All You Need To Know About King Lear!

All You Need To Know About King
New Criticism (or Formalist
In the past it was believed that a
composer created a text and put all of
the meaning into it
All the reader had to do was to “figure
out” what the writer meant
This meant that the meaning of a text
was always fixed and never changed
Themes Of King Lear
Some ideas that Shakespeare may
have wanted to explore are:
A) Vision & Blindness
References to eyes & seeing are a
recurring motif in the play. Some
examples are:
“Dearer than eyesight…”
Themes Of King Lear (cont’d)
“See better Lear…”
“Old fond eyes…I’ll pluck you out…”
*Gloucester having his eyes plucked out
“Get thee glass eyes…to see the things
thou dost not”
“I have no want of eyes, I stumbled when I
Your Task- Find some more quotes related
to blindness, vision, the eyes etc
Themes Of King Lear (cont’d)
B) Truth, Deception & Disguise
No-one in the play is what they seem
to be:
Goneril & Regan seem loving but are not
Cordelia seems unloving but is not
Edmund seems loyal but is not
Edgar seems treacherous but is not
Kent returns in disguise
Edgar returns in disguise
Themes Of King Lear (cont’d)
There are constant references to truth in the play,
such as:
“So young my Lord and true”
“I can keep honest counsel…”
“That such a slave should wear a sword who
wears no honesty…”
“He must speak truth…”
“On whose foolish honesty my practices ride…”
Your Task- Find some more quotes that relate to
truth, honesty or deception
Themes Of King Lear (cont’d)
C) Madness & Reason
There is a constant interplay between reason &
insanity in the play. Notice how The Fool often
speaks most wisely. Some quotes that relate to
this theme are:
-”Be Kent unmannerly when Lear is mad…”
-”I would not be mad…”
“Thou should not have been old before thou east
“Reason in madness…”
Your Task-Find some more quotes and examples
related to madness & reason.
Themes Of King Lear (cont’d)
D) Gods Or A Godless Universe (Order vs Chaos)
King Lear is a bleak play and seems to question,
at times, whether we live in a chaotic, Godless
-”Thy swearest thy gods in vain…”
-”As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods. They
kill us for their sport”
“The stars above us govern our condition”
“Upon such sacrifices the gods themselves throw
Your Task- Find some more quotes related to the
Shakespeare’s Techniques &
We now understand some of the ideas that
Shakespeare explored in his text-but we
must also understand how he
communicated those ideas. Some dramatic
techniques used by Shakespeare included:
-Dramatic Irony-e.g. we know that Goneril,
Regan & Edmund are sinister, but their
fathers do not
-Natural Sympathy-as chaos reigns in the
human world it is reflected in the natural
world through the eclipse, the storm etc
Shakespeare’s Techniques &
Devices (cont’d)
-Motifs-recurring ideas such as eyes
-Symbolism-those motifs symbolise aspects of the
human condition (e.g. the eye motif symbolises Lear’s
-Imagery-e.g. Goneril & Regan are often described
using animal imagery-”How sharper than a serpent’s
tooth it is to have a thankless child”, She’ll flay thy
wolfish visage”, Sharp toothed unkindness, like a
vulture”, “Tigers not daughter etc”
-Soliloquy-used to reveal a character’s inner thoughts
-Juxtaposition-e.g. of the Lear & Gloucester stories
Your Task- List each of the Dramatic Devices above
and find one new example of each from the text
Reader Response Criticism
In recent times, though, it has been
accepted that the responder also makes
meaning in a text
Each responder will read a text differently
and meaning will change.
These ideas came (in part) from the work
of Roland Barthes who declared that “The
Death Of The Author” because, he said,
meaning came from the connections of
language and culture made by the
Critical Perspectives-What Factors
Affect The Way A Person Reads A
Different people will read a text differently
They live in different times (Context)
They live in different places (Culture)
They have different attitudes, values and
They are male or female (Gender,
Patriarchy, Feminism)
They come from different classes in society
Critical Perspectives-Flaubert’s
Parrot (Julian Barnes)
“The past is a receding coastline and
we are on a boat. Along the side of
the boat is a line of telescopes. Each
telescope seems to show the whole,
the unchanging truth. But this is an
illusion, each telescope shows only a
part of the whole”
Some Readings Of King Lear
King Lear can be read in different ways:
A) Formalist Criticism-All the meaning of
the text is found within the text. The text is
only about the ideas that Shakespeare was
interested in.
