WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE’S KING LEAR
THE AUTHOR AND HIS TIMES
It would be nice if we could say that William Shakespeare wrote King Lear when he himself was at an advanced age. We could picture him becoming concerned with retirement and the disposal of his property and goods. But the theory collapses when you realize that Shakespeare was only 41 years old when the first performance of King Lear was recorded in an official document. Besides, the plot line, involving two older men and their respective family problems, is only a small part of the play. King Lear is about much, much more and undoubtedly reflects deeper concerns that Shakespeare had developed in his already considerable experience as a playwright.
By the time he wrote King Lear, this adventurous young man from Stratford had led a remarkable life, even for Elizabethan times, which we tend to think of as more exciting than our own. During the reign of Elizabeth I, England experienced a period of relative stability and, more important, prosperity. All the arts flourished, but the growth of drama was nothing short of phenomenal. At the zenith of Elizabeth’s power and influence, William Shakespeare came to London and wrote the 37 plays that have established him as the greatest playwright in the English language.
How did it all begin? What purpose drove him to produce this incredible body of work? Where did his inspiration come from? There are many theories about Shakespeare, but very little that is known for certain. He was born in 1564 and raised in Stratford-on-Avon, some 100 miles from London. His father was a successful middle-class tradesman and had even held public office. Young Will attended local schools, which means he received a good, substantial education. It gave him a background in the classics as well as proficiency in the three "Rs." At 18, William married Anne Hathaway, eight years his senior. She subsequently bore a daughter, Susanna, and shortly afterward, twins, Hamnet and Judith. 43147ijb27jcg3b
How the young husband provided for his family during the first years of marriage is unknown. A strong tradition holds that he was employed locally as a schoolteacher, but there is no evidence to prove it. We do know that he left Stratford sometime in his mid-20s and settled in London. There he first came to notice as a poet, the writer of two long poems, Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece. These poems were favorably received and launched his reputation.
About the same time, he turned his attention to the theater. He wrote one tragedy, Titus Andronicus, but most of his earliest plays were comedies, including The Comedy of Errors, Two Gentlemen of Verona, Love’s Labor’s Lost, and The Taming of the Shrew. Romantic comedy, satire, farce—all flowed from his pen at the outset of his career. They concerned relationships among lovers, friends, families, but they didn’t plumb the depths overlapping the production of these comedies were his earliest history plays.
Toward the end of the 16th century Shakespeare produced the series of four great historical works that remain the pinnacle of his achievement in that type of theater—Richard II; Henry IV, Part I; Henry IV, Part II; and Henry V. As the years wore on, Shakespeare turned from his interest in politics and the glorification of England to more profound comedies. Two of the best known, Measure for Measure and All’s Well that Ends Well, show an interest in darker human behavior. It’s not surprising, then, that the greatest of Shakespeare’s tragedies were also written during this period, the first decade of the new century. Now the poet-playwright was at the absolute height of his powers, and one brilliant drama followed the next—Hamlet, Othello, King Lear, and Macbeth, all written and performed within a few short years.
Shakespeare was still relatively young, but he had matured. He was a playwright of some repute, and also an actor who performed both in his own plays and in plays by others. He could very well afford to look around and question why everything in life wasn’t perfect and rosy. King Lear examines a broad range of philosophic ideas. There’s a somber tone and not much frivolity in the play. But the playwright in Shakespeare knew he couldn’t simply stage a dull discussion of abstract notions. And so he told a story in order to hold the audience’s attention and to get his points across. The play explores more profound themes than any of Shakespeare’s tragedies, but it also offers a central figure of such heroic proportion that our attention is riveted to him and his fate. When you read the play today, or see it performed, you can’t help but be moved by the powerful speech Shakespeare puts into the mouths of his characters—speech so rich and poetic that some readers refer to King Lear as Shakespeare’s greatest poem. Shakespeare continued to write tragedies—Coriolanus, Macbeth, Antony and Cleopatra—but he found the world of myth a better setting for his developing interests. A new type of play, the romantic tragicomedy, began to appear—The Winter’s Tale, The Tempest, Cymbeline. jc147i3427jccg
Shakespeare’s involvement with a theatrical company called the King’s Men—both as actor and playwright—kept him active until 1613, when the Globe Theatre in which the company performed burned down. Perhaps he took it as an omen, but Shakespeare returned at about that time to Stratford, where he spent his final years. He died on April 23, 1616, at the age of 52. William Shakespeare never lived to be as old as Lear. Nor was he ever a king. But his rich imagination and talent enabled him to create a world so true that we can enter it even today.
