James in Shakespeare, p. 15)

James even tried to repair this initial division, proposing that Scotland and England unite into one kingdom. The goal would not be reached in his lifetime; it would take another hundred years before Scotland joined with England in the Act of Union (1707). Still, James acquired an image as unifier. Among other indications of this image was a show performed in London in 1605. Called The Triumphs of Reunited Britannia, the show celebrated the inauguration of London’s new mayor (Sir Leonard Holliday). It also suggested that the separate crowns of England and Scotland had merged in King James. Recalling the legendary history of King Brutus (or “Brute”), it recapitulated how his division of Britain among his three sons had led to disharmony and war. From this retrospective, the show telescoped forward to 1605, at which point its legendary characters “step out of time to celebrate the fact that the chaos they created has been reduced to order by the ‘new Brute’, King James” (Dutton, p. 133). Thus, in dealing with the division of a kingdom, King Lear addresses a topic of discussion in early seventeenth-century England.


King Lear is recorded as having been performed at the court of King James in 1606. The earliest surviving critical commentary on the play, however, does not appear until 1681, when Nahum Tate, an Irish playwright, explained, in a letter to a friend, his reasons for revising Shakespeare’s tragedy for the seventeenth-century stage:

I found the whole [of King Lear] to answer your Account of it, a Heap of Jewels, unstrung and unpolisht; yet so dazling in their Disorder, that I soon perceiv’d I had seiz’d a Treasure. ‘Twas my good fortune to light on one Expedient to rectifie what is wanting in the Regularity and Probability of the Tale, which was to run through the whole A Love betwixt Edgar and Cordelia, that never chang’d word with each other in the Original.
(Tate in Harris and Scott, p. 93)

Tate’s revisions included “making the Tale conclude in a Success to the innocent distrest persons: Otherwise I must have incumbred the Stage with dead Bodies” (Tate in Harris and Scott, p. 93). Surprisingly, Tate’s changes were so successful that for the next 150 years his version of King Lear was performed far more frequently than Shakespeare’s.

Joseph Addison, the eighteenth-century essayist, disagreed with Tate’s changes. Tate’s version of King Lear had, in Addison’s view, “lost half its beauty” (Addison in Harris and Scott, p. 94). Nineteenth-century intellectuals concurred, expressing a strong preference for Shakespeare’s original, for which William Hazlitt expressed awe and wonder:

It is then the best of Shakespear’s plays, for it is the one in which he is most in earnest.… This depth of nature, this force of passion, this tug and war of the elements of our being, this firm faith in filial piety, and the giddy anarchy and whirling tumult of the thoughts at finding this prop failing it, the contrast between the fixed, immoveable basis of natural affection, and the rapid, irregular starts of imagination, suddenly wrenched from all its accustomed holds and resting places in the soul, this is what Shakespear has given, and what nobody else but he could give.
(Hazlitt in Harris and Scott, p. 108)

—Jacob Littleton and Joyce Moss

For More Information

Bridenbaugh, Carl. Vexed and Troubled Englishmen 1590-1642. New York: Oxford University Press, 1968.

Bullough, Geoffrey, ed. Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare. Vol. 7. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1973.

Dutton, Richard. William Shakespeare: A Literary Life. London: Macmillan, 1989.

Elton, William R. King Lear and the Gods. San Marino, Calif.: The Huntington Library, 1966.

Greaves, Richard L. Society and Religion in Elizabethan England. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1981.

Harris, Laurie Lanzen, and Mark W. Scott, eds. Shakespearean Criticism. Vol. 2. Detroit: Gale Research, 1985.

Holinshed, Raphael. Holinshed’s Chronicles of England, Scotlande, and Irelande. Vol. 1. 1587. London: J. Johnson, 1807.

MacDonald, Michael. Mystical Bedlam: Madness, Anxiety, and Healing in Seventeenth-Century England. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981.

Mack, Maynard. King Lear in Our Time. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1965.

Ross, Anne. Everyday Life of the Pagan Celts. London: B. T. Batsford, 1970.

Salgado, Gamini. The Elizabethan Underworld. New York: St. Martin’s, 1992.

Shakespeare, William. King Lear. Ed. R. A. Foakes. The Arden Shakespeare. London: Thomson Learning, 1997.

King Lear

views updated May 18 2018

King Lear

by William Shakespeare


A play set in ancient Britain in the first thousand years b.c; first performed in 1605 or 1606, revised by Shakespeare about 1608.


