King Lear (Vol. 46)
See also King Lear Criticism (Volume 31) and King Lear Criticism (Volume 61).
Frequently described as the most tragic of Shakespeare's tragedies, King Lear relates the tale of a father and a ruler who loses his family and his kingdom. The play's ending in particular fascinates audiences and critics alike, who can reach no consensus on whether the final scene, in which Lear follows his daughter Cordelia in death, is meant to impart a sense of hopelessness, chaos, and despair, or affirm the existence of love and hope in the world. First performed in 1606 for the court of King James I, critics speculate that there were public performances of King Lear prior to this date. It was not performed again in London, in court or elsewhere, unlike many of Shakespeare's other tragedies. The reason for this lack of revival is unknown, although some scholars suggest that the play's depiction of a foolish king and its presentation of the poor as victims of the rich was viewed as too subversive. Although the play was popular enough to be published in 1608, it is also possible that the reason it was not performed again was that the wholly tragic and disheartening ending displeased audiences. In 1681, Nahum Tate wrote a new version of the play which included a romance between Cordelia and Edgar and a happy ending for King Lear. It was Tate's version of the play, not Shakespeare's, that was performed for more than 150 years. By the 1820s, however, Shakespeare's version was restored and in 1838, William Charles Macready reintroduced the character of Lear's Fool, which had been omitted from performances for years.
In fact, the role of Lear's Fool has been the subject of critical debate, especially in the twentieth-century. Unlike the fools and clowns in Shakespeare's other plays, the Fool in Lear is more clearly drawn, possessing an emotional depth foreign to Shakespeare's other fools. Bente A. Videbaek (1996) has observed that Shakespeare's other clowns mainly serve to indicate and illuminate a turning point in the play's action. In contrast, Lear's Fool not only serves as "truth-teller" but also is a truly and deeply sad clown. The critic has further characterized Lear's Fool as "a creature whose whole being is founded on understanding of the human condition and pity for those who cannot cope with the harsh realities of Lear's world." Other critics study the way in which the Fool enhances the tragic mood of the play, or his relationship with Lear. Glena D. Wood (1972) has observed the ironic juxtaposition between Lear's actions and the Fool's words. Wood has demonstrated that the Fool's words and actions precipitate Lear's growth and at the same time increase both the irony and the tragic-comic effect in the play. In analyzing the rhetoric of the Fool, Toshiko Oyama (1963) has maintained that through the Fool's use of logical argumentation in his conversations with Lear, the Fool increases the ambiguity of the play's events and thereby heightens the tragic atmosphere and tension.
Lear and Cordelia have also generated considerable criticism. Each have been studied individually, but critics are equally concerned with the relationship of Lear and Cordelia, as well as their relationships to other characters in the play. Alexander Leggatt (1988) and Phoebe S. Spinrad (1991) are, like many critics, particularly interested in Lear's death and how it should be interpreted. Leggatt has used Gloucester's experience as a way, through contrast, of understanding Lear's own situation. While demonstrating Lear's resistance throughout the play to new knowledge, Leggatt has observed that in the Folio edition of the play, Lear is centered on Cordelia as he dies, suggesting, perhaps, that Lear has indeed learned how much he loves his daughter. In contrast, Spinrad has found little evidence that Lear has learned or demonstrated growth. Despite this lack of evidence, Spinrad has argued, audiences grieve at the end of the play. After stressing that Lear's death defies explanation through traditional dramatic or philosophical theories, Spinrad has concluded that the emotional response of audiences to Lear's death is perhaps generated by compassion. Cordelia's role in the play is often examined in its relationship to the Fool's. Richard Abrams (1985) has examined the theory that Cordelia and the Fool were played by the same actor in early productions of King Lear. Abrams has cited the theatrical benefits of such a doubling of the parts, as the two characters both serve as Lear's "truth-tellers." Mark Berge (1994) also has linked Cordelia to the Fool, arguing that both characters illustrate the play's theme of dramatic irresolution. Lear and Cordelia, as well as Goneril and Regan, are also studied together in another manner—as a family. Harry Berger, Jr. (1979) has explored the psychological motivation behind the rivalry between the sisters and Lear's division of his kingdom and his subsequent treatment of his children. Similarly, Thomas McFarland (1981) has examined the dynamics of the Lear family. McFarland has noted that in contrast to the family situation in Hamlet, Lear's situation is not "flamboyant or unique." McFarland has argued that in many ways, Lear's emotional attitude toward his children is an amplified version of similar emotions other parents might at one time feel toward their offspring. Additionally, McFarland has maintained that the tragic situation is sparked by the tension Lear feels between his role as father and as king.
