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Type of Work Composition and Performance
The Fate Motif
King Lear is a tragic stage play centering on the decline and fall of a dysfunctional royal family. It is also sometimes referred to as a chronicle play because it draws upon historical information in such documents as The True Chronicle History of King Leir and His Daughters (anonymous, 1594) and The Chronicles of England, Scotland and Ireland, by Raphael Holinshed (1587).
Composition, Performance, and
Quarto editions of King
Lear were published in 1608 and 1619. In
1623, the play was published in a book that
included thirty-five other Shakespeare plays. This
book was in folio
format, a larger format than quarto, and
constituted the first authorized collection of
Shakespeare's plays. It came to be known as the
The probable main sources for the play were The True Chronicle History of King Leir and His Daughters (anonymous, 1594); The Chronicles of England, Scotland and Ireland, by Raphael Holinshed (1587); Arcadia (1590, Chapter 10, Book 2), by Sir Philip Sidney; and a Dutch pamphlet entitled “Strange, Fearful and True News Which Happened at Carlstadt in the Kingdom of Croatia” (a source for the information on eclipses in Act 1, Scene, 2.)
Goneril, Regan: Selfish, greedy daughters of Lear who pretend to love him when he announces that he will gives them shares of his kingdom. Later, they treat him cruelly.
Cordelia: Loyal and unselfish daughter of Lear. He disowns her after confusing her honesty with insolence. She continues to love her father in spite of his rejection of her.
Duke of Burgundy: Suitor of Cordelia. He decides to reject her after Lear disowns her.
King of France: Suitor of Cordelia. He marries her even though Lear has disowned her.
Duke of Cornwall: Regan's husband, who is just as cruel as she is.
Duke of Albany: Goneril's husband. He turns against her when he realizes that she is an evil schemer.
Earl of Kent: True and honest friend of Lear who remains loyal even after the king banishes him. To continue serving the king, he wears a disguise and calls himself “Caius.”
Earl of Gloucester: Old man who suffers from many of the same faults as Lear. Like Lear, he is old and self-important; like Lear, he misjudges his children and undergoes suffering that makes him a better man. However, Gloucester is less forceful and demanding than Lear and more given to compromise. Such qualities make him a foil of Lear.
Edgar: Gloucester's loyal son and heir. He resembles Cordelia in his loyalty to hid father.
Edmund: Gloucester's evil bastard son. He resembles Goneril and Regan in his disloyalty to his father.
Fool: Jester loyal to Lear and Cordelia. The fool is a walking paradox—that is, he is the wisest character in play in that he is the only character who understands the motivations of Lear, his daughters, and other characters. He acts as a kind of mirror, reflecting Lear’s faults and weaknesses.
Old Man: Tenant of Gloucester.
Doctor: Physician who attends Lear after the old king arrives at Dover.
Oswald: Villainous steward of Goneril.
Captain: Employee of Edmund.
Gentleman: Attendant of Cordelia.
First Servant, Second Servant, Third Servant: Servants of the Duke of Cornwall.
Monsier La Far: Marshal of France. He has no speaking part.
Minor Characters: Knights of Lear's train, captains, messengers, soldiers, and attendants.
By Michael J. Cummings...© 2003, 2013
Sir, I love you more than words can wield the matter;Equally avaricious Regan says Goneril comes up short, declaring, “I am alone felicitate / In your dear highness’ love” (1.1.59-60). Much pleased, Lear asks his favorite daughter, Cordelia, what she can do to win the richest share of his kingdom. She replies, “Nothing, my lord” (1.1.72). Surprised and disappointed, Lear presses Cordelia, the only daughter who truly loves her father, to speak up for herself. But she says,
Unhappy that I am, I cannot heaveAngry now, Lear warns her to “mend your speech a little, / Lest it may mar your fortunes” (1.1.79-80). But Cordelia stands fast, refusing to take part in the foolish contest. Consequently, Lear disowns her and divides his property between Goneril and Regan. The Duke of Kent, long a loyal friend of the king, advises Lear that his action is rash and foolish. He asserts: “Thy youngest daughter does not love thee least” (1.1.142). Lear warns him to hold his tongue. Kent—believing himself honor-bound to point out Lear’s folly—says, “I’ll tell thee thou dost evil” (1.1.161). In response, Lear banishes him from the country.
The Duke of Burgundy, who has been suing for the hand of Cordelia, now rejects her as unworthy. After all, she is without property and title. But the King of France, who admires the young woman for her honesty and spunk, marries her; they leave to live in France.
