King Lear

Main Characters

King Lear — the aging king of Britain

Goneril — King Lear's ruthless oldest daughter; wife of the Duke of Albany

Regan — King Lear's second daughter, as ruthless as Goneril; wife of the Duke of Cornwall

Cordelia — King Lear's youngest daughter

Gloucester — father of Edgar and Edmund

Edgar — Gloucester's oldest son; he disguises himself as a crazy beggar called Poor Tom

Edmund — Gloucester's younger, illegitimate son

Kent — a nobleman loyal to King Lear

Fool — Lear's fool; he mysteriously disappears during Act III

Duke of Albany — Goneril's husband

Duke of Cornwall — Regan's husband

Oswald — Goneril's steward

Introduction

King Lear is one of Shakespeare's most famous tragedies, and, along with Hamlet, one of his most challenging. Written about 1605, between Othello and Macbeth, it rivals Hamlet as Shakespeare's greatest play. (Scholars now even believe that Shakespeare began working on and revising the play as early as 1598.)

King Lear is performed less often partly because its central character is more than eighty years old and because it explores madness, despair, chaos, aging, and death. It is a difficult and disturbing play whose dark psychology and symbolic ambiguity seem relentlessly nihilistic. The scenes in which the mad Lear rages naked on a stormy heath against his deceitful daughters and nature itself are considered by many scholars to be the finest example of tragic poetry in the English language.

If the philosophical questioning of Hamlet (written around 1601) arose in part because of the death of Shakespeare's young son some four years earlier, one wonders what dark personal event was in the forefront of the Bard's thoughts when he composed Lear? The nihilism and bitterness that invades his later works seems to find its zenith in Lear.

The actual text of King Lear also presents special problems. The play exists in three very different editions — an early quarto printed in 1608, another quarto printed in 1619, and the Folio version printed in 1623. Today, editions of King Lear vary depending upon which version is used. Most often, the two editions of the play are woven together. Scholars now even study the play as distinct, possibly evolving versions of the same work.

The Play

King Lear, the aging king of Britain, decides to split his kingdom among his three daughters: Goneril, Regan, and Cordelia. Goneril and Regan pour flattery on him protesting their love for their father, while Cordelia, sincere in her love of her father, simply says she loves him the way a daughter should. Lear is upset by her response and disinherits her. The king of France says that he will marry her anyway. When Kent, one of Lear's nobles, tries to reason with him, Lear banishes him as well.

Meanwhile, Edmund, Gloucester's bastard son, decides to gain his father's inheritance by tricking him into thinking that Edgar, his legitimate son, is plotting to murder Gloucester. Edgar flees for his life, and disguised as a madman, goes into hiding.

The King's Fall

Lear soon discovers how little Goneril and Regan actually love him. Both daughters demean him and try to take away from him the little dignity and power he has kept for himself. Lear is transformed from a powerful king to an impotent old man with only Kent — who has disguised himself and disobeyed Lear's decree of banishment — and his Fool for company.

In the middle of the play, Lear is driven mad by his grief at his foolishness and the betrayal of his children. On a lonely heath, he rages, naked, at a storm. Lear and Kent meet Edgar, who is disguised as Poor Tom. Gloucester provides them shelter and guides them to Dover to meet Cordelia and the French king, who has landed an army in England to come to Lear's aid. For pitying Lear, Gloucester is betrayed by Edmund; Regan and Cornwall put out Gloucester's eyes. However, a servant is so distressed by the scene that he fatally stabs Cornwall before Regan kills him in turn.

Why is King Lear so difficult for audiences to watch?

King Lear is a tragedy of such power that audiences are left emotionally drained at its conclusion. We can only wonder at the meaninglessness of life after the physical and moral horrors at the play's end. Kent, on seeing Lear reduced to a mad, pathetic creature with the murdered Cordelia in his arms, murmurs, “Is this the promis'd end?”

Now blind, Gloucester meets up with Edgar disguised as Poor Tom. Edgar does not reveal himself but leads his father toward Dover. Meanwhile, Goneril's husband, Albany, has begun to speak up for Lear and Gloucester because his wife is calling him a coward. Both sisters independently start affairs with Edmund.

Father and Daughter United in Death

The English and French armies battle and the English win. Lear and Cordelia are taken prisoner, and Edmund orders them hanged. Edgar tracks down his brother and in a duel stabs Edmund fatally. Goneril poisons Regan to win Edmund from her, then kills herself when she learns of Edmund's fate. Realizing he is about to die, Edmund repents his sins and reveals his plots, including the imminent deaths of Lear and Cordelia.

It is all too late: Lear enters carrying Cordelia's body. Overcome by grief and exhaustion Lear collapses and dies a broken old man beside the only daughter who loved him. Gloucester dies after reconciling with Edgar. Kent and Edgar retire, leaving Albany to rule Britain.

Commentary

While traditional critics of King Lear find a heroic pattern in the story, modern directors usually see a nihilistic play about the frailty and futility of the human condition. Even the most powerful are humbled before the forces of fate and nature.

One of the important questions about Lear is whether he learns from his mistakes and becomes more personally aware. Does his humiliation and insanity strip away the hubris that caused his downfall? It seems that while he does not permanently regain his sanity, his values do change for the better by the end of the play. As he is made to realize his insignificance by the awesome natural forces that are unleashed on him, he becomes a humbled yet caring man, finally appreciating Cordelia for the jewel she is, though too late to save either himself or her.

Laurence Olivier: “No, Lear is easy. He's like all the rest of us, really; he's just a stupid old fart. He's got a frightful temper. He's completely selfish and utterly inconsiderate. He does not for a moment think of the consequences of what he has said. He is simply bad-tempered arrogance with a crown perched on top. He obviously wasn't spanked by his mother often enough.”

Edmund's change of heart is rare among Shakespeare's villains and can make us wonder if Lear is not in some ways a play about the power of love amid carnage. Goneril and Regan, for example, totally lack love until they meet Edmund. How is it possible that they are sisters to Cordelia?

The depth of Cordelia's love for Lear is a counterpoint to the height of the king's arrogance. By banishing her, he abandons his soul and plunges his kingdom into chaos and brutal anarchy. As we watch Goneril and Regan torment and plot against their father, deliberately pushing Lear toward madness, we pray that Cordelia will come back and rescue him from himself and his dreadful fate.

When at last they find each other, their reunion marks the restoration of peace and order in the kingdom and the triumph of love and forgiveness over hatred and spite. This fleeting moment of redemption makes the devastating finale of King Lear that much more cruel, as Cordelia, the personification of kindness and virtue, is sacrificed for nothing, depriving Lear's world of the meaning he thought he had found at last.

Famous Lines

“Although the last, not least” (Act I, Scene I).

“Nothing will come of nothing” (Act I, Scene, I).

“How sharper than a serpent's tooth it is To have a thankless child!” (Act I, Scene IV). “Striving to better, oft we mar what's well” (Act I, Scene IV).

“Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! rage! blow!” (Act III, Scene II).

“A poor, infirm, weak, and despised old man” (Act III, Scene II).

“I am a man More sinn'd against than sinning” (Act III, Scene II).

“Oh, that way madness lies; let me shun that” (Act III, Scene IV).

“The worst is not So long as we can say, ‘This is the worst.'” (Act IV, Scene I).

“Pray you now, forget and forgive” (Act IV, Scene VII).

“Her voice was ever soft, Gentle, and low, an excellent thing in woman” (Act V, Scene III).

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