It is this dual dimension of Lear's character—the fact that he is a king as well as a father—that fuels another area of critical commentary. Margot Heinemann (1992) has stated that too often, King Lear is presented only as a personal, family drama. Heinemann has emphasized the political nature of the play, demonstrating that it is as much about a personal loss of power as it is about the fractured social and political affairs in Lear's kingdom. Janet M. Green (1995) also has focused on a more public, civil aspect of this play, discussing its references to legal issues and to judgement, both secular and divine. Green has observed that the repeated references to legal situations in the play tend to heighten the experiences of "heavenly wrath" and "human cruelty" rather than creating the hope for justice or mercy, thus reinforcing the themes of the play.
David Lowenthal (essay date 1994)
SOURCE: "King Lear," in Interpretation: A Journal of Political Philosophy, Vol. 21, No. 3, Spring, 1994, pp. 391-417.
[In the essay that follows, Lowenthal reviews the setting, plot, language, characterization, and themes of King Lear, maintaining that in the last scene, the "perfections of king, father, and man" are fused together in Lear.]
King Lear may be the most tragic of Shakespeare's tragedies. Nothing exceeds in pathos the final spectacle of Lear bending over his dead Cordelia, looking for life in her and then expiring himself. But what should we think of Lear generally? Is he the vain, irascible and doddering old man his critics make him out to be—a view quite close to the one held by his two bad daughters? Why, then, at the end, do we not only pity but admire him as a man of very great soul, a much greater man than the loyal Earl of Gloucester, his lesser counterpart in the play? Is the play named after him only because he was in fact a king or because Shakespeare wanted us to think of him as a king par excellence, a true king, a natural king? Hamlet is called the Prince of Denmark in the title to that play, and Pericles the Prince of Tyre in another, but—apart from the history plays—Shakespeare names no other king but Lear in his titles. What did he mean by this? And is the play, as often remarked about its...
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Glena D. Wood (essay date 1972)
SOURCE: "The Tragi-Comic Dimensions of Lear's Fool," in Costerus: Essays in English and American Language and Literature, Vol. 5, 1972, pp. 197-226.
[Below, Wood examines the Fool's function in King Lear, demonstrating the relation of the Fool to Lear's personal development.]
For a century and a half—1681-1838—Nahum Tate's version of King Lear pre-empted the stage in preference to Shakespeare's text. Tate's version restored Lear his throne, betrothed Edgar and Cordelia, and omitted the Fool as indecorous to tragedy. The rich texture and meaning of the drama suffered as much, perhaps, from blotting out the Fool's role as by superimposing the happy and false denouément.
Critics have noted the many ways in which the Gloucester subplot adds overtones and complexity to the main plot and theme. Some hold that Gloucester's story illustrates not so much a less subtle and more physical level of the Lear tale as another dimension of the Lear character and theme. The role of the Fool, too, though complex to unravel, may reveal still another dimension of the King.
Those attempting analyses of the function of the Fool in King Lear have expressed divergent, sometimes self-contradictory views, at times misrepresenting or misinterpreting both the Fool's character and function. Nor have I found a...
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Richard Abrams (essay date 1985)
SOURCE: "The Double Casting of Cordelia and Lear's Fool: A Theatrical View," in Texas Studies in Literature and Language, Vol. 27, No. 4, Winter, 1985, pp. 354-68.
[In the essay that follows, Abrams explores the hypothesis that in early productions of King Lear, the characters of Cordelia and Lear's Fool were played by the same actor. Abrams emphasizes the theatrical benefits of such "doubling," noting that Cordelia and the Fool both serve as Lear's "truth-tellers."]
Proposed near the turn of the past century, the hypothesis that the actor playing Cordelia doubled as the Fool in early productions of King Lear accords with our best knowledge of Shakespeare's theatrical practice and has rarely been contested. Strictly speaking, of course, the theory remains unprovable without external evidence; yet it rests on two fairly firm supports: that the two characters never meet on stage and that during Cordelia's absence the Fool takes over her function of telling Lear the painful truth about himself. In addition, such a theory strengthens various line readings, for example, the play on "nothing," Lear's description of the Fool as a "houseless poverty" after driving Cordelia from her home, "And my poor fool is hanged." But though critics have noted verbal ironies produced by double casting, the sustained theatrical impact of this device on...
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Thomas McFarland (essay date 1978/79)
SOURCE: "The Image of the Family in King Lear" in On King Lear, edited by Lawrence Danson, Princeton University Press, 1981, pp. 91-118.