An aged king divides his kingdom among his daughters, two of whom flatter him to earn their shares. When the youngest, favored daughter offends her father by refusing to join in the flattery, she is deprived of her portion of the kingdom and banished by the king. This hasty action comes back to haunt the king when his two remaining daughters turn on him.

Events in History at the Time the Play Takes Place

The Play in Focus

Events in History at the Time the Play Was Written

For More Information

Forty-one years old when he wrote King Lear, Shakespeare created the play to be performed for King James, who had assumed the English throne in 1603. Shakespeare’s play features a ruler quite different from the one that James I was proving to be. Despite some disharmony with parliament and other problems during his reign, James gained a reputation as a ruler with a peaceful nature, a concern for justice, and an interest in unifying Britain. In contrast, the ancient King Lear divided his kingdom, which led to bloodshed and war.

Events in History at the Time the Play Takes Place

English history—fact and legend

Scholars describe Shakespeare as being less interested in historical accuracy than in the passions and psychology of his own time. Nevertheless, although the setting of King Lear is not firmly fixed, the play appears to take place in the southern portion of the British island in the first thousand years b.c. Cornwall, Kent, and Gloucester, the names of characters in Shakespeare’s play, are likewise names of regions in the southern portion of the island. According to the early English scholar Geoffrey of Monmouth, in his Historia Regum Britanniae (History of the Kings of Britain, 1136), the events on which King Lear is based took place in the era before recorded history, around 750 b.c. Later scholars have questioned the accuracy of Geoffrey’s information. New facts about the Celts uncovered since his work suggest that such a kingdom would have existed sometime later in the first thousand years b.c.

Historians look to both facts and legends to piece together information about England in the time before recorded history. Tales about such ancient English rulers as King Arthur, with his court at Camelot, are studied intently. A character in Shakespeare’s play, the Fool, places the events of King Lear before the time of Camelof by mentioning King Arthur’s magician Merlin: “This prophecy Merlin shall make for I live before his time ...” (Shakespeare, King Lear, 3.2.95-96).

Shakespeare set his play among the Britons, one of the peoples who inhabited the island in the first thousand years b.c. The Britons are known to have been part of a larger group, the Celts, who in ancient times had migrated to the island from western continental Europe. By examining Celtic legends, scholars have traced the name of Shakespeare’s title character to Llyr, a Celtic sea god. Turning to early histories of England, they have further traced the character to a King Leir, who, according to these records, once ruled over all the Britons. He is thought to be a separate character from the Celtic sea god, despite the similar name. Other plays from Shakespeare’s time, such as The True Chronicle History of King Leir, also discuss this monarch. There is, however, no real evidence to prove that a historical King Leir actually existed.

Celtic society

“The whole nation ... is war-mad, both high-spirited and quick for battle” (the Greek writer Strabo in Powell, p. 76). The Greeks and Romans had encountered the Celts (or Gauls, as the Romans called them) on continental Europe, where the groups traded and fought with one another. The Celts possessed a highly aristocratic society, with kings, priests, a warrior class, freeman farmers, and slaves. Their social structure survived in large part in the early Celtic communities of both Ireland and southern Britain.

In Celtic Britain, society consisted of kings, nobles, free commoners (farmers), and an unfree population. As a rule, the people lived in kin or extended family groups. Land in early Celtic communities was owned not by individuals but by the kin group. Evidence suggests that several hundred years after Shakespeare’s play is set, it was common among Britain’s Celts for a father to divide his estate among his children. There is uncertainty about when this custom began or how widespread it was, but it parallels Lear’s division of his kingdom at the outset of King Lear.

Among the ancient Celts, nobles and commoners related to each other in a system known as clientship. The commoners provided military and other services to a noble, who in return protected them and helped them meet basic needs. Unlike peasants in a feudal society, they were free and could own property.

In Shakespeare’s play, King Lear’s forces include an army of knights. Knights appeared in later, feudal societies, in which they fought for a king in exchange for land grants. But, while rulers in early Celtic culture did have bands of skilled warriors, there is no evidence that their armies included knights. A king could amass a powerful fighting force, but in another way. A local king would sometimes enter into a pact of friendship with less powerful kings, becoming their overlord. The less powerful kings would pledge armed services to the overlord in return for his military protection.