There are really two plots in King Lear, a main plot and a fully developed subplot. Each has its own set of characters.
In the main plot, there is the head of the family, the 80-plus-year-old king of Britain, Lear. He has three daughters, Goneril, Regan, and Cordelia. The Duke of Albany is married to the oldest, Goneril, and the Duke of Cornwall is married to Regan, the middle daughter. Cordelia has two suitors, the Duke of Burgundy and the King of France. The court jester, the Fool, is by extension a member of the Lear family and part of the main plot, as is the Earl of Kent, Lear’s loyal follower. The Earl of Gloucester, also a member of Lear’s court, is the head of another family and the focus of the subplot. He has two offspring, an older, legitimate son named Edgar and a younger, illegitimate or bastard son named Edmund. Various minor characters appear from time to time. They are easily identified by their connections with whatever main character they serve or speak of.
As the play opens, Lear has decided to retire and divide his kingdom among his three daughters. Cordelia’s husband will be chosen for her immediately after Lear executes this "living will." Before he allots the shares, Lear asks each daughter to make a profession of her love for him in order to receive her entitlement. Goneril and Regan waste no time professing love for their father, but Cordelia is speechless. She loves her father as any daughter should, no more and no less. Lear is outraged by what he sees as her lack of devotion. He cuts Cordelia out of her share and banishes her. Her share is divided between Goneril and Regan. Lear gives them everything but keeps a retinue, a following of 100 knights who will accompany him as he alternates monthly visits between his two daughters. Cordelia’s suitors are called in. Without a dowry, Burgundy rejects her; but the King of France sees her true worth and leads Cordelia off to marriage and his protection.
At Gloucester’s castle, Edmund reveals that he will not let his illegitimate birth and older brother prevent him from inheriting his father’s estate. He devises a plan to convince Gloucester that Edgar is secretly planning to kill his father to get his hands on the family property and enjoy it while he’s still young. Edmund then tells Edgar that their father is after him for some mistaken notion of a reported crime. Eventually Gloucester is convinced of Edgar’s treachery and seeks to put his older son to death. Edgar flees for his life.
Meanwhile, Lear discovers that living with his two daughters is no joy. He is so outraged by their cruel behavior toward him that he curses them and rushes out into a violent storm. During his exposure to the elements he is accompanied by Kent, the Fool (his court jester), and eventually by Edgar, who has disguised himself as a lunatic beggar named "poor Tom." Gloucester tries to help Lear and his followers but is betrayed to Cornwall and Regan by Edmund. As punishment, Gloucester is blinded and sent out into the storm, too. Edgar, still disguised, discovers his blind father and leads him to Dover, where he joins Lear, who has gone mad from exposure to the elements and the anguish he has suffered at the hands of his daughters.
The news of Lear’s treatment had reached Cordelia, and the King of France has sent an invading force to England to help restore Lear’s rights to him. In Dover, where they have landed, Cordelia finds Lear and helps to restore his sanity by loving care.
While preparing to fight the French invaders, Goneril and Regan have developed a passion for Edmund. But before they can do anything about it, the battle is fought. The French lose, and Lear and Cordelia are taken prisoners.