B) Biographical Criticism-It is a text which
reflects Shakespeare’s own life & fears
(e.g. about old age, dying etc)
C) Historical Criticism-It is a text which
reflects the values & attitudes of the culture
in which it was composed (e.g. The Feudal
System, The Divine Right Of Kings etc)
Some Readings Of King Lear
D) Gender Criticism-It is a text about
Patriarchy and what happens when
men surrender power to women
E)Mythological Criticism-It is a text
which appropriates iconic, mythical
stories (e.g. Cinderella, the myth of
Paris, the myth of Psyche etc)
F)Christian Criticism-It is a text about
sin and redemption
Some Readings Of King Lear
G) Feminist Criticism-It is a text about a
strong female hero (Cordelia) who
challenges the patriarchal inequality of her
H) Freudean Criticism-It is a text that
explores psychological issues related to
incest & parental abuse
I) Marxist Criticism-It is a text that explores
what happens when the wealthy and
powerful lose their status
Some Readings Of King Lear
J) Existentialist Reading-Existentialism is
the idea that, although there is no
controlling force in the universe (i.e. no
God), individuals have the power to make
their own destiny.
K) Reader Response Criticism-It is a text in
which we have to find our own meaning
based on our own context & experiences.
Some Interpretations Of King Lear
Over time different people have read Lear
in different ways:
-A retelling of a contemporary Court Case
in which Brian Annesley was unjustly
treated by two of his daughters but
defended by his third, Cordell
-A retelling of the Phillip Sydney’s The Tale
Of The Blind King Of Paphlagonia
Some Interpretations Of The Play
-Freud saw the play as exploring the
connection between love & death in a
mythological context. In Freud’s reading
Cordelia is the Goddess Of Death and the
three sisters represent the Three Fates of
Greek Mythology (responsible for life &
death). The play then, becomes a story
about a man rejecting and then accepting
death. At the end of the play then, although
Lear carries Cordelia, Cordelia bears him
away into death.
Key Scenes-Act 1 Scene 1
In Act 1 Scene 1 Lear abdicates the
throne. He intends to divide the
kingdom among his 3 daughters but,
when Cordelia refuses to speak of her
love for him, he gives his kingdom to
Goneril & Regan.
Key Scenes-Act 1 Scene 1
Act 1 Scene 1-A Patriarchal Reading.
Although Goneril & Regan seem to be
strong characters they are still dependent
upon the King for their power, status &
wealth. From a Patriarchal perspective the
play explores how women are dependent
upon or marginalised and excluded by
men. When Lear gives power to women,
the natural order is disturbed and the world
descends into chaos (symbolised by the
storm, the eclipse etc)
Key Scenes-Act 1 Scene 1
Act 1 Scene 1-A Feminist Reading
Feminism explores the role of women
in texts. By refusing to publicly
express her love for Lear Cordelia
may be seen as a hero who
challenges the gender inequalities of
her time
Key Scenes-Act 1 Scene 1
Act 1 Scene 1-A Marxist Reading.
Marxism explores the social roles of
people in texts. By surrendering the
throne Lear is thrown into a life of
poverty. This also happens to
Cordelia, Kent & Edgar. A Marxist
Reading, then, might argue that the
text is an exploration of the different
lives led by the rich and the poor.
Key Scenes-Act 1 Scene 1
Act 1 Scene 1-A Freudean Reading.
A Freudean Reading seeks to
understand the psychology of the
characters. The play has undertones
of incest. A Freudean Reading, then,
might argue that Lear descends into
madness because he is unable to
cope with Cordelia’s rejection of him.
Key Scenes-Act 1 Scene 1
Act 1 Scene 1-An Intertextual
Appropriation. The story of a Father
who favours 2 daughters over a third
is a recurring one in literature. Thus, it
could be argued that King Lear is an
appropriation of stories such as
Cinderella, Paris, Psyche etc.
The Storm Scene
At the end of Act 2 King Lear is
rejected by Goneril & Regan and, in a
rage, runs out into a storm.
He finds a hovel in which to take
How are we to interpret this?
The Storm Scene-Literary
Shakespeare may have used the
storm to symbolise Lear’s inner anger
and confusion.
The disorder in the natural world
would then represent the disorder in
the human world.
The Storm Scene-Divine Right Of
In Shakespeare’s time there was a
belief in The Divine Right Of Kingsthat monarchs were chosen by God
Thus, when Lear gives up the throne
to his daughters he upsets the natural
order (symbolized by the eclipse, the
storm etc)
The Storm Scene-A Patriarchal
In Shakespeare’s time women were
excluded from power.
Patriarchy (rule by men) was
Thus, by surrendering power to
women Lear upsets what was seen
as “the natural order” throwing the
world into chaos and confusion
The Storm Scene-A Marxist
When Lear gives the throne to Goneril &
Regan he falls from a position of status &
power to one of poverty
Some claim the play is an exploration of
what happens when people (Lear,
Cordelia, Kent, Edgar etc) lose their power
& status
This comes to a climax in the Storm scene
when Lear takes shelter in a hovel
The Final Scene-What Ideas Did
Shakespeare Want To Communicate?