The power of women

King Lear concerns a father’s efforts to divide his kingdom among his daughters indirectly, by distributing portions to his sons-in-law. He plans to give Cordelia’s share to the man she will marry. The play seems to suggest that only male Britons could own property, which may not have been the case. In fact, daughters may have been able to inherit property directly and wives to own it independently of their husbands.


Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae names an unusually large number of female rulers in early British history. As J. S. P, Tatlock notes in The Legendary History of Britain, “the most startling thing is the number of women among them [rulers of ancient England], three or four or five queens ruling alone” (Tatlock, p. 286). Tatlock believes this list was also a shock to readers in Geoffrey’s time, since they were unused to females holding exclusive power. Geoffrey of Monmouth’s claims have been questioned since they were first published. Later historians have maintained that the right to rule could be transmitted and shared by women in early Britain, but females did not rule alone. A similar state of affairs exists in the play; Lear plans to distribute his kingdom to his sons-in-law, not his daughters.

There is evidence of strong female leaders in ancient England, though they may not have exercised the exclusive power that Geoffrey wrote of. Queen Boadicea, who died in 62 a.d., serves as an example. After her husband’s death, this queen led her Celtic tribe (the Iceni) in a revolt against the Romans. The English placed a statue of her at Westminster Abbey in London, which stands as proof of their admiration for the female leader.

The Play in Focus

The plot

King Lear is remarkable for its skillful integration of parallel plot lines. The play tracks King Lear’s tragic fall as well as the Earl of Gloucester’s undoing. As the play opens, the Earl of Gloucester jests crudely about the conditions leading to the birth of his bastard son Edmund. It is this son’s evil plan that will lead to the earl’s undoing. Gloucester suffers a fate similar to Lear’s in the play—both believe their deceitful offspring and fail to trust their honest children, and both meet with disaster.

The aged and weary King Lear then turns his kingdom over to his daughters’ husbands. His daughters must pledge their love to him in order to earn their share of his estate. While the words of his elder daughters, Goneril and Regan, win his approval, his youngest daughter, Cordelia, is unwilling to play this game of hollow flattery. Lear banishes her in a fit of rage and divides her share between Goneril’s and Regan’s husbands. The Earl of Kent objects, but his continued protests result in his banishment as well.


The blinding of the character Gloucester may seem a horrifying punishment, but even in Shakespeare’s day many punishments were grisly. If a man was convicted of high treason, the law demanded that he be hanged and cut down while still alive. Next his bowels were to be taken out of his belly and burned before his eyes while still alive. Finally, his head was cut off and his body divided into four quarters. The head might afterward be displayed on a pike along London Bridge or some other public venue. Punishment for a female traitor was somewhat milder; she was to be burned by fire until dead. Although the law was supposed to be carried out as written, in fact mercy was often shown by hanging the male until he was dead before mutilating his body.

King Lear’s decision to banish his youngest daughter affects her two suitors. Both the Duke of Burgundy and the King of France had expressed a desire to marry her. Stripped of her dowry, she is no longer attractive to the duke, but the king feels drawn to her and takes her to France.

Meanwhile, Gloucester’s bastard son, Edmund, schemes to advance himself. A central motivation unfolds—Edmund aims to get even with his legitimate brother, Edgar, and his father, Gloucester, by gaining control of their estate. He gives Gloucester a letter, written by himself but signed with Edgar’s name, that talks about the younger generation’s right to inherit their elders’ wealth without waiting for their parents to die. Gloucester feels betrayed by Edgar but wants further proof of his treachery; therefore, Edmund sets up a meeting in which he frames the unwitting Edgar. Feeling trapped, Edgar flees, and Gloucester calls for his arrest.

The banished Earl of Kent, meanwhile, returns in disguise to serve King Lear. Gloucester’s son Edgar, too, has resorted to disguising himself, masquerading as Poor Tom, or Tom o’ Bedlam, a homeless madman tormented by “foul fiends.” Another servant to the king, the Fool, sees the folly of Lear’s actions and attempts to warn Lear of his error in judgment in a series of riddles and songs. Lear highly values the Fool and tolerates much criticism from him; he does not, however, understand the Fool’s message.

Meanwhile, Goneril and Regan have launched a plot to deflate their father’s power. Lear, who has decided to divide his time between his daughters’ castles, has set a condition that 100 knights accompany him on his journeys back and forth. His daughters, each in her turn, coldly refuse to support such a large contingent of knights. The outrageousness of these actions drives Lear from first Goneril’s and then Regan’s castle.