Goneril and her husband, the Duke of Albany, first host Lear, his fool, and his entourage of a hundred knights. But in time, the eccentric old man and the rowdy behavior of his companions vex her sorely. After Goneril’s steward, Oswald, scolds the king's fool, Lear strikes Oswald. In response, Goneril says,
By day and night he wrongs me; every hourShe tells Oswald to ignore Lear and his entourage since he is now an “idle old man” (1.3.18) who has relinquished his authority. If he dislikes the treatment he receives, she says, he can move to the castle of Regan and her husband, the Duke of Cornwall. There, she says, he will receive similar treatment, for Regan and she are of one mind in their view that their father is a pesky old man.
Meanwhile, the banished Kent presents himself in disguise, calling himself Caius, and tells the king he wishes to serve him: “I can keep honest counsel, ride, run . . . and deliver a plain message bluntly: that which ordinary men are fit for, I am qualified in; and the best of me is diligence” (1.4.26). After Lear accepts him, Kent learns from one of the knights that Goneril no longer regards her father with affection.
Oswald enters. Lear, regarding him as a tool of Goneril, insults and slaps him. For good measure, the disguised Kent trips Oswald and pushes him away. The king’s fool comes in just then and recites a little speech for Lear and Kent. It contains more wisdom than Lear realizes:
Have more than thou showest,
Speak less than thou knowest,
Lend less than thou owest [own],
Ride more than thou goest [walk],
Learn more than thou trowest [know],
Set less than thou throwest [in a game of dice, bet less than you can afford to lose]
Leave thy drink and thy whore,
And keep in-a-door [indoors],
And thou shalt have more [more money]
Than two tens to a score. (1.4.71-80)
Goneril enters and reprimands Lear for the rowdy behavior of his knights. She tells him to reduce their number, keeping only those who behave. Lear defends them as honorable men and curses Goneril as a monster. He tells her husband, Albany, never to have children with her: "Into her womb convey sterility; / Dry up her organs of increase (1.4.193-194). But if she does become pregnant, Lear says, "Create her child of spleen, that it may live / And be a thwart disnatur'd torment to her!" (1.4.198-199). With such a child, he says, she shall come to learn "how sharper than a serpent's tooth it is / to have a thankless child" (1.4.203-204).
Lear and his company then depart for Gloucester's castle, where Regan and her husband, Cornwall, are to pay a visit. Goneril sends Oswald ahead to warn her sister of Lear’s approach. Lear, unaware of Oswald’s mission, sends word of his coming in letters carried by the disguised Earl of Kent. Lear's fool then picks at the old man, the better to make him understand himself and the folly of his headstrong ways. “If thou wert my fool, nuncle,” he says, “I’d have thee beaten for being old before thy time” (1.5.25).
Meanwhile, the Earl of Gloucester and his son Edgar become victims of skulduggery when Gloucester's illegitimate son, Edmund, claims that Edgar, Gloucester’s rightful heir, had schemed to murder the old man and attempted to persuade Edmund to take part in the plot. Edmund says that when he refused to participate, Edgar ran at him with a sword and glanced his arm. When he recovered and defended himself, Edmund says, Edgar ran off. Edmund shows his father the bleeding injury to his arm, which Edmund himself had inflicted. Gloucester believes Edmund even though Edgar dearly loves his father, and he orders his servants to pursue Edgar. When Regan and Cornwall arrive for their visit, Gloucester repeats what Edmund told him and commends the latter for foiling the plot. Cornwall promises to support Gloucester against Edgar and praises Edmund for his virtue and loyalty to his father. Regan and Cornwall then reveal the purpose of their visit: to seek Gloucester's advice about how to handle Lear, a matter that Goneril and Lear have both brought to the attention of Regan in separate letters.
Kent then arrives at Gloucester’s castle. There, he encounters Oswald and heaps insults upon him. Oswald had arrived at the castle before Kent to poison Regan’s ear against Lear and his entourage. When Kent draws his sword against Oswald, the latter cries for help. The commotion attracts Regan and Cornwall, and Cornwall orders Kent placed in stocks (a wooden frame that closes around the wrists and ankles.)
Out on a heath, Edgar, aware now that he has been framed, hides in the hollow of a tree to avoid capture. Realizing that people everywhere will be on the lookout for him, he decides to disguise himself as a lunatic beggar, griming his face, knotting his hair, and stripping off most of his clothes.
After Lear arrives at the castle, his fool pokes fun at the immobilized Kent (still disguised as Caius), saying that he wears "cruel garters" and that when "a man is over-lusty . . . he wears wooden nether-stocks" (2.4.12). Kent reports that he delivered Lear's letters to Regan and Cornwall at their castle at the same time that letters to Regan from Goneril arrived. Regan and her husband then immediately left to see Gloucester, telling Kent to follow to await their reply to Lear's letter. Kent finishes his report with an account of his clash with Oswald and his immobilization in stocks.
Lear enters the castle and returns a short while later with Gloucester. The king is angry that his daughter and her husband have so far refused to leave their chamber to see him. When they finally deign to appear, they free Kent while Lear explains to them what happened at Goneril’s. But Regan defends her sister and suggests that Lear apologize to her.
