William Shakespeare, King Lear (1604-5?)  ed. prin., 1608 [a "bad quarto" or corrupted text]; ed sec., 1619 [a second "bad quarto" or corrupted text]; First Folio, 1623  Click here for a list of Shakespeare's plays in a reconstruction of their probable order of composition.

Genre: dramatic tragedy, a genre Marlowe's and Shakespeare's plays helped to codify with their dramatic structure (a "rise and fall" plot eventually split into five acts like Lear), their use of blank verse (unrhymed iambic pentameter), for serious passages, their parallel plotting of major and minor characters in mirroring/intersecting actions, and their meditation upon serious philosophical themes in the style of classical Greek tragic drama, newly accessible to non-Greek-speakers in Humanist vernacular translations. However, Lear also resembles the "history plays" in that it derives from English chronicle histories and concerns itself with their main themes of political wisdom, the rights and duties of subjects and kings, the courtier's skills, and the accidents of fate. (Note the quarto [1608] version called it a "History" and the First Folio of 1623 called it a "Tragedy." Could its author and audience have changed their minds about its true purposes?)

Form: blank verse for high matters, prose for court banter and naturalistic "behind the scenes" dialogue, and tetrameter or trimeter verse for songs, including much of the speech of Lear's famous fool, pithily named "Fool."

Characters: Lear and his daughters (Goneril, Regan and Cordelia), the daughters' suitors (Dukes of Cornwall, Albany and Burgundy, and the King of France), Lear's courtiers (the Earls of Kent and Gloucester, Gloucester's sons Edgar and Edmund, Curan, and unnamed knights), and the servants of Cornwall, Goneril, Edmund, Cordelia, and Lear, the most important of which is the Fool.  Click here for advice about "the mnemonic bookmark," a strategy for remembering characters' names and major plot and thematic issues!

Summary:  Lear, an aging pagan king of ancient Briton, seeks to divide his kingdom among his daughters and their suitors according to a test of how well they can express their love in words. Cordelia, famously unable "to speak and purpose not," tells the unadorned truth about her love and Lear furiously disowns her, giving all to the rhetorically sophisticated, unprincipled, Regan and Goneril, and their husbands, the equally treacherous Duke of Cornwall and the more noble Duke of Albany. They quickly run afoul of Lear's savage temper and eject him from court to wander the heath in a storm with the Fool as his courtier. Meanwhile, Gloucester's illegitimate son, Edmund, launches a coup by convincing his father that legitimate son, Edgar, seeks to murder him. The wrong boy is banished, and Edmund joins the daughters by turning in his own father as a "traitor" and secretly courting both women, despite their "marriages."  Kent and Gloucester try to serve Lear, but Lear's mad insistence upon his patriarchal authority and the sisters' tyrannical government make Lear's service deadly.  Gloucester, too, suffers from the "Father Syndrome," and he learns only through incredible pain and suffering to express the humility which all humans owe each other in an uncaring and violent universe. Things do not end well, but hey, it's a tragedy! Your job is figure out why Shakespeare, at the peak of his career, feels it imperative that James I, the court, the citizens of London and all Great Britain, and you should witness it. If you get the right answer, it could save your life.

Issues and Research Sources:

1)  "Dramatic tragedy" as a genre: We've seen a form of tragedy before in The Battle of Maldon's heroes' zealous defense of the fallen Byrtnoth and their families' honor before the Viking onslaught.  That was a song intended to be sung to their descendants, honoring the fallen and condemning the memories of those who ran away, saving their lives but losing their honor forever. The poem makes sure of both outcomes, and is the social mechanism by which the final tallies of behaviors under the code of honor were accounted. Dramatic tragedy is not a song in the ear, but a living action performed before our eyes by persons whose skills vividly convince us to accept them as raging pagan kings, brain-addled fools, and poisonously rebellious princesses, even though all of them are mere men, not even "gentlemen" (and certainly not women!), and all are liveried servants of nobles like the Lord Chamberlain, the Admiral of the Fleet, or the King, himself. Like artists supported by the National Endowment for the Arts, the dramatic actor and author worked under political authority in a tense social space within which both the crown's agendas and those of the commons were given expression. Haunting it all (even today) were the specters of Oedipus, Clytemnestra, Antigone, and the phallus-waving satyrs of the Greek stage, with whose traditional apparatus the Elizabethan playwrights crafted a new kind of theatre in Early Modern English.  Don't take its existence for granted.   Why did the culture spend so much treasure and time to produce such spectacles of cruelty and horror?  What are tragedy's limits, and how can we tell when a play has exceeded them?  (Samuel Johnson thought this play did.)  What are we to get from reading such a play as a required element of Goucher's English Major, and how might it be different if we watched a live performance of it?  What must the reader's imagination provide and what is it likely to miss?  T.S. Eliot argued (in "The Metaphysical Poets," TLS, 1921)   that after the mid-1600s, English poets and English poetry began to suffer from a "dissociation of sensibility" from thought.  That is, instead of treating thought as a form of feeling and feeling as inextricably connected to thought, the later poets wrote an increasingly cerebral, rational verse.  How might King Lear make explicit demands on its audiences' feelings to change the way they think?  How might witnessing the tragedy bring one to higher consciousness of what it is to be human, and what it is to be monstrous? 

