A legendary King of Britain, first recorded by Geoffrey of Monmouth, though his name resembles that of the Celtic god of the sea. The son of Bladud, he reigned for sixty years. In has old age two of his daughters, Goneril and Regan, conspired against him, but the third daughter, Cordelia, saved him and became queen after his death. The story is changed by Shakespeare, so that she died before his eyes. The modern-day English city of Leicester is named after him.

It has been said that King Lear is one of Shakespeare’s most intricate plays. It has also been said that Shakespeare’s plays are meant to be performed, not read. After reading the text of King Lear I now understand why it is important to also see the play being performed rather than just reading it.

Goneril and Regan constantly disrespect their father. They talk back to him, mistreat him, disrespect his messenger, and then run him out into a fierce stormwhere he could have died. They lied to him and contributed to their father going mad. King Lear is dressed in robes in the beginning, but at the end of the story, he is half-naked braving the harshness of the storm. It is in the storm where he learns truth. He has no wealth, but he has truth, and love when Cordelia comes back for him.

So from the very beginning of the play we have many different things happening all at once. To understand what is happening you must remember the characters names, their relationships with everyone else and what their problem is. This can be very difficult when two characters are trying to express the same emotions at the same time. When this happens it is very complicated to remember which character in the play is doing what.

The play does involve a lot of imagery and you must read deeper than the surface to understand just how much imagery is introduced to us in King Lear. For instance, right from the very start of the play we notice that Lear refers to many people in his kingdom as animals, especially his two eldest daughters.eg Lear says that he has “Pelican daughters” (page 52). There is also imagery of diseases in which Kent regards Goneril and Regan as,” A plague upon your epileptic visage.” (Page 37)

So although there is plenty of imagery created to the reader through the words written, the film sets more scenes and imagesto the reader than the book. For example, In the storm Lear is stripped of the clothing that "protected" him and he becomes "naked"to the world. In the storm Gloucester calls Lear "the naked fellow. " By seeing the film it is easier to understand the significant change in King Lears outfits and the way he dresses. We can see that the King is more like a servant, shabby, dirty, soiled, filthy and grubby. The book is unable to provide as much imagery as the movie can when it comes to the changes in King Lear’s dress. The film helps you to appreciate the level of madness that King Lear is at.

The storm is also based on the level of king Lear’s anger. While reading the novel we discover that things are wrong and we know there is a storm happening. However, we are not constantly reminded of this fact and therefore often forget the main reason everyone is fighting. Through the movie’s scenes and camera shots we are constantly seeing the darkness that the storm has bought with it. The camera shots allow the viewer to see the characters unwind and develop within the kings anger. We are reminded by the soaking clothes people are walking around in, and of the muddy fields that the King is travelling across of how much damage the storm is doing to the fields. While everyone is talking and moaning to each other we hear the constant unstoppable growl of rolling thunder that is dancing with the king’s mood.

The acting from the characters helps the reader to grasp and understand what the character is feeling, thinking and seeing. The costumes have a significant roll. The movie makes everything look dull, dark, wet and tiring. Near the [battle we find that Goneril and Regan both have coats on. This helps the viewer to understand that the weather is still cold and stormy.

The set design throughout the film helps the viewer to understand at which point the play is at. The different scenes and backgrounds help to make the characters less confusing. The battle scene was particularly interesting how there were torches lit around the place. This helped the scenes to be much more dramatic and helped the fight come alive to the watching eye.

Overall, the film helps the play come to life with the different scene shots, moods, set designs, sound effects, costumes and acting. It makes the play so much more exciting as the viewer can get a better understanding of what is happening.

The psychological relationship between King Lear and his two older daughters, Regan and Goneril, has always disturbed me. Lear encourages his daughters to compete publicly for his affection and correspondingly a proportionate portion of his kingdom. Refusing to participate, Cordelia is turned out. It's a no-win situation. How can anyone reasonably expect sincerity of feeling in such circumstances? Of course the older daughters are scheming and deceitful. They've been emotionally and politically manipulated, probably all their lives. They are the product of their environment. Cordelia is the extraordinary one for dissociating herself from her father's attempts at emotional manipulation.