1) The Importance of returning the world to
its “natural” order
* Read notes on The Chain of Being, The
Divine Right of Kings, The Wheel of fortune
* Note the following quotes:
“The wheel is come full circle”
“I am the natural fool of fortune”
“A poor man made tame to fortune’s blows”
“I am bound upon the wheel of fire”
The Final Scene-What Ideas Did
Shakespeare Want To Communicate?
2)The Restoration of Patriarchal Power
*Lear says of Cordelia “Her voice was ever
soft, gentle and low-an excellent thing in
The Final Scene-What Ideas Did
Shakespeare Want To Communicate?
3) Christian Redemption & Resurrection
* Note that the storm ends when Lear goes
to pray
* Both Gloucester & Lear are “resurrected”,
they both believe that they have died and
are then “reborn”
*Both Gloucester & Lear are reconciled
with their child
The Final Scene-What Ideas Did
Shakespeare Want To Communicate?
3) Christian Redemption & Resurrection
*Gloucester & Lear both recognise their sin
and seek forgiveness
*Even Edmond finds his inner goodness
“Some good I mean to do”
*Note the change in the attitude to God. In
the first 3 scenes God is often cursed and
condemned. In the last 2 scenes the
characters embrace God e.g. “The gods
are just”
King Lear
Cordelia has nothing to say to her father
when he requests she praise him with her
King Lear has nothing to give Cordelia
because she has no words for him.
Kent has no job because he disagreed
with King Lear.
Burgundy has no wife because Cordelia
comes with no dowry.
Edmund has no title and will do anything to get
Goneril, Regan, & Edmund have no morals
Gloucester has no eyes
Edgar has nobody he can trust
It is unnatural that King Lear would give up his
land and authority before he died.
Gloucester committed an unnatural act by
committing adultery under the stars.
When many characters can literally see, they are
figuratively blind BUT when they are literally blind, they
can, for the first time, figuratively see
King Lear is figuratively blind to the fact that Goneril and
Regan are lying to him about how much they love him
King Lear is figuratively blind to the fact that Cordelia
truly loves him
King Lear is figuratively blind to the fact that Kent only
has his best interest at heart.
Gloucester is figuratively blind to the fact that Edmund is
dishonest and the fact that Edgar is always faithful
Albany is figuratively blind to the fact that
Goneril is an evil woman because of his
great devotion to her.
Gloucester is literally blinded because
Cornwall, Regan, and Goneril consider him
a traitor for helping King Lear after they
threw Lear out into the tempest.
Ingratitude of Others
Goneril & Reagan are ungrateful for all their
father has given them
King Lear is ungrateful for being taken care of
by his daughters
Burgundy is ungrateful for the gift of Cordelia
which he was offered
Edmund is ungrateful for the fact that his father
loves him and accepts him as a legitimate son
Appearances vs Reality
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.
King Lear is disloyal to Cordelia, yet she is loyal
to King Lear
King Lear is disloyal to Kent, yet he is loyal to
King Lear
Goneril & Regan are disloyal to King Lear and he
treats them poorly too.
Goneril is disloyal to Albany, yet he is loyal to
her until he discovers her attempt on his life.
Gloucester is disloyal to Edgar, yet Edgar
remains loyal to Gloucester
Edmund is disloyal to Gloucester, yet Gloucester
is loyal to Gloucester
Edmund is disloyal to both Goneril and Regan.
Greed and lust result in the character’s downfall
Duke of Cornwall has Kent placed in the stocks
and Gloucester’s eyes plucked out so towards the
end of the play, he is killed.
Lear banishes Cordelia and Kent then so Lear
driven out into the storm by his own wicked
Q: How is justice served for Cordelia?
Being a good host is essential during the
Elizabethan era…do you remember Capulet?
Goneril and Regan are not gracious hosts
King Lear is not a good guest
Cornwall and Regan are not good guests whilst
in Gloucester’s home.
Madness and Insanity
The inclusion of madness and insanity in the
play is Shakespeare’s comment on Elizabethan
society and the clear lack of morality during this
It is especially significant that those characters
who go mad are of great nobility. Thus, a
comment on the ignorance of the monarchy and
the lack of concern the monarchy has for lower
class society.
Also, note that characters such as Mad Tom and
the Fool are representative of the unrecognized
wisdom of the lower class.
