Study Guide

King Lear

by William Shakespeare

King Lear Essay - King Lear (Vol. 83)

King Lear (Vol. 83)


King Lear

For further information on the critical and stage history of King Lear, see SC, Volumes 2, 11, 31, 46, 61, and 72.

King Lear (c. 1605-06) is widely regarded as one of Shakespeare's finest artistic achievements and is also considered by many to be his darkest tragedy. Set in ancient Britain, the plot centers upon the foolish and ultimately destructive actions of a delusional king who demands a display of love from his three daughters before dividing his kingdom among them. When his youngest daughter Cordelia refuses to take part in the empty ceremony, Lear banishes her, leaving her devious elder sisters Goneril and Regan to plot his overthrow. In the end, Lear realizes his misjudgment and dies holding the dead body of Cordelia, who is killed after she returns from France to fight for her father. Gloucester, the central figure of the play's subplot, is betrayed by his illegitimate son Edmund, blinded, and sent into the wilderness to die. Since its introduction, King Lear has confounded audiences and scholars with its seemingly hopeless conclusion. Critics remain divided on Shakespeare's intended message: while some commentators view King Lear as representing a pessimistic vision of life, others contends that the play contains an explicit message of hope and redemption. King Lear was not popular on the stage in Shakespeare's day. For more than a century an alternative version of the play, with a more optimistic ending, was performed in its place. Shakespeare's original version was restored to the stage in the mid-nineteenth century, however, and it is now one of Shakespeare's most popular plays in performance.

Shakespeare's delineation of character has long been a central component of scholarship regarding King Lear, particularly the characterization of the title figure. Terence Hawkes (1995) focuses on verbal and non-verbal communication in King Lear, contending that the play reveals a significant change in Lear's character through his movement from understanding only “explicit verbal statement” at the play's beginning to his ability to note unspoken emotions and ideas in the play's final scene. Stephen Booth (1983) illustrates how the audience's original evaluations of the characters in King Lear are thrown into question by later events, a process that mirrors Lear's misjudgment of his daughters. Examining both Lear and Gloucester, Lawrence Rosinger (1968) notes their parallel development in King Lear, pointing out that both characters initially treat others as a means of achieving self-gratification, but are able to express compassion for others by the play's end. Richard Knowles (1999) attempts to uncover Cordelia's motivation to return from France to her native country, which causes her to “lose everything, including her life,” and suggests that Shakespeare left her unexplained return purposefully ambiguous in order to enhance the play's dramatic impact.

Critics have questioned whether King Lear can be successfully staged throughout its performance history. Various issues have made this play a challenge for the stage, including its vastness and complexity as well as the difficulty in representing such elements as the character of Lear, the blinding of Gloucester, and the storm scene. Nonetheless, the play continues to be produced on a regular basis and remains one of Shakespeare's most frequently performed plays in the twenty-first century. Jonathan Miller's 2002 Stratford Festival of Canada production of King Lear drew considerable attention because of the appearance of international film and theater star Christopher Plummer in the title role. John Bemrose (2002) contends that Plummer's portrayal of Lear was “the performance of his life.” Reviewing the same production, Ben Brantley (2002) compliments the clarity, intimate tone, and quick pace of the production, but also reserves his highest praise for Plummer's Lear. In his negative review of the 2000 Alabama Shakespeare Festival staging of the play, Craig Barrow (2000) maintains that the production was weak overall and faults Barry Boys's performance as Lear, noting that the actor was “unable to communicate Lear's painful journey through madness to wisdom.” Lois Potter (2002) favorably reviews the 2001 staging of King Lear at the Globe Theatre, commenting that the production “generally felt ‘right,’ both simple and to the point.”

The controversy over the meaning of the ending of King Lear—whether it represents a negative or positive vision of life—is a major source of critical commentary. Sears Jayne (1964) advocates a pessimistic reading of King Lear, focusing on the lack of charity among the characters. Jayne views the play as an expression of “the desperate need which human beings have for each other, and their paradoxical inability to satisfy that need.” Taking an opposite view, Michael Edwards (2000) disagrees with critics who view King Lear as an expression of a godless existence, contending that the play is “an eminently Christian work” that dramatizes human imperfection and the possibility of redemption. In another Christian reading of the play, Cherrell Guilfoyle (1990) finds a message of Christian redemption in King Lear and contends that several figures in the play assume Christ-like qualities. Jonathan Dollimore (1984) argues against both Christian and humanist interpretations of King Lear, noting that “the play concludes with two events [the deaths of Cordelia and Lear] which sabotage the prospect of both closure and recuperation.” Scholars have also studied the unique dramatic structure of the play's ending. Alan Rosen (2001) examines the unconventional dramatic form of King Lear, particularly the appearance of the climax early in the play instead of at the end, where it traditionally occurs. June Schlueter (1995) discusses the conclusion of King Lear, noting that the play “both embodies and disrupts” literary conventions.

