King Lear (Vol. 61)
For further information on the critical and stage history of King Lear, see SC, Volumes 2, 11, 31, and 46.
King Lear, written circa 1605-06, is considered by many to be Shakespeare’s darkest tragedy. The play is set in the early history of Britain and centers upon the foolish and ultimately destructive actions of a delusional king. As the play opens, Lear demands a display of love from his three daughters before dividing his kingdom among them. His youngest daughter Cordelia, though loyal, refuses to take part in this empty ceremony and Lear banishes her. Cordelia's devious sisters, Regan and Goneril, plot to dethrone the king and drive him from the kingdom. In the end, Lear realizes his misjudgment and dies holding the body of Cordelia who has returned to fight for him. Likewise, Gloucester, who is the central figure in the play’s subplot, is betrayed by his illegitimate son Edmund who is attempting to oppose the legitimate heir Edgar. In the course of the play, Lear is driven mad and Gloucester blinded. Since it's introduction, King Lear has confounded audiences and scholars with its dark, seemingly hopeless conclusion. In fact, for more than a century an alternative version of the play, with a more uplifting ending, was often performed; it wasn't until the 1820s that Shakespeare's original version was restored to the stage. Modern scholarship on King Lear is typified by a focus on the meaning of Shakespeare's ending, the application of new gender theory, and the influence of social history.
Scholars have applied their emerging understanding of Elizabethan society aggressively to Shakespearian studies; the resulting scholarship on King Lear varies widely in focus. For instance, in her 1996 essay, Cristina León Alfar challenges the extensive body of existing gender theory on King Lear. Focusing on Goneril and Regan, Alfar maintains that rather than representing evilness and the antithesis of prescribed female attributes, Goneril and Regan look out for their own interests effectively in the patrilineal society in which they exist. She argues that critics would not find fault with these characters if they were male, thus reflecting a double standard in the academic community which Shakespeare did not necessarily share. David Margolies (see Further Reading) states that King Lear is about society and a new social order in which the individual played an increasingly powerful role. Margolies outlines the dichotomy between characters who represent traditional and conventional ways of thinking, such as Lear, Edgar, Kent, and Gloucester, and those who promote the emerging political philosophy of individualism and personal advantage, such as Goneril, Regan, Cornwall, and Edmund. Margolies argues that by exaggerating the differences between these two types, Shakespeare heightened the conflict and focused attention on changing roles. Considering King Lear's relation to the transfer of power from Queen Elizabeth to James I, William Zunder (1997) argues that Shakespeare was concerned with the politically troubling times of the early seventeenth century. Zunder believes that Lear's behavior is a commentary on aristocracy and the monarch and that the play spotlights the tension between the former feudal order, as represented by Gloucester and Lear, with the new social order characterized by Edmund. Jerald W. Spotswood (1998) addresses the play’s radical transition in social structure. He maintains, in opposition to earlier scholarship, that in King Lear Shakespeare did not describe, and thus promote, a society in which authority is subverted and the social order inverted. Rather, like other Renaissance drama, the play reflects a transition in which previously held beliefs about inheritance and elitism were questioned but class distinctions were maintained.
Other scholars have focused on the language and structure of King Lear. In his 1997 essay, Brian Crick writes candidly about the complexity of the play and its baffling conclusion. He admits that while attempting to explain King Lear to university undergraduates he suffered a crisis of faith, doubting his own mastery of the play. Through his exploration of the relationship between Lear and Cordelia, Crick attempts to regain his comprehension. Douglas Burnham (2000) studies the nature of narrative, theoretically outlining its characteristics and applying them to King Lear. He argues that the nature of narrative, which aims to create order from chaos, is essential to comprehending this play. Paul W. Kahn (2000) maintains that in King Lear, Shakespeare explored the mutually exclusive nature of love and power. He critiques the opening scene, arguing that the love trial is, in fact, a political trial. Such literary critics as William Zak (1984) and Thomas Kennedy (1999) are fascinated by the relationship of Shakespeare's version of King Lear to other sources. Both scholars contend that Shakespeare based his play on The True Chronicle History of King Leir (c. 1588). Zak states that Shakespeare demonstrated that suffering does not always lead to wisdom while Kennedy argues that Shakespeare placed spiritual values over material circumstances.
Criticism: History, Politics, And Society
SOURCE: “King Lear's ‘Immoral’ Daughters and the Politics of Kingship,” in Exemplaria, Vol. 8, No. 2, Fall, 1996, pp. 375-400.
[In the following essay, Alfar challenges feminist interpretations of Goneril and Regan as evil, maintaining that the characters are merely a reflection of the violence in their patrilineal society.]