[In the following essay, originally presented at Princeton University in 1978/79, McFarland maintains that the play focuses not on King Lear's personal suffering, but on "the agony of the family." The play's tragic situation, the critic argues, stems from the tension between Lear's role as king and his role as father.]
King Lear develops its action along a pattern supplied simultaneously by poetic fantasy and by historical reality. In the main plot, the relationship between Lear and his daughters is prefigured in the record of a distressed family situation of the late Elizabethan period. Brian Annesley, who for many years had been a gentleman pensioner to Queen Elizabeth, had three daughters. As he grew old, Annesley's mind began to give way, and two of his daughters, Christian, who was the wife of Lord Sandys of the Essex Rebellion, and Lady Grace Wildgoose, petitioned to have the old man declared insane and his estate placed in the care of Lady Wildgoose's husband. Annesley's third daughter, who was named Cordell or Cordelia, opposed the action and in October 1603 sent a letter to Cecil on behalf of her "poor aged and daily dying father." History does not inform us of the ending of this...
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Alexander Leggatt (essay date 1988)
SOURCE: "Lear," in Harvester New Critical Introductions to Shakespeare: King Lear, Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1988, pp. 69-95.
[In the following essay, Leggatt focuses on Lear's death, contending that it is "the completion of life lived to the extreme," and examines the parallels in the experiences of Lear and Gloucester.]
One of the principal ways in which critics have sought consolation for the ending of King Lear is to note that, however much Lear has suffered, he has also learnt. Walter Stein puts it succinctly: 'The world remains what it was, a merciless, heart-breaking world. Lear is broken by it, but he has learned to love and be loved'.1 Lear in the storm, according to Robert Bechtold Heilman, 'feels compassion, acknowledges his own failures, and lessens himself in terms of divine justice; like Gloucester, he has come to a new insight'.2 The idea of Lear's progress is given a religious dimension by A. C. Bradley's suggestion that 'this poem' might be renamed 'The Redemption of King Lear',3 by G. Wilson Knight's description of the play as 'purgatorial'4 and by Irving Ribner's reference to Lear's 'spiritual rebirth'. Other critics have resisted this view.5 In the storm sequence, where Heilman finds growing wisdom, Jonathan Dollimore hears 'demented mumbling interspersed with...
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Politics And The Law
Margot Heinemann (essay date 1992)
SOURCE: "'Demystifying the Mystery of State': King Lear and the World Upside Down," in Shakespeare Survey: An Annual Survey of Shakespeare Studies and Production, Vol. 44, 1992, pp. 75-83.
[In the following essay, Heinemann argues that King Lear is a play as much concerned with government and politics as it is with personal, familial issues. The critic stresses that the play should be interpreted in terms of a personal loss of power and as the collapse of social and political structures. Additionally, Heinemann suggests ways in which the political implications of King Lear might be related to the politics of England under King James I.]
King Lear is very much a political play—that is a play concerned with power and government in the state, with public and civil life, and not solely with private relationships and passions. Of course it is not only political; but it seems necessary to restate the point because recent productions so often try to make it a purely personal, familial, and psychological drama (much in the manner of A. C. Bradley, though a Bradley who has read Freud, Laing, and Foucault). However, even if this is intended to render the play acceptable to modern audiences (who are assumed to be very simple-minded), it is still a distortion, and makes much of the action unintelligible. As Peter...
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Alfar, Cristina Leon. "King Lear's 'Immoral' Daughters and the Politics of Kingship." Exemplaria VIII, No. 2 (Fall 1996): 375-400.
Argues that Goneril and Regan are not innately "evil" but rather that their deeds are reactions to the "patrilinial structure of power relations in which they live and to which they must accommodate themselves."
Asp, Carolyn. "'The Clamor of Eros': Freud, Aging, and King Lear." In Memory and Desire: Aging—Literature—Psychoanalysis, edited by Kathleen Woodward and Murray M. Schwartz, pp. 192-204. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1986.
Analyzes the relationship between Lear and his daughters using Freud's conception of family obligation.
Boehrer, Bruce Thomas. "King Lear and the Royal Progress: Social Display in Shakespearean Tragedy." Disorder and the Drama. Renaissance Drama, New Series, edited by Mary Beth Rose, Vol. XXI, pp. 243-61. Evanston: Northwestern University Press and The Newberry Library for Renaissance Studies, 1990.
Maintains that the concept of "royal progress" (the extended entertaining of a monarch undertaken by visiting castle after castle) underlies the structure of King Lear, and that the tragedy ensues when Lear presumes to separate this royal privilege from...
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