After Goneril arrives, the two sisters gang up on Lear. In a rage, he storms out with his fool into a tempestuous night. Winds howl and rain falls in torrents as the elements mimic the raving anger of Lear. The king observes that nature has joined with his faithless daughters to torment him. “I am a man / More sinn’d against than sinning” (3.2.49-50), he laments. Kent, who has followed Lear, persuades the old man to take shelter in a hut. By and by, Edgar, now acting the part of a wandering beggar and lunatic, finds shelter in the same hut Lear occupies. His wits now failing him, Lear identifies with Edgar and strips away his royal robes to become like Edgar.
Gloucester, torch in hand, also finds his way to the hut. He advises Kent that Lear must leave quickly, for his daughters want him dead. If Lear goes to Dover, Gloucester says, he will be safe. The King of France and his army will soon land there to help the old king win back his throne. Lear and his fool—along with Kent and Edgar—then travel with Gloucester back to his castle. There, they take shelter in his farmhouse. After Gloucester enters the castle, Lear—now out of his wits—announces legal proceedings against Regan and Goneril, addressing Edgar as "a robed man of justice" (3.6.25) and the fool as a "yoke-fellow of equity" (3.6.26). He tells them to arraign Goneril first and then begins testifying against her. Edgar and the fool play along. When Gloucester returns, he tells Kent he has overhead a plot to murder the king. Hurriedly, they lay the demented Lear in a litter Gloucester has provided, and Kent and the fool carry him off toward Dover. Gloucester and Edgar, still in the guise of a “wandering lunatic,” remain behind at Gloucester's castle.
After Gloucester reports news of the French invasion to his “trusted” son, the evil Edmund, the young man immediately reports the news to Regan and her husband, Cornwall. Goneril is there with them. In turn, Cornwall tells Goneril and Edmund to go at once to alert Goneril's husband, Albany, of the invasion so that he may prepare for battle.
Hot after more news, Cornwall orders servants to fetch Gloucester. When he arrives, Cornwall orders him bound to a chair as a traitor who has furthered the plan to restore Lear to the throne, via the French invasion. When Regan and Cornwall demand to know the destination of Lear, Regan begins plucking the hairs of Gloucester's beard. Gloucester then tells them he sent Lear to Dover to save him from the wrath of Regan and Goneril. Defiantly, he adds that he "shall see / the winged vengeance overtake" (3.7.67) the two sisters. In retaliation, Cornwall rams a foot into one of Gloucester's eyes. When a servant comes to Gloucester's defense, Cornwall draws a sword against him. The servant draws and wounds Cornwall, but Regan stabs the servant from behind, killing him. Cornwall then puts out Gloucester's other eye, blinding him, as Regan taunts Gloucester by revealing that Edmund had duped him, then informed on him. The blind old man now realizes how wrong he was to place his trust in Edmund instead of Edgar. Regan and Cornwall cast him out of the castle. "Let him smell his way to Dover" (3.7.97-98), Regan says. Cornwall later dies of his sword wound.
While a loyal attendant leads the blinded Gloucester through a heath, they come upon Gloucester’s good son, Edgar (the “wandering lunatic”). Gloucester asks him to take him to Dover, where Gloucester intends to throw himself off a cliff. Edgar, without revealing his identity, agrees to lead him.
When Goneril arrives with Edmund at the castle of her husband, Albany, Oswald greets them and informs them that he has already conveyed to Albany news of the French invasion. He warns Goneril that Albany is a changed man who condemns the maltreatment of Gloucester and the services performed by Edmund, as well as the plans of Goneril and Regan in general. Goneril then tells Edmund it is best for him to leave and prepare for war, as she herself will do. Oswald will act as a go-between to maintain communications. When Edmund is about to depart, Goneril kisses him and gives him a favor (such as a charm or keepsake). After he leaves, Albany confronts Goneril, calling her and her sister vile for their treatment of Lear, whom he refers to as "a gracious man, / Whose reverence the head-lugg'd bear would lick" (4.2.48-49). A messenger arrives and reports the death of Cornwall.
In a room in Gloucester's castle sometime later, Regan questions Oswald after he stops there on his way to deliver a letter from Goneril to Edmund. When she asks Oswald to allow her to unseal and read the letter, Oswald hesitates. Regan then summarizes the message she believes the letter contains: Goneril expresses her love for Edmund, upon whom she has looked fondly. However, Regan says she herself is better suited for Edmund, especially now that her husband, Cornwall, is dead. She then gives Oswald her own message to bear to Edmund. She also asks him to kill Gloucester if he encounters him, for the old man could speak against her and Goneril. "Preferment falls on him that cuts him off" (4.5.44), she tells Oswald.
