A Study Guide
Study Guide Prepared by Michael J. Cummings...© 2003
This page has been revised, enlarged, and moved to
.......King Lear is a stage play in the form of a tragedy centering on the decline and fall of a dysfunctional royal family. It is also sometimes referred to as a chronicle play because it draws upon historical information in such documents as The True Chronicle History of King Leir and His Daughters (anonymous, 1594) and The Chronicles of England, Scotland and Ireland, by Raphael Holinshed (1587).
Performance, and Publication Dates
.......The probable main sources for the play were The True Chronicle History of King Leir and His Daughters (anonymous, 1594); The Chronicles of England, Scotland and Ireland, by Raphael Holinshed (1587); Arcadia (1590), by Sir Philip Sidney; and a Dutch pamphlet entitled “Strange, Fearful and True News Which Happened at Carlstadt in the Kingdom of Croatia” (used as a reference to eclipses by Gloucester in Act I, Scene II).
Antagonist: Lear’s Own Character Defects
Foil of Lear: Earl of Gloucester
Lear: King of England.
He is a headstrong old man who is blind to his weaknesses and misjudges
his three daughters, believing that the two evil daughters have his best
interests at heart and that his good and selfless daughter opposes him.
He undergoes great suffering that opens his eyes and ennobles his character.
Whether there was a historical Lear is uncertain.
By Michael J. Cummings...© 2003
Sir, I love you more than words can wield the matter;.......Equally avaricious Regan says Goneril comes up short, declaring, “I am alone felicitate / In your dear highness’ love” (1. 1. 59-60). Much pleased, Lear asks his favorite daughter, Cordelia, what she can do to win the richest share of his kingdom. She replies, “Nothing, my lord” (1. 1. 72). Surprised and disappointed, Lear presses Cordelia, the only daughter who truly loves her father, to speak up for herself. But she says,
Unhappy that I am, I cannot heave.......Angry now, Lear warns her to “mend your speech a little, / Lest it may mar your fortunes” (1. 1. 79-80). But Cordelia stands fast, refusing to take part in the foolish contest. Consequently, Lear disowns her and divides his property between Goneril and Regan. The Duke of Kent, long a loyal friend of the king, advises Lear that his action is rash and foolish and asserts: “Thy youngest daughter does not love thee least” (1. 1. 142). Lear warns him to hold his tongue. Kent—believing himself honor-bound to point out Lear’s folly—says, “I’ll tell thee thou dost evil” (1. 1. 161). In response, Lear banishes him from the country.
.......The Duke of Burgundy, who has been suing for the hand of Cordelia, now rejects her as unworthy. After all, she is without property and title. But the King of France, who admires the young woman for her honesty and spunk, marries her, and they leave to live in France.
.......Goneril and her husband, the Duke of Albany, first host Lear. But in time, the eccentric old man and his entourage vex her sorely. After Lear strikes Goneril’s steward, Oswald, for scolding his fool, Goneril says,
By day and night he wrongs me; every hour.......She tells Oswald to ignore Lear and his entourage since he is now an “idle old man” (1. 3. 18) who has relinquished his authority. If he dislikes the treatment he receives, she says, he can move to the castle of Regan and her husband, the Duke of Cornwall. There, she says, he will receive similar treatment, for Regan and she are of one mind in their view that their father is a pesky old man.
.......Meanwhile, the banished Kent presents himself in disguise to Lear, declaring that he wishes to serve the king: “I can keep honest counsel, ride, run . . . and deliver a plain message bluntly: that which ordinary men are fit for, I am qualified in; and the best of me is diligence” (1. 4. 26). After Lear accepts him, he learns from one of his knights that Goneril no longer regards her father with affection.
.......Oswald enters. Lear, regarding him as a tool of Goneril, insults and slaps him. For good measure, the disguised Kent trips Oswald and pushes him away. The king’s fool comes in just then and recites a little speech for Lear and Kent. It contains more wisdom than Lear realizes:
Have more than thou showest,.......Goneril enters and scolds Lear for the rowdy behavior of his knights and tells him to reduce their number, keeping only those who behave. Lear defends them as honorable men and curses Goneril as a monster. He tells her husband, Albany, never to have children with her: "Into her womb convey sterility; / Dry up her organs of increase (1. 4. 193-194). But if she does become pregnant, Lear says, "Create her child of spleen, that it may live / And be a thwart disnatur'd torment to her!" (198-199). With such a child, he says, she shall come to learn "How sharper than a serpent's tooth it is / to have a thankless child" (203-204). Lear and his company then depart for Gloucester's castle, where Regan and her husband, Cornwall, are to pay a visit. Goneril sends Oswald ahead to warn her sister of Lear’s approach. Lear, unaware of Oswald’s mission, sends word of his coming in letters carried by the disguised Earl of Kent. Lear's fool then picks at the old man, the better to make him understand himself and the folly of his headstrong ways. “If thou wert my fool, nuncle,” he says, “I’d have thee beaten for being old before thy time” (1. 5. 25).