        In addition to the general human responses to suffering that the play might elicit, some historical background might help you imagine what the court audience might have in mind during this time of crisis.  How would king and country conduct themselves following Elizabeth's death in 1603 and the 1605 "Gunpowder Plot" to assassinate the king and destroy Parliament.  Ordinary people, perhaps you and I, could leave the play thankful that our sisters are not Goneril and Regan, our brothers are not Edmund, and our fathers are not Lear or Gloucester.  The king and his court, and politically powerful "city men" of London, might well have wondered whether they lived among "monsters of the deep" (Albany to Goneril, IV.2.49).  If you remember your Conrad, that may have lain within what Marlow (interesting name for a narrator, eh?) may have meant in Heart of Darkness when he looked up the Thames toward Parliament, Crown, and Town and said "And this, also, . . . has been one of the dark places of the earth" (67).

2) Dual plots and genre: The tragedy Marlowe gave the English already had found its typical balance of high style and comic interludes which make the return of tragic action so shocking when it happens. This use of "comic relief" to build and release dramatic tension may have roots in drama as old as Aeschylus' use of Orestes' nurse, prattling about cleaning his diapers when he was a baby, just as the young man has entered the palace to kill his mother in obedience of his murdered father's vengeful Furies (the second play of the Orestia: The Libation Bearers). However, both Marlowe and Shakespeare (like Aeschylus) have thematic purposes afoot in those comic scenes, and it's important not to lose sight of the authors' guileful skill while we're laughing. Look especially at the mix of characters from act to act, as the socially "low" characters become mingled with their "betters" and the moral/political chaos intensifies.  Does the play have "unity of action," that famous Aristotelian neo-classical value, and if so, how are the dual plots unified?   (The other neoclassical "unities" were character [i.e., tight focus on one character], place [in the most famous cases, only one place], and time [again, in the most famous cases, a single day].)

          Those who see Marlowe as a "precursor" to Shakespeare, a true "upstart" whose short career didn't enable him to develop dramatic tragedy to its most sublime perfection (i.e., the Shakespeare worshipers) ought to compare their use of spectacular violence. Look at the scene in which the Horse Courser pulls off Faustus' leg in comparison with Cornwall's barbarous optical surgery on Gloucester, perhaps the most notorious instance of such violence in Shakespeare (though not in Elizabethan-Jacobean theatre--ask Jeff Myers!). Each poet uses violence against the body symbolically, just like Sophocles did when Oedipus blinded himself, but unlike the Greek poet, they obeyed no tacit prohibition against showing such violence on stage. Compare that with the modern debates upon the uses and effects of violence in modern cinema and television--are there good reasons for showing it, and can it be abused?

