Introduction.

1. The central image in King Lear is Nature. This idea permeates the play in a bewildering variety of meanings that create perhaps Shakespeare's most philosophical play. Lear himself calls on an idea of human nature when he asks for his daughters' love:

Which of you shall we say doth love us most?
That we our largest bounty may extend
Where nature doth with merit challenge. (1.1.53-55)

Lear thinks he can measure his daughters' natures through their deserving words, a critical error by this tragic protagonist. In the next scene the villain Edmund worhips a very different idea of nature, a biological force that drives him to monstrous behavior: "Thou, Nature, art my goddess; to thy law/ My services are bound" (1.2.1-1). The word "nature" occurs in sixteen scenes, sometimes more than once, while "natural" and "unnatural" occur in others.

2. Early modern Europe still clung to the vestiges of the Great Chain of Being as a view of the cosmos. In this web of interconnectedness, various degrees of creation were linked by a resonance that bound them together and disturbed them equally. In King Lear, upsets in the human realm are echoed in physical nature, through violent storms and savage animal images. The natural order of society is torn apart, from the family to the kingdom itself:

These late eclipses in the sun and moon portend no good to us: though the wisdom of nature can reason it thus and thus, yet nature finds itself scourged by the sequent effects: love cools, friendship falls off, brothers divide: in cities, mutinies; in countries, discord; in palaces, treason; and the bond cracked 'twixt son and father. This villain of mine comes under the
prediction; there's son against father: the king falls from bias of nature; there's father against child. We have seen the best of our time: machinations, hollowness, treachery, and all ruinous disorders, follow us disquietly to our graves.

(1.2.112-124)

3. Shakespeare asks the cosmic questions about human nature and about the cosmos itself. What makes human beings behave in horrible ways? Are there higher powers in the universe capable of restoring order? Or worse, in Gloucester's words, are the higher powers malevolent?

As flies to wanton boys, are we to th' gods,
They kill us for their sport. (4.1.36-37)

Yet for all the readings of the play that suggest an absurdist or nihilistic vision of human existence, there are readings which find redemption and sacrifice at the center of meaning in King Lear.

 

Interpretation: performance and the text.

4. From the first moments of the first scene, we encounter behaviors that shock and dismay us. As a prelude to Lear's entrance, a conversation between Gloucester and Kent reveals Gloucester's callous disregard for his bastard son Edmund:

though this knave came something saucily into the world before he was sent for, yet was his mother fair, there was good sport at his making, and the whoreson must be acknowledged. (1.1.21-25)

If we find here the seeds of a twisted nature in Gloucester's son, all the more do we wonder at Lear's treatment of his daughters. Here are three versions of the scene:

Brook1.1

Peter Brook's Lear is an absurdist vision, dark and brutal. The next is the Olivier production for television:

Olivier 1.1

Olivier is a much warmer presence than Paul Schofield in the Brook version. In this primitive Stonehenge setting, Lear still shows a depth of emotion we can feel, as his heart is broken by Cordelia's firm honesty. Finally, the BBC version has a dark look, all black and white to reflect the moral and emotional absolutes of the characters:

BBC1.1

5. Is Lear alone to blame for the emotional explosion in the first scene? Why does Cordelia choose that public moment to confront her father and her sisters? Perhaps she shares some of Lear's impetuous instincts, his hardheadedness. In this clip from the Royal Shakespeare production featuring Ian Holm, we can see the violent emotions of father and daughter:

Holm1.1

Perhaps the key to Lear's anger is revealed here: "I loved her most, and thought to set my rest/ On her kind nursery" (125-126). He indeed is correct to feel that Cordelia loves him deeply, but his insistence on extracting competing professions of love in the public court betrays both his egotism and his misunderstanding of love. He thinks love can be quantified, and even Cordelia falls into his mode of measuring emotion:

Why have my sisters husbands, if they say
They love you all? Haply, when I shall wed,
That lord whose hand must take my plight shall carry
Half my love with him, half my care and duty.
Sure I shall never marry like my sisters,
To love my father all. (101-106)