Edmund sends Lear and Cordelia to prison with orders for them to be secretly killed. When Albany enters, he accuses Edmund of treason for plotting with Goneril against him and the interests of the state. Edmund is given the chance to defend his honor in a duel. Edgar appears in a new disguise to take up this challenge and mortally wounds Edmund. Goneril sees the handwriting on the wall and flees from the scene. Edmund confesses all his crimes as a servant enters and announces that Goneril has poisoned Regan and killed herself. Edmund then reveals that he has ordered Lear’s and Cordelia’s deaths. Albany sends soldiers to prevent it, but he’s too late. Lear enters carrying the dead Cordelia in his arms. As he weeps for her, surrounded by the bodies of Goneril and Regan, the survivors can only stare in respectful awe.
Albany, the victor of the battle, relinquishes rule of the country to Kent and Edgar, but the worn-out Kent doesn’t accept. Edgar is left to restore order in England as the bodies of the dead are carried away.
There may well have been an ancient king of Britain named Lear. And he may have had daughters to whom he relinquished his kingdom and his authority when he retired at an early age. But we can only speculate about these people because there is no historic record of such a ruler. Lear may be only a popular myth. By the time Shakespeare came to write about Lear, there were several available versions of the story. We know that Holinshed’s Chronicles, Shakespeare’s source for several of his histories, contained a Lear story. There was also another play performed at that time called The True Chronicle History of King Leir. The author is unknown, but there is a record of its performance in London in 1594, some 12 years before Shakespeare’s King Lear appeared. Edmund Spenser’s great epic poem The Faerie Queen also includes the Lear story. Some fine points differ in these stories, but Shakespeare’s version is unique in one uncontestable aspect: the others had happy endings. Some even had a sequel showing how the "happily ever after" turned out! And none had the Gloucester subplot. Shakespeare took the outline of this story from a contemporary romance, Sir Philip Sidney’s Arcadia. He changed names and adapted its theme of filial ingratitude as a parallel to reinforce the tension and impact of his main plot.
Since he was concerned with tragedy, not history, Shakespeare was free to take whatever liberties he chose in order to shape the drama to his purpose. And that was his story of King Lear.
KING LEAR The title character of this play is unquestionably its dominant figure. Although the name "Lear" comes from some ruler who may never have actually lived, Shakespeare has created a flesh-and-blood monarch whose actions and reactions determine the main course of events in the play.
You must remember that Lear is first of all a king. He is now in his 80s and is accustomed to all the power, the authority, the responsibilities, and the privileges of an absolute monarch. In our age, when such total rule is rare, we might not really comprehend what that means. But if you think back to every story of every king you’ve ever heard about, even fairy-tale monarchs, you’ll have some idea of how the Elizabethans felt about a king. As a man, Lear is the ruler of a family. To the Elizabethans, the family unit was just a miniature version of the government. So the power and authority of the father was given the same respect. In a world where the life expectancy was much lower than our own, 80 was an exceptional age to attain. When King Lear was first performed, Queen Elizabeth I had only recently died at age 70. So as a "geriatric," not much would have been expected of Lear. Still, retirement was unknown. The tradition of the day was that you worked as long as you were able.
From the moment Lear announces his retirement, we have to keep an eye on him to detect any sign of weakness or infirmity, to see if the action is justified. The physical strength it took to survive the fierce storm would appear to contradict such a view. Even his final act of carrying in the body of Cordelia is quite an achievement for an 80-year-old. But what about his mind—the moodiness, the rash judgments, the rage? Are these the telltale signs of old age or senility? You have to decide for yourself when Lear is in his right mind, when he is being manipulative, and when he is actually mad. Lear is never entirely alone on the stage; he is attended by someone even in his most contemplative moments. But Shakespeare has given him such an aura that the spotlight is always on him and he is always in focus. We can examine his every word and every move microscopically.
Observe the skill with which he tries to manipulate his daughters. Notice how he rouses our sympathy with references to himself as "tired," "poor," and "old." You’ll notice that Lear really only acts in the first scene and that all the rest is reaction. But it is the most skillful reaction imaginable since it never fails to hold our interest and attention. In the final analysis, Lear himself must be judged on several counts. He undoubtedly triggered the forces that brought England to the brink of civil war. It took a foreign invasion to restore authority and order. This makes Lear guilty of something. But is the suffering he endures, the extent of his punishment and final loss, deserved? As you watch his progress through the play, you alone must decide whether he is indeed, "...a man / More sinn’d against than sinning" (III, ii, 59-60).