The storms act as pathetic fallacy. When the
tempest is in full force, it is a reflection of the
inner turmoil/torment that King Lear is forced to
The nature of the stars, under which Edmund is
conceived, dictates that illegitimate children will
be as evil as the Elizabethans believed astrology
and witchcraft to be.
Both King Lear and Gloucester live rich lives,
with no understanding of the suffering those
living in poverty experience on a daily basis. It
is only after all has been taken from these two
men that they finally feel guilty for ignoring the
plight of the poor and forgotten.
Once King Lear and Gloucester recognize the
error of their ways, they feel such great grief
and guilt for what they have done to their
honorable children, that their betwix’d emotions
were the ultimate cause of each of their deaths.
Age & Wisdom
Advanced age and wisdom do not go hand-inhand.
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
The truth
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
Born 1564; died 1616
Author, playwright, actor, and poet
Usually credited with writing 37 plays and 154
Plays are divided into the early plays (e.g., The
Taming of the Shrew),the comedies (e.g., Much Ado
About Nothing), the histories (e.g., Henry V), the
tragedies (e.g., King Lear), the problem plays (e.g.,
Measure for Measure), and the romance plays (e.g.,The
Winter’s Tale)
The story of King Lear originated 400 years
before Shakespeare wrote his version.
Lear was a British King who reigned before the
birth of Christ allowing Shakespeare to
implement some polytheistic elements into the
British mythology refers to a “Lyr” or
“Ler” who was the basis of a King Lear story
by Geoffrey of Monmouth in 1137 which
Shakespeare used as a source as well as
Raphael Holinshed’s “Chronicle of England,
Scotland and Ireland”.
Shakespeare also “borrowed” plot and
subplot ideas from Edmund Spencer’s “The
Faerie Queen” and John Higgins’ “A Mirror
for Magistrates” among others which he then
interwove into the basic King Lear tale to
create his own version, ignoring much of the
older Monmouth storyline.
Scholars believe the play was written after
“Othello” but before “Macbeth” assigning
it a creation date of 1604-05.
 Shakespeare
also “borrowed” from a
convenient contemporary true story of
a gentleman of the court of Elizabeth
I named Sir Brian Annesley whose
daughters tried to have him declared
insane in late 1603 so they could
legally take control of his estate.
His youngest daughter, named Cordell,
intervened on his behalf.
 Many
students find Shakespeare difficult
to read and to understand.
 If you understand his language, you can
better understand his plays.
 This plays are written in two forms:
prose and poetry.
 Shakespeare
uses figurative language as
he speaks with metaphors, similes, and
personification. Recognizing when his
characters are speaking figuratively
helps in understanding the play.
Most of Shakespeare’s plays are written in
verse. A character who speaks in verse is a
noble or a member of the Upper Class. Most
of his plays focused on these characters.
The verse form he used is BLANK VERSE.
There is no rhyme, but each line has an
internal rhythm with a regular rhythmic
pattern. The pattern he liked most was
iambic pentameter – 10 syllable line with
accent on every other syllable. It is most
regular. He sometimes found it necessary to
remove a vowel so that the rhythm would
Protagonist dies while defeating antagonist
 In revenge tragedy, the protagonist is
driven by desire to exact revenge, which
leads to his/her demise
 The tragic hero is dominated by a fatal flaw
in character, which leads to his/her
 The tragic hero is held in high standing,
making the downfall more tragic for the
1. Gloucester and his sons / Lear and his daughters
2. Suicide and the world view that demonstrates the
belief that the souls of all who take their lives
will be damned forever – punished for her
3. The attraction between some key characters -shows
the attraction between like-minded individuals – It
involves seeking in others for that which you
possess in yourself
Lear has three legitimate daughters.
Gloucester has one legitimate son and
one illegitimate one.
Evil is not confined either to gender or
to being illegitimate. It can occur
In King Lear, appearances, station, and how what others
think influences our actions are examined through
relationships found in family and service: father and child;
nobleman and servant. Even though we believe that what
we look like and what we say are reflections of who we
are, Shakespeare, in King Lear, shows that appearances
and words are ever deceiving and are not clear indications
of the soul or the mind. Even though Goneril and Regan are
of noble birth, they hardly show noble souls; and although
Lear can hardly be considered to have a fair countenance,
he does develop a most fair and loving soul.
One of man’s most persistent characteristics is the
desire to organize the world about him, so that he can
understand and explain it. He sets out to create a world
picture that is rational and meaningful to him.
The Elizabethans operated on TWO assumptions:
1. All activity takes place in a world with good moral
2. The universe is a Christian universe created and
controlled by God. Order has its source in God.
There is also evil, and its source is Satan, who
revolted against the order of God, which subsequently
brought about Man’s fall (from grace).