6. The story of King Leir was an ancient one when Shakespeare took it up, going back to the 12th century. It even has a kind of folk tale ring to it: three daughters, two bad, one good. With this rift in the family and in the kingdom at the very beginning of the story, two plotlines are set in motion: Lear's fall begins immediately, and the forces of chaos emerge. Usually the tragic protagonist in Shakespeare has a slower descent, but not here. In the paradigm of tragedy, the center of King Lear is a long, agonized recognition, which marks the play's uniqueness. Lear's growing self-awareness and his descent into madness occupy the middle three acts, while the grotesque natures of Regan, Goneril, and Edmund are manifested:

BBC1.2

Shakespeare gives his most vicious characters their power over the innocent through their cynical manipulation of human weakness. This was true of Iago in Othello, and will be true of Lady Macbeth. Regan and Goneril sense their father's vulnerability in his old age, and Edmund can manipulate Gloucester because the old man is superstitious and gullible:

Goneril. You see how full of changes his age is. The observation we have made of it hath not been little. He always loved our sister most, and with what poor judgment he hath now cast her off appears too grossly.

Regan. 'Tis the infirmity of his age; yet he hath ever but slenderly known himself. (1.1.290-296)


[Gloucester.] Find out this villain, Edmund; it shall lose thee nothing. Do it carefully. And the noble and true-hearted Kent banished; his offence, honesty. 'Tis strange. [Exit.]

Edmund. This is the excellent foppery of the world, that when we are sick in fortune, often the surfeits of our own behavior, we make guilty of our disasters the sun, the moon, and the stars; as if we were villains on necessity; fools by
heavenly compulsion; knaves, thieves, and treachers by spherical predominance; drunkards, liars, and adulterers by an enforced obedience of planetary influence; and all that 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. 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. Fut! I should have been that I am, had the maidenliest star in the firmament twinkled on my bastardizing. (1.2.124-144)

7. Lear's collapse begins in 1.4, when he is confronted by Goneril. The violent intensity between father and daughter is a hallmark of the Ian Holm Lear, as it was in the first scene with Cordelia:

Holm1.4

This scene also marks the return of Kent in disguise and the first appearance of the Fool. The link between Cordelia and the Fool is a powerful one. Jonathan Miller put the Fool into the first scene of the BBC production, although there are no lines for him. His presence in the same camera shots as Cordelia emphasizes their companionship, and there is a theatrical tradition of the same actor playing both parts. As Shakespeare wrote the play, the two are never on stage together. In the clip you just watched, this decidedly old Fool is the mirror of Lear, a point made over and over. Lear's folly overtakes himafter he violently denounces Goneril and storms off to find Regan.

Fool. Thou wast a pretty fellow when thou hadst no need to care for her frowning; now thou art an O without a
figure: I am better than thou art now; I am a fool, thou art nothing. (197-200)

Lear's journey from folly to madness has begun:

Fool. Thou shouldst not have been old till thou hadst been wise.

Lear. O, let me not be mad, not mad, sweet heaven!
Keep me in temper; I would not be mad! (1.5.44-47)


Take a moment to consider the relationship of the Fool, Kent, and Cordelia. None of them can live in Lear's world unless disguised; Cordelia can only live in exile. What qualities do they have in common that bind them together Notice that in one of the scenes that follows, 2.3, Edgar likewise must disguise himself to survive.


8. Act 2 begins Lear's steep descent. This clip from the Olivier production includes the end of 2.2, 2.3, and 2.4:

OlivierAct2

The center of this sequence is the beginning of Lear's agonized recognition of his own vulnerability, which he desperately resists. As Goneril and Regan strip him of his retinue, he protests, "I gave you all." Regan's answer capsulizes the sisters' hatred: "And in good time you gave it" (2.4.249). Having waited so long for the power they deemed theirs, they strike at Lear's very sense of self:

Goneril. Hear me, my lord.
What need you five-and-twenty? ten? or five?
To follow in a house where twice so many
Have a command to tend you?

Regan. What need one?