Traditionally, King Lear's eldest daughters are labelled villains. Most critics dismiss them as stock characters, conventional representations of “evil,” and focus on the complexity of male characters or on Cordelia. Their “evil” is defined by acts of will, power, desire, sexuality—acts which disrupt both conventional morality and the patrilineal order's1 definition of “appropriate” femininity and consequently must be met with punitive consequences. However, the presumption that Goneril and Regan are “evil” reifies female subjectivity as stable and whole, rather than multiple and complex. While the sisters plot against their father, engage in extramarital affairs with the same man, and stand by as Gloucester's eyes are gouged out, I argue that these actions are not evidence of their innate “evil” but are symptomatic of the patrilineal structure of power relations in which they live and to which they must accommodate themselves. I also argue that the play interrogates that structure.2 Kathleen McLuskie contends that a...
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SOURCE: “Shakespeare and the End of Feudalism: King Lear as Fin-de-siècle Text,” in English Studies: A Journal of English Language and Literature, Vol. 78, No. 6, November, 1997, pp. 513-21.
[In the following essay, Zunder highlights Shakespeare's concern with the end of feudalism and the accession of James I.]
Shakespeare probably wrote King Lear in the years immediately following the death of Elizabeth and the accession of James I in 1603; and the play evinces a strong sense of an ending. There is, for example, Gloucester's speech in Act I, Scene 2, after the disastrous division—or, rather, non-division (I.1.126-38)—of the kingdom, Lear's banishment of Cordelia, and Edgar's supposed plot against his father. It is a speech in which Shakespeare connects a discourse of contemporary history with the discourse of the play. It is delivered partly to Edmund on an otherwise empty stage and partly to the early seventeenth-century London audience; it is part naturalistic exchange and part choric comment. And it immediately establishes a parallel, by displacement, between the action of the play, firmly placed in the British past, and the current times in which Shakespeare and his fellow Londoners were living. ‘These late eclipses in the sun and moon’, says Gloucester, probably referring to the eclipse of the sun on 2 October 1605 and that of the moon a month earlier on 27 September:...
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SOURCE: “King Lear's Reflection in The Mirror of Nobody: An Iconographical Question,” in Cahiers Élisabéthains, Vol. 54, October, 1998, pp. 55-73.
[In the essay below, Nutys-Giornal traces references of the European Renaissance character Nobody to the character of Lear, and considers the relationship between verbal and visual communication in the play.]
Walter Ong and Frances Yates have already drawn attention to the curious interdependence that existed between the verbal and visual means of communication in the Renaissance. This short study proposes to look into some practical and factual interpretation possibilities based on this conception of an interaction between the visual, and the verbal in King Lear. The theatrical experience occupies a privileged position as it shares the ability to signify by means of visual signs with paintings or engravings; this however will only be treated as a secondary matter. In the first place, I wish to consider the common stock of signs and symbols used indifferently in literary texts or in pictorial expression, admitting from the outset possible links between visual images and “conceits intellectual”1. These links that might appear arbitrary to the twentieth century reader seem to have been exploited by writers of emblems and devices, engravers, painters, poets and even humanists, notwithstanding their general reluctance concerning the use...
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SOURCE: “Maintaining Hierarchy in The Tragedie of King Lear,” in Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900, Vol. 38, No. 2, Spring, 1998, pp. 265-80.
[In the essay below, Spotswood challenges critical interpretations which maintain that the play represents a challenge to social structure, arguing that King Lear upholds class boundaries.]
In tracing the theater's role in eliciting social change in early modern England, many recent critics have focused upon King Lear as a central text, citing the breakdown of authority and service within the play as evidence of its subversive force. For John Turner, Lear portrays a world that “collapses beyond repair,” and presents a prehistory in which authority and service “melt mystifyingly into one another.”1 Even Stephen Greenblatt, a forceful proponent of the subversion-containment model, concedes that Lear is Shakespeare's greatest example of the “process of containment … strained to the breaking point.”2 Yet models dependent upon subversion and containment often present social change as an all-or-nothing affair, occluding Shakespeare's negotiation between the forces of change and stasis.3 Lear may have helped to bring about the “deconsecration of sovereignty”;4 it did not deconsecrate privilege, status, or hierarchy. Distinctions within the aristocracy and, more importantly, between...
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SOURCE: “Impossible Worlds: What Happens in King Lear, Act 1, Scene 1?,” in Shakespeare Quarterly, Vol. 50, No. 4, Winter, 1999, pp. 477-507.