What Lear wants to do is hand over the responsibility of power yet retain all the attendant trappings of glory. While the cruelty of Regan and Goneril in their subsequent dealings with their father cannot be excused, it must be noted that he was imposing a considerable burden on their resources by insisting on retaining his now redundant retinue.

For a fascinating and disturbing re-telling of the King Lear tale, in modern idiom and from the point of view of Goneril, or Ginny, I recommend Jane Smiley's A Thousand Acres. Also made into a movie (1997) starring Jason Robards, Michelle Pfeiffer, Jessica Lange and Jennifer Jason Leigh.

No play I have ever read - nor, I am told by those that know, that has ever been written - has the same complexity and scope as King Lear. The depth and intricacy of the plot and characterisation and above all the imagery which permeates the entire play is simply too big to 'get'. You can never really get hold of King Lear like you can Romeo and Juliet or MacBeth or even Hamlet: it is enormous.

Discussing it on E2, then, may seem like a pointless exercise. You need to write a damn book on it just to get started. Still, it may be useful to outline a few of the key ideas which can help to get some sort of grip on this unwieldy beast:

The overarching imagery and themes are associated with nature. The word 'natural' crops up at least 40 times in the text. This is what the play is most fundamentally about. Two versions of nature are presented. There is that of Gonerill, Regan and Edmond, which is brutal, uncivilised and base - for them, to be natural means to be entirely selfish, literally animalistic; and that of Cordelia, Kent, Edgar, and, ultimately, Lear himself, which is about natural love and 'filial bonds' and harmony and perfect order. Inevitably these two visions must clash: this is where the dramatic meat of the play comes from.

There are constant references to the natural and the unnatural throughout the play: look at one of the scenes noded by Fred Bloggs (the) and you will probably find one. This is a subject worth a thesis: if you want more on it I recommend John Danby's brilliant and accessible analysis Shakespeare's Doctrine of Nature.

Other major themes include sight and blindness and 'everything' and 'nothing', both of which largely refer to the moral and material states of the characters. Often these two values are diametrically opposed: as Lear descends into madness, he gains a kind of moral might lacking before, whereas Edmond loses all our sympathy as he gains in power and possessions because of his evil actions.

Some general tips for thinking about the play, all more or less verbatim from the mouth of my excellent teacher:

    • Consider when the characters are acting and when they are being themselves, or natural. This is particularly important on the heath, when, with Poor Tom/Edgar, the fool, and Lear, all three figures are playing some kind of role.
      Consider how you react to the horrific scene of Gloucester's blinding, and also to the sick humour about 'eyes' which follows. Is it guilt or embarrassment, horror or fascination? Why does Shakespeare want to implicate us in the tragedy by making something funny and then making us feel ashamed for laughing?
      Consider whether you would read the play differently if, as was originally the case, it was not called a tragedy but a Chronicle.
      Consider the similarities between Cordelia and the Fool, in particularly in terms of their relationship with Lear.
      Consider what the point of having a parallel lesser tragedy which has its climax 'off-stage' is. What is the effect of the Gloucester plot?
  • There is so much more that I'd like to discuss, but this will just become a book. I haven't even mentioned the end, which is the most interesting and debatable bit. I'm studying the damn play for A-level. how on earth do you write about King Lear in an hour and a half? How can that possibly be long enough?

    An alternate response to Lear's tragedy: human relationships.

    As flies to wanton boys, are we to the gods; / They kill us for their sport.

    What comes from nothing?

    The almost inevitable question that arises from the story of Lear is one of meaning. As we watch his life become more and more stripped of its material and personal worth, we become more and more anxious to see the hidden moral answer laid out before us, to be taught what is wrong and what is right and how to act to avoid a similar fate.