3)  Modern and Jacobean responses to characters: The play has been thought imperfect because of the ferocity of Lear's rage, the bleak hopelessness of his end, and the absence of any reward for the good characters, though the bad are punished. Aristotle taught, and the English neoclassicists believed, that tragedy was the fall of a great man from high social position into catastrophe through some kind of common human flaw. Tragic audiences are supposed to identify with the protagonist's plight, and to be moved to pity and terror at his fate. However, some might argue that we can't easily identify with Lear because of his outrageous temper, his cruel testing of his daughters, and his arrogant inability to accept facts (e.g., his strange debate with Kent about the cause of Kent's being put in stocks, II.4.11-24). Others find Cordelia too prim and coldly virtuous to arouse strong sympathies as she shares her father's doom. Readers who react this way tend to read Regan and Goneril with a touch of sympathy as daughters driven to savage reaction by their father's behavior, and they sometimes find Edmund's choice of Machiavelian villainy understandable in light of Gloucester's crude jesting about the Edmund's mother and the boy's bastard birth. Edgar, like Cordelia, seems at first too gullible, too confident in his own secure state in the world, and in need of being shaken up. Does the king's pagan violence tempt us to imagine the enormities we might be capable of if not restrained by our democratic civility? Could the daughters' claims of motivation perhaps remind us of our own capacity for self-justification in quarrels when familial rivalries and our own egos urge that defense? Could the Edgar-Edmund problem be a reflection of our own discomfort with goodness and our inability to forgive the casual indignities of ordinary life, treasuring up our outrage until time offers opportunity for revenge?            Jacobean audiences would have been likely to react more to Regan's, Goneril's, Cornwall's, and Edmund's open espousal of Machiavellian political logic.  The Jacobean theater was fond of watching as the deceptive, ruthless "machiavel" laid traps for unwary characters who espoused more traditionally "noble" values like loyalty, love, honor, and trust.  While the machiavels usually were brought down by the end of the fifth act, the heart of the play was given over to watching them behave badly, but successfully, destroying the society around them.  What does this mean about the social forces at work in early seventeenth-century London?  How might the courtiers or city folk be motivated to flock eagerly to such dramas?  Can you see anything in modern entertainment history which resembles this phenomenon?

             Shakespeare's contemporary audience would have had a far different response to Cordelia's death in Act V because the two versions of the plot with which they might have been familiar both allow Cordelia to survive the battle with her sisters.  The standard version of how Cordelia dies is quite different, as we can see in Higgins, The First parte of the Mirour for magistrates : containing the falles of the first infortunate princes of this lande : from the comming of Brute to the incarnation of our sauiour and redemer Iesu Christe.  Imprinted at London by Thomas Marshe. Anno. 1574. Cum Priuilegio  PR2199 .M57 1574  "The contentes of the Booke" with "Cordila" chapter 10 in context  How might this affect what Shakespeare was attempting to achieve with Lear's attempts to determine whether Cordelia was dead or not, beginning with "She's gone forever! / I know when one is dead, and when one lives; / She's dead as earth.  Lend me a looking-glass; / If that her breath will mist or stani the stone, / Why, then she lives" (V.iii.259-63).

4)  The Fool and word-play: The play's plot forces us to see language as an unstable and unreliable medium for transmission of truths.  Many characters succeed by misrepresenting reality in language, or by bending language far from literal truthfulness through the use of irony, paraphrase, metaphor, and simile.   Everything seems to depend upon the quality of the interpreter's insight, especially in cases when the speaker is lying or making foolish errors. From Act I Scene 1, even relatively wise judges of character, like Kent and Gloucester, make dangerous errors, calling both noble Albany and the treacherous Cornwall equally worthy of Lear's trust (3-5) and calling Edmund "proper" (15). The Fool, protected by his role as folly's exemplar, and Edgar in his disguise as Tom o' Bedlam, work language like a game of puns, nonsense and intentional misunderstandings, meanwhile managing to tell the truth when professed "truth-speakers" like Kent and Cordelia are unable. See, especially, the Fool's dialogue with Kent when the latter is in stocks (II.4.40-84). Shakespeare goes beyond these naturalized distortions of language by plot when he charges the dialogue with strange repetitions and substitutions, like the quintuple repetitions of "Nothing" and "Never" in scenes with Lear and Cordelia (I.187-90 and V.3.308). The Fool is the central figure in this linguistic distortion, but Edgar must join him to evade detection and death which would result if he were to use his normal idiom. Thus, clear speaking becomes dangerous to all but fools, and distorted speech becomes more common than clarity as a direct consequence. This raises important questions about language's limitations, and the "bond" (to use Cordelia's term) under which we use language. Lying and flattery are commonplace, today as in 1605. Absolute truthfulness, even when the truth does needless harm, is a standard few would recommend. The society we live in and the people who dwell there with us are constructed by the language we use, and to the degree that we deviate from truth we create false realities, traps, and lures with unexpected consequences. To further explore this problem, look for instances in which "politeness" or "proper speech" codes are invoked to silence a truthful speaker, or those in which beautifully adorned speech is suspected of treasonous deception. Can you find instances in which truth and falsehood are mingled? Edmund is especially good at this--might it be a linguistic symptom of his birth-condition?