Homeless and exposed to a lashing storm, Lear rails at nature. Kent and the Fool attempt to coax him into a nearby hovel or hut. Soon the exertions of his ranting and his growing madness weary the old king, and he collapses in exhaustion. Although Goneril and Regan have forbidden him to do so, Gloucester finds Lear and his companions and offers them shelter. He informs Kent of a plot against Lear’s life, and the king leaves for Dover to meet the forces of the King of France and Cordelia, which are coming to his aid.

Upon returning to his castle, Gloucester is arrested and brought before Goneril, Regan, and Regan’s husband, Cornwall. They condemn Gloucester for treachery and punish him by plucking out his eyes. Edmund is then named Earl of Gloucester, a development that makes it appear that he has managed to usurp his father’s place, just as Lear’s daughters have usurped their father’s. Soon, however, Cornwall is fatally wounded by a servant still loyal to the old Gloucester. Cornwall’s death proves to be the first step in the disintegration of the wicked new rulers’ power. Goneril and Regan become entangled in a competition for Edmund’s affection and physical love that eventually leads to both their deaths. Out of jealousy, Goneril poisons Regan and subsequently Goneril commits suicide.

At Dover a tender reunion takes place between Lear and Cordelia, but her French forces

lose to Goneril and Regan’s army, and the father and daughter are arrested. Goneril’s husband, the Duke of Albany, who has come to hate his evil wife, has Edmund arrested for treason. Edmund, in turn, offers to fight anyone who calls him a traitor. Still in disguise, Edgar meets Edmund in one-to-one combat and mortally wounds him. Edmund makes a last-minute attempt to do some good before his death, confessing that he has ordered the deaths of Lear and Cordelia. This information, however, is given too late to countermand his order. King Lear, having recognized Cordelia’s loyalty and love, dies grieving over her breathless body. With the death of most of the principals—Lear, Cordelia, Goneril, and Regan, among others—Edgar declares that those remaining must, “Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say” (King Lear, 5.3.325). This allusion to the false flattery that triggered the play’s tragic events thus links the end of the drama to its beginning.

Science vs. nature in King Lear

The words nature, natural, and unnatural appear some forty times in King Lear. There were two views of nature in Shakespeare’s England, and they competed with each other. Inherited from the Middle Ages was the image of nature as closely tied to God; man, according to this image, must cooperate with the natural order and behave with human decency to succeed. In Shakespeare’s play, Lear considers his cruel treatment by two of his daughters as an offense against nature, which demands that children honor their parents. He holds the medieval view of a naturally moral universe and shows an increasing human decency as the play progresses.

At first, King Lear seems unaware of the disparities and inequalities in his world. But as he loses his land, his power, and ultimately his identity, he comes to understand the vulnerability of the poor. When Lear is exposed to a lashing, wind-driven rain, he laments his earlier insensitivity to them:

Poor naked wretches, wheresoe’er you are,
That bide the pelting of this pitiless storm,
How shall your houseless heads and unfed
sides ... defend you
From seasons such as these? O, I have ta’en
Too little care of this!
               (King Lear, 3.4.28-33)

The character Edmund represents another, competing view. He is the “new man” of the post-medieval Renaissance period, a creature who is, above all, a political animal driven by self-interest and a desire for power. The century leading up to Shakespeare’s play had seen the appearance of such politically driven and scientific men. Perhaps most notably, Europeans had seized on and perverted ideas from Nicolo Machiavelli’s 1529 book The Prince (also covered in Literature and Its Times). These ideas, which concerned strategies for acquiring and retaining power, helped foster the image of the new man and became part of a larger, scientific view of nature. Instead of being connected to God, nature was regarded as an independent machine that God had created but then left to run of its own accord. Man, according to this view, need not worry about having to cooperate with nature to excel. Rather he could discover nature’s laws and manipulate them for his own purposes. Even human nature could be manipulated, as shown by Edmund in King Lear; when Goneril and Regan compete for his love, he ruthlessly exploits their feelings for his own personal gain.

The two views—that of nature as including man and tied to God and that of nature as independent of God and controllable by man—coexisted uneasily in Shakespeare’s society. Shakespeare himself takes a position in King Lear. Favoring the first view, he casts Edmund, the new-age man in the play, as the villain. But Edmund shows some human decency at the end, when he tries to save Lear and Cordelia from death, an act that suggests his character is a complex mixture in which old values have not altogether been displaced by the new.