.......Meanwhile, the Earl of Gloucester and his son Edgar become victims of skulduggery when Gloucester's illegitimate son, Edmund, claims that Edgar, Gloucester’s rightful heir, had schemed to murder the old man and attempted to persuade Edmund to take part in the plot. Edmund says that when he refused to participate, Edgar ran at him with a sword and glanced his arm. When he recovered and defended himself, Edmund says, Edgar ran off. Edmund shows his father the bleeding injury to his arm, which Edmund himself had inflicted. Gloucester believes Edmund even though Edgar dearly loves his father, and he orders his servants to pursue Edgar. When Regan and Cornwall arrive for their visit, Gloucester repeats what Edmund told him and commends the latter for foiling the plot. Cornwall promises to support Gloucester against Edgar and praises Edmund for his virtue and loyalty to his father. Regan and Cornwall then reveal the purpose of their visit: to seek Gloucester's advice about how to handle Lear, a matter that Goneril and Lear have both brought to the attention of Regan in separate letters.
.......Kent then arrives at Gloucester’s castle. There, he encounters Oswald and heaps insults upon him. Oswald had arrived at the castle before Kent to poison Regan’s ear against Lear and his entourage. When Kent draws his sword against Oswald, the latter cries for help. The commotion attracts Regan and Cornwall, and Cornwall orders Kent placed in stocks (a wooden frame that closes around the wrist and ankles.)
.......Out on a heath, Edgar, aware now that he has been duped, hides in the hollow of a tree to avoid capture. Realizing that people everywhere will be on the lookout for him, he decides to disguise himself as a lunatic beggar, griming his face, knotting his hair, and stripping off most of his clothes.
.......After Lear arrives at the castle, his fool pokes fun at the immobilized Kent, saying that he wears "cruel garters" and that when "a man is over-lusty . . . he wears wooden nether-stocks." Kent reports that he delivered Lear's letters to Regan and Cornwall at their castle at the same time that letters to Regan from Goneril arrived. Regan and her husband then immediately left to see Gloucester, telling Kent to follow to await their reply to Lear's letter. Kent finishes his report with an account of his clash with Oswald and his immobilization in stocks.
.......Lear enters the castle and returns a short while later with Gloucester. The king is angry that his daughter and her husband have so far refused to come forth from their chamber to see him. When they finally deign to appear, they free Kent while Lear explains to them what happened at Goneril’s. But Regan defends her sister and suggests that Lear apologize to her. After Goneril arrives, the two sisters gang up on the old man. In a rage, he storms out with his fool into a tempestuous night. Winds howl and rain falls in torrents as the elements mimic the raving anger of Lear. The king observes that nature has joined with his faithless daughters to torment him. “I am a man / More sinn’d against than sinning” (3. 2.49-50), he laments. Kent, who has followed Lear, persuades the old man to take shelter in a hut. By and by, Edgar, now acting the part of a wandering lunatic, finds shelter in the same hut Lear occupies. His wits now failing him, Lear identifies with Edgar and strips away his royal robes to become like Edgar.
.......Gloucester, torch in hand, also finds his way to the hut. He advises Kent that Lear must hie away quickly, for his daughters want him dead. If Lear goes to Dover, Gloucester says, he will be safe. The King of France and his army will soon land there to help the old king win back his throne. Lear and his fool—along with Kent and Edgar—then travel with Gloucester back to his castle. There, they take shelter temporarily in his farmhouse. After Gloucester goes into the castle, Lear—now out of his wits—announces legal proceedings against Regan and Goneril, addressing Edgar as "a robed man of justice" (3. 6. 25) and the fool as a "yoke-fellow of equity." He tells them to arraign Goneril first and then begins testifying against her. Edgar and the fool play along. When Gloucester returns, he tells Kent he has overhead a plot to murder the king. Hurriedly, they lay the demented Lear in a litter Gloucester has provided, and Kent and the fool carry him off toward Dover. Gloucester and Edgar, still in the guise of a “wandering lunatic,” remain behind at Gloucester's castle.
.......After Gloucester reports news of the French invasion to his “trusted” son, the evil Edmund, the young man immediately reports the news to Regan and her husband, Cornwall. Goneril is there with them. In turn, Cornwall tells Goneril and Edmund to go at once to alert Goneril's husband, Albany, of the invasion so that he may make the necessary preparations for battle.