5)  Pagan characters on a Christian stage: None of Shakespeare's audience would have considered openly espousing even the mildest of doubts about the truth of revealed Christian religion. Christopher Marlowe was investigated by the Star Chamber Court (sort of the FBI and HUAC, combined) merely on the rumor that he made statements in favor of atheism and homosexual love. However, Humanism and English translations had exposed a larger audience of English readers to the wisdom of Greek and Roman pagans whose polytheism we see reflected in Lear's use of oaths to Apollo and Jupiter (e.g., I.1.161, 180). How would the Christian English audience understand the world-view of a pagan king, and what difference does that make in the plot? Some authors manage to invoke Christian themes like charity, divine providence, sin, and final judgment after death, by drawing upon pagan notions from various sources which early Christian thinkers found compatible with their doctrine. Though Cordelia and Edgar get to articulate some of  these "Christianizing" pagan notions, they do not succeed in Lear's world.  In effect, we're shown the reigning moral doctrines of Shakespeare's time as they spectacularly fail to control anarchy and evil.  Does this increase our capacity to identify with Lear if we are atheists or agnostics or believers in another religion, or does it diminish it if we are Christians?

6)  Playing Lear at Court, at the Globe, or at Blackfriars?--  By the time Lear was first produced, Shakespeare had three possible stages in mind.  The play's premiere was before the royal court, but the open-air stage at the Globe would have been the great popular venue for those who could afford only one or two pennies admission, and the upscale, indoor theater at Blackfriars would have offered a radically different environment from either the respectful austerity we might imagine at James I's court, or the rowdy populist environment of the Globe.  Click here for a 1-minute video in which Maynard Mack (Yale U.) uses a model to illustrate the Globe's stage position relative to its audience.  (Link requires Goucher network firewall access via VPN or on-campus use.)  Click here for Annina Jokinen's Luminarium web page illustrating and explaining the Blackfriars' indoor theater.  During several periods in its history as a playhouse, this former monastery hosted a theater company of child-actors who competed with the adult troupes performing at the outdoor theaters.  Performance at Blackfriars would have closely resembled court performances.  Think about how this intensely intimate setting would influence staging of any scene in this play.

7)  Why do we love Edmund?--  OK, you may hate him, but many readers report his refreshing directness about his ambition and his willingness to do whatever he must to succeed reminds him of modern anti-heroes who, born disadvantaged but struggling to better themselves, turn society upside down to get what others were born possessing.  Audience affection for Edmund may be mingled with severe disgust when he betrays his brother and father, but even in his dying moments he seems capable of turning to the good (making him "round" rather than a purely flat Machiavellian).  Contemporary audiences might have seen in him a very familiar type of person they had met at court, one we met in a previous reading where he seemed an admirable sort.  Castiglioni/Hoby's The Courtier.  Count Canossa says: "so shall our Courtier steal this grace from them that to his seeming have it, and from each one that parcel that shall be most worthy praise . . . [And] there were some most excellent orators which among other their cares enforced themselves to make every man believe that they had no sight in letters, and dissembling their cunning, made semblant their orations to be made very simply, or rather as nature and truth made them, than study and art, the which if it had been openly known would have put a doubt in the people's mind, for fear lest he beguiled them.  You may see then how to show art and such bent study taketh away the grace of everything."  How might Edmund's career be understood as a commentary upon the courtly practice Stephen Greenblatt has called "Renaissance self-fashioning"?  Which are the characters who cannot "self-fashion" while appearing to be "natural," and do you see any who learn to do so in the course of the play?  Do you see any who try to "self-fashion" but are detected in the act of doing so?  What is the penalty for that failure to self-fashion or that detection in this play?  For a consummate display of Edmund's sprezzatura, see Act 1, Scene 1, when this bastard son responds graciously to his father and to Kent just after hearing his mother publicly described as sexually pleasing and hearing his own future dismissed as a life of permanent exile.