Criticism: Overviews And General Studies

SOURCE: Dollimore, Jonathan. “King Lear and Essentialist Humanism.” In William Shakespeare's King Lear, edited by Harold Bloom, pp. 71-83. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1987.

[In the following essay, originally published in 1984, Dollimore argues against Christian and humanist interpretations of King Lear, noting that “the play concludes with two events [the deaths of Cordelia and Lear] which sabotage the prospect of both closure and recuperation.”]

When he is on the heath King Lear is moved to pity. As unaccommodated man he feels what wretches feel. For the humanist the tragic paradox arises here: debasement gives rise to dignity and at the moment when Lear might be expected to be most brutalised he becomes most human. Through kindness and shared vulnerability humankind redeems itself in a universe where the gods are at best callously just, at worst sadistically vindictive.

In recent years the humanist view of Jacobean tragedies like Lear has been dominant, having more or less displaced the explicitly Christian alternative. Perhaps the most important distinction between the two is this: the Christian view locates man centrally in a providential universe; the humanist view likewise centralises man but now he is in a condition of tragic dislocation: instead of integrating (ultimately) with a teleological design created and sustained by God, man grows to consciousness in a universe which thwarts his deepest needs. If he is to be redeemed at all he must redeem himself. The humanist also contests the Christian claim that the suffering of Lear and Cordelia is part of a providential and redemptive design. If that suffering is to be justified at all it is because of what it reveals about man's intrinsic nature—his courage and integrity. By heroically enduring a fate he is powerless to alter, by insisting, moreover, upon knowing it, man grows in stature even as he is being destroyed. Thus Clifford Leech, an opponent of the Christian view, tells us that tragic protagonists “have a quality of mind that somehow atones for the nature of the world in which they and we live. They have, in a greater or lesser degree, the power to endure and the power to apprehend” (Shakespeare's Tragedies). Wilbur Sanders in an influential study argues for an ultimately optimistic Shakespeare who had no truck with Christian doctrine or conventional Christian conceptions of the absolute but nevertheless affirmed that “the principle of health—grace—is not in heaven, but in nature, and especially in human nature, and it cannot finally be rooted out.” Ultimately this faith in nature and human nature involves and entails “a faith in a universal moral order which cannot finally be defeated” (The Dramatist and the Received Idea).

Here as so often with the humanist view there is a strong residue of the more explicit Christian metaphysic and language which it seeks to eschew; comparable with Sanders's use of “grace” is Leech's use of “atone.” Moreover both indicate the humanist preoccupation with the universal counterpart of essentialist subjectivity—either ultimately affirmed (Sanders) or recognised as an ultimate tragic absence (Leech). The humanist reading of Lear has been authoritatively summarised by G. K. Hunter (he calls it the “modern” view of the play):

[it] is seen as the greatest of tragedies because it not only strips and reduces and assaults human dignity, but because it also shows with the greatest force and detail the process of restoration by which humanity can recover from degradation … [Lear's] retreat into the isolated darkness of his own mind is also a descent into the seed-bed of a new life; for the individual mind is seen here as the place from which a man's most important qualities and relationships draw the whole of their potential.

(Dramatic Identities and Cultural Tradition: italics mine)

What follows is an exploration of the political dimension of Lear. It argues that the humanist view of that play is as inappropriate as the Christian alternative which it has generally displaced—inappropriate not least because it shares the essentialism of the latter. I do not mean to argue again the case against the Christian view since, even though it is still sometimes advanced, it has been effectively discredited by writers as diverse as Barbara Everett, William R. Elton and Cedric Watts. The principal reason why the humanist view seems equally misguided, and not dissimilar, is this: it mystifies suffering and invests man with a quasi-transcendent identity whereas the play does neither of these things. In fact, the play repudiates the essentialism which the humanist reading of it presupposes. However, I do not intend to replace the humanist reading with one which rehearses yet again all the critical clichés about the nihilistic and chaotic “vision” of Jacobean tragedy. In Lear, as in Troilus, man is decentred not through misanthropy but in order to make visible social process and its forms of ideological misrecognition.