Shakespeare almost certainly drew upon the play The True Chronicle History of King Leir (c. 1590) in developing his own drama. He definitely drew upon Raphael Holinshed’s Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland (1587) and probably upon Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae (c. 1135) as well. The similarities between Shakespeare’s King Lear and the stories of King Leir in the Chronicles and the Historia are remarkable. Those documents describe Leir as a king of ancient England with three daughters. The two elder ones, Goneril and Regan, earn a share of his kingdom; Cordelia, the youngest, refuses to flatter her father. She is banished, only to return at a later time. The key difference between Shakespeare’s work and the earlier accounts is found at the end. In the sources, Cordelia rescues Leir from his wicked daughters and establishes a peaceful kingdom (although she is later driven to suicide by her sisters’ sons). Other publications of the era in which the same basic storyline appears are Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene (1590 and 1596) and John Higgins’ The First Parte of the Mirror for Magistrates (1574).

Shakespeare apparently developed the Gloucester subplot from Sir Philip Sidney’s Arcadia (1581 and 1583). Sidney’s work also had a tragic ending, with the equivalent of the Gloucester character dying of a broken heart, which may have influenced the tone of the conclusion to King Lear.

Shakespeare drew inspiration from several other quarters in his creation of a number of characters in King Lear. For the figure of Tom o’ Bedlam, Shakespeare used Samuel Harsnett’s Declaration of Egregious Popishe Impostures (1603), a work dealing with demons. The devils and fiends who torment Tom are derived directly from this piece.

The character of the Fool dates back to ancient times. By Shakespeare’s era, fools had become servants in the homes of nobles. Mentally impaired or physically deformed, fools were thought to be touched by God and so enjoyed a privileged position. They were expected not only to amuse but also to criticize their masters. Queen Elizabeth, who ruled before and during Shakespeare’s lifetime, is known to have scolded one of her fools for not being critical enough with her.

Events in History at the Time the Play Was Written

From Queen Elizabeth to King James

England under the rule of Elizabeth I (1558-1603) became a vigorous land of growth, opportunity, and fierce competitiveness. The queen proved to be a unifying force whose leadership helped propel her island nation to new levels of achievement. An intellectual and a writer of poetry herself, she was a patroness of the arts as well as a forceful ruler.

Queen Elizabeth never married or had any children. Because of this, there was no direct heir to the throne; as she grew older, the question of who would succeed her as monarch became one of increasing concern to her subjects. Internal politics and religion complicated the problem. There was great concern that ambitious rivals for the throne would plunge England into a civil war. The transfer of power, however, proved to be a smooth one. Before her death, Elizabeth arranged for James VI of Scotland to give up his Catholic religion, convert to the Anglican Church, and rule England as James I. James proved to be a capable king.

King Lear was first performed in 1606, only three years after Elizabeth’s passing. Some readers feel that Shakespeare may have used the play to pay tribute to the queen, his late patroness. By focusing the play’s plot on the difficulties that can arise in determining succession to the throne, he may have been indirectly praising her—as well as King James—by showing how dangerous the transfer of power can be. Certainly, Shakespeare presents a startling contrast to James I’s relatively untroubled ascension to the throne.

As king, James concluded a peace with Spain, ending a war that had lasted nearly twenty years at great expense to England. On the first day of Parliament after his coronation, he promoted plans for a formal union between Scotland and England (which, despite his efforts, would not occur during his reign). James tried to resolve disputes in the church, too. He clearly kept the well-being of his kingdom in mind when making


Brian Annesley was a nobleman who lived during Shakespeare’s lifetime. He went insane, and two of his daughters took him to court to have him committed to an asylum and to win control of his estate. A third daughter, Cordell, protested. As a result of a letter she wrote to King James, her father was allowed to live out his life in the care of a friend. In his will Annesley left Cordell his estates, a move that her sisters contested unsuccessfully in court. A friend of Shakespeare’s knew the family, and it is likely that Shakespeare was aware of the case.

decisions and taking action. Moreover, his efforts on behalf of unity contrast sharply with the divisions and subsequent decay in the kingdom of King Lear.

Great Chain of Being

Although the world of King Lear sometimes seems to lack any sense of order, Shakespeare’s audiences were familiar with a certain hierarchy, or system of organization by rank or authority. This hierarchy was based on a model of the world known as the “Great Chain of Being,” a name given to the model only after Shakespeare’s time. The name alludes to a chain of existence that begins with God and descends downward through the angels, to humans, then to beasts, and finally to rocks and other inanimate objects.

