Study Guide

King Lear

by William Shakespeare

King Lear Essay - Lear, King

Lear, King

Introduction

King Lear

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

Questions regarding Cordelia's and Lear's deaths, the nature of the king's insanity, the comic element of the play, and the Gloucester sub-plot have consistently interested scholars throughout King Lear's critical history. Twentieth-century criticism has continued to broaden in scope. Major issues of importance to contemporary commentators have involved gender roles, the relation of the drama to social and economic forces of Shakespeare's time, the patriarchy and its influence on the family and state, and the position of women.

One of the main emphases of modern critics has been to apply historical approaches to the play in order to uncover links between the portrayal of both personal and political power in King Lear and the exercise of both during the reigns of Elizabeth and James. Rosalie L. Colie (1974), for instance, used Lawrence Stone's The Crisis of the Aristocracy, 1558-1641 to illustrate how Shakespeare dramatized the eventual decline of the patriarchy as well as the loss of paternal authority. Investigating the overlap between familial and state politics in the world of the play, Kathleen McLuskie (1985) explored the relationship between power and gender, finding that "insubordination" by female characters results in chaos, since it threatens the balance of power within the family. Several other critics have viewed power in King Lear as revolving around both the political, in the form of the collapse of a sociopolitical state, and the personal, involving the breakdown of an individual and his family. Examining Lear's love-test as a testimony to the king's authority, many scholars have speculated on what it reveals about the allocation of power and love between Lear and his daughters. Some commentators have found Lear's motivation to be solely the transfer of power, calling the test a highly developed, politically shrewd plan for the continued success of the kingdom. Others, however, have maintained that the desire for love drives the king; Stephen Greenblatt (1982), for example, contended that Lear "wishes to be the object—the preferred and even the sole recipient—of his child's love," and uses the test to prove that love. Still another critic, Stanley Cavell (1966-67), proposed that Lear's intense wish to avoid revealing his inner self and his love not only motivates the test, but causes his tragic downfall.

Explorations of gender identity, the role of women in a father-dominated family, and male-female bonding mark other arenas of emphasis for contemporary critics of King Lear. An insightful study by Coppélia Kahn (1986) focuses on the absence of a maternal figure in the drama. Assessing the play from a feminist and historicist point of view, Kahn contended that part of the reason for Lear's failure is that he fights against his own repressed need for a mother figure; according to Kahn, Lear begins to recognize and accept his own vulnerability, dependency, and capacity for love only as his life nears its end. Taking as his subject bonding between men within the play, Peter Erickson (1985) concluded that although Lear tries to counter the loss of his daughters with the fellowship and nurturance of other male characters, these male bonds are "finally a minor resource compared with the unequivocal centrality of Cordelia for Lear." Lear's relationship with his daughters, particularly in light of the patriarchal structure under which they live, has also continued to intrigue modern critics. Analyzing the principle of mutuality (or reciprocity) in the play, Marianne Novy (1984) suggested that King Lear criticizes the powerful rights fathers held over their daughters. As Novy pointed out, Lear abuses his authority over Cordelia, then needs her forgiveness. The balance of the patriarchal structure is subsequently threatened, as the traditional ruler/subject relationship is upset.

The study of the individual women characters in King Lear has become an increasingly important part of the play's scholarship. Considering the moral development of Cordelia, Roy W. Battenhouse (1965) described how her experiences with love inspire her to adopt a more altruistic outlook and cast off her former preoccupation with the self. John Bayley (1981) compared Shakespeare's Cordelia with other versions of her character, including her portrayals in the historical Leir story of 1605 and in Nahum Tate's 1681 version. Finding Shakespeare's Cordelia devoid of a past and existing in a "simple reality," Bayley showed how this depiction contributes to the playwright's emphasis on the matter at hand in the play, rather than on the individual stories of the characters. Expounding upon the natures of Goneril and Regan, William R. Elton (1966) found them to be typical of Renaissance pagans, since they possess an intense preoccupation with the natural and with the self. Elton also proposed that the two sisters were modeled after the Machiavellian villain. Several other contemporary critics have commented on Goneril's and Regan's sensuality as well as their cruelty, and at least one commentator has proposed that they prefigure some of the characteristics of the writings of the Marquis de Sade.

