Answers & Rationales for Sample Quiz: Shakespeare, King Lear, Act 1

1) Name the primary characters in the "subplot" of this play.

        The Earl of Gloucester and his two sons, Edgar (legit.) and Edmund ("natural" or illegit.).  Why ask such an obvious question?  Knowing the players is a court skill Shakespeare took for granted, but also challenged in this play's multiple plays on the problem of "knowing."  If you don't pay attention, he seems to be saying, you could end up dead. 

        Your answer also might include Kent, since his banter with Gloucester in I.1 sets up Edmund's character and motivation for revenge, as well as the contrast between the old and new generation of courtiers.  As elder counselors of the king, Kent and Gloucester are type characters, the old guard whose busy trade in court gossip has blinded them to the enormous dangers that have arisen in their midst (Lear's insane plan to divide the kingdom; Edmund's lethal amorality and Machiavellian ambition).  Nevertheless, when the chips are down, these men have the endurance to survive and the loyalty to outlast the novel upstarts who would displace them.

        Edgar and Edmund are Abel and Cain redressed as Jacobean aristocratic heirs, the sons of old royal retainers whose training and ambitions delineate the extremes of contemporary court practice.  Edmund's European travels are part of the emerging "Grand Tour" by which noble sons like Sir Philip Sidney received their "graduate degrees" in European political connections and acculturation.  It also keeps evidence of his father's indiscretion out of public view in England.  The typical Jacobean nobleman's education has exposed him to the emerging new sciences, but it also has contaminated men like Gloucester with their credulous follies--astronomy was merely the practical skill needed to practice astrology, the real money-maker that paid for Kepler's and Brahe's instruments.  Edmund's open skepticism about these prognostications, and Edgar's milder amusement, are further evidence of the "generation gap" separating the older courtiers from the younger.  In addition to their formal educations, each of Gloucester's sons finds within himself a "nature" to which he looks for guidance.  Edmund's is wild and sociopathic, until the very end when something he sees and hears stirs the buried humanity inside.  Edgar's is tame but inexperienced, until the witness he bears to his father's and the king's sufferings burns off the shallowness in his sensibility and enables him to do what a man must to preserve society.

2)  Match the correct husbands with Lear's daughters (as of the end of Act 1):

Regan---------->Cornwall    (the bad guy, whose ruthless grasp of power naturally extends his temper)

Goneril--------->Albany     (the good guy, but like Edgar and Gloucester, unable to see evil in those close to him by kinship)

Cordelia------->France   (the one who makes the right choice, character over possessions--Portia's "casket test" in Merchant of Venice comes to mind)

(nobody)------->Burgundy    (the one who makes the wrong choice, possessions over character--LOSER!!)

        Again, knowing who's on which side in this deadly game differentiates the survivors from the doomed.  Shakespeare is educating his audience in court politics, deception strategies, and the emerging "realpolitik" of Machiavelli's students as it deconstructs the old feudal world of loyalties and rewards (e.g., Battle of Maldon).  You could have quibbled or gone for extra credit by noting that Regan and Goneril both initiated erotic/political relationships with Edmund, though bound in marriage to noblemen far above him in rank.  This says something about the sisters, and about Edmund as the superior master of the strategies the hip, young rulers have chosen to replace the outmoded behaviors of their elders.  Even Edgar might be said to have learned a thing or two from his half-brother, once he realizes what is going on.

3)  By the end of the first act, two male characters are either banished or are fleeing for their lives.  Who are they and what have they allegedly done?

Edgar's in hiding because Gloucester thinks Edgar is trying to kill G. to speed up the inheritance process, whereas it's really Edmund who's out to snatch the prize.  Kent has been banished by Lear for daring to advise the daft old man to rethink disowning Cordelia, the classic illustration of the perils which beset the courtier who tells the truth to his lord rather than flattering his judgment.   This problem has appeared in English drama before, and also was specifically addressed in Hythloday's rejection of royal service in More's Utopia, and in Machiavelli's The Prince.  Both men are fleeing because those in authority listened to the wrong advisors, and both will have to lie about their identities (construct a "self" in a parody of Count Canossa's advice in Castiglioni's The Courtier) in order to restore themselves.

        So sometimes the truth is not enough to save you, and a lie told to evil people may be necessary.  What's drama, after all, but a well-told lie?  Think about that when you see Edgar constructing his metadramatic persona, "Tom o' Bedlam," in order to escape detection and to serve Lear and his father.  The play within the play grows more complicated until it has the power to change Gloucester's mind. 

Extra Credit: Aristotle asserted that no thing could be made from nothing, i.e., that things could not be brought into existence without being made from previous things.  As Lear tells Cordelia, "Nothing will come of nothing."  In one sentence, explain the obvious problem this poses for a Jacobean Christian English audience, and what Shakespeare might mean by putting the assertion into Lear's dialogue with his daughter.

        What happened in the biblical version of Creation?  As the Vulgate Bible had it, God said "Fiat lux!" and there was light where previously there had been Nothing.  However, if things can come into existence without antecedent "things," isn't the universe a rather unstable place?  That's a happy thought for those who hold no position in the power structure other than as its objects (landless peasants, bastard sons, wives, and [according to some people] students), but a terribly disturbing one for those who wield social power (kings, earls, knights, fathers, husbands, and [according to those same dummies] teachers).   New people, nations, whole Creations could pop up out of the ground like Tom O' Bedlam and disrupt the whole structure!  Yikes!  What happened to the "old boy network," the "insiders," the "network"?  Now it's the coup plotters, Goneril and Regan and Cornwall (and Edmund) against the world to make a Whole New Thing.  How does a revolution look to the deposed? 

        As good Jacobean Christians, we also might bring to the theater the suspicion that divine creation (God's) might be opposed by another, diabolic creation (the Other One's works), which might play a hand in this.   James I was a big fan of diabolism lore, discoveries of witchcraft, astrological and alchemical revelations (like, ummm...Gloucester?).  Notice, though, that Shakespeare doesn't have demons and firecrackers on stage to evoke evil, as Marlowe did in Dr. Faustus.  In this play, evil is entirely human, daughters and sons against fathers and vice [hah!] versa, brothers and sisters against each other, the rich against the poor and the powerful against the helpless.  In such a universe, ants look more "humane" and "civilized."  Is it true?   Still?

        OK, so that was way more than 1 sentence, but merely suggesting some of this stuff would get lots of Extra Credit from the old Credit Mint.

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