In King Lear, Shakespeare focuses on the position of humans between angels and beasts. Angels, it was assumed, already knew themselves and therefore had little interest in self-understanding. Humans did not have automatic self-knowledge but could learn to understand themselves, which helped explain why they occupied a higher position on the Great Chain than beasts, who were incapable of self-knowledge. At the outset of the play, Lear suffers from poor self-understanding and so would drop down to the position of beast on the chain. As the drama progresses, however, he realizes the truth about his own foolish misjudgment of his daughters. To educated playgoers, Lear’s growing awareness allows him to assume his proper place on the Great Chain of Being.

Treatment of the insane

In Shakespeare’s time, the insane were thought to be possessed by evil spirits. Edgar, disguised as Poor Tom, speaks of these spirits—Flibbertigibbet, Modo and Mahu, Frateretto, and Hoppedance—as fiends who prey upon him. The name Tom o’ Bedlam is taken from the name of a hospital in London (Bedlam, a corruption of Bethlehem) dedicated to the “treatment” of the mentally ill. In treating the insane, the hospital typically prescribed whipping as a “cure” for madness. Patients released from Bedlam were almost always poverty-stricken, and they usually resorted to begging for their existence.

Family life in Shakespeare’s England

Life in England during the 1600s was still very precarious. People died suddenly of diseases and injuries for which no cure existed. Despite the all-too-likely risk of sudden loss, though, people formed close attachments and institutions of the time concentrated on preserving and promoting the immediate family. Church courts penalized people for straying from their loyalty to a husband or wife, and a divorce was virtually impossible to obtain. Severe punishments were handed down for those who murdered or attacked their parents or husbands. Living in such a society, audiences must have regarded the actions of Lear’s two elder daughters as especially wicked and contrary to nature more than just evil. In Act 1, Lear rages against Goneril, expressing his desire that she might feel, “How sharper than a serpent’s toofh it is / To have a thankless child” (King Lear, 1.4.279-80). This sums up the revulsion that most playgoers probably felt toward Goneril and her sister Regan, especially in view of Lear’s generous gift of his kingdom to them. In fact in Shakespeare’s England, children who challenged the authority of their elders were generally considered “brainsick” (MacDonald, p. 165).


After surviving so many sufferings, Lear can only die ... if he is also to be saved and to pass the remainder of his days in happiness, the whole loses its signification.

(Schlegel, p. 413)


Although King Lear is a play of great power, in its action and its depiction of characters, as well as in its themes and tragic mood, some early audiences were dismayed by the play’s bleak conclusion. In 1681 the English playwright Nahum Tate altered the tragedy by giving it a happy ending that included victory for Cordelia’s army and Lear’s return to the throne. Tate’s popular version was staged with greater frequency than the original for the next 150 years. Not until the 1800s would critics prefer Shakespeare’s own tragic ending as the most realistic, effective one for his play.

For More Information

Burgess, Anthony. Shakespeare. Chicago: Elephant Paperbacks, 1994.

MacDonald, Michael. Mystical Bedlam: Madness, Anxiety, and Healing in Seventeenth-Century England. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981.

Mcllwain,, Charles Howard. The Political Works of James I. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1918.

Powell, T. G. E. The Celts. 1958. Revised edition. London: Thames and Hudson, 1980.

Schlegel, August Wilhelm. “Criticisms on Shakespeare’s Tragedies” in A Course of Lectures on Dramatic Art and Literature. 1846. Reprint. New York: AMS Press, 1965.

Shakespeare, William. King Lear. New York: Penguin, 1970.

Tatlock, J. S. P. The Legendary History of Britain. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1950.

Lear, King

views updated May 23 2018

Lear, King





Alternate Names


Appears In

Geoffrey of Monmouth's History of the Kings of Britain, William Shakespeare's King Lear


Son of King Bladud

Character Overview

King Lear, a legendary ruler of ancient Britain, is a tragic figure who loses his authority through his own foolishness. One of the primary sources of King Lear's legend is the History of the Kings of Britain by the medieval English writer Geoffrey of Monmouth.

According to myth, the aging king decides to divide his kingdom among his three daughters and asks each of them to declare their love for him. King Lear's two oldest daughters, Regan and Goneril, flatter him with grand, but insincere, expressions of devotion. By contrast, Lear's youngest daughter, Cordelia, conveys only her natural, true love for her father.