Lear. O reason not the need! Our basest beggars
Are in the poorest thing superfluous.
Allow not nature more than nature needs,
Man's life is cheap as beast's. Thou art a lady;
If only to go warm were gorgeous,
Why, nature needs not what thou gorgeous wear'st,
Which scarcely keeps thee warm. But, for true need—
You heavens, give me that patience, patience I need.
You see me here, you gods, a poor old man,
As full of grief as age, wretched in both.
If it be you that stir these daughters' hearts
Against their father, fool me not so much
To bear it tamely; touch me with noble anger,
And let not women's weapons, water drops,
Stain my man's cheeks! No, you unnatural hags!
I will have such revenges on you both
That all the world shall—I will do such things—
What they are, yet I know not; but they shall be
The terrors of the earth. You think I'll weep
No, I'll not weep. [Storm and tempest]
I have full cause of weeping, but this heart
Shall break into a hundred thousand flaws,
Or ere I'll weep. O Fool, I shall go mad! (2.4.259-285)

Lear is beginning to see the world through other eyes, and the sight will drive him mad. The storm that breaks is the tempest in his mind.

9. The BBC version with Michael Hordern as Lear is a powerful exploration of the mental and physical storm:

BBC3.2

As John Danby has pointed out, Lear's breakdown is reflected in his symbolic companions: the Fool is the voice of truth inside him and Edgar, playing the Bedlam beggar, is the manifestation of Lear's psychotic episode. In 3.2 Lear's private agony can be put aside for a momentL

My wits begin to turn.
Come on, my boy. How dost, my boy? Art cold?
I am cold myself. Where is this straw, my fellow?
The art of our necessities is strange,
That can make vile things precious. Come,
your hovel.
Poor Fool and knave, I have one part in my heart
That's sorry yet for thee. (67-73)

This is the first time Lear has shown concern for someone else. This perception deepens in 3.4, although it is constantly colored by his self-pity and his growing obsession with justice and punishment. The center of his awareness begins with his resistance to the storm, a distraction from thought and feeling too painful to bear:

Filial ingratitude,
Is it not as this mouth should tear this hand
For lifting food to't? But I will punish home.
No, I will weep no more. In such a night
To shut me out! Pour on, I will endure.
In such a night as this! O Regan, Goneril,
Your old kind father, whose frank heart gave all—
O, that way madness lies; let me shun that.
No more of that. (14-22)

This moment is succeeded by a prayer:

BBC3.4

Lear's concern for the "poor naked wretches" is one of the few expressions of social justice in Shakespeare, and marks him for our sympathy and understanding. But the realization of his kingly neglect of his subjects pushes him over the edge, and into the arms of Tom o' Bedlam, Edgar's mad disguise:

Poor naked wretches, whereso'er you are,
That bide the pelting of this pitiless storm,
How shall your houseless heads and unfed sides,
Your looped and windowed 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.

Edgar. [Within] Fathom and half, fathom and half! Poor Tom! (28-38)

Lear tears at his clothing in imitation of the naked beggar, finding his own "unaccomodated man" (109).

10. By 3.6, Lear in a psychotic state imagines the trial of his elder daughters: "Let them anatomize [autopsy] Regan. See what breds about her heart. Is there any cause in nature that make these hard hearts? (3.6.75-77). This scene marks the last appearance of the Fool; he vanishes before Cordelia returns. The voice of sense in Lear's mind, his role dissolves when Lear's sanity does. Our attention then is turned to GLoucester, that other father bedeviled by a hateful child. Ironically, Gloucester is tortured and blinded for his generous service to Lear, reported to the sadistic Cornwall by Edmund:

OlivierAct4Gloucester

The most remarkable feature of this scene 7 is that common decency asserts itself in the servants. In the face of unbearable savagery which we must bear to look at, a servant is stabbed by Regan as he defends Gloucester, and the other two servants become philosophical voices:

Second Servant. I'll never care what wickedness I do,
If this man come to good.

Third Servant. If she live long,
And in the end meet the old course of death,
Women will all turn monsters. (100-103)

This is one of many mute and voiced appeals to the heavens, but divine or fated help is not to be.

11. Aid comes through human agency, the kindness and sacrifice of Edgar and Cordelia. First Edgar becomes the philosophical voice of the play as he puzzles over the turning of Fortune's Wheel. Then he learns that painful experience trumps theory as he meets his blinded father:

Edgar. [Aside] O Gods! Who is't can say "I am at the worst"?
I am worse than e'er I was.