In a world dependent on words for
communication, each of us comes to value
the spoken and written word. We can all
readily identify with a child who “says
what his parents want to hear.” So, in
“Lear”, you can’t always trust what is
said or what is recorded.
 Elizabethans,
three centuries ago,
struggled with the same type of
questions. In King Lear, Shakespeare
offers a world where the natural and
unnatural are intertwined, appearances
and self-perception are confused, and
words—written and spoken—are deceptive.
True to Shakespearean tradition, King Lear borrows
its tragic elements from several types of tragedies
that were popular during the Elizabethan Renaissance.
Even though King Lear is classified as a chronicle
play (a type of drama which draws its English
historical materials from the sixteenth-century
chronicles—such as Holinshed’s), Shakespeare uses
elements of tragedy sometimes called Classical
tragedy, and the morality play.
To enhance this chronicle with a tragedy of character,
Shakespeare incorporates a few classical elements: (1) the
use of stock characters—a faithful male servant (Kent);
(2) the employment of sensational themes drawn from Greek
mythology, involving much use of “blood and lust;” and
(3) stichomythia—dialogue that is conducted by two
characters speaking in alternate lines (though strict
regularity is not maintained).
To balance the stock characters, Shakespeare also used
characters that were consistently good or evil in their
intent, echoing the pattern of a morality play. Edmund,
Regan, and Goneril embody avarice, envy, anger, lust, and
pride; while Edgar and Cordelia embody faithfulness and
unconditional love.
As a tragedy, King Lear portrays a protagonist whose
fortunes are conditioned by his hamartia. As defined
by Aristotle, the protagonist of a tragedy should be
a person “who is not eminently good or just, yet
whose fortune is brought about by some error or
frailty.” This error is not necessarily a flaw in
character; hamartia can be an unwitting misstep in
definite action or the failure to perform a definite
Lear’s hamartia is the impulsive division of his
powers and kingdom before his death—more
particularly, disowning Cordelia because she will
speak “nothing.”
Note that the following themes demonstrate
Shakespeare’s use of opposition. Many of his plays
present the conflict between two extremes. In so
doing, Shakespeare seems to urge readers to assess
their own capacity to deal with life’s extremes.
Perhaps it is in this process that a Shakespearean
tragedy can help a reader learn to avoid undue
suffering by finding a happy middle ground on which
to live.
Appearances vs Reality
Much of the play deals with the characters’
failures to understand the intentions of the
people around them. The evil characters in
particular make use of deceit and lies to
achieve their goals. Other characters
assume disguises for their own protection.
Moral values in the play can be reversed;
that which appears to be good may be evil,
while that which is evil may actually be
good. In Shakespeare’s tragedies
characters often learn that appearances are
Blindness and Sight
(or The Foolish vs the Wise)
This theme is directly linked to the theme of “Appearances
vs Reality”. Some characters are described as “blind” to
the realities of the world around them due to their
ignorance, poor judgement or lack of insight. Such
characters are often referred to as fools for their inability
to perceive reality correctly, while those with correct
insight are described as wise. Great suffering ensues as
these “blind” characters peel away layers of deception to
discover the truth. Gloucester is literally blinded when he
is deceived by false appearances; ironically, it is only when
blinded that he learns to truly see.
Order vs Chaos
The Medieval concept of the Great Chain of Being is at work
in King Lear. This view of the universe assumes that a
strict moral order (having its source in God) binds all of
creation together. This order demands love, honour and
obedience from all beings to those who are of superior rank
in the “Great Chain”. Woman must be obedient to man.
Child must honour parent.
Subject must be loyal to king.
Evil seeks to destroy this order by breaking bonds of
loyalty and love; the result is chaos. Evil is therefore
considered to be unnatural since it opposes the natural
order of the universe. In King Lear notice how chaos is
demonstrated through tainted family relationships,
political instability, and the mental deterioration of
vs Disloyalty
This theme is directly linked to the concept of Order
vs Chaos”. Shakespeare shows us that many
characters are willing to use deceit and treachery
for their own personal gain, even when it means being
disloyal to someone that should be honoured and
respected. These characters are depicted as evil,
spreading disloyalty like a disease to bring chaos
to an entire country. In contrast, there are
characters who remain loyal, thus reminding us that
the forces of goodness and virtue are always at work
to restore a sense of order in the play. However,
Shakespeare warns that there is no honour in blind
loyalty to people who are corrupt and evil (Such as
Oswald’s loyalty to Goneril).
