King Lear (Vol. 61)

Introduction

King Lear

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

Cristina León Alfar (essay date 1996)

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 entire section is 10138 words.)

William Zunder (essay date 1997)

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...

(The entire section is 4006 words.)

Josée Nutys-Giornal (essay date 1998)

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...

(The entire section is 9185 words.)

Jerald W. Spotswood (essay date 1998)

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...

(The entire section is 6275 words.)

William Dodd (essay date 1999)

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.]

PREMISE

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...

(The entire section is 18640 words.)

Criticism: Language And Structure

Tamise Van Pelt (essay date 1994)

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...

(The entire section is 4749 words.)

Brian Crick (essay date 1997)

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...

(The entire section is 10026 words.)

Douglas Burnham (essay date 2000)

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.]

A JOKE

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,...

(The entire section is 6464 words.)

Paul W. Kahn (essay date 2000)

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...

(The entire section is 13274 words.)

Criticism: Sources And Adaptations

William F. Zak (essay date 1984)

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 entire section is 11929 words.)

Thomas C. Kennedy (essay date 1999)

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...

(The entire section is 6641 words.)

Further Reading

CRITICISM

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...

(The entire section is 406 words.)