8)  Why does Kent hate Oswald?--While serving Lear in disguise as "Caius" after his banishment in I.1, Kent often subjects Goneril's servant, Oswald, to verbal and physical abuse.  In fact, Kent's dislike of Oswald drives him to titanic rages similar to those Lear suffers from when thwarted by his daughters.  Many a scholar has worked to decode the masculine/feminine and father/daughter language with which Lear reveals his psychological loathing of Goneril's and Regan's behavior, but few pay similar attention to Kent's language when insulting Oswald.  Even in his first insults ("base football player"??), Kent invokes "estate" (ME) or "class" (ModE) values to denigrate the servant for acting "above his station."  Especially in the extended "flyting" or "doin' the dozens" speech in II.2, and in his interrogation by Albany, Kent describes Oswald in ways that expose courtiers' anxieties about social mobility.  Think about Hoby's translation of Castiglioni, especially Count Canossa's strategy for "stealing graces" from one's superiors, as a recipe by which a low-born man like Oswald might hope to rise, by service, to the heights of the aristocracy.  Edmund actually accomplishes this feat, for a while.  What exactly are the behaviors with which Kent attempts to associate Oswald, and what makes them socially shaming for an upwardly mobile courtier-servant?   If you are interested in Shakespearian English insults, it's a skill you can learn with practice.  Performers at "Renaissance Faires" routinely learn to produce these learned, paraphrastic insults according to forumlae.

9)  Quarto vs. Folio?--  Since serious literary scholarship took up the study of Shakespeare's plays in the nineteenth century, scholars have debated the value of the "quarto" editions of the plays as additions to, or even replacements for, the versions recorded in the "First Folio" of Shakespeare's collected works, published by friends in 1623, after his death in 1616.  Briefly, quartos are smaller, cheaper books (1/4 the size of folios, about modern paperback novels), and they were printed without Shakespeare's permission to make money for the printers and for those who sold them some version of the plays soon after they were performed.  Suspicion falls on actors (since some get certain parts exactly the same as the folio and others not so well), and on hired scribes sent by the printers to take dictation in the audience.  Are quartos always worse editions than the folio?  The quality of drama in performance sometimes can be better than that in printed editions, and actors sometimes "ad lib." lines which improve their parts.  However, heard speech often is misunderstood, which leads to obvious corruptions in the quarto versions of the plays.  Lear is especially puzzling when we compare quarto and folio editions.  (See the Norton introduction--they present elements of both editions!)  If you are working on a specific passage, why not check the quarto edition at the British Museum web site or read an edited version (somewhat clearer!) and see what you find?  If it differs from the Norton version, check the "First Folio" edition of Lear and see whether they have decided to use its version of the passage, instead.  What are the consequences of using either edition?  Does one change your reading of plot or character?  Do you suspect any lines of dialogue might have been improvised?

10)  Character Development Viewed in Context with Shakespeare's Other Plays--

        Sometimes it helps to see where a work fits into an author's creative life.   For  a list of Shakespeare's works in their probable order of composition, and a note on methods used in determining those probable dates, click here.

        The character of Kent, in particular, and several other characters, appear to resemble some famous characters from previous plays Shakespeare wrote.  Falstaff, a famous instance of the Roman New Comedy's miles gloriosus or "braggart warrior," appears to loom behind the quarrel between Kent and Oswald in II.2 (esp. see Cornwall's characterization of Kent as a "reverent braggart" [l. 122]).  Kent's language (e.g., II.2.13-30) partakes of the "fustian" or "railing" speech we find in Falstaff's scenes with Prince Hal.  For a webpage devoted to the early history play, Henry IV, Part One, click here.

11)  Tragic Structure and Neoclassicism--

        We will return frequently (if we can remember) to the question of when tragic and comic drama take on their current structural shapes (e.g., five acts?  protagonist has a flaw?).  For now, compare this play's structure and characterization with the classical Greek (C5 B.C.E.) model for how tragedy ought to operate.  Setting up an outline of the play's structure can help you understand it as a whole work of literature, rather than just a series of events.  Plays typically are made of parts which thematically and/or structurally echo each other.  Playwrights intend their audiences to remember and compare these similar scenes (e.g., Everyman's parallel "Vice" and "Virtue" characters' entrance speeches).  As audiences become more sophisticated, and especially as they become more literate, playwrights begin to write extremely subtle patterns into their plays, patterns which only become apparent after multiple viewings of the play or serial rereading.  From that fact, we discovered the English 200/New Criticism strategy of "close reading analysis."

