King Lear

Context -play written in 1605(between Othello & Macbeth)-ranked with Hamlet as one of the greatest plays-setting dramatizes events from the 18th century BC (far from Shakespeare’s time) -But stories of Lear’s & Gloucester’s sufferings at the hands of their own children reflect anxieties that Shakespeare’s audience could have connected to)-An event that could have influenced the play was a lawsuit that occured not long beofre King Lear was written: -oldest of 3 sisters tried to have her elderly father(Sir Brian Annesley) declared insane so she could take control of his property -Annesley’s youngest daughter (Cordell) successfully defended her father against her sister-Another event was the case of William Allen (Mayhor of London) -treated very poorly by his 3 daughters after dividing his wealth among them-another event was the transfer of power from Elizabeth 1 to James 1(1603) -Elizabeth didn’t produce a male heir -anxiety about who her successor would be was fueled by fears that a dynastic struggle along the lines of the 15th century Wars of the Roses might ensure -Elizabethan England was an extremely hierarchical society -demanded absolute deference be paid & respect be shown not only to the wealthy & powerful but also to parents & the elderly-King Lear demonstrates how vulnerable parents & noblemen are to the depredations of unscrupulous children & thus how fragile the fabric of Elizabethan society actually was
Plot Overview -Lear was an aging king of Britain-Lear decides to step down form throne & divide his kingdom evenly among his 3 daughters -1st he puts his daughters through a test (asking each to tell him how much she loves him) -Goneril & Regan give their father flattering answers -Cordelia (youngest & favorite daughter) remains silent, saying that she has no words to describe how much she loves her father -Lear gets upset and disowns Cordelia -The King of France(has courted Cordelia) says he still wants to marry her even without her land & she accompanies him to France without her Father’s belessing -Lear quickly learns that he has made a mistake -Goneril & Regan quickly begin to undermine the little authority that Lear still holds -Lear is unable to beleive that his duaghters are betraying him & slowly goes insane -he feels his daughters houses to wander on during a big thunderstorm (accompanied by his fool & Kent (a loyal noblemen in disguise))-Meanwhile (a noblemn named Gloucester also experiences family problems)-Gloucester’s iligitamte son (Edmund)tricks him into beleiving that his legitimate son (Edgar) is trying to kill him- Edgar tries to flee the man hunt that his father has sent after him -he disguises himself as a crazy beggar & calls himself “Poor Tom” -like Lear he heads out onto the heath -When Gloucester (loyal nobleman) realizes that Lear’s daughters have turned gained him -he decides to help in spite of his own danger-Regan & her husband (Cronwall) discover him helping Lear -accuse him of treason -blind him -turn him out to wander the countryside -he ends up being led by his disguised son (Edgar) toward the city of Dover) where Lear has also been brought-In Dover a French army lands as part of an invasion led by Cordelia in efforts to save her father-Edmund apparently becomes romantically entangled w/ both Regan & Goneril (whose husband Albany is increasingly sympathetic to Lear’s cause)- Goneril & Edmund conspire to kill Albany-Gloucester ties to commit suicide -BUT Edgar saves him by pulling the strange trick of leading him off an imaginary cliff-Meanwhile the English troops reach Dover & the English (led by Edmund) defeat the Cordelia-led French-Lear & Cordelia are captured-In this Climastic scene (Edgar duels with & kills Edmund) we learn of the death of Gloucester -Gloneril poisons Regan out of jealousy over Edmund & then kills herself when her treachery is revealed to Albany -Edmund’s betrayal of Cordelia leads to her needless execution in prison -& Lear finally dies out of grief @ Cordelia’s passing-Albany & Edgar & elderly Kent are left to take care of the country under a cloud of sorrow & regret
Themes, Motifs & symbols King Lear: -his basic flaw @ begging of play is that he values appearances above reality (what’s seen versus what’s unseen) -he wants to be treated as a king & to enjoy the title BUT he doesn’t want to fulfill a king’s obligations of governing for the good of his subjects -Similarly his test of his duaghters demonstrates that he values a flattering public display of love over acutal love -He doesn’t ask “which of you doth love us most,” but rather, “which of you shall we say doth love us most?” (1.1.49). -Most readers think Lear is simply blind to the truth BUT Cordelia is already his favorite daughter @ beginning of play, so he probably knows that she loves him the most -Nevertheless, Lear values Goneril& Regan’s fawning over Cordelia’s sincere sense of filial duty. -Important question to ask is whether Lear develops as a character: -whether he learns from his mistakes & becomes a better & more insightful human being -In some ways the answer is no – he doesn’t completely recover his sanity and emerge as a better king. – But his values do change over the course of the play – As he realizes his weakness & insignificance (in comparison to the awesome forces of the natural world) he becomes a humble& caring individual -He comes to cherish Cordelia above everything else & to place his own love for Cordelia above every other consideration(to the point that he would rather live in prison with her than rule as a king again)Cordelia: -kind/ beautiful/ honest -honest to a fault -contrasted throughout the play with Goneril & Regan (who are neither honest or loving & who manipulate their father for their own ends) -becuase she refuses to take part in the King’s love test in beginning of play she establishes herself as a repository of virtue -& obvious authenticity of her love for Lear makes clear the extent of the King’ error in banishing her -she is offstage for most of middle section of play BUT as we observe the depredation of Goneril & Regan & watch Lear’s decent into madness, Cordelia is never far from the audience’s thoughts & her beauty is venerably described in religious terms -Rumors of her return to Britain begin to surface alomst immeditately & once she lands at Dover, the action of play beings to move towrd her (all of the characters converge on the