Some of the most suggestive criticism of the play has sought to explore and decipher the meaning behind its references to sexuality. Noting the "unpleasant" manner in which Shakespeare refers to women and sexuality throughout the play, several critics have found the playwright's inclusion of sexuality superfluous, and have speculated that Shakespeare's own repulsion toward sex influenced him significantly during the composition of the drama. Other scholars, however, have found the theme of sex wholly necessary to the tragedy. Focusing on Lear's increasing self-discovery during the play, Paul A. Jorgensen (1967) alleged that the king achieves a greater understanding of human nature through his anatomization of the female body. Studying the negative attitudes displayed toward sexuality in King Lear, Robert H. West (1960) observed that the play exalts, rather than indicts, sexuality and love, creating an impression of awe and mystique essential to tragedy.

Overviews

Leo Salingar (essay date 1978)

SOURCE: "Romance in King Lear," in English, Vol. XXVII, No. 127, Spring, 1978, pp. 5-21.

[In the essay below, Salingar contends that Shakespeare uses elements of literary romance to intensify the conventions of tragic action in King Lear.]

At first sight, there is something paradoxical about emphasising romance in a discussion of King Lear. Romance implies prominently, especially in the theatre, a tale of trials and strange adventures, culminating in a happy ending for the sympathetic characters—so that we can be 'pleased', as Dr. Johnson says in praise of Nahum Tate's adaption of Shakespeare, by 'the final triumph of persecuted virtue'. But, by removing the shock of Cordelia's death and restoring a fortunate ending to the plot, Tate reverses Shakespeare's decision; whereas the latter, in Johnson's words, has 'suffered the virtue of Cordelia to perish in a just cause, contrary to the natural ideas of justice, to the hope of the reader, and, what is yet more strange, to the faith of chronicles'. He has taken a legend familiar to his first auditors from many previous versions, including the old play of about 1590, The True Chronicle Historie of King Leir, and altered the ending so as to show the deaths of Cordelia and Lear just at the point where all previous writers had reinstated them in happiness and prosperity.

Nor, of course, is the ending Shakespeare's only departure from the old spirit of the legend; far from it. From the king's first outburst of wrath, barely a hundred lines after the opening of the play, it becomes evident that we are to witness a tragedy at the pitch of Hamlet, full of 'danger' from the 'fell incensed points / Of mighty opposites', where the protagonists are to impress us by their will and power, not by a simple opposition of goodness and wickedness, and where the action is to stretch this power towards breaking-point. And not merely does Shakespeare conform to expectations about the pattern of action proper to a tragedy by dwelling on the king's downfall from high estate, but he intensifies that pattern, and drastically reshapes the legend, by recalling the sense of overwhelming guilt, the rage and fury, the death-wish, the violent blinding, and the contrasted motifs of fratricidal strife and a daughter's devotion, from two of the prime models of classical tragedy as the Elizabethans knew it, Seneca's two plays about Oedipus. Sidney's tale of the Paphlagonian king and his sons, the source of Shakespeare's innovatory sub-plot, had already been derived from the Theban legend by way of Heliodorus, as the dramatist no doubt realised; in any case, Gloucester's story, reduced as it is at first to the grade of a domestic intrigue, serves to universalise the terrible and the pitiful in Shakespeare's treatment of the king's story; it serves to make the destructiveness lurking in human beings seem inescapable, omnipresent. It is barely imaginable that Shakespeare himself could have devised an artistically congruent happy ending, even after writing his first four acts; but, had he been forced by circumstances to leave the final act to a collaborator, it is impossible to suppose that fidelity to the legend would have produced any effect other than anticlimax.