Fate vs Free Will (or Fatalism vs Opportunism)
This theme is common among the Greek tragedies that
Shakespeare used as models for his Renaissance
tragedies. The play asks readers to consider whether
the course of our lives (reward and suffering) is
determined by the gods, or whether we determine our
own life paths through choice and making the most of
our opportunities. Do fate and freedom maintain a
delicate coexistence? Perhaps we should never
completely depend on fate or surrender our capacity
for freedom and choice.
Patience vs Passion (or Reason vs Emotion)
Shakespeare warns us that allowing one’s extreme
emotions or passions (esp. wrath , sorrow, or
despair) to govern our actions without first being
patient and being guided by rational thought can lead
to pain and suffering. Characters often call upon
patience to sustain them in adversity, though many
are unable to control their overwhelming emotions.
The Classical school of thought known as Stoicism
espoused the belief that we can most effectively cope
with death and suffering by facing them with calm and
dignity and mastering the passions that can overwhelm
The Need for Humanity
One of Lear’s greatest lessons results when he loses the
title of “king” and discovers who he is as a human being.
The play teaches us that we must all (especially those in
power) have compassion for those who live in misery. In
fact, it is this compassion and respect for other human
beings that can be an active force for order and goodness
in the world. On the other hand, evil dehumanizes. The
evil characters in the play are not “humane” and this
leads to their moral degeneration and general chaos. They
are often portrayed as bestial or animal-like as they seek
personal advancement and live by the law of the jungle
(“survival of the fittest”). Shakespeare reminds us that
our capacity to act morally is what distinguishes humans
from beasts.
The Nature of Evil and Justice
One of the purposes of tragedy is to explain the problem of
evil in our world. What are the consequences of evil
deeds? Some characters in King Lear cling to the belief
that there is a universal power of justice (nemesis) that
will punish evil deeds and restore moral order. The evil
characters in the play do receive their just rewards. But
Shakespeare does not give us a simple solution, since good
characters also suffer. In the end, the play seems to
suggest that evil and suffering in life are unavoidable. We
must therefore accept their inevitability and be ready to
face them with courage (Stoicism).
Clothing and Nakedness – A recurring image which may
represent the following:
-loss of status or identity
-Clothing in disarray or nakedness can symbolize insanity
-Nakedness can represent the discovery of one’s humanity,
liberated from the trappings of civilization.
Bird and Animal Imagery - A recurring use of birds and
animals to symbolize human conditions and behaviours.
Often the animals to which humans are compared are dark and
violent to denote the bestiality within human beings who
give way to evil impulses.
- A recurring plot device used by
characters to help them carry out evil
deeds. Ironically, it is also because of
these letters that these evil characters get
 The
 The
 The
 The
A foil is a character who can be compared and contrasted to
another character
Used to clarify character traits and issues in the play
King Lear and Gloucester
Old friends
Both are betrayed by their children
Neither has the wisdom to see through duplicious love
Lear’s insanity leads him to clear perception; Gloucester’s
loss of his eyes leads him to clear vision
Both die after having been reunited with their faithful children
Equal in evil
Neither sister has love for good beings
Both sisters are attracted to Edmund
Neither sister possesses compassion for love
Exclusive thoughts of themselves
Actively feed on the wickedness of the other
Brothers; Edgar is legitimate; Edmund is
 Clear opposition of good and evil, with good
prevailing in the end
 As Edmund tries to push his father away;
Edgar tries to protect his father from a
Both try to speak the truth to King Lear; he
is deaf to both characters
 Kent is part of the action until Lear’s
death; the Fool exits the play as soon as
his usefulness is exhausted
 Although they belong to different classes,
they both show equal honour and loyalty
Animal Imagery
[to Goneril]
“Detested kite, thou
“Each jealous of
the other as the
stung / Are of the
adder. Which of
them shall I
“O, Regan, she hath tied
Sharp-tooth unkindness, like a
vulture, here”(II.2.323-324)
“Those pelican
daughters.” (III.4.72)
Tigers, not daughters.
Like monsters of the
(IV.5.41 and 51)
The sisters are continuously associated with aggressive
animals and, in the end, they are destroyed by their own
animal instincts.
Lear’s vulnerability is
emphasised by his
comparison to passive
animals, like the “edgesparrow”.
“We two alone will sing like
birds I’the cage”(V.3.9)
“Is man no more than this? Consider him well.Thou
ow’st the worm no silk, the beast no hide, the sheep
no wool, the cat no perfume. Ha? Here’s three on’s
us are sophisticated; thou art the thing itself.
Prefix of
Unaccommodated man is no more but such a poor,
bare, forked animal as thou art. Off, off, you lendings:
“The edgesparrow fed the
cuckoo so long /
That it’s had it
head bit off by it
young.” (I.4.206207)
come, unbutton here.” (III.4.101-107)
This whole passage includes negative terms, such as the repetition of the negative, the prefix
and the preposition. This reinforces Lear’s vulnerability and his negative stream of
consciousness, corroborated by the use of caesura and enjambment.