.......Hot after more news, Cornwall orders servants to fetch Gloucester. When he arrives, Cornwall orders him bound to a chair as a traitor who has furthered the plan to restore Lear to the throne, via the French invasion. When Regan and Cornwall demand to know the destination of Lear, Regan begins plucking the hairs of Gloucester's beard. Gloucester then tells them he sent Lear to Dover to save him from the wrath of Regan and Goneril. Defiantly, he adds that he "shall see / the winged vengeance overtake" the two sisters. In retaliation, Cornwall rams a foot into one of Gloucester's eyes. When a servant comes to Gloucester's defense, Cornwall draws a sword against him. The servant draws and wounds Cornwall, but Regan stabs the servant from behind, killing him. Cornwall then puts out Gloucester's other eye, blinding him, as Regan taunts Gloucester by revealing that Edmund had duped him, then informed on him. The blind old man now realizes how wrong he was to place his trust in Edmund instead of Edgar. Regan and Cornwall cast him out of the castle. "[L]et him smell his way to Dover" (3. 7. 97-98), Regan says. Cornwall later dies of his sword wound.
.......While a loyal attendant leads the blinded Gloucester through a heath, they come upon Gloucester’s good son, Edgar (the “wandering lunatic”). Gloucester asks him to take him to Dover, where Gloucester intends to throw himself off a cliff. Edgar, without revealing his identity, agrees to lead him.
.......When Goneril arrives with Edmund at the castle of her husband, Albany, Oswald greets them and informs them that he has already conveyed to Albany news of the French invasion. He warns Goneril that Albany is a changed man who condemns the maltreatment of Gloucester and the services performed by Edmund, as well as the plans of Goneril and Regan in general. Goneril then tells Edmund it is best for him to leave and prepare for war, as she herself will do. Oswald will act as a go-between to maintain communications. When Edmund is about to depart, Goneril kisses him and gives him a favor to wear. After he leaves, Albany confronts Goneril, calling her and her sister vile for their treatment of Lear, whom he calls "a gracious man, / Whose reverence the head-lugg'd bear would lick" (4. 2. 48-49). A messenger arrives and reports the death of Cornwall.
.......In a room in Gloucester's castle sometime later, Regan questions Oswald after he stops there on his way to deliver a letter from Goneril to Edmund. When she asks Oswald to allow her to unseal and read the letter, Oswald hesitates. Regan then summarizes the message she believes the letter contains: Goneril expresses her love for Edmund, upon whom she has looked fondly. However, Regan says she herself is better suited for Edmund, especially now that her husband, Cornwall, is dead. She then gives Oswald her own message to bear to Edmund. She also asks him to kill Gloucester if he encounters him, for the old man could speak against her and Goneril. "Preferment falls on him that cuts him off" (4. 5. 44), she tells Oswald.
.......Meanwhile, when Gloucester and Edgar arrive at Dover, Edgar pretends that they are on a cliff. As Gloucester prepares to jump, Lear arrives wearing flowers and speaking nonsense. Gloucester recognizes his voice and begs to kiss his hand. Lear says, "Let me wipe it first; it smells of mortality" (4. 6. 134). After raving on, Lear says he recognizes the voice of his interlocutor: that of Gloucester. An unidentified gentleman approaches Lear and tries to tell him that Cordelia has arrived with the French army, but Lear gibbers on. The gentleman then converses with Edgar, telling him the French army is very near and "on speedy foot" (4. 6. 205).
.......After the gentleman leaves, Gloucester hurls himself forward, falling only a few feet while thinking he is falling into eternity. He survives his "suicide." Oswald is at the scene. Approaching Gloucester, he says, "[T]he sword is out / That must destroy thee" (4. 6. 227-228). Edgar steps to Gloucester's defense, dealing Oswald a mortal blow. Before he dies, Oswald asks Edgar to give the letter on his person to Edmund. After Oswald breathes his last, Edgar reads the letter. In it, Goneril mentions "reciprocal vows" between her and Edmund, urges Edmund to kill her husband (Albany), and signs the letter as Edmund's affectionate wife-to-be.
.......In the French camp, Cordelia thanks Kent for helping her father, then asks a doctor for a report on his condition. Lear has been sleeping soundly, the doctor says. However, it is all right to rouse him so that Cordelia can visit him. When he awakens, he does not recognize Cordelia, does not know where he is, and does not even know where he lodged the night before. In a moment, however, he comes around, saying, "I think this lady / To be my child Cordelia (4. 7. 80-81). Later, while they walk together, he is repentant: “Pray you now, forget and forgive: I am old and foolish” (4. 7. 99).