Nevertheless, Shakespeare was not tied to literary models, nor were his public. Previously, he had followed convention with his tragic plays to the extent of basing them on stories already stamped as tragic, in the sense of leading directly to the deaths of their protagonists, as in Romeo and Juliet, Julius Caesar, Othello and Hamlet (if we assume that his principal model for Hamlet was a play by Kyd on the lines of The Spanish Tragedy, rather than the saga of Saxo Grammaticus and Belleforest). But to turn Lear's story into a tragedy was to break from convention. It does not follow, however, that each and all of Shakespeare's innovations in the narrative would have struck his first public as unambiguously tragic, even within the loosely defined (or, as Sidney said, 'mungrell') category recognised by the Elizabethans. Indeed, the first records of his play describe it as a 'history'. Earlier dramatisations of British pseudo-history infused with Senecanism had been printed as A Tragedie of Gorboduc, or The Lamentable Tragedie of Locrine; and the antiquated, anonymous True Chronicle Historie of King Leir, revived for printing in the wake, presumably, of Shakespeare's new production, had figured briefly in the Stationers' Register for 1605 (though not on the title-page) as a 'Tragedie' or a 'Tragecall historie'. But Shakespeare's play was entered in the Stationers' Register as 'Master William Shakespeare his historye of King Lear', and was published, in the Quarto of 1608, as M. William Shak-speare: His True Chronicle Historie of the life and death of King Lear and his three daughters. With the unfortunate life of Edgar, sonne and heire to the Earle of Gloster, and his sullen and assumed humor of Tom of Bedlam. Apparently the classification of Shakespeare's contribution to the legend was less than self-evident, at least for the printers. If so, there is some excuse for their uncertainty, in view of the many episodes hailing from romance, or romanticised moral interludes, interwoven with the patently tragic new developments in the story. The author of the old play had made a romance out of a folk-tale. The substantial paradox in Shakespeare's treatment is that, having converted the old play into a tragedy, suppressing some of its romantic episodes, he not only kept others for his own use but added fresh details in the tradition of stage romance, unknown to previous versions of the legend and foreign to his previous methods in tragedy. As critics have often noted, the reconciliation between Lear and Cordelia points forward to the tone and central themes of Shakespeare's last plays; but this is far from being the only moment in King Lear where the tragic burden is modified, or complicated, by association with romance.

A number of such associations have been pointed out by Maynard Mack, who seeks to analyse the exceptional resonance of the speeches in King Lear, the way the speakers project themselves as emblematic type-figures as well as individuals, by reference to the mixed tradition of allegory and romance which Shakespeare draws upon to amplify the essential données of his story. One 'archetypal theme' that Mack describes as the Abasement of the Proud King is contained in the romance-parables of Robert of Sicily, which are relevant—as Mack shows—to Shakespeare's play, though not to earlier forms of the Lear legend; in the Middle English version of the romance, for example, Robert finds himself degraded to a fool's costume, is forced to eat with the palace dogs, and is repudiated by his own kinsmen, while an angel assumes his appearance and his throne, until such time as the humbled monarch acknowledges himself 'a fool' before God; (it could be added that this romance theme was dramatised several times in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, on the Continent and in England). More generally, Mack draws attention to the resemblances between incidents in Lear and 'exemplary and emblematic' features of the Tudor moralities: for instance, the king's preparation for death recalls Everyman; changes of costume by Kent, Edgar and the king, connoting changes of status or moral condition, resemble changes of costume in such plays as Magnificence (which also dwells on the polarity between kingship and folly); and there are further echoes from the morality tradition in Edmund's Vice-like role as deceiver, in the imprisonment of the virtuous Kent in the stocks, and in Gloucester's temptation by despair. The significance of these parallels is of course generic, not particular; they bring out a vein of latent or incipient commentary, a pattern of moral interpretation and expectancy which the language and unfolding actions of the play will either break or confirm. And in the play as a whole Mack finds an inclusive pattern, 'the shape of pastoral romance'—the shape, that is, of a plot resembling As You Like It, containing type figures of loyalty and treachery, where, because of enmity between brothers, a ruler and his companions are exiled from 'the world of everyday', and its problems, and exposed to unprotected but natural surroundings, where they see the falsities of the society they have left and undergo 'something like a ritual death and rebirth'; on this reading, King Lear is a pastoral 'turned upside-down', or rather, 'the greatest anti-pastoral ever penned'. I find Mack's reading here strongly suggestive, but possibly too limiting and clear-cut; and 'pastoral', in particular, carries some irrelevant associations. It seems to me that the aspects of King Lear Maynard Mack is concerned with can be better designated by reference to the popular tradition of narrative and stage romances like Apollonius of Tyre, which may be described as 'exemplary', in the sense that they illustrate the watchfulness of providence by showing families cruelly separated, exposed to danger and at last miraculously reunited. This tradition (older, more primitive but more inclusive than Renaissance pastoral) had attracted Shakespeare's interest from the beginning of his career (in the framing plot of The Comedy of Errors) and was to fascinate him at the end. Whereas pastoral focused on social conventions, 'exemplary' romance could appeal to hopes and fears about the enduringness of love and the directing destinies of a lifetime. With this scope of romance in view, it seems to me that King Lear can be described as very largely a romance inverted.