Angered by what he perceives as Cordelia's insufficient love, Lear splits the kingdom between Regan and Goneril. Their treachery, however, soon becomes clear as they strip their father of all his authority and possessions. Lear then realizes the sincerity of Cordelia's love. Fearing that she will reject him because of the way that he treated her earlier, he goes to her and finds that she welcomes him with generosity and compassion. Lear eventually regains authority over his lands after joining Cordelia and her husband, and when he dies a few years later, Cordelia inherits the throne of Britain.

King Lear in Context

Most monarchies are inherited according to the common law right of primogeniture (pronounced pri-mo-JEN-i-chur), according to which the first-born son of the monarch inherits the crown and the entire estate. Difficulties arise when there is no obvious male heir, and many wars have been fought between family members struggling to assert their claims to power. The story of King Lear can be seen as a reflection of early British attitudes about the importance of male heirs. The problem of dividing up Lear's kingdom arises only because he has no sons, and must therefore pass his kingdom on to his daughters and their husbands.

Key Themes and Symbols

Flattery and greed are two important themes in the myth of King Lear. The king's two oldest daughters offer insincere flattery to their father in their attempts to secure more land for themselves. Cordelia, on the other hand, symbolizes true and sincere love, which is ultimately victorious over the fake emotions of her sisters.

King Lear in Art, Literature, and Everyday Life

The legendary king is best known through William Shakespeare's play King Lear. In this version, Lear goes mad after he is humiliated by his two older daughters. When Cordelia learns of her father's condition, she raises an army to fight her sisters' forces. Cordelia's army is defeated, and she is imprisoned and hanged. King Lear dies soon after, heartbroken over the death of his daughter.

The story of King Lear has been retold in many forms over the centuries. Two notable modern examples are Akira Kurosawa's 1985 film Ran, which switches the setting to medieval Japan and changes the daughters to sons, and Jane Smiley's 1991 Pulitzer Prize—winning novel A Thousand Acres, which adapts the King Lear myth to modern-day Iowa.

Read, Write, Think, Discuss

The story of King Lear emphasizes the importance of having a male heir in medieval Britain. Do you think modern society still places an importance on continuing family lines through male children, or do you think modern families treat males and females equally when it comes to carrying on the family legacy? Find examples that support your position.

SEE ALSO Celtic Mythology

Lear, King

views updated May 18 2018

Lear, King

King Lear, a legendary ruler of ancient Britain, is a tragic figure who loses his authority through his own foolishness. The aging king decides to divide his kingdom among his three daughters and asks each of them to declare their love for him. King Lear's two oldest daughters, Regan and Goneril, flatter him with grand, but insincere, expressions of devotion. By contrast, Lear's youngest daughter, Cordelia, conveys only her natural, true love for her father.

Angered by what he perceives as Cordelia's insufficient love, Lear splits the kingdom between Regan and Goneril. Their treachery, however, soon becomes clear as they strip their father of all his authority and possessions. Lear then realizes the sincerity of Cordelia's love. Fearing that she will reject him because of the way that he treated her earlier, he goes to her and finds that she welcomes him with generosity and compassion.

medieval relating to the Middle Ages in Europe, a period from about a.d. 500 to 1500

One of the primary sources of King Lear's legend is the History of the Kings of Britain by the medieval English writer Geoffrey of Monmouth. In this version, Lear regains authority over his lands after joining Cordelia and her husband, although he dies a few years later. The legendary king is best known through William Shakespeare's play King Lear. In this version, Lear goes mad after he is humiliated by his two older daughters. When Cordelia learns of her father's condition, she raises an army to fight her sisters' forces. Cordelia's army is defeated, and she is imprisoned and hanged. King Lear dies soon thereafter of a broken heart over the death of his daughter.

See also Celtic Mythology.

King Lear

views updated May 29 2018

King Lear. Mus. works inspired by Shakespeare's play (1606) incl.(1) ov. by Berlioz, Op.4, comp. 1831;(2) ov. and incid. mus. by Balakirev, 1859–61; (3) movements of incid. mus. by Debussy 1904;(4) opera by Reimann, 1978;(5) mus. by Shostakovich, comp. 1970, for Russ. film of Shakespeare's play in B. Pasternak's trans.

Various opera composers, incl. Verdi and Britten, have contemplated but abandoned King Lear projects.

King Lear

views updated May 18 2018