[In the following essay, Dodd attempts to bridge dramatic readings of King Lear with historical interpretations of the play in order to more fully understand Shakespeare's intent.]
It is now widely recognized that the earthquake provoked by Cordelia's “Nothing, my lord” (1.1.87)1 has its origin in a deep, pre-existing fissure within the social, political, and economic substratum of the King Lear world. Historicist and especially materialist critics have for some time been laboring to map this substratum, which for so long was overlaid by narrowly familial or ethical-humanist readings.2 One of the most thoroughgoing recent studies in this respect is Richard Halpern's brilliant essay “Historica Passio: King Lear's Fall into Feudalism.”3 It sets up an ideological and sociopolitical framework capable of accounting for much of the dramatic energy released by this tragedy and for the precipitating effect of the opening scene. It also confirms absolutism as an inescapable issue for any historically informed reading of the play.
Since I wish to use Halpern's essay as a kind of backdrop for my own argument, let me summarize the author's main theses....
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Criticism: Language And Structure
SOURCE: “Entitled to be King: The Subversion of the Subject in King Lear,” in Literature and Psychology, Vol. 42, Nos. 1-2, 1996, pp. 100-12.
[In the essay below, originally published in 1994, Van Pelt applies the theories of Jacques Lacan to King Lear.]
Lacan, like Freud before him, continually finds in Shakespeare those revelations which invigorate theory. In this spirit, then, the following study explores not only what the Lacanian idea of the dynamics of desire can tell us about Shakespeare's King Lear, but also what Shakespeare can tell us about the theory of signification. King Lear invites the theoretical reading of kingship as signification because Lear's dynamics of mad desire and prodigious suffering derive from the discovery that his own kingly signifier signifies nothing. As a drama of signification, Lear implicates all its characters in the construction of the madness that the foolish, fond old king enacts.
No one, not even the fool, is innocent of language; no one, not even the king, escapes the effects of language in the construction of desire. ‘Desire’ states Freud's idea of the ‘wish’ more forcefully, for the German Wunsch like the English ‘wish’ connotes “individual, isolated acts of wishing” (Sheridan viii). Lacan's term désir “has the much stronger implication of a continuous force. It is this...
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SOURCE: “Lear and Cordelia's Tragic Love Revisited,” in Critical Review, Vol. 37, 1997, pp. 61-80.
[In the follow essay, Crick attempts to regain his comprehension of King Lear by considering Lear and Cordelia's relationship.]
I know of no more heartrending reading than Shakespeare.
Nietzsche, Ecce Homo
As a ‘form of life’ literary criticism is ever in danger of becoming a version of Horatio's singing gravedigger: ‘custom hath made it in him a property of easiness.’ I recently caught myself at it while teaching the first scene of King Lear yet again. It was an especially painful disclosure because I had long harboured the conviction that my grasp of this astounding opening—surely the most masterful in Shakespeare's dramas—was secure, and that the two lectures I was in the habit of devoting to it were the most insightful things I had to offer in an undergraduate course devoted solely to his work. My sense of this had a history to it extending back even further than the twenty-three years Yorick's skull had mouldered in the grave. It was during the teaching of this scene that I first dared to entertain the notion that there were any grounds at all for my lecturing in a university. When this memory recurred in the intervening years, triggered by subsequent encounters with King Lear, I hastened to recast it. I reminded myself how...
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SOURCE: “King Lear, Narrating, and Surprise,” in Yearbook of English Studies, Vol. 30, 2000, pp. 21-33.
[In the essay below, Burnham applies his theories on the nature of narrative to King Lear in order to explain the reason for Cordelia's death.]
On his first day of prison, a man joins a group of long-term prisoners talking in the mess. One of them says, ‘tell us a joke, somebody’. There is silence for a second, and then another prisoner says, ‘17!’. All of the long-term prisoners instantly burst out laughing. The new prisoner is confused by this, but pretends to laugh anyway. Suddenly, another prisoner calls out ‘29!’. This is greeted by floods of laughter.
The new prisoner turns to a short man in spectacles standing next to him and, discretely, asks why everyone is laughing at mere numbers. ‘Well’, is the reply, ‘we've all been here so long that we have given numbers to all the jokes we know. Now we only have to call out the number.’
‘Oh’, says the new prisoner. When the laughter has quieted a little, he blurts out ‘21!’ picking a number at random. The whole cafeteria is dead silent, not even a chuckle. The short man in spectacles turns to him woefully and says, ‘Sorry, mate, but it's how you...