    But this is not a morality play, at least not in the traditional sense. Shakespeare has no intention of satisfying this desire, in spite of the suggestive precedent set by many of his earlier plays. In the end we are seemingly left only with what was promised us by Lear himself in the opening scene. "Nothing will come of nothing," and indeed, this is what Lear is reduced to. Shakespeare, instead of exposing some particular point of human nature, has in fact posed an abstract question about life in King Lear. Can we find meaning in a universe so apparently filled with the kind of suffering endured by Lear? What possible reason could exist in the universe for such pain except lack of reason? However, Shakespeare has not completely deserted us in the pursuit of some sort of answer.

    The search for meaning.

    Many scholarly critics of Shakespeare believe they have found the clues that indicate Shakespeare's "personal" conclusion. Some say God is not absent from this story, but purposely withdrawn, as in the trial of Job, and that Lear is indeed just another moralist play. Some of the critics insist that the answer is in the very fact that Shakespeare has written the play to ask the question--anthropocentrically, the meaning of the universe is the search for that meaning. However, Lear himself dies with only one revelation, one clear meaning, one structuring principle to the short remainder of his life: the love he shares with his daughter, Cordelia.

    What is this love worth? It can't simply be dismissed without consideration; it is the central focus of the play. But does it exist as a potential answer to the existential question Shakespeare is posing? In order to see this clearly, one has to first examine the inevitable crumbling of meaning that is initiated in the very first scene of the play. Lear starts with what one might easily accept as everything in his possession (especially when considered relatively in hindsight). He is in what appears to be comfortable control of a powerful kingdom, surrounded by a loyal court and three loving daughters. Lear has apparently decided to abdicate responsibility, and settle down to relax in the fruits of his labors. Unfortunately, he also decides to satisfy a petty, childish desire before his retirement. He wants his daughters to compete in a kind of contest to declare their adoration for him before they receive their inheritance. This is not, as in many popular fairy tales that bear striking resemblance to this scene, a true contest in that it will determine their shares of the kingdom, as the play's opening conversation between Kent and Gloucester reveals. No, it is pure vanity, or more pathetically, an old man's desire to be loved that leads him to conceive of this unnatural competition.

    The descent into disorder

    The unnaturalness of what he asks is key to understanding the huge problem it creates for Lear. "What can you say to draw a third more opulent than your sisters?" Lear demands of Cordelia, who unlike her sisters, refuses to flatter his vanity. "Nothing, my lord," she replies, not because she feels no love, as she is quick to point out, but in fact because of this love. Of course she will say nothing in order to obtain a greater inheritance; this would contradict the natural spirit of her feelings for her father. She objects, "I am sure my love's / More richer than my tongue." Sadly, Cordelia's sincerity of sentiment is not received as such by Lear, who obviously feels immensely humiliated before his court. Blinded by vanity, he rejects her pleading, as well as Kent's intervention on her behalf, and disinherits her and banishes Kent. This is the pivotal moment of the play, at least in terms of the potency of Lear's actions. This is the last time he will be making the decisions, and the two judgments he makes are abysmally poor. After Regan and Goneril reveal their evil intent at the close of the scene, we realize Lear has just banished the loyal part of his court, rejecting their natural, honest statements of devotion for the unnaturally exaggerated flattery of the worse half.

    Thus Lear reveals his flaw of pride, and the direction of the tragedy becomes clear. Lear will be betrayed by the daughters he mistakenly believed superior in their willingness to commit an unnatural act. He will be stripped of crown and country, and eventually even his fool will desert him (with his sanity). Ironically, only Kent remains, who has returned to serve where he stands condemned in order to remain by his side. Evident here is Kent's loyalty to Lear not strictly as a king, but to the bond he feels to Lear as another human being. Kent doesn't care whether he serves the King or a pauper; he doesn't think in these terms, which are inherently temporary and fleeting as Lear proves. Kent only cares for the more natural, and more indestructible, love he has for Lear the man. Even in the face of Lear's ambivalence, Kent does not dessert even when both of the King's daughters become treasonous, though Kent may well have been able to regain his position at court.