“Pity” is a recurring word in Lear. Philip Brockbank, in a recent and sensitive humanist reading of the play, says: “Lear dies ‘with pity’ (4.7.53) and that access of pity, which in the play attends the dissolution of the senses and of the self, is a condition for the renewal of human life” (“Upon Such Sacrifices”). Lear, at least when he is on the heath, is indeed moved to pity, but what does it mean to say that such pity is “a condition for the renewal of human life?” Exactly whose life is renewed? In this connection there is one remark of Lear's which begs our attention; it is made when he first witnesses “You houseless poverty” (3.4.26): “Oh, I have ta'en / Too little care of this!”. Too little: Lear bitterly reproaches himself because hitherto he has been aware of yet ignored the suffering of his deprived subjects. (The distracted use of the abstract—“You houseless poverty”—subtly suggests that Lear's disregard has been of a general rather than a local poverty.) He has ignored it not through callous indifference but simply because he has not experienced it.

King Lear suggests here a simple yet profound truth. Far from endorsing the idea that man can redeem himself in and through an access of pity, we might be moved to recognise that, on the contrary, in a world where pity is the prerequisite for compassionate action, where a king has to share the suffering of his subjects in order to “care,” the majority will remain poor, naked and wretched. The point of course is that princes only see the hovels of wretches during progresses (walkabouts?), in flight or in fairy tale. Even in fiction the wheel of fortune rarely brings them that low. Here, as so often in Jacobean drama, the fictiveness of the genre or scene intrudes; by acknowledging its status as fiction it abdicates the authority of idealist mimesis and indicates the better the reality it signifies; resembling in this Brecht's alienation effect, it stresses artifice not in the service of formalism but of realism. So, far from transcending in the name of an essential humanity the gulf which separates the privileged from the deprived, the play insists on it. And what clinches this is the exchange between Poor Tom (Edgar) and Gloucester. The latter has just arrived at the hovel; given the circumstances, his concern over the company kept by the king is faintly ludicrous but very telling: “What, hath your Grace no better company?” (3.4.138; cf. Cordelia at 4.7.38-39). Tom tells Gloucester that he is cold. Gloucester, uncomprehending rather than callous, tells him he will keep warm if he goes back into the hovel (true of course, relatively speaking). That this comes from one of the “kindest” people in the play prevents us from dismissing the remark as individual unkindness: judging is less important than seeing how unkindness is built into social consciousness. That Gloucester is unknowingly talking to his son in this exchange simply underscores the arbitrariness, the woeful inadequacy of what passes for kindness; it is, relatively, a very precious thing, but as a basis for humankind's self-redemption it is a nonstarter. Insofar as Lear identifies with suffering it is at the point when he is powerless to do anything about it. This is not accidental: the society of Lear is structured in such a way that to wait for shared experience to generate justice is to leave it too late. Justice, we might say, is too important to be trusted to empathy.

Like Lear, Gloucester has to undergo intense suffering before he can identify with the deprived. When he does so he expresses more than compassion. He perceives, crucially, the limitation of a society that depends on empathy alone for its justice. Thus he equates his earlier self with the “lust-dieted man … that will not see / Because he does not feel” (4.1.69-71; italics mine). Moreover he is led to a conception of social justice (albeit dubiously administered by the “Heavens,” 1.68) whereby “distribution should undo excess, / And each man have enough” (4.1.72-73).

By contrast, Lear experiences pity mainly as an inseparable aspect of his own grief: “I am mightily abus'd. I should e'en die with pity / To see another thus” (4.7.53-54). His compassion emerges from grief only to be obliterated by grief. He is angered, horrified, confused and, above all dislocated. Understandably then he does not empathise with Tom so much as assimilate him to his own derangement. Indeed, Lear hardly communicates with anyone, especially on the heath; most of his utterances are demented mumbling interspersed with brief insight. Moreover, his preoccupation with vengeance ultimately displaces his transitory pity; reverting from the charitable reconciliation of 5.3 to vengeance once again, we see him, minutes before his death, boasting of having killed the “slave” that was hanging Cordelia.