CORDELIA The stubborn streak that Lear’s youngest daughter exhibits in the first scene is the one saving gesture that redeems Cordelia from being "too good to be true." We don’t know much about Cordelia except that she is her father’s favorite. As a princess, she obviously has led a privileged life, but it doesn’t appear to have spoiled her as it has her older sisters. Cordelia is not stupid. She may not be wise enough to avoid losing her share of Lear’s kingdom, but she can speak up when her honor as well as interest are at stake. She makes sure that the King of France does not get the wrong idea about her error of judgment and consider it a crime. Although she disappears from the stage after the first scene and doesn’t return until the last scene of the fourth act, her image is kept before us and periodically polished. This leads to great expectations. Still, we’re not disappointed when she does return to the stage. From that point on she is the soul of gentleness and goodness in her devotion to her aged father and his welfare. By endowing Cordelia with such powerful virtue, Shakespeare seems to be indulging us in our eternal wish for the ultimate fairy-tale princess. We want her to make everything come out an right. Because it doesn’t, despite her noble efforts, her last moments on the stage are all the more poignant.
GONERIL In terms of pure evil, it may be difficult to distinguish Lear’s two older daughters from each other. But these are not identical twins. Goneril, whom we get to know first, is the firstborn and has an imperious manner not unlike Lear’s. Highly intelligent, she has long been aware of her father’s moodiness, and she decides to play it for all it’s worth. Although she conspires initially with her sister Regan to protect their mutual interests, greed gets the better of her. When it combines with lust, there’s no stopping this powerful force. When she is confronted with evidence of her treachery by her husband, she sneers, "Who can arraign me for’t?" (V, iii, 160.) As one of the three principal villains in King Lear, Goneril does her share to provide a broad picture of evil. And if you think she is cruel only in her behavior to her father, listen to her conversations with her husband and her recommendation for Gloucester’s punishment. Finally, of course, who else would stoop to poison as a means of getting what she wants? In her fancy clothes, Goneril couldn’t care less about degrading her father with haggling over the size of his retinue. She is interested only in "looking after number one." And when there is no longer a way out, when she is utterly trapped in the web she has spun, only she will have the final say.
REGAN The cruelty and the evil inherent in Regan are harder to detect at first. We may be taken in as much as Lear is by her sugary words. This second daughter is extremely well spoken. She uses words as a tool and a weapon more craftily than her older sister. As the middle child, Regan is less accustomed to initiating; she usually follows her older sister’s lead, particularly if it serves her self-interest. When Lear turns to her after he has been turned out by Goneril, we can see why Regan doesn’t rush to welcome him. But the force in her rejection of his request, her denial of any comfort, and her instant willingness to turn this old man out into the violent storm remind us that there is evil just below her sweet exterior. Regan is more the stiletto to Goneril’s sword. Even though Regan schemes, she is faithful in her marriage. And she kills only to try to save her husband’s life. But she can be vicious and strong willed. She is capable of terrifying venom when she unleashes her fury. If her thirst for power is her primary motivation, her powerful lust is her eventual undoing. All we can do is speculate as to whether she wanted Edmund for his body or as a partner in a future struggle for rule over England. But because Regan is always "number two, she dies without knowing that her lover could never have won the battle she would have waged.
GLOUCESTER Gloucester is a counterpoint to Lear. There are as many parallels as there are differences between them, though they are in similar circumstances by the end of the play.