Meanwhile, when Gloucester and Edgar arrive at Dover, Edgar pretends that they are on a cliff. As Gloucester prepares to jump, Lear arrives wearing flowers and speaking nonsense. Gloucester recognizes his voice and begs to kiss his hand. Lear says, "Let me wipe it first; it smells of mortality" (4.6.134). After raving on, Lear says he recognizes the voice of his interlocutor: that of Gloucester. An unidentified gentleman approaches Lear and tries to tell him that Cordelia has arrived with the French army, but Lear gibbers on. The gentleman then converses with Edgar, telling him the French army is very near and "on speedy foot" (4.6.205).
After the gentleman leaves, Gloucester hurls himself forward, falling only a few feet while thinking he is falling into eternity. He survives his "suicide." Oswald is at the scene. Approaching Gloucester, he says, "The sword is out / That must destroy thee" (4.6.227-228). Edgar steps to Gloucester's defense, dealing Oswald a mortal blow. Before he dies, Oswald asks Edgar to give the letter on his person to Edmund. After Oswald breathes his last, Edgar reads the letter. In it, Goneril mentions "reciprocal vows" (4.6.256) between her and Edmund, urges Edmund to kill her husband (Albany), and signs the letter as Edmund's affectionate wife-to-be.
In the French camp, Cordelia thanks Kent for helping her father, then asks a doctor for a report on his condition. Lear has been sleeping soundly, the doctor says. However, it is all right to rouse him so that Cordelia can visit him. When he awakens, he does not recognize Cordelia, does not know where he is, and does not even know where he lodged the night before. In a moment, however, he comes around, saying, "I think this lady / To be my child Cordelia (4.7.80-81). Later, while they walk together, he is repentant: “Pray you now, forget and forgive: I am old and foolish” (4.7.99).
Meanwhile, after Edmund, Regan, and their troops enter the British camp, Regan asks Edmund whether he desires Goneril. "In honour'd love" (5.1.13), he replies. Upon further prodding by Regan, he avows that he has never slept with Goneril. Regan then urges him to keep away from her sister, who, at that very moment, arrives with Albany and their troops. Though he sympathizes with old Lear, Albany tells Edmund that he will fight for England against the French invaders. Edmund commends him, saying their "domestic and particular broils / Are not the question here" (5.1.38-39). They agree to confer on a war plan in Albany's tent.
After Edmund, Regan, and Goneril leave with officers, Edgar (still in disguise) approaches Albany and gives him the letter he intercepted. Albany promises to read it. After Edgar walks off, Edmund returns to tell Albany the French troops are in view and gives him an estimate of their number. When Albany leaves to marshal his forces, Edmund muses for a moment about Regan and Goneril: "To take the widow / Exasperates, makes mad her sister Goneril" (5.1.73-74). But Goneril is already married. He decides that after the battle he will let Goneril devise a way to murder Albany. As for Lear and Cordelia, he will show them no mercy.
Finally, French and English swords cross. Edgar posts Gloucester in a safe place and leaves. After the battle, he returns to inform the old man that the English won the day and that Lear and Cordelia have been taken prisoner.
When Albany returns to the English camp with officers and attendants, he commends Edmund for battlefield valor. He also asks Edmund for his prisoners, Lear and Cordelia, "to use them / As we shall find their merits and our safety / May equally determine" (5.2.50-52). Edmund refuses, saying he wishes to hold them for further disposition, and Regan backs his position. Her show of support for Edmund arouses Goneril's jealousy, and they argue over him. Albany asserts that he will not permit Goneril to entertain notions of marrying Edmund, then accuses Edmund of "heinous, manifest, and many treasons" (5.2.108).
Albany throws down his gauntlet, and Edmund does the same. (A gauntlet was a glove usually overlaid with metal for protection in battle. Throwing down a gauntlet was a sign that one man challenged another man to a fight.)
Regan becomes ill. (Unbeknownst to her, Regan had poisoned her earlier.) Regan is taken to Albany's tent. Edgar, who remains in disguise, then steps forth to support Albany's charges, calling Edmund a traitor and telling him to draw his sword. They fight and Edmund falls when Edgar wounds him. Goneril declares that under the rule of arms Edmund was not bound to fight Edgar because he did not know his enemy's name. Albany then reveals the letter from Goneril to Edmund, exposing her treachery. She leaves the scene.
Edgar then reveals his true identity and implicates Edmund as a participant in the plot that resulted in the capture and blinding of their father, Gloucester. Unable to rebut the evidence against him, Edmund admits his wrongdoing, saying "The wheel is come full circle" (5.2.203). Albany apologizes to Edgar for having at one time been an adversary of Gloucester and Edgar, then questions Edgar about the ordeal he underwent after Edmund betrayed him. Edgar tells him his story. After finishing it, he praises Kent for his selfless service to Lear.