coast) -Cordelia’s reunion w/ Lear marks the apparent restoration of order int he kingdom & the triumph of love & forgivness over hatred & sprite -this moment of familial happiness makes the devastating finale of King Lear that much more cruel (as Cordelia) the personification of kindness 7 virtue becomes a literal sacrifice to the heartlessness of an apparently unjust worldEdmund: -of all of the plays villain, Edmund is the most complex & sympathetic -consummate schemer -Machiavellian character eager to seize any opportunity willing to do anything to achiever his goals -his ambition is interesting -he reflects not only a thirst for land & power BUT also a desire for the recognition denied to him by his status as a bastard-his treacheries are self-interdted – a consious rebellion aaginst the social order that hs denied him the same status as Gloucester’s legitimate son (Edgar) – “Now, gods, stand up for bastards,” Edmund commands, but in fact he depends not on divine aid but on his own initiative (1.2.22).-he is th eultimate self-made man-he is so cold and capable as a viallan that it is entertaining to watch him work-very similar to the way the audeince of Othello loves Iago-only at the plays close does Edmund show a flicker of weakness-mortally wounded -he sees that both Goneril and Regan have died for him, and whispers, “Yet Edmund was beloved” (5.3.238)-After this ambiguous statement he seems to repent his villiany & admits to having ordered Cordelia’s death-he has a peculiar change of heart (rare among Shakespearean villain) is meant to make the audience wonder (amid the carnage) whether Edmund’s villianary sprang not from some innate cruelty but simply from a thwarted misdirected desire for the familial love that he witnessed around himGoneril & Regan:-little good to be said about older daughters-they are largely indistinguishable n their vanity & spite-they are clever -clever enough to flatter their father in the play’s opening scene -early in the play their bad behavior toward Lear seems matched by his own pride & temper-any sympathy the audience develops for the disappears quickly -1st when they turn their father out into the storm @ the end of Act 2& then when they viciously put out Gloucter’s eyes in Act 3-Boneril & Regan are personifications of evil -they have no conscience, only appetite-This greedy ambition enables them to crush all opposition & make themselves mistresses of Britain-Ultimately this same appetite brings about their undoing-the desire for power is satisfied, but both harbor sexual desire for Edmund -which destroys their alliance & leads them to destroy each other-(the play suggests) evil inevitable turns in on itself
Characters
King Lear -aging king of Britan-protagonist of play-used to enjoying absolute power & being flattered-doesn’t respond well to being contradicted or [email protected] beginning of play his values are notably hollow -he prioritizes the appearance of love over actual devotion & wishes to maintain the power of a king while unburdening himself of the responsibility-he inspires loyalty in subjects such as Gloucester/Kent/Cordelia/Edgar (all of whom risk their lives for him)
Cordelia -Lears’s youngest daughter-disowned by her father for refusing to flatter him-held in extremely high regard by all the food characters in play -King of France marries her for her virtue alone -overlooks her lack of dowry-she remains loyal to Lear despite his cruelty towards her-she forgives Lear & displays a mild & forbearing temperament even toward her evil sisters (Goneril & Regan)-Despite her obvious virtues(her resistance make her motivations hard to read) -as in her refusal to declare her love for her father @ beginning of play
Goneril -Lear’s ruthless & oldest daughter-wife of the Duke of Albany-Goneril is jealous/treacherous/ amoral-Sheskspear’s audience would have been shocked by Goneril’s aggressiveness (quality not expected in a female character) -she challenges Lear’s authority -boldly initiates an affair w/ Edmund -wrests military power away from her husband
Regan -Lear’s middle daughter-wife of Duke of Cornwall-ruthless as Goneril & aggressive in all the same ways-it is difficult to think of any quality that distinguishes her from her sister-when the sisters are not egging each other on to further acts of cruelty, they jealously compete for the same man (Edmund)
Gloucester -nobleman loyal to king Lear-rank (Earl) is below a Duke-1st thing we learn about Gloucester is that he is an adulterer (having fathered a bastard son-Edmund)-his father is in many ways parallel to Lear’s -he misjudges which of his sons to trust -he appears weak & ineffectual in the early acts – he is unable to prevent Lear from being turned out of his own house -but later demonstrates that he is also capable of great bravery
Edgar -Gloucester’s oldest son & legitimate son-he plays many different roles -starting out as a gullible fool easily tricked by his brother -then assuming a disguise as a mad beggar to evade further to aid Lear & Gloucester -& finally appearing as an armored champion to avenge his brother’s treason-Edgar’s propensity for disguises & impersonations makes it difficult to characterize him effectively
Edmund -Gloucester’s younger son (illegitimate)-resents his status as a bastard 7 schemes to usurp Gloucester’s title & possessions from Edgar-he’s a formidable character-succeeds in almost all of his schemes & wrecking destruction upon virtually all of the other characters
Kent -nobleman of the same rank as Glocester-loyal to King Lear-spends most of the play disguised as a peasant (calling himself “Caius”) so he can continue to serve Lear even after Lear banishes him-he eventually loyal BUT gets himself into trouble throughout the play by being extremely blunt & outspoken
Albany -husband of Lear’s daughter Goneril-is good @ heart-eventually denounces & opposes the cruelty of Goneril/Regan/ Cornwall-Yet he is indecisive & lacks foresight-realizing the evil of his allies late in the play
Cornwall -Husband of Lear’s daughter Regan-Unlike Albany, Cornwall is domineering/cruel/ violent-he works w/ his wife & sister in law Goneril to persecute Lear & Glocester
Fool -Lear’s jester-uses double-talk (double speak? fallacy) & seemingly friviould songs to give Lear important advice
Oswald -steward (Chief servant) in Goneril’s house-Oswald obeys his mistress’s commands & helps her in her conspiracies