Guide Prepared by Michael J. Cummings...©
page has been revised, enlarged, and moved to
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
wrote King Lear between 1604 and 1605. The first documented performance
of the play took place December 26, 1606, before King James I at Whitehall.
A quarto edition of the play—containing misprints
and errors—was published in 1608. The authoritative
First Folio edition appeared in 1623.
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).
action takes place in Ancient Britain. The places include the castles of
King Lear and the Earl of Gloucester, the palace of the Duke of Albany,
a forest, a heath, a farmhouse near Gloucester’s castle, a French camp
near Dover, a British camp near Dover, and fields near Dover.
.Protagonist: King Lear
Own Character Defects
Foil of Lear: Earl
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.
Goneril, Regan: Selfish,
greedy daughters of Lear who pretend to love him when he announces that
he will gives them shares of his kingdom. Later, they treat him cruelly.
Cordelia: Loyal and
unselfish daughter of Lear. He disowns her after confusing her honesty
with insolence. She continues to love her father in spite of his rejection
Duke of Burgundy:
Suitor of Cordelia. He decides to reject her after Lear disowns her.
King of France: Suitor
of Cordelia. He marries her even though Lear has disowned her.
Duke of Cornwall:
Regan's husband, who is just as cruel as she is.
Duke of Albany: Goneril's
husband. He turns against her when he realizes that she is an evil schemer.
Earl of Kent: True
and honest friend of Lear who remains loyal even after the king banishes
him. To continue serving the king, he wears a disguise and calls himself
Earl of Gloucester:
Old man who suffers from many of the same faults as Lear. Like Lear, he
is old and self-important; like Lear, he misjudges his children and undergoes
suffering that makes him a better man. However, Gloucester is less forceful
and demanding than Lear and more given to compromise. Such qualities make
him a foil of Lear.
loyal son and heir. He resembles Cordelia in his loyalty to hid father.
evil bastard son. He resembles Goneril and Regan in his disloyalty to his
Fool: Jester loyal
to Lear and Cordelia. The fool is a walking paradox—that is, he is the
wisest character in play in that he is the only character who understands
the motivations of Lear, his daughters, and other characters. He acts as
a kind of mirror, reflecting Lear’s faults and weaknesses.
Old Man: Tenant of
who attends Lear after the old king arrives at Dover.
steward of Goneril.
First Servant, Second
Servant, Third Servant: Servants of the Duke of Cornwall.
Knights of Lear's train, captains, messengers, soldiers, and attendants.
Michael J. Cummings...©
Lear, a dotty 80-year-old ruler of ancient Britain, announces that he will
retire from the throne and divide his kingdom among his three daughters:
Goneril, Regan and Cordelia. The foolish, self-centered old man declares
(in Act I, Scene I) that the daughter who loves him the most will receive
the biggest share of his property. Then he will live with each daughter
in turn, one month at a time. The avaricious Goneril declares that her
love for her father knows no bounds:
I love you more than words can wield the matter;
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,
than eye-sight, space, and liberty;
what can be valued, rich or rare;
less than life, with grace, health, beauty, honour;
much as child e'er loved, or father found;
love that makes breath poor, and speech unable;
all manner of so much I love you. (1. 1. 39-45)
that I am, I cannot heave
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.
heart into my mouth: I love your majesty
to my bond; nor more nor less. (1. 1. 76-78)
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.
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,
day and night he wrongs me; every hour
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.
flashes into one gross crime or other,
sets us all at odds: I'll not endure it. (1. 3. 5-7)
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.
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:
more than thou showest,
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).
less than thou knowest,
less than thou owest1,
more than thou goest2,
more than thou trowest3,
less than thou throwest4;
thy drink and thy whore,
thou shalt have more
two tens to a score. (1. 4. 71-80)
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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..
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:
That bide the pelting of
this pitiless storm,
How shall your houseless
heads and unfed sides,
Your loop'd and window'd
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
That thou mayst shake the
superflux to them,
And show the heavens more
just. (3. 4. 33-41)
sir, to willful men
injuries that they themselves procure
be their schoolmasters. (2. 4. 316-318)
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—
a discerning Eye—
Sense—the starkest Madness—
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.
and lust for power corrupt human beings and bring about their downfall.
Goneril and Regan reject their own father in favor of material possessions
and power. Ultimately, their cupidity results in their downfall.