Shouting for help, an unidentified gentleman with a bloody knife runs up to report that Goneril had plunged the weapon into her heart after poisoning Regan. Edmund, realizing he is dying, says, "I was contracted to them both: all three / Now marry in an instant" (5.2.265-266). (He means that he, Regan, and Goneril will be "married" by death.) After the bodies of the two sisters are carried forth, Edmund—experiencing remorse—reveals that he ordered Cordelia to be hanged and urges his listeners to save her. But the revelation comes too late: Cordelia has been executed. At the scene, Lear mourns for her as he carries her in his arms. Kent and Edgar arrive as Lear says, "I might have sav'd her; now, she's gone for ever!" (5.2.320). An officer reports the death of Edmund. Lear, now a broken man, falls upon Cordelia and also dies. Edgar, Kent, and Albany are left to restore order, with Albany endorsing Edgar and Kent as joint rulers.
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Suffering can transform a contemptible human being into a good person. Lear acts contemptibly at first but appears to redeem himself by the end of the play after enduring great mental and physical pain.
A passage that encapsulates this theme is spoken by Regan:
O sir, to willful men
The injuries that they themselves procure
Must be their schoolmasters. (2.4.316-318)
The Sharp Edge of Truth
Candor has a sharp edge. 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 the truth about Cordelia. This theme is an old one in world history and literature. In 399 BC, the Greek philosopher Socrates paid with his life for being honest and asking probing questions that exposed the hypocrisy of others, declaring that his god had commanded him to do so. He was executed by being forced to drink poison. In England, statesman and humanist Sir Thomas More also died (1535) for being honest—in particular, for his outspoken opposition to King Henry VIII's divorce from Katherine of Aragon on grounds that it violated moral law.
After his daughters cast him out, Lear begins to lose his mind. But he still has enough perception of the world around him to see and sympathize with the plight of the poor, whom he ignored in his earlier years. It is this perception—an epiphany and turning point in his life—that starts him on the road to redemption from his selfish past. The key moment comes during the thunderstorm, when he says:
Poor naked wretches, wheresoe’er you are,
That bide the pelting of this pitiless storm,
How shall your houseless heads and unfed sides,
Your loop’d and window’d raggedness, defend you
From seasons such as these? O! I have ta’en
Too little care of this. Take physic, pomp;
Expose thyself to feel what wretches feel,
That thou mayst shake the superflux to them,
And show the heavens more just. (3.4.33-41)
What he is saying is this: I must remedy my indifference to the poor. So should everyone else who is wealthy and powerful. One must take time to expose himself to what wretches feel so that he or she may realize how important it is to share wealth (superflux, line 40) with them. Paying attention to the needy will demonstrate that the world and the heavens care about them.
Gloucester experiences a similar awakening. He tells his son Edgar, whom he does not recognize in his disguise as a beggar:
Here, take this purse, thou whom the heavens’ plagues
Have humbled to all strokes: that I am wretched
Makes thee the happier: heavens, deal so still!
[Here, take . . . so still: Here, take the money in this purse, you who have been humbled beyond measure by the heavens. You are happier because I am wretched. I hope the heavens continue to deal out justice in that way.]
Let the superfluous and lust-dieted man,
That slaves your ordinance, that will not see
Because he doth not feel, feel your power quickly;
So distribution should undo excess,
And each man have enough. (18.104.22.168)
[Let the . . . enough: Let the man who has an overabundance of wealth and who lusts after women—a man who treats directions or commands with disdain and who does not see the suffering around him because he does not feel it—experience the pain of corrective measures so that he may share his wealth with the less fortunate.]
Sanity and Madness
Ironically and paradoxically, Lear's progressing mental derangement eventually makes him keenly aware of his faults and weaknesses. At the beginning of the play, he is sane but mad; at the end of the play, he is mad but sane. The great nineteenth-century American poet Emily Dickinson wrote a one-stanza poem on the madness of sanity (and the sanity of madness) in 1861 (probably without any thought of King Lear). The first three lines aptly sum up Lear's behavior:
Much Madness is divinest Sense—
To a discerning Eye—
Much Sense—the starkest Madness—
Appearances Are Deceiving
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.
Fatal Flaws: Greed, Lust for Power
Greed and lust for power corrupt human beings and bring about their downfall. Goneril and Regan reject their own father in favor of material possessions and power. Ultimately, their cupidity results in their downfall.
Old Age as a Second Childhood
Advanced age and wisdom do not go hand-in-hand. Lear is probably about eighty, 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 and satirize the tendency of the Elizabethan English automatically to revere elders and authority figures.