.......Meanwhile, after Edmund, Regan, and their troops enter the British camp, Regan asks Edmund whether he desires Goneril. "In honour'd love" (5. 1. 13), he replies. Upon further prodding by Regan, he avows that he has never slept with Goneril. Regan then urges him to keep away from her sister, who, at that very moment, arrives with Albany and their troops. Though he sympathizes with old Lear, Albany tells Edmund that he will fight for England against the French invaders. Edmund commends him, saying their "domestic and particular broils / Are not the question here" (5. 1. 38-39). They agree to confer on a war plan in Albany's tent.
.......After Edmund, Regan, and Goneril leave with officers, Edgar (still in disguise) approaches Albany and gives him the letter he intercepted. Albany promises to read it. After Edgar walks off, Edmund returns to tell Albany the enemy is in view and gives him an estimate of their number. When Albany leaves to marshal his forces, Edmund muses for a moment about Regan and Goneril: "[T]o take the widow / Exasperates, makes mad her sister Goneril" (5. 1. 73-74). But Goneril is already married. He decides that after the battle he will let Goneril devise a way to murder Albany. As for Lear and Cordelia, he will show them no mercy.
.......Finally, French and English swords cross. Edgar posts Gloucester in a safe place and leaves. After the battle, he returns to inform the old man that the English won the day and that Lear and Cordelia have been taken prisoner.
.......When Albany returns to the English camp with officers and attendants, he commends Edmund for battlefield valor. He also asks Edmund for his prisoners, Lear and Cordelia, "to use them / As we shall find their merits and our safety / May equally determine" (5. 2. 50-52). Edmund refuses, saying he wishes to hold them for further disposition, and Regan backs his position. Her show of support for Edmund arouses Goneril's jealousy, and they argue over him. Albany asserts that he will not permit Goneril to entertain notions of marrying Edmund, then accuses Edmund of "heinous, manifest, and many treasons" (5. 2. 108). Albany throws down his gauntlet, and Edmund does the same. Regan becomes ill and is taken to Albany's tent. Edgar, who remains in disguise, then steps forth to support Albany's charges, calling Edmund a traitor and telling him to draw his sword. They fight and Edmund falls when Edgar wounds him. Goneril declares that under the rule of arms Edmund was not bound to fight Edgar because he did not know his enemy's name. Albany then reveals the letter from Goneril to Edmund, exposing her treachery. She leaves the scene. Edgar then reveals his true identity and implicates Edmund as a participant in the plot that resulted in the capture and blinding of their father, Gloucester. Unable to rebut the evidence against him, Edmund admits his wrongdoing, saying "The wheel is come full circle" (5. 2. 203). Albany apologizes to Edgar for having at one time been an adversary of Gloucester and Edgar, then questions Edgar about his ordeal after Edmund betrayed him. Edgar tells him his story. After finishing it, he praises Kent for his selfless service to Lear.
.......Shouting for help, an unidentified gentleman with a bloody knife runs up to report that Goneril had plunged the weapon into her heart after poisoning Regan. Edmund, realizing he is dying, says, "I was contracted to them both: all three / Now marry in an instant" (5. 2. 265-266). After the bodies of the two sisters are carried forth, Edmund—experiencing remorse—reveals that he ordered Cordelia to be hanged and urges his listeners to save her. But the revelation comes too late: Cordelia has been executed. At the scene, Lear mourns for her as he carries her in his arms. Kent and Edgar arrive as Lear says, "I might have sav'd her; now, she's gone for ever!" (5. 2. 320). An officer reports the death of Edmund. Lear, now a broken man, falls upon Cordelia and also dies. Edgar, Kent, and Albany are left to restore order, with Albany endorsing Edgar and Kent as joint rulers.
Suffering can transform a contemptible human being into a good person. Lear appears to redeem himself by the end of the play. An important passage revealing the change Lear is undergoing appears in Act III, Scene IV, during the terrible storm. While his fool takes shelter in a hovel, Lear remains standing for a moment in the rain, saying he pities the poor people who must endure the elements. He regrets failing to do more to help them, saying:
Poor naked wretches, whereso'er you are,Another passage that encapsulates the theme is spoken by Regan:
sir, to willful men
Ironically and paradoxically, Lear's progressing mental derangement makes him keenly aware of his faults and weaknesses. At the beginning of the play, he is sane but mad; at the end of the play, he is mad but sane. The great 19th Century American poet Emily Dickinson wrote a one-stanza poem on the madness of sanity (and the sanity of madness) in 1861 (probably without any thought of King Lear). The first three lines aptly sum up Lear's behavior:
Madness is divinest Sense—
in Macbeth and Othello, all things are not as they appear.