Like Lear, Gloucester is elderly. He is gullible and easily taken in by his son Edmund. But Gloucester is no weak, infirm geriatric either. He braves the storm repeatedly to bring creature comforts to his king and master. And even after being blinded, he is capable of enduring the long trek to Dover. Unlike Lear, Gloucester is more the "average man." He speaks plainly, with little indulgence in fancy rhetoric. He doesn’t really concern himself with philosophic matters until he is pushed almost to the limit of his endurance. Gloucester doesn’t ask a lot of questions. He has faith in astrology much the same way he trusts Fortune. He must have served Lear in some senior court capacity for some time, since he isn’t easily disturbed by the ebb and flow of politics. But when forced to get involved, he isn’t very good at it, and ultimately suffers for his lack of cunning.
This good-natured man is also not particularly perceptive about his children. From the very beginning, when he jokes about Edmund’s birth in front of his illegitimate son, Gloucester is singularly lacking in vision. But Gloucester can be very brave. He is willing to risk his life for the king and the order and stability that Lear represents for him. As the protagonist of the subplot, Gloucester is its pivot. Like Goneril and Regan—Lear’s daughters who exude evil—Gloucester’s son Edmund is also evil. To what degree is Gloucester responsible for this evil? And is his punishment in due proportion to his "crime"? Answering these questions will give you greater insight into the main plot’s similar situation and Lear’s own final judgment. And that, of course, is one of the great services the character of Gloucester performs in King Lear. That he can arouse emotions and stimulate our interest in his own predicament is a testimony to the craftsmanship of the playwright who created him.
EDMUND Edmund and Edgar are two sides of one coin. To say that one of these sons of the Earl of Gloucester has a particular trait is to claim the opposite of the other. Yet Shakespeare develops each character fully. Edmund’s villainy is obvious as soon as we see him alone on stage and listen to what he has to say. But during our very first introduction at the start of the play, he looks like a victim twice over. Not only is he the product of an illicit liaison, but duty makes him stand by while his father cracks jokes about his birth. Is it any wonder that Edmund has turned out the way he has? Still, for all his carping about his illegitimacy, the trouble he causes and his treacherous behavior seem well beyond the point of fair compensation. Edmund’s glib tongue works hard to persuade us that he’s doing only what he must. It reveals a keen intelligence within his warped mind. Combined with his overpowering ambition, this intelligence makes Edmund capable of seizing every opportunity that comes his way. The passion of Lear’s older daughters is something this young adventurer barely acknowledges. He allows Fate to decide which one shall have him. Is this a more mature Edmund giving a nod to higher powers? To observe Edmund’s villainy throughout King Lear is to see more than a case study in evil. It also reveals the twisted path of a tortured soul.
King Lear. He ranges from the insipid dupe we meet at the beginning of Act I, Scene ii, to the heroic heir to the kingdom in the final scene. In between we discover a lot about Edgar, primarily through his own speech and action. Very little is said to him except the slanderous comments of the bastard, Edmund. Considering the source, they are almost endearing. Throughout the play we see an Edgar who has faith in the gods and their justice. Still, when troubles arise, he can think and act for himself. As the madman beggar, an imaginative notion to begin with, he acts the part well enough to deceive his father and godfather. And, while running wildly about in his fake madness, he manages to comfort Lear and provide extraordinary assistance for Gloucester. We may ridicule Edgar’s stupidity for allowing Edmund to drive him from his home, but we have to admire his achievement of stature at the end. There are difficult journeys for many characters in King Lear, and Edgar’s is not an easy one. But it is ultimately and deservedly rewarding.
ALBANY Another significant contrast in the play is Albany. He is almost as unlike his brother-in-law, Cornwall, as Gloucester’s two sons are different. It is easy to see why the alliance between the two poles of Albany and Cornwall would never last. Not only are their names opposites—Albany was the ancient name for Scotland, and Cornwall is located in the southwestern-most part of England—so are their temperaments. The hot and fiery Cornwall could never be compatible with the cool, calm Albany. The foul-mouthed Goneril calls her husband Albany cowardly, but he doesn’t display any lack of courage. He’s enough of a military commander to win a significant victory. And he’s ready to meet Edmund in one-on-one combat. More than courageous, Albany is decisive when something must be done. Altogether, Albany is an admirable character and a fitting champion for justice. The decency of his behavior makes his wife’s crueller nature stand out in bold relief.