Humans as Playthings of Fate
Are humans the playthings of fate? Shakespeare raises that question in King Lear and other plays. Indeed, the role of fate is a major motif in his works. In King Lear, Gloucester expresses the view that the forces of the universe do control human destiny. For example, after his son Edmund deceives Gloucester into believing that his other son, Edgar, is a villain, Gloucester says,
These late eclipses in the sun and moon portend no good to us . . . . Love cools, friendship falls off, brothers divide: in cities, mutinies; in countries, discord; in palaces, treason; and the bond cracked between son and father. . . . We have seen the best of our time: machinations, hollowness, treachery, and all ruinous disorders, follow us disquietly to our graves. (1.2.58)Later, after Cornwall blinds Gloucester and Regan casts him out of his castle, Gloucester says to the loyal old servant attending him, “As flies to wanton boys, are we to the gods. / They kill us for their sport” (4.1.44-45). Meanwhile, in the French camp at Dover, Kent expresses a view similar to Gloucester's: "It is the stars / The stars above us, govern our conditions" (4.2.32.-33).
In Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth, and Julius Caesar, fate seems all-powerful and ineluctable. It is as if human beings are puppets who have no control over their actions. For example, the prologue of Romeo and Juliet tells the audience that the two lovers are "star-cross'd" as children of "fatal loins." In Macbeth, the witches predict the title character's future. So transfixed is Macbeth by their prophecy that Banquo says,
If you can look into the seeds of time,In Julius Caesar, a soothsayer tells Caesar, "Beware the ides of March" (1.2.23 and 1.2.29). Caesar ignores the warning and, on the ides of March (March 15), dies at the hands of knife-wielding conspirators. In the same play, however, Cassius tells Brutus,
Men at some time are masters of their fates:In All's Well That Ends Well, Helena expresses a similar view:
Our remedies oft in ourselves do lie,In Henry VI Part III, Edward—after taking the English throne from Henry—maintains that he controls his own destiny:
Edward will always bear himself as king:But after Warwick removes Edward's crown and declares that Henry remains the rightful king, Edward says, "What fates impose, that men must needs abide; / It boots not to resist both wind and tide. (4.3.60).
The Fate Motif
Fate as the arbiter of human destiny is an old theme in world history and literature. (See also "Humans as Playthings of Fate," under Themes.) In the Old Testament of the Bible, Job wonders why he, a righteous man, suffers so many reverses, including the loss of his material possessions, his sons, and his health. In Greek tragedy—in particular, in the plays of Sophocles, such as Oedipus Rex—fate becomes an inexorable force that rules man. In the nineteenth century, English novelist Thomas Hardy populated his novels with characters dominated by forces outside of them or irresistible forces within them. The environment, Darwinian determinism, and the human libido all turned humans into marionettes.
But what did Shakespeare think? Did he believe that human destiny is written in the stars?
Shakespeare was more interested in what he wrote on a page with quill and ink—whether it reflected how people react to the world around them. In some of his plays, the characters believe in fate; in others, they do not. In still others, they credit themselves for their successes but blame fate for their failures. Considering Shakespeare's religious upbringing, his intelligence, and his practicality, it is likely that he shared the view of one of his villains—Edmund—in King Lear. Alone on the stage, he says,
This is the excellent foppery of the world, that, when we are sick in fortune,—often the surfeit of our own behaviour,—we make guilty of our disasters the sun, the moon, and the stars; as if we were villains by 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 we are evil in, by a divine thrusting on: an admirable evasion of whoremaster man, to lay his goatish disposition to the charge of a star! (1.2.58)Conflicts
are two main conflicts in the play: the one
between Lear and his daughters and the one between
Lear and his faults. There are also secondary
Bitterness, treachery, and disloyalty make the tone of the play dark and foreboding, like the storm on the heath.
In the royal courts of England, a fool was a comic figure with a quick tongue who entertained the king, the queen, and their guests. He was allowed to—and even expected to—criticize anyone at court. Many fools were dwarfs or cripples, their odd appearance enhancing their appeal and, according to prevailing beliefs, bringing good luck to the court. Actors William Kempe and Richard Armin became London celebrities for their performances as fools in Shakespeare’s plays. Armin wrote a book about fools, Foole Upon Foole; or Six Sortes of Sottes. Egypt’s pharaohs were the first rulers to use fools, notably Pygmies from African territories to the south.
Shakespeare uses metaphors, similes, and other figures of speech to compare Regan, Goneril, and other characters to animals. This imagery shows that human greed and lust for power, as well as other negative qualities, turn people into rapacious or poisonous beasts. It also demonstrates that the dilemmas people create for themselves can lower them to the status of beasts. Among the animals to which characters are compared are rats, wolves, sheep, goats, horses, dogs (including a mastiff, a greyhound, a spaniel, and a mongrel), cats, mice, owls, wild geese, bears, monkeys, crabs, snails, an ass, a hedge-sparrow, a cuckoo, and each of the following:
Vulture: Scavenger bird that feeds primarily on carcasses. In Act 2, Scene 4, Lear bemoans Goneril's behavior by saying that “she hath tied / sharp-tooth'd unkindness, like a vulture, here [points to his heart]” (136-137).