Old Man. 'Tis poor mad Tom.

Edgar. [Aside] And worse I may be yet: the worst is not
So long as we can say "This is the worst." (4.1.24-28)


BBCAct4

The second part of the clip shows us Edgar as the spiritual mentor to his father, ministering to his despair in 4.6: "Why I do trifle thus with his despair / Is done to cure it" (33-34). Gloucester learns the lesson of endurance and acceptance:

: I do remember now: henceforth I'll bear
Affliction till it do cry out itself
"Enough, enough," and die. That thing you speak of,
I took it for a man; often 'twould say
"The fiend, the fiend" —he led me to that place.

Edgar. Bear free and patient thoughts. (75-80)

12. Lear and Gloucester share a moment of painful recognition now:

OlivierAct4Lear

Gloucester seems on his way to recovery, a state noted by Maynard Mack in "The Jacobean Shakespeare." Lear will pass through that stage too, but not before this moving and terrible scene. He swings wildly between tenderness for Gloucester and rage at the injustice of the world, once again a vision of social justice:

Through tatter'd clothes small vices do appear;
Robes and furr'd gowns hide all. Plate sin with gold,
And the strong lance of justice hurtless breaks;
Arm it in rags, a pygmy's straw does pierce it.
None does offend, none, I say, none...
When we are born, we cry that we are come
To this great stage of fools. (4.6.166-170,184-185)

Lear's recovery comes with his reunion with Cordelia in 4.7, but that moment of great beauty gives way to the terror of Act 5 for Gloucester and for Lear:

HolmV

Lear's speech to Cordelia seems to me not only the emotional center of this play, but the pivotal scene in Shakespeare's work. The public world of power is put aside for family and for love:

Come, let's away to prison:
We two alone will sing like birds i' th' cage:
When thou dost ask me blessing, I'll kneel down
And ask of thee forgiveness: so we'll live,
And pray, and sing, and tell old tales, and laugh
At gilded butterflies, and hear poor rogues
Talk of court news; and we'll talk with them too,
Who loses and who wins, who's in, who's out;
And take upon's the mystery of things,
As if we were God's spies: and we'll wear out,
In a walled prison, packs and sects of great ones
That ebb and flow by the moon. (5.3.8-19)

13. We come now to the last sequence of the last scene. The ending of King Lear is so painful that the eighteenth century, that Age of Reason, could not bear it, and a new happy ending was added by Nahum Tate, a producer, and lasted into the nineteenth century. For decades English audiences did not see Shakesperare's cruel finale. It is so cruel because we are given reason to hope all will be well until the last twist of fate produces Lear's final "Howl." Characters who have looked to the heavens for aid still appeal for justice, and are met with silence or worse. Even Edmund's one humane gesture as he dies is useless. We do gain some insight through him, however; Goneril and Regan have destroyed each other in their rivvalry for Edmund, and that somehow releases a feeling of worth in him:

Yet Edmund was beloved:
The one the other poisoned for my sake,
And after slew herself...
I pant for life: some good I mean to do,
Despite of mine own nature. (241-243,245-246)

HolmFinal

Exhaustion marks the last moments of King Lear for the survivors, including the audience. Yet Lear's recognition and recovery are a springboard to late movements in Shakespeare's writing, including our last play, The Winter's Tale.

 

Responses.

Consider this sketch of some of the main ideas in the play as you think about an approach. King Lear has so many themes and plotlines that you'll have to narrow your focus for a paper. In the Signet Classic there is a fine Introduction and articles by Brown, Mack, and Bamber. On the course page there are links to articles by Joyce Carol Oates for a novelist's eye, and an essay on cultural context by Jessica Wylie. "Two Lears for TV" studies the two studio productions, the BBC and the Olivier versions. Ben Schneider proposes the idea of Stoicism in the play, and Mark Schwehn discusses love and justice. There is also a rich website on the Ian Holm version.

Remember to quote your sources, and give the page number or web address. Here's a section from the bottom of my home page:

Citation Guides

Research and Documentation Online

A Guide for Writing Research Papers (MLA style)

 

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