Certainly the old play of about 1590 had shaped the legend into an 'exemplary' romance, demonstrating the benevolence of providence through the trials, adventures and ultimate rewards of the virtuous characters. The playwright drenches the legend in domestic sentiment. Leir's love-test is not, as another contemporary has it, 'a fond needless question, as some use to dally with young children', but the well-intentioned ruse of a doting, recently widowed father, who, although he is prudently warned against 'forc[ing] love, where fancy cannot dwell' (line 76), hopes to trick his favourite daughter into consenting to marry. The playwright treats the rivalry between the sisters as a Cinderella story. And he insists on the Christian piety of his sympathetic characters: Leir in his sufferings is called 'the myrrour of mild patience' (755), and when threatened with murder—an innovation in the legend—he responds with, 'Let us submit us to the will of God' (1656); while his faithful counsellor, Perillus (whose presence is also an innovation), has been praying—with good effect, as the event shows—for the help of a 'just Jehova' (1649). For her part, Cordelia is a diligent church-goer—a 'Puritan' (2577), according to the sarcastic Gonorill,—who similarly prays (2540), with similar success, before the battle engaged on her father's behalf by her equally God-fearing husband.

As William Elton has shown at length, Shakespeare obliterates this Christian piety, not only making Lear and his subjects consistently pagan but overturning the trust in divinity voiced by the old play. And instead of 'mild patience', Shakespeare's king lashes himself into 'noble anger'. The whole spirit of the play is transformed, and several episodes inserted by the earlier dramatist disappear completely.

On the other hand, this transformation lends added significance to those episodes, such as the storm, which Shakespeare takes over from the old play, and to those which he attaches to their common scenario. Instead of divesting his tragedy consistently of association with romance, he not merely borrows his supporting plot from the Arcadia, but introduces fresh incidents related to stage romance, without warrant either from the old play or from Sidney. Very possibly (as F. D. Hoeniger has argued, from the feeling for the primitive in King Lear), Shakespeare had heard the main story as a folk-tale, and had begun to turn it over in his imagination, long before seeing it in the old play or reading it in Holinshed. Such a genesis might help to account, for example, for the startling incrementation of the scenes with Poor Tom and the Fool. In addition Shakespeare had been drawn for some time to the theme of authority within the family, or the clash between love and obedience, in settings as much romantic as tragic; during the ten years or so before writing King Lear, he had created a succession of outraged fathers, abusing, rejecting and even cursing their daughters, in quarrels over their daughter's marriages or wishes in marriage: old Capulet, Egeus, Shylock, Leonato in Much Ado, Polonius, Brabantio. In all six plays (except Romeo, where Shakespeare is following his source-story), the father is a widower like Lear; and in the last four, Shakespeare enlarges or alters the story he is working from so as to emphasise the possessive anger in the rôle. And, within a few years of depicting the reconciliation between Lear and Cordelia, Shakespeare was again to turn, in his sequence from Pericles to The Tempest, to plots revolving around father and daughter, but this time with a changed inflexion, showing the love and innocence of a daughter leading to the salvation of an exiled or a self-deceiving father. King Lear occupies a central place, a turning-point, in the total series of such stories and motifs in Shakespeare, most of them associated with the material of romance. Similarly, the variations of a romance type he added to the Lear legend appear to stem from his distinctive treatment of the salient theme of father and daughter.

Unlike the writer of the old play, Shakespeare builds up Lear's position as a king as well as a father; the authority of age, rule, fatherhood and his own commanding temper are bound together in Lear's mind by natural magic and the sanction of the gods. However, his authority is first challenged by Cordelia's response to the love-test, as in previous versions of the legend. In Holinshed, the youngest daughter's reply has the tang of an aphorism or a riddle: 'assertaine your selfe, that so much as you have, so much you are woorth, and so much I love you, and no more'. In the old play she is direct and dutiful:

I hope my deeds shall make report for me:
But looke what love the child doth owe the
  father,
The same to you I beare, my gracious Lorde.