Serpent: Large snake, such as a python or boa constrictor; any poisonous snake; the devil in the form of a snake. In Act 2, Scene 4, Lear says Goneril "struck me with her tongue, / Most serpent-like, upon the very heart" (162-163).
Pelican: Bird of prey that feeds on fish. In Act 3, Scene 4, Lear scolds himself for fathering Regan and Goneril, saying “‘twas this flesh begot those pelican daughters” (76-77).
Tiger: Largest member of the cat family. In Act 4, Scene 2, the Duke of Albany condemns Regan and Goneril for their treatment of Lear, comparing them to tigers.
King Lear is a storehouse of insults. Here are examples.
You are not worth the dust which the rude windKent wins the prize for best invective in the play with the following barrage leveled at Oswald. (Explanations and definitions are boldfaced in brackets.) Kent tells Oswald that he knows him to be
A knave, a rascal, an eater of broken meats [lower-class man who eats the meat scraps left by others]; a base, proud, shallow, beggarly, three-suited, hundred-pound, filthy, worsted-stocking knave; [three-suited . . . knave: Lowly man of the servant class who has a small wardrobe, limited financial assets (a hundred pounds), and wears common worsted stockings instead of silk ones]; a lily-liver’d, action-taking knave [cowardly man who sues an enemy in court rather than fighting him]; a whoreson, glass-gazing , superserviceable, finical rogue [whoreson . . .rogue: Son of a whore who admires his image in a mirror, bows and scrapes to his master, and is finicky]; one-trunk-inheriting slave [person who inherited so little from his father that it can fit in one trunk]; one that wouldst be a bawd [pimp], in way of good service, and art nothing but the composition of a knave, beggar, coward, pandar [one who arranges illicit sexual encounters], and the son and heir of a mongrel bitch [female dog of mixed breed]: one whom I will beat into clamorous whining if thou deniest the least syllable of thy addition [description].Figures of Speech
Among examples of figures of speech in the play are the following.
Alliteration: Repetition of consonant sounds at the beginning of words or syllables
Here I disclaim all my paternal care,Anaphora: Repetition of words at the beginning of phrases, clauses, or sentences
Of all these bounds, even from this line to this,Hyperbole: A gross exaggeration
As I stood here below methought his eyesIrony, Dramatic: Situation in which the audience or reader is aware of information or a development that a character (or several characters) is unaware of
Until the seventh scene of Act III, Gloucester is unaware of what the audience knows: that Edgar is innocent of the charge that he betrayed his father.Metaphor: Comparison of unlike things without using like, as, or than
Unhappy that I am, I cannot heaveParadox: Contradiction that contains a measure of truth
Thou madest thy daughters thy mothers. (1.4.103)Simile: Comparison of unlike things using like, as, or than
She hath abated me of half my train;
The first scene of Act 1 resembles a legal proceeding that determines the rightful heirs of a decedent’s estate. However, in this case, the “decedent,” Lear, is alive, acting as arbiter. According to English law, the firstborn male would automatically inherit Lear’s possessions, including the crown. But since Lear has fathered only females, he has decided to parcel out his kingdom before his death to his three daughters, granting the largest part of his property to the daughter who loves him most. Ironically, he ends up repudiating the only daughter who truly loves him, Cordelia, in the mistaken belief that her refusal to vie with her two sisters for his affections is a sign that she loves him least. Swearing oaths, he disowns Cordelia, telling her that
By the sacred radiance of the sun,His attempt to prevent a family brouhaha with his silly contest succeeds only in precipitating one, for the daughters who heaped flattery upon him—Goneril and Regan—turn against him once his property is securely in their control.
Shakespeare’s audience was keenly aware of the problems that could arise when a king failed to produce a male heir. After all, the memory of the turmoil after the death of Henry VIII in 1547 was still fresh in the minds of Elizabethans. Although Henry did father a son, Edward VI, he reigned only briefly, dying when he was sixteen. Then Lady Jane Grey, the great-granddaughter of Henry VII, sat on the throne for a mere nine days before Mary, the daughter of Henry VIII, became queen and ordered Lady Jane’s execution. When Mary died in 1558, Henry’s other daughter, Elizabeth ascended the throne. However, another Mary—Mary Queen of Scots, the great-niece of Henry VIII—had a legitimate claim to the throne. Mary was Catholic; Elizabeth was Protestant. A nineteen-year struggle ensued between supporters of Mary and Elizabeth. Elizabeth ended the unrest in 1587 by having Mary executed.