(the gods) turns humans into playthings. As Gloucester says in Act
IV, Scene I, “As flies to wanton boys, are we to the gods. / They kill
us for their sport” (4. 1. 44-45). This is an old theme in world history
and literature. In the Old Testament of the Bible, Job wonders why he,
a righteous man, suffers so many reverses, including the loss of his material
possessions, his sons, and his health. In Greek tragedy—in
particular, in the plays of Sophocles, such as Oedipus Rex—fate
plays an extremely important role as an inexorable force. In the Nineteenth
Century, English novelist Thomas Hardy populated his novels with characters
dominated by forces outside of them or irresistible forces within them.
The environment, Darwinian determinism, and the human libido all turned
humans into marionettes.
has a sharp edge. Telling the truth can deeply wound the listener as
well as the speaker. Cordelia wins our admiration because she is
forthright and sincere. However, her honesty offends her father, and he
disowns her. The Earl of Kent, a loyal subject of Lear, suffers banishment
for speaking up for Cordelia. Like the previous theme, this theme is an
old one in world history and literature. In 399 B.C. the Greek philosopher
Socrates paid with his life for being honest and asking probing questions
that exposed the hypocrisy of others, declaring that his god had commanded
him to do so. In England, statesman and humanist Sir Thomas More also died
(1535) for being honest—in particular, for his outspoken opposition to
King Henry VIII's divorce from Katherine of Aragon on grounds that it violated
age and wisdom do not go hand-in-hand. Lear is probably about 80, but
he is often childish in his judgments until suffering reforms him. Shakespeare's
depiction of Lear may have been, in part, an attempt to discredit or satirize
the tendency of people in Elizabethan England automatically to revere elders
and authority figures.
Study Guide in Book Form
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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.
Lear’s fool (court jester) is the wisest character in the play in that
he is the only character who understands the motivations of Lear, his daughters,
and other characters. He constantly ridicules Lear, the better to make
the old man understand himself and the folly of his selfish, headstrong
ways. “If thou wert my fool, nuncle,” he says, “I’d have thee beaten for
being old before thy time” (1. 5. 25).
the courts of England, a fool was a comic figure with a quick tongue who
entertained the king, the queen, and their guests. He was allowed to—and
even expected to—criticize anyone at court.
Many fools were dwarfs or cripples, their odd appearance enhancing their
appeal and, according to prevailing beliefs, bringing good luck to the
court. Actors William Kempe and Richard Armin became London celebrities
for their performances as fools in Shakespeare’s plays. Armin wrote a book
about fools, Foole Upon Foole; or Six Sortes of Sottes. Egypt’s
pharaohs were the first rulers to use fools, notably Pygmies from African
territories to the south.
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:
bird of prey that occurs in several varieties. It feeds on small land animals,
fish, garbage, and carrion. In Act I, Scene IV, Lear speaks this line to
Goneril: "Detested kite! thou liest" (Line 284).
use of animal imagery in King Lear prompted critic G.B. Harrison
to write, "It is as if Shakespeare wished to portray a world in which most
men and women are beasts, and only the exceptional few [are fully human]."—G.B.
Harrison, ed. Shakespeare: The Complete Works. New York: Harcourt,
1952 (Page 1139)
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).
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
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: 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.
Henry VIII, and the Annesley Case
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,
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.
mysteries of Hecate,5
and the night;
all the operation of the orbs
whom we do exist, and cease to be;
I disclaim all my paternal care,
and property of blood,
as a stranger to my heart and me
thee, from this, for ever. (1. 1. 96-103)
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.
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.
Questions and Essay Topics
tend to go along with the crowd even though you disagree with what the
crowd says or, like Cordelia, do you say what you really think?
affected more by forces within himself or outside himself?
the violent storm symbolize? In other words, is it meant to represent in
some way what is happening to Lear and other characters? Does nature play
a key role in other Shakespeare plays?
the role of the fool in the play? Why did kings and queens in earlier times
have fools, or court jesters? Describe a typical jester—his
apparel, his temperament, his talents.
and contrast Lear and Gloucester, both of whom have misjudged their children.
informative essay discuss the character growth of King Lear.
informative essay, discuss the character growth of Edgar, Gloucester’s
loyal son, and the Duke of Albany, Goneril’s husband.
Lear banishes the Duke of Kent for defending Cordelia, Kent remains loyal
to Lear and still serves him in the disguise of a peasant named Caius.
In an informative or argumentative essay, explain why Kent refuses to turn
Lend . . . owest: Lend less than you own or possess.
on DVD (or VHS)
Ride . . . goest: Ride more than you walk.
Learn . . .trowest: Learn more than you claim or suppose that you know.
Set . . . throwest: Be prudent when wagering in a game of dice.
Hecate: goddess of witchcraft in Greek methology.
Propinquity: kinship, relationship.
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