Suffering and Madness
Human Suffering
In Odyssey, Zeus says:
‘Ah how shameless - the way these mortals
blame the gods. From us alone, they say,
come all their miseries, yes, but they
themselves, with their own reckless ways,
compound their pains beyond their proper
Contrasts with
“poor old man”
Abstract noun
“You see me here, you gods, a poor old man,
As full of grief as age, wretched in both:
If it be you that stirs these daughters’ hearts
Against their father, fool me not so much
To bear it tamely; touch me with noble anger,
And let not women’s weapons, water-drops,
Stain my man’s cheeks. No, you unnatural hags,
I will have such revenges on you both
That all the world shall – I will do such things –
What they are yet I know not, but they shall be
The terrors of the earth! You think I’ll weep,
No, I’ll not weep. Storm and Tempest.
I have full cause of weeping, but this heart
Shall break into a hundred thousand flaws
Or e’er I’ll weep. O fool, I shall go mad.”
Parenthesis and
Prefix / negative
connotation adj.
and noun
and metaphor
This passage is full of contradictions. On the one hand, Lear says he is a poor old man, but seems
to think he has divine powers. On the other hand, he underestimates women’s power, but seems to
forget that his daughters put him in this situation.
The Storm
 In part, the storm echoes Lear’s inner turmoil
and mounting madness: it is a physical,
turbulent natural reflection of Lear’s internal
confusion. At the same time, the storm
embodies the awesome power of nature,
which forces the powerless king to recognize
his own mortality and human frailty and to
cultivate a sense of humility for the first time.
The storm may also symbolize some kind of
divine justice, as if nature itself is angry about
the events in the play.
The Greek Take on Suffering
According to the Greeks, the role of suffering in human
life is clear: mathos pathei
(learning [new self-awareness & knowledge] through
In “King Lear”, most of the characters suffer. They react
to suffering in different ways:
- Some harden their hearts
- Some indulge in violence
- Some try to alleviate others’ suffering
King Lear & Suffering: the sadness
of old age
 Lear makes a big
mistake - he gives up
his throne, but still
expects to be treated as
 He rages against his
own pain until his sanity
 He dies without being
able to profit from his
learning through
Madness / insanity occupies a central place in the
play and is associated with both disorder and
hidden wisdom.
Edgar’s feigned insanity also contains nuggets of wisdom for the king to
mine. Meanwhile, Edgar’s time as a supposedly insane beggar hardens
him and prepares him to defeat Edmund at the close of the play.
“He childed as I fathered.” (III.6.107)
The Fool, who offers Lear insight in the early sections of the play, offers
his counsel in a seemingly mad babble.
“Thou hadst little wit in thy bald crown when thou
gav’st thy golden one away.” (I.4.155-6)
When Lear himself goes mad, the turmoil in his mind mirrors the chaos
that has descended upon his kingdom. At the same time, however, it also
provides him with important wisdom by reducing him to his bare humanity,
stripped of all royal pretensions. Lear learns humility.
“man is no more but such a poor, bare, forked
animal” (III.4.105-6)
Nature in KING LEAR
“Most savage and unnatural”
•Human nature
•Nature (the elements: earth, sea, wind and fire, which
can be associated to the gods)
•Natural order (divine order)
“Thou, Nature, art my goddess”
Law and order
“Take away order from things,
what then should remain?”
 Tudor England is obsessed with the idea of order and
hierarchy, and terrified of anarchy and change.
 People believed the world was made of a ‘great chain of
being’, which stretched down from the angels to humans,
and from humans to the beasts and plants.
 In this pyramid, society is unequal but everyone and
everything has their divinely ordained place. The
metaphors used to describe society – ‘body politic’ or
‘tree of the commonwealth’ – emphasise the organic
unity of life.
Gentlemen Everyone from nobles
to professionals
In 1577, William Harrison,
a country parson begins his
account of society:
Citizens of the cities
– Free men with
special privileges.
Yeomen of the
Poor – Day labourers,
servants and vagrants
(who have no voice or
Malign and Misread Nature
The dominance of evil characters might lead us to feel that
nature is a cruel force in King Lear.
Cruelty seems to come naturally to Regan, Goneril and
Edmund, who seem to delight in it. For these characters, there
is no natural order, they seek to create their own selfish
universe. Lear transgresses against natural order when he fails to
recognise Cordelia’s honesty.
“Loyal and natural boy”
“a wretch whom nature is
ashamed almost t’acknowledge”
Benign Nature
Kent, Fool, Edgar and Cordelia are all good natured
characters. This group believe in NATURAL ORDER,
which they struggle to restore.