12)  Courtly Rhetoric vs. Plain Speaking (Goneril and Regan vs. Kent)

        Kent's rough speech, especially in his attacks on Oswald, mark him as a Wyatt-like truth-teller at court.  Remember what Raphael Hythloday told "More" in Utopia about the fate of those to dare to tell a supreme monarch something that displeases him (or her in the case of Elizabeth).  Goneril and Regan, however, represent the "honeyed" speech of courtiers who have been trained in rhetorical ornament and sophistical strategies of persuasion.  Compare their responses to Lear's demand that they tell him how much they love him in return for a piece of the kingdom in Act I, Scene 1.  Do you see a cumulative building in the excesses to which Goneril will go, and then a higher level of absurdity in Regan's attempt to "top" her sister's boast.  (Comparisons with boasting in Battle of Maldon and Beowulf would not be inappropriate, or a review of what Wyatt hates about court speech in "Mine Own John Poyns.")  Notice how much of this ornate rhetorical build-up is designed to make even more shocking the simplicity of Cordelia's plain speech.  She is universally recognized as a representative of moral and ethical norms in the play.  Why is she not a good orator?  Or is good oratory inherently something we should suspect?  Cannot the skills of rhetoric serve the good, the right, and the true?

13)  T. S. Eliot argued that toward the end of the seventeenth century, a "dissociation of sensibility" occurred in English poets' minds and uses of language.  “Tennyson and Browning are poets and they think; but they do not feel their thought as immediately as the odour of a rose. A thought to Donne was an experience; it modified his sensibility. When a poet’s mind is perfectly equipped for its work, it is constantly amalgamating disparate experience; the ordinary man’s experience is chaotic, irregular, fragmentary. The latter fails in love, or reads Spinoza and these two experiences have nothing to do with each other, or with the noise of the typewriter or the smell of cooking; in the mind of the poet these experiences are always forming new wholes” (T. S. Eliot, "The Metaphysical Poets," 1921).  Can you use Eliot's concept of "feeling thought" to explain some of what Shakespeare is doing in Lear?  See, for instance, blind Gloucester's response to Lear's command to see: "I see it feelingly" (IV.6.148).

14)  The End, and the end of Lear: Shakespeare and his more literate audiences would have known the story of this ancient pagan king from at least two other sources, the "Higgins" continuation of the moralizing historical dream vision, A Mirror for Magistrates, and the more fully developed King Lier, which has distinctive scenes and other details which parallel those in Shakespeare's play, but is not simply "Shakespeare's source."  One major change Shakespeare made in all received forms of the Lear plot was the fate of Lear's favorite daughter, who survives her sisters' rebellion only to be betrayed and imprisoned, and to die by her own hand, a suicide.  See our copy of the former text in Special Collections: Higgins, The First parte of the Mirour for magistrates : containing the falles of the first infortunate princes of this lande : from the comming of Brute to the incarnation of our sauiour and redemer Iesu Christe.  Imprinted at London by Thomas Marshe. Anno. 1574. Cum Priuilegio  PR2199 .M57 1574  If you have not time to see the real thing, you can content yourself with this digital image of "The contentes of the Booke" with "Cordila" chapter 10 in context.  Why does Shakespeare's Cordelia die, a victim of Edmund's judicial murder by hanging?  How might this relate to the Gloucester sub-plot about seeing "feelingly" and Lear's perplexity about whether she lives or dies?  You can look at this problem theatrically, analyzing how audiences' expectations have been set up for a live vs. a dead Cordelia (cf. the preparation for Gloucester's blinding in lines leading to the event), or you can examine it philosophically, as an expression of the play's meditation about the significance of life and death, and of human existence in general.  Or . . . it's potentially one of the biggest issues in the play.

15)  A BBC production of the play has been available if this link still works: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NPdYIFyY43g They've cut some scenes, and the transition to digital video may have dropped a bit, too.  Remember, it's only "a performance," not "the performance."  You are entitled to, and even should, question the directors' and actors' and cameramen's choices.

For a sample quiz, answers, and supporting rationales, click here.