Shakespeare’s audience was also aware of events in a sensational lawsuit in 1603 in which two daughters of Sir Brian Annesley attempted to seize his property, claiming that he was mentally incompetent. Annesley, who had served in a minor role in the court of Queen Elizabeth, owned an estate in Kent. A third daughter defended her father. Her name was Cordell (a name which resembles that of Cordelia, the loyal daughter in King Lear). The Annesley case ended happily for Sir Brian, and Cordell ended up with most of her father’s property.
Lear: The Best Shakespeare Play?
In his book The Characters of Shakespeare (1817), English essayist and literary critic William Hazlitt (1778-1830) maintained that King Lear was the greatest of Shakespeare's plays. Hazlitt wrote:
.......We wish that we could pass this play over, and say nothing about it. All that we can say must fall far short of the subject; or even of what we ourselves conceive of it. To attempt to give a description of the play itself or of its effect upon the mind, is mere impertinence: yet we must say something.--It is then the best of all Shakespear's plays, for it is the one in which he was the most in earnest. He was here fairly caught in the web of his own imagination. The passion which he has taken as his subject is that which strikes its root deepest into the human heart; of which the bond is the hardest to be unloosed; and the cancelling and tearing to pieces of which gives the greatest revulsion to the frame. This depth of nature, this force of passion, this tug and war of the elements of our being, this firm faith in filial piety, and the giddy anarchy and whirling tumult of the thoughts at finding this prop failing it, the contrast between the fixed, immoveable basis of natural affection, and the rapid, irregular starts of imagination, suddenly wrenched from all its accustomed holds and resting-places in the soul, this is what Shakespear has given, and what nobody else but he could give. So we believe.--The mind of Lear staggering between the weight of attachment and the hurried movements of passion is like a tall ship driven about by the winds, buffetted by the furious waves, but that still rides above the storm, having its anchor fixed in the bottom of the sea; or it is like the sharp rock circled by the eddying whirlpool that foams and beats against it, or like the solid promontory pushed from its basis by the force of an earthquake.
.......The character of Lear itself is very finely conceived for the purpose. It is the only ground on which such a story could be built with the greatest truth and effect. It is his rash haste, his violent impetuosity, his blindness to every thing but the dictates of his passions or affections, that produces all his misfortunes, that aggravates his impatience of them, that enforces our pity for him. The part which Cordelia bears in the scene is extremely beautiful: the story is almost told in the first words she utters. We see at once the precipice on which the poor old king stands from his own extravagant and credulous importunity, the indiscreet simplicity of her love (which, to be sure, has a little of her father's obstinacy in it) and the hollowness of her sisters' pretensions. Almost the first burst of that noble tide of passion, which runs through the play, is in the remonstrance of Kent to his royal master on the injustice of his sentence against his youngest daughter--"Be Kent unmannerly, when Lear is mad!" This manly plainness which draws down on him the displeasure of the unadvised king is worthy of the fidelity with which he adheres to his fallen fortunes. The true character of the two eldest daughters, Regan and Gonerill (they are so thoroughly hateful that we do not even like to repeat their names) breaks out in their answer to Cordelia who desires them to treat their father well--"Prescribe not us our duties"--their hatred of advice being in proportion to their determination to do wrong, and to their hypocritical pretensions to do right. Their deliberate hypocrisy adds the last finishing to the odiousness of their characters. It is the absence of' this detestable quality that is the only relief in the character of Edmund the Bastard, and that at times reconciles us to him. We are not tempted to exaggerate the guilt of his conduct, when he himself gives it up as a bad business, and writes himself down "plain villain." Nothing more can be said about it. His religious honesty in this respect is admirable. One speech of his is worth a million. His father, Gloster, whom he has just deluded with a forged story of his brother Edgar's designs against his life, accounts for his unnatural behaviour and the strange depravity of the times from the late eclipses in the sun and moon. Edmund, who is in the secret, says when he is gone--"This is the excellent coppery of the world, that when we are sick in fortune (often the surfeits of our own behaviour) we make guilty of our disasters the sun, the moon, and stars: as if we were villains on necessity; fools by heavenly compulsion; knaves, thieves, and treacherous by spherical predominance; drunkards, liars, and adulterers by an enforced obedience of planetary influence; and all that we are evil in, by a divine thrusting on. An admirable evasion of whore-master man, to lay his goatish disposition on the charge of a star! My father compounded with my mother under the Dragon's tail, and my nativity was under Ursa Major: so that it follows, I am rough and lecherous. I should have been what I am, had the maidenliest star in the firmament twinkled on my bastardizing."--The whole character, its careless, light-hearted villainy, contrasted with the sullen, rancorous malignity of Regan and Gonerill, its connection with the conduct of the under-plot, in which Gloster's persecution of one of his sons and the ingratitude of another, form a counterpart to the mistakes and misfortunes of Lear,--his double amour with the two sisters, and the share which he has in bringing about the fatal catastrophe, are all managed with an uncommon degree of skill and power..