At the beginning of the play, the Lears and other characters are presented
as normal and caring. But as Shakespeare rubs away the pretty veneers of
the characters, we find greed, betrayal, lust for power, and cruelty. In
other words, they are anything but normal and caring.
.......The climax of a play or another narrative work, such as a short story or a novel, can be defined as (1) the turning point at which the conflict begins to resolve itself for better or worse, or as (2) the final and most exciting event in a series of events. The climax in King Lear occurs, according to the first definition, when Lear leaves Gloucester's castle during a violent storm after being rejected by his evil daughters, Goneril and Regan. According to the second definition, the climax occurs in the final act, when Goneril, Regan, and Edmund die and Lear comes to his senses, then falls and dies on the body of innocent Cordelia, who has been executed.
.......Shakespeare uses metaphors, similes, and other figures of speech to compare Regan, Goneril, and other characters to animals. This imagery shows that human greed and lust for power, as well as other negative qualities, turn people into rapacious or poisonous beasts. It also demonstrates that the dilemmas people create for themselves can lower them to the status of beasts. Among the animals to which characters are compared are rats, wolves, sheep, goats, horses, dogs (including a mastiff, a greyhound, a spaniel, and a mongrel), cats, mice, owls, wild geese, bears, monkeys, crabs, snails, an ass, a hedge-sparrow, a cuckoo, and each of the following:
Vulture: scavenger bird that feeds primarily on carcasses. In Act II, Scene IV, Lear bemoans Goneril's behavior by saying that “she hath tied / sharp-tooth'd unkindness, like a vulture, here [points to his heart]” (Lines 136-137).
Serpent: large snake, such as a python or boa constrictor; any poisonous snake; the devil in the form of a snake. In Act II, Scene IV, Lear says Goneril "struck me with her tongue, / Most serpent-like, upon the very heart" (Lines 162-163).
Pelican: bird of prey that feeds on fish. In Act III, Scene IV, Lear "scolds" himself for fathering Regan and Goneril, saying “‘twas this flesh begot those pelican daughters” (Lines 76-77).
Tiger: Tiger: largest member of the cat family. In Act IV, Scene II, the Duke of Albany condemns Regan and Goneril for their treatment of Lear, comparing them to tigers.
.......The first scene of Act 1 resembles a legal proceeding that determines the rightful heirs of a decedent’s estate. However, in this case, the “decedent,” Lear, is alive, acting as arbiter. According to English law, the firstborn male would automatically inherit Lear’s possessions, including the crown. But since Lear has fathered only females, he has decided to parcel out his kingdom before his death to his three daughters, granting the largest part of his property to the daughter who loves him most. Ironically, he ends up repudiating the only daughter who truly loves him, Cordelia, in the mistaken belief that her refusal to vie with her two sisters for his affections is a sign that she loves him least. Swearing oaths, he disowns Cordelia, telling her that
by the sacred radiance of the sun,.......His attempt to prevent a family brouhaha with his silly contest succeeds only in precipitating one, for the daughters who heaped flattery upon him—Goneril and Regan—turn against him once his property is securely in their control.
.......Shakespeare’s audience was keenly aware of the problems that could arise when a king failed to produce a male heir. After all, the memory of the turmoil after the death of Henry VIII in 1547 was still fresh in the mind of Elizabethans. Although Henry did father a son, Edward VI, he reigned only briefly, dying when he was 16. Then Lady Jane Grey, the great-granddaughter of Henry VII, sat on the throne for a mere nine days before Mary, the daughter of Henry VIII, became queen and ordered Lady Jane’s execution. When Mary died in 1558, Henry’s other daughter, Elizabeth ascended the throne. However, another Mary—Mary Queen of Scots, the great-niece of Henry VIII—had a legitimate claim to the throne. Mary was Catholic; Elizabeth was Protestant. A 19-year struggle ensued between supporters of Mary and Elizabeth. Elizabeth ended the unrest in 1587 by having Mary executed.
.......Shakespeare’s audience was also aware of events in a sensational lawsuit in 1603 in which two daughters of Sir Brian Annesley attempted to seize his property, claiming that he was mentally incompetent. Annesley, who had served in a minor role in the court of Queen Elizabeth, owned an estate in Kent. A third daughter defended her father. Her name was Cordell (a name which resembles that of Cordelia, the loyal daughter in King Lear). The Annesley case ended happily for Sir Brian and Cordell, ended up with most of her father’s property.
Study Questions and Essay Topics
Lend . . . owest: Lend less than you own or possess.