CORNWALL As befits the role of son-in-law, especially to a king, Cornwall hasn’t much to say or do when we first see him. He is willing to stand by and get his fair share as Lear parcels out the kingdom. When we first meet him on his own turf, as a guest but nevertheless as Gloucester’s "arch and patron," he is assertive and authoritative. In a matter of moments he has taken things over and is making all the important decisions. Cornwall is evil, but certainly not a coward. It takes him a while, but he does own up to Lear that he had Kent put into the stocks. And he’s ready to defend that action. In his own mind, Cornwall is a fair judge. Having decided from Edmund’s report that Gloucester is a traitor, he makes a pass at giving the old man a chance to speak for himself. But getting nowhere and not discovering anything new, Cornwall doesn’t hesitate to execute the sentence with zest. For all the violence, tempest, rage, anger, and horror in the play, only one pair of hands in King Lear is really bloodied. That they are Cornwall’s is a mark and measure of his villainy. He is, after all, a fitting partner for the cruel Regan.
KENT Kent is the ideal first mate to the commander of the ship of state. From the moment we meet him and observe his tactful response to Gloucester’s bawdy chatter, we know we can rely on this good man. It doesn’t take long for us to become better acquainted. When Lear banishes Cordelia, and Kent speaks up in her behalf, he is bold but courteous. And he sticks to his guns, even at the risk of his own banishment. The measure of his devotion to his master, the king, is shown by his assumption of a disguise. This enables him to continue in Lear’s service. There are several additional facets of Kent’s personality. He can be hotheaded, as in the outburst that infuriates Lear in the very first scene. And his treatment of Oswald is hardly gentle. Kent even shows a sense of humor in his lengthy description of Goneril’s steward. Kent is not a great philosopher, but he does acknowledge that there are greater forces determining our fates. He endures disfavor and discomfort stoically. His devotion and faithfulness are always in our minds. In the midst of the final turmoil, we still have compassion for Kent when he tells us that he cannot fulfill the only formal request made of him. He cannot share the responsibility for restoring order to England because he is nearing his own end. Who would deny him his final rest and reward?
THE FOOL Although he is an oddity to us, the Fool was greeted by an Elizabethan audience with great familiarity. The monarch in Shakespeare’s time may not have had an official court jester, but the position was a historic one. In conventional drama of the day, as a holdover from morality plays of earlier days and the traveling stock companies that wandered the countryside, the role was classic. A Fool had established characteristics and responsibilities. Among them, the Fool had license to roam the stage and approach the audience family, often joking with them and talking directly to them. He acted as a bridge between the action on stage and the audience’s own experience. We might think of this today as "low comedy," but it was welcome in its day. The better the Fool, the greater his popularity with the "groundlings"—those members of the audience who stood directly around the stage (today’s closest equivalent would be the fans seated in the bleachers of the ballpark).
Shakespeare exploits this aspect of the Fool to make him a character in the play as well as a commentator on the action, much the way the chorus functioned in Greek tragedy. The notion of the Fool providing comic relief is difficult to see in the darkness of King Lear, but such relief does occur. This is not the thigh-slapping humor we might expect, but is more colorful relief in the very presence of the Fool as well as his bits of light verse, songs, riddles, etc. The role demands an actor physically nimble, adept at tongue-twisting speech, quick at comebacks, and intelligent enough to let the Fool’s performance speak for itself.
Tradition has it that the Fool in Elizabethan tragedy is the instructor of the wise man. Speaking in riddles, the Fool repeatedly reminds Lear of his folly, which we know to be the truth. As such, the Fool is our champion, giving vent to our thoughts and emotions. No wonder audiences can’t help loving the Fool. It is probably just as well that we don’t see the Fool give up the ghost. Though it can be dramatically justified, we still miss the Fool during the latter half of the play.