“All blest secrets,
All you unpublished virtues of the earth,
Spring with my tears. Be aidant and remediate
In the good man's distress. Seek, seek for him,
Lest his ungoverned rage dissolve the life
That wants the means to lead it.” (IV.4.15-20)
Lear’s unnatural dealings leads to unnatural
dealings in others.
Malign Nature
characters might lead us to feel
that nature is a cruel force in
King Lear.
EDMUND suggests that nature is malevolent:
“Thou, Nature, art my goddess; to thy law
My services are bound. Wherefore should I
Stand in the plague of custom, and permit
The curiosity of nations deprive me?
For that I am some twelve or fourteen moonshines
Lag of a brother? Why bastard? Wherefore base?
When my dimensions are as well compact,
My mind as generous and my shape as true
As honest madam’s issue?” (I.2.1-9)
This soliloquy
suggests that if
nature was against
intentions, it would
have made him
very different and
inferior to his
brother Edgar.
Malign Nature
Interprets natural phenomena as a sign of bad times ahead:
These late eclipses in the sun and moon
Portend no good to us. Though the wisdom of Nature
Can reason it thus and thus, yet nature finds itself
scourged by the sequent effects. Love cools friendship
Falls off, brothers divide: in cities, mutinies; in
Countries, discord; in palaces, treason; and the bond
Cracked twixt son and father. This villain of mine
Comes under the prediction – there’s son against father .
The king falls from bias of nature – there’s father
Against child. We have seen the best of our time.
Machinations, hollowness, treachery and all ruinous
Disorders follow us disquietly to our graves.(I.2.103-114)
I am only
doing what
He wants!
This is
God’s will!
 Protestants (Calvinists)
Salvation is accomplished by the almighty
power of the Triune God. The Father
chose a people, the Son died for them, the
Holy Spirit makes Christ's death effective
by bringing the elect to faith and
repentance, thereby causing them to
willingly obey the gospel. The entire
process (election, redemption,
regeneration) is the work of God and is by
grace alone. Thus God, not man,
determines who will be the recipients of
the gift of salvation.
 Protestants (Arminianists).
Where is that
“whore of
Time to hunt!
Salvation is accomplished through the
combined efforts of God (who takes the
initiative) and man (who must respond) man's response being the determining factor.
God has provided salvation for everyone,
but His provision becomes effective only for
those who, of their own free will, "choose" to
cooperate with Him and accept His offer of
grace. At the crucial point, man's will plays a
decisive role; thus man, not God,
determines who will be recipients of the
gift of salvation.
 Seven Deadly Sins:
Which one is
Lear’s sin?
Malign Nature?
“when we are sick in fortune, often the surfeits of our
own behaviour, we make guilty of our disasters the sun,
the moon and the stars, as if we were villains on
Necessity, fools by heavenly compulsion, knaves, thieves
and treachers by spherical predominance; drunkards,
liars and adulterers by an enforced obedience of
planetary influence; and all that are evil in by a
divine thrusting on. An admirable evasion of
whoremaster man, to lay his goatish disposition on the
charge of a star.” (I.2.119-130)
Nature only reflects men’s mistakes!
Malign Nature?
“O most small fault,
How ugly didst thou in Cordelia show,
Which like an engine wrenched my frame of nature
From the fixed place” (I.4.258-261)
seriousness of Lear’s
crimes against nature
and natural order.
Look at Act 1.4.267-281.
Prefix of
Hear, Nature, hear, dear goddess, hear:
Female body
Suspend thy purpose if thou didst intend
To make this creature fruitful.
Into her womb convey sterility,
with mystery
Dry up in her the organs of increase,
and evil.
And from her derogate body never spring
A babe to honour her. If she must teem,
Create her child of spleen, that it may live,
And be a thwart disnatured torment to her.
Let it stamp wrinkles in her brow of youth,
With cadent tears fret channels in her cheeks,
Turn all her mother's pains and benefits
To laughter and contempt, that she may feel
Effect on child
How sharper than a serpent's tooth it is
To have a thankless child. Away, away!
In his madness, Lear sees Regan and
Goneril’s true nature.
Ha! Goneril, with a white beard? They flattered
me like a dog and told me I had white hairs in my
beard ere the black ones were there. To say 'ay‘ and 'no'
to every thing that I said 'Ay' and 'no‘ to was no good
divinity. When the rain came to wet me once, and the wind
to make me chatter; when the thunder would not
peace at my bidding, there I found 'em, there I smelt
'em out. Go to, they are not men o' their words: they
told me I was everything; 'tis a lie, I am not ague-proof.

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