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SOURCE: “Love's Trials,” in Law and Love: The Trials of King Lear, Yale University Press, 2000, pp. 1-28.
[In the following essay, Kahn posits that at the center of King Lear is a treatise on the exclusivity of love and political power.]
Love and political power are central themes of King Lear. In the course of the play, Lear moves from power to love and back to power. The tragic action of the play is brought on by efforts to breach the separation between love and power, to mold power by love, or to infuse love with power. But what is appropriate for love is inappropriate for power, and what is appropriate for power is inappropriate for love. Man must die to power if he is to love purely. Or he must restrain love if he is to rule effectively. This, in the most abstract and summary form, is the philosophical and moral vision that the play explores.1
Lear's plan as the play opens reflects an ambition to unite love and power. He will accomplish this union by means of a public trial of his daughters' love. Each daughter must stand before the whole of the court and give a public proclamation of the extent of her love for her father. If she proves her love, she will be rewarded with a part of the state. The two older daughters succeed and receive their allotted portions. Cordelia, whom Lear loves most and for whom he has planned the finest share of the kingdom,...
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Criticism: Sources And Adaptations
SOURCE: “The Player King,” in Sovereign Shame: A Study of King Lear, Bucknell University Press, 1984, pp. 118-46.
[In the following essay, Zak contrasts Shakespeare’s King Lear with the anonymously written The True Chronicle History of King Leir, and examines Lear’s self-destruction.]
The king's a beggar, now the play is done.
Epilogue, All's Well That Ends Well
Shame would have it hid.
Gloucester, King Lear
From a study of the contrasts between the first scenes of The True Chronicle History of King Leir and Shakespeare's spare, truncated adaptation of them in the first half of scene one in King Lear, we can better inspect several related elements in Shakespeare's design. For one thing, it appears Shakespeare took great care to keep Lear's psyche cloaked, unavailable to immediate inspection, as if our bewilderment—a sense of something hidden in Lear's motives—was a necessary first step toward understanding him. In Shakespeare's source both the abdication and the love test are far more comprehensibly motivated than in Lear. In the old play the death of Leir's beloved wife, his impotent old age, his lack of a son for heir, his own death which he imagines imminent, and, above all, his self-sacrificial concern for the safety of his nation are all discussed before his counselors as...
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SOURCE: “Lear: Plot and Theme,” in Studia Neophilologica, Vol. 71, No. 1, 1999, pp. 51-61.
[In the following essay, Kennedy contrasts the happy ending of The True Chronicle History of King Leir with Shakespeare's version of the play, arguing that Shakespeare’s ending is essential to establishing the theme of King Lear.]
When Shakespeare wrote his version of the Lear story, he changed the ending. In all the previous versions, Cordelia and Lear won the battle, and Lear was restored to his throne, but Shakespeare transformed victory into defeat, restoration into death.
Explanations as to why Shakespeare changed the ending have tended to be circumstantial. Thus Kenneth Muir argues that Shakespeare had to condense the loosely connected events of the chronicle into a tighter time frame for stage presentation, a circumstance of genre.1 The deaths of father and daughter, occurring three and seven years after their victory in Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia Regum Britanniœ2 are precipitated by Shakespeare abruptly after the battle, and all other changes in plot including the outcome of the battle are, according to Muir, the result of this one difference in the time frame. Irving Ribner argues from a different circumstance: international relations. According to Ribner, from at least 1588 on, a foreign invasion was too threatening to...
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Adelman, Janet. “Suffocating Mothers in King Lear.” In Suffocating Mothers: Fantasies of Maternal Origin in Shakespeare's Plays, Hamlet to The Tempest, pp. 103-29. New York: Routledge, 1992.
Illustrates the theme of maternal sexuality and its resulting conflict in King Lear.
Battenhouse, Roy, ed. Shakespeare's Christian Dimension: An Anthology of Commentary, pp. 462-69. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994.
Reprints two essays on the religious aspects of King Lear.
Cox, Catherine S. “‘An excellent thing in woman’: Virgo and Viragos in King Lear.” Modern Philology (November 1998): 143-57.
Contends that Shakespeare's representation of females reflected both the Christian and secular assumptions of his time.
Gardner, Helen. “King Lear (1967).” In King Lear: Critical Essays, edited by Kenneth Muir, pp. 251-74. New York: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1984.
Outlines the distinctive characteristics of King Lear in relation to Shakespeare's other works.
Hawkes, Terence. “Reason and Madness: Male and Female.” In William Shakespeare: King Lear, pp. 32-40. Plymouth, United Kingdom: Northcote House Publishers, 1995.
Compares rationality and...
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