    A Resolution?

    Lear is driven to madness by the actions of his bad daughters and his guilt, but upon his reconciliation with Cordelia in the 4th act the Doctor declares him free of this madness. Shakespeare makes us believe in the power of this reconciliation; it is perhaps one of the most beautiful passages in all his plays. Perhaps not the most ostentatiously poetical of his verse, but the tone and simplicity reverse almost all of the building terror and confusion of the preceding four acts. Lear can barely believe his daughter still has love for him, but her heart is so full she can only speak in broken phrases. One can almost hear her crying the assurance that she has "No cause, no, cause" not to love Lear, or to do him wrong. Of course, vengeance has never entered her mind. And, as is customary to the nearly perfect character of Cordelia, she is speaking the truth, and not flattering him. The tragic events in the play up to this point are completely meaningless; her love for her father is untouched by any of them, and his love is, if any thing, brought into clearer focus. And so, the seemingly downward spiral of tragedy in the preceding four acts may have been meaningless, yes, but that only makes the relationships between the characters more real. In perspective, the disordered relationships were the only substantial cause for any destructive chaos, as the reordering of these relationships proved to be the cause for its reversal.

    What then of the final scene? The death of Cordelia and Lear seems to be the immediate contradiction of the triumph achieved in the reconciliation of the two tragic relationships. Cordelia is snatched away just as she and Lear are reunited. Once again, divine presence is almost sardonically dismissed; and just as Albany prays that the Gods preserve Cordelia from harm, Lear enters with her dead in his arms. His heart broken, he laments over her body, before expiring himself. Although most readers of the play point this out as the ultimately tragic resolution, upon further relection one is forced to admit that the truly horrific disorder of the play has been alleviated by reconciliation. Even as a reader of the play is disappointed by the short period of time Lear and Cordelia have together being cut shorter, the fact is that the true horror of the play remains dispelled. Some critics, such as A.C. Bradley, were even of the view that Lear died in perfect ecstasy. He bases this theory on his last two lines: Do you see this? Look on her, look, her lips, / Look there, look there!

    We have no way of knowing Cordelia's mental state at the time of her death, but it is clear that it could at least be argued that Lear did not simply die of sadness, his heart was too twisted by his suffering to go on for another moment. Shakespeare includes at least the suggestion that Lear's state of mind might be slightly more complex. Perhaps he believed that Cordelia was still alive, as Bradley infers from Lear's exclamation. It is also possible that perhaps Lear, like Gloucester, died from a confliction of opposing emotions. Or maybe he was in fact perfectly content whether he believed Cordelia dead or not. In any case, Lear's cry of "her lips" is not without mystery, and as readers we may have to respect Lear's last moments with his daughter without completely understanding their meaning. The important point is that Shakespeare has not made tragedy explicit in this scene.

    Common Threads

    In examining all of the "good characters" in both plots (that of Lear and Cordelia as well as Gloucester and Edgar*), Enid Welsford pointed out that they all have "one striking quality in common, they have the capacity for 'fellow-feeling' highly developed." Cordelia is honestly devoted to her father, and Kent steps in to support her when no one else will, but returns to his "Enemy King, and did him service, / Improper for a slave." This statement is, of course, ironic; Kent never saw Lear as an enemy, he remained devoted to him regardless, as already discussed. As for Lear, at first he did "demand rather than give sympathy" as Welsford puts it. But the direction of the plot development clearly indicates that his redemption occurred precisely when he forsook his vanity and demanding nature and became willing to celebrate his natural relationship with his daughter for what it was. On the other hand, the development of "fellow-feeling" is almost totally absent in the "bad" characters; "they are no more anxious to receive sympathy than to give it." For Edmund, Goneril and Regan, the feelings or emotions of their fellow human beings are either obstacles to be brushed aside, or stepping-stones on their rise to personal gain and power. By the end, their three self-oriented interests collide, resulting in the destruction of all three. This is really all that could be said of their relationship with one another, mutually destructive, and fully without meaning or value by the end.