But what of Cordelia herself? She more than anyone else has been seen to embody and symbolise pity. But is it a pity which significantly alters anything? To see her death as intrinsically redemptive is simply to mystify both her and death. Pity, like kindness, seems in Lear to be precious yet ineffectual. Far from being redemptive it is the authentic but residual expression of a scheme of values all but obliterated by a catastrophic upheaval in the power structure of this society. Moreover the failure of those values is in part due to the fact that they are (or were) an ideological ratification of the very power structure which eventually destroys them.

In Lear, as we shall see in the next section, there is a repudiation of stoicism similar to that found in Marston's Antonio's Revenge. Yet repeatedly the sceptical treatment, sometimes the outright rejection, of stoicism in these plays is overlooked; often in fact it is used to validate another kind of humanism. For convenience I call the kind outlined so far ethical humanism and this other one existential humanism. The two involve different emphases rather than different ideologies. That of the latter is on essential heroism and existential integrity, that of the former on essential humanity, the universal human condition. Thus, according to Barbara Everett (in another explicitly anti-Christian analysis):

In the storm scene Lear is at his most powerful and, despite moral considerations, at his noblest; the image of man hopelessly confronting a hostile universe and withstanding it only by his inherent powers of rage, endurance and perpetual questioning, is perhaps the most purely “tragic” in Shakespeare.

(“The New King Lear”)

Significantly, existential humanism forms the basis even of J. W. Lever's The Tragedy of State, one of the most astute studies of Jacobean tragedy to date. On the one hand Lever is surely right in insisting that these plays “are not primarily treatments of characters with a so-called “fatal flaw,” whose downfall is brought about by the decree of just if inscrutable powers … the fundamental flaw is not in them but in the world they inhabit: in the political state, the social order it upholds, and likewise, by projection, in the cosmic state of shifting arbitrary phenomena called ‘Fortune.’” By the same criteria it is surely wrong to assert (on the same page) that: “What really matters is the quality of [the heroes'] response to intolerable situations. This is a drama of adversity and stance … The rational man who remains master of himself is by the same token the ultimate master of his fate.” In Lever's analysis Seneca is...

(The entire section is 5310 words.)

Criticism: Character Studies

Lawrence Rosinger (essay date December 1968)

SOURCE: Rosinger, Lawrence. “Gloucester and Lear: Men who Act Like Gods.” ELH 35, no. 4 (December 1968): 491-504.

[In the following essay, Rosinger notes the parallel development of Lear and Gloucester in King Lear, pointing out that both characters initially treat others as a means of achieving self-gratification, but are able to express compassion for others by the play's end.]

One of the most debated passages in King Lear is the brief outburst in which Gloucester accuses the gods of wanton murder. Blind, homeless, and on the point of entrusting himself to an apparently half-mad beggar, he exclaims:

As flies to wanton boys are we to...

(The entire section is 5439 words.)

Stephen Booth (essay date 1983)

SOURCE: Booth, Stephen. “On the Greatness of King Lear.” In William Shakespeare's King Lear, edited by Harold Bloom, pp. 57-70. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1987.

[In the following essay, originally published in 1983, Booth illustrates how the audience's original evaluations of the characters in King Lear are thrown into question by later events, a process that mirrors Lear's misjudgment of his daughters.]

To make a work of art—to give local habitation and nameability to an airy nothing or a portion of physical substance—is to make an identity. I have argued that King Lear both is and is not an identity—that our sense that it...

(The entire section is 5792 words.)

Terence Hawkes (essay date 1995)

SOURCE: Hawkes, Terence. “Something from Nothing.” In King Lear, pp. 52-7. Plymouth, U.K.: Northcote House, 1995.

[In the following essay, Hawkes focuses on verbal and non-verbal communication in King Lear, contending that the play reveals a significant change in Lear's character through his movement from understanding only “explicit verbal statement” at the play's beginning to his ability to note unspoken emotions and ideas in the play's final scene.]

That which is born out of Lear's experience takes us back to the play's beginning. Cordelia's refusal of his world of quantity and calculation had been met by the exasperated proposal that, ‘Nothing will...

(The entire section is 2055 words.)