OSWALD The role of Goneril’s steward is another holdover from earlier forms of drama. Shakespeare has, however, adapted this stock character to his own purpose in King Lear. Oswald is not completely the traditional two-dimensional buffoon and cowardly servant. He is brave enough, or firm enough, to resist Regan’s attempt to pry information from him. Is this loyalty to Goneril? Or is it the blind following of instructions? Even when he is slain, he is true to his mission, asking his executioner to forward the messages he carries. But Oswald is all too ready to conspire with Goneril and share her villainy. He is delighted to carry out her order to snub Lear and his retinue. In fact, it was his complaint that started the trouble between Goneril and Lear. Of course, Oswald is really nothing compared to the arch villains of this play. Edgar has the ultimate say after he has disposed of his father’s would-be killer:
I know thee well: a serviceable villain;
As duteous to the vices of thy mistress
As badness would desire.
(Act IV, Scene vi, lines 248-50)
That sums up Oswald.
OTHER ELEMENTS: SETTING
King Lear takes place in mythological, prehistoric England. It begins in Lear’s palace but never returns to that spot. Once the action starts to move, it doesn’t stop until the last note of the recessional is sounded. Geography isn’t really important, although it does figure in the play. We know we are somewhere to the north at Albany’s castle when Lear first quarrels with Goneril. Later we move to Gloucester’s castle, within and outside the walls. We can’t miss knowing when we are outside in a storm, and it’s obvious when we move inside to some form of shelter. The lack of changeable scenery made it necessary to be nonspecific, but the Elizabethan platform stage with its recess in the rear allowed for certain suggestions of movement and place. Eventually, the action moves to the southeast of England. Edgar guides the blind Gloucester toward Dover, where the king’s party has already been sent. Eventually the two meet.
The French have obviously landed in that area, and Cordelia catches up with Lear and has him brought to her camp to rest. It is not far from there that the final battle is fought and the action of the play is resolved. The rapid flow of events in King Lear makes what is happening infinitely more interesting than where it takes place.
There is a wide range of themes running through King Lear. Often they are straightforward, but just as frequently they are buried or seemingly contradictory. It’s important to remember that Shakespeare makes many points by parallel or contrasting words and actions. If something is significant in the main plot, it will probably turn up in some fashion in the subplot, and vice versa. Some of the important themes are:
THE FOLLY OF OLD AGE—THE INGRATITUDE OF YOUTH Lear’s division of his kingdom, his "early retirement," unleashes the forces that lead ultimately to the catastrophic ending of the play. Gloucester is no less responsible for his calamity, for being rash in his judgment of his older son and blindly trusting his younger. Are these men senile? How much of the suffering that they endure do they deserve? And considering how they are abused by their fathers, don’t Edgar and Goneril deserve some sympathy, some satisfaction? Regan, too—should she have to put up with her father’s rowdy entourage? Or are these, indeed, thankless children? Do they try to grab more than is rightfully theirs? There are several references to how "golden-agers" should be looked after by their children. What do you think of those making the comments, as well as those they’re discussing? How you feel, how your sympathies shift, will affect your attitude toward the ending of King Lear.
GOOD AND EVIL With the exception of momentary lapses, the good characters in this play are all very good, and the bad characters are quite evil. Other than the heads of the two families, Lear and Gloucester, there is little growth or development. But those characters undergo such profound experiences that there is enough internal activity to keep the play moving forward. Other characters talk about benign or malevolent forces, but Lear wrestles with them head-on. His plunge into insanity is marked by his ever-increasing awareness of the presence of good and evil in areas he had never before considered. And even the generally placid Gloucester exhibits new awareness as he proceeds toward his final moment. Since the play ends with the death of all those we have come to love, except those who must carry on, it has been called a study in pessimism. Do you accept that judgment? Or do you see redeeming aspects? Is the play only about a struggle between good and evil or is there a broader interpretation?