    Shakespeare seems to have carefully constructed parallel stories of chaos and destruction, not meaningless, but corresponding to the amount that their human participants have lost a grip on their inherent interconnectedness. The play is, of course, a tragedy, and as readers of such we expect the deaths of characters with which we sympathize. At the least we foresee Lear's death from the very beginning of the play, when things seem to start crumbling inevitably towards chaos. And Gloucester's death is even more palatable. After all, he was instrumental in his own downfall even more directly than Lear. It is Cordelia's death, Cordelia the virtuous, alone untainted by insincerity or unnatural self-absorption, which throws the reader and conveys the image of a moral drought in this world. But is there no justice? R.W. Chambers observes, "so far is King Lear from being a play (as Dr. Johnson said) in which the wicked prosper, that by the end of the play the wicked not only are dead but already ceased to concern us." This, of course, is absolutely true. We don't notice what we take for granted; the deaths of Goneril and Regan are justice served, as is that of Edmund. What does absorb our attention is Edmund's repentance, Edgar's confirmation of his reunion with his father, and Lear's last moments with Cordelia's body. "Love alone matters," and the minds of the audience during the violent final scene is quieted by the image of Lear kneeled before the image of unconditional forgiveness in Cordelia, and the transcendent restoration of love as the most natural order of the universe, and of our lives.

    * Homework that was noded - originally I also discussed the parallel plot between Gloucester and his sons, but I decided it did'nt add enough to this as a write up to merit inclusion. I would be happy to answer any questions resulting from confusion caused by its hasty removal.

    Works cited:
    Bradley, A.C. "King Lear." In Twentieth Century Interpretations of King Lear. Janet Adelman, editor. New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1978. Shakespeare, William. King Lear. In The Norton Anthology of English Literature, Sixth Edition, Vol. 1. M. H. Abrams et al., editors. New York: Norton and Company, 1983. Welsford, Enid. The Fool: His Social and Literary History. New York: Doubleday and Company, 1961.

    Some neat things in the play that I discovered while writing my thesis:

    1. Some critics have made much of the fact that, had Sophocles written this play, Lear would have been blinded instead of Gloucester, and that Shakespeare's displacement is therefore fairly odd. I agree. Less noted, however, is the fact that, although Lear is perpetually complaining about his heart (i.e. "O! How this mother swells up toward my heart!"), it is actually Gloucester that eventually dies of a heart attack.

    2. It is ironically fitting that, in that same scene, Regan dies of poisoning; she spends much of the play claiming falsely that she is "too sick" to meet with her father.

    3. Interesting, how in a play that is absolutely obsessed with the idea of limits, the final scene would take place at Dover -- literally the ass-end of England.

    (I also wish that I had somehow worked the following line into my final draft: 'Of course, if you name your daughter "Goneril", you sort of deserve everything that you get.')

    M. William Shak-fpeare:

    True Chronicle Hiftorie of the life and
    death of King L E A R and his three

    With the vnfortunate life of Edgar, fonne
    and heire to the Earle of Glofter, and his
    fullen and affumed humor of
    O M of Bedlam :

    As it was played before the Kings Maieftie at Whitehall upon
    S. Stephans in Criftmas Hollidayes.

    By his Maiefties feruants playing vfually at the Gloabe
    on the Bancke-fide.

    L O N D O N,
    Printed for Nathaniel Butter, and are to be fold at his fhop in Pauls
    Chuch-yard, at the figne of the Pide Bull neere
    St. Auftins Gate. 1608.

    (Title page of the first edition)

    King Lear

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