NATURE Shakespeare’s concept of nature in King Lear is a kaleidoscopic picture of the prevailing Elizabethan attitude. It is not always the picture we expect, but all the pieces are there. The Elizabethans viewed nature as order. It consisted of a universe in which there was an established hierarchy; everything had its own relative position. Heaven, the Divine Being, and the stars and planets were all above. On earth, the king was at the head of the class structure, with the nobles next, and on down to the peasantry, and beneath them were the lowliest humans: beggars, lunatics, and so on. Below that came the animals. When this order was disturbed, things were considered unnatural or "monstrous." Chaos ruled the unnatural, and malevolent forces were involved. There are constant references to nature and unnatural things and forces throughout the play. Shakespeare was deeply concerned with this concept and stretched it to the limit in King Lear. Did he finally believe that such a system existed and operated in the determination of man’s fate? Your interpretation of the play should provide you with the answer to this question.
VISION AND BLINDNESS There are more overt references to vision and blindness than almost any other theme. There are subtle variations woven through the drama, too. Obviously, when someone is behaving intelligently, he has vision. Conversely, he acts blindly when he does something foolish. You may notice what seem to be contradictions. For example, madness is folly and should produce blindness. But in the midst of Lear’s madness, he comes up with some provocative insights. What does this tell us? Don’t come to a hasty conclusion about the theme of vision and blindness. Evaluate the obvious references in the text, and consider the theme as it applies to the characters’ actions throughout the play.
A new student of Shakespeare will find King Lear quite different from any contemporary play. Elizabethan drama had its own set of rules, and Shakespeare was guided, if not bound, by most of them. Most noticeable is the somewhat formal speech in verse. You may have heard about Shakespeare’s iambic pentameter, which is nothing more than a description of a poetic form—a five-beat line with a stress on every second syllable. It’s used frequently, though not exclusively, in King Lear. This was simply Shakespeare’s way of approximating the sound of upperclass speech or the way it was believed serious matters should sound when discussed. In addition, there is his use of verse. Poetry gave him the opportunity to say a lot in a few words. Don’t read the dialogue in a singsong pattern. Just read it straight through and let the punctuation guide you to the rests and stopping points. After a while it will become as natural as reading prose. Shakespeare breaks the monotony of the verse with prose speech when appropriate. How certain forms are used at certain times can be very revealing.
FORM AND STRUCTURE
Elizabethan plays were written to be performed in circumstances peculiar to their time. A wooden platform thrust out into the audience could serve as a stage. Although even the poorest performing troupe indulged in the most elaborate costumes they could afford, there was no scenery and no special lighting. A private performance might be held indoors, but most were outside. Theaters of the time were modeled after inn courtyards with tiered galleries running around the perimeter. The cheapest admission was for the ground area where there were no seats, so the audience stood or roamed about. Actors—there were no actresses; men performed all the roles—entered from the back of the stage area left and right, and exited the same way. Sometimes there was a recessed area in the back across which a curtain might be drawn when appropriate. There was no signal—no curtain coming down, no lowering of the lights—to indicate a change of scene or act. Action at a particular place ended when all the characters involved left the stage. The best available records or scripts of Shakespeare’s plays therefore don’t contain the act and scene divisions we commonly use today. King Lear was written to be performed under these circumstances. These conditions dictated its form and structure, which should actually be viewed as one uninterrupted piece.
One way Shakespeare maintains pace and interest is to alternate scenes between the main plot and the subplot. As the story line unfolds, he interweaves other scenes—Albany’s castle, Cordelia’s tent—but the focus shifts back and forth between Lear’s story and Gloucester’s. Shakespeare also balances these changing scenes with a range of dynamics. The howling intensity of the storm scenes, for example, is interrupted before the high pitch loses its effect. Each time we return to Lear and the thunder and lightning, we expect a little more; we are wound up and ready rather than exhausted by the tumult. The parallel and contrasting aspects of the two plots also create an undercurrent of interest. They combine to give the play stimulus as well as dramatic texture. Within the limitations of what we consider "primitive" theatrical technology, Shakespeare applied his special skills in King Lear to produce an experience of profound theatrical tragedy, a riveting drama.