Shakespeare's Cordelia seems equally direct:

             I love your Majesty
According to my bond, no more nor less;

but, precisely because she invokes the philosophically central conception of a 'bond', her words are charged with a fateful ambiguity. A bond had originally been a fetter of imprisonment (a denotation still active in Cymbeline, with Posthumus's cold bonds'). By conflation with a honomym, meaning peasant or serf, it conveyed the sense of subjection as well as constraint, as in bondman or bondage; this is the twist Edmund gives Cordelia's world in the forged letter where he makes out that Edgar has written: 'I begin to find an idle and fond bondage in the oppression of aged tyranny' (I. ii. 49). On the other hand, bond had also come to signify an agreement or covenant; but even in this sense, which is the most frequent with Shakespeare, it could point in either of two directions, towards alliance or coercion. On one side, the allegedly innocent bond or 'band' between Aumerle and his associates 'For gay apparel' at Bolingbroke's 'triumph day' (Richard II, v. ii, 65), or the 'everlasting bond of fellowship' in marriage between Theseus and Hippolyta (Midsummer Night's Dream, I. i. 85), or 'love's bonds' in The Merchant of Venice (II. vi. 6); on the other side, the specific legal sense (new in the 1590s, according to OED) of a document containing binding obligations. Such are the 'rotten parchment bonds' denounced by Gaunt in Richard II (II. i. 64), and the 'merry bond' referred to more than thirty times in Shylock's play. In Two Gentlemen of Verona (II. vii. 75), Julia fondly believes of Proteus's love that 'His words are bonds, his oaths are oracles'; but she evidently feels that words are less whole-hearted than oaths, and bonds less deserving of faith than oracles. Bonds in this usage imply a possible doubt, requiring a strong assertion to overcome it, as in the proverb, 'An honest man's word is as good as his bond'; bonds may be called sacred, as when Troilus bewails the breaking of 'the bonds of heaven', but in themselves they are merely legal contracts, and to emphasise them in metaphors dealing with love and sincerity implies a secular tone of reasoning, with a glance towards scepticism. Feste, apparently, takes the prevalence of the new, legal sense of the term as a symptom of bad faith and of the disconcerting relativity or ambiguity of language: 'But indeed, words are very rascals since bonds disgrac'd them.

There is something cold and measured, then, in Cordelia's 'bond', and the touch of pique in her father's reproof is understandable:

How, how, Cordelia? Mend your speech a
 little,
Lest you may mar your fortunes.

At the same time, his tone arouses the suspicion that what he reacts to in her speech, though refusing to acknowledge it, is predominantly the implication of 'bondage'. From her side, Cordelia tries to press home the sense of convenant for mutual benefit, and reciprocal but not unlimited obligation:

                Good my lord,
You have begot me, bred me, lov'd me: I
Return those duties back as are right fit,
Obey you, love you, and most honour you.
Why have my sisters husbands, if they say
They love you all?
                                    (I. i. 95)

Cordelia strikes hard at the superstition of authority. She wants a rational definition of love, compatible with freedom. 'Begot', 'bred', 'lov'd': she details in turn the natural or biological ties with her father, the social or familial, and the spontaneously personal. And, unlike her counterpart in the old play, she looks directly forward to spontaneous love in marriage, which will substract 'half the 'love', 'care and duty' demanded from her by her father.

At the equivalent point in the old play, the pious monarch has his single spurt of rage: 'Peace, bastard Impe, no issue of King Leir' (312). Shakespeare's king does not use the word here (though later he abuses Goneril as 'degenerate bastard' (I. iv. 254), but he storms against Cordelia with more terrible violence:

Let it be so: thy truth then be thy dow'r!
For by the sacred radiance of the sun,
The mysteries of Hecat and the night;
By all the operation of the orbs,
From whom we do exist and cease to be;
Here I disclaim all my paternal care,
Propinquity and property of blood,
And as a stranger to my heart and me
Hold thee from this for ever.
                                  (I. i. 108)

He strips his fatherhood of love and social obligation, reducing it to the one ineradicable tie of birth, which he would renounce if he could. He curses Cordelia as if he thought of her as a 'bastard'. He reduces his mental world to the mental world of Edmund, of whose illegitimacy the audience have already heard, by Shakespeare's interweaving of the two plots. The next scene opens with Edmund's invocation to Nature, the 'goddess' to whose 'law / My services are bound' (obligated, confined and directed). This is the first time that Nature is deified in the play, but Lear has already 'bound' himself, without knowing it, to the same 'law'.

Shakespeare's arrangement of these early scenes suggests that his reasons for talking his sub-plot from Sidney's tale of misplaced trust in a bastard son lay very close to his thoughts about the consequences of treating Cordelia as if she were a 'bastard'. In any event, the word base stands out as a repeated motif in the first half of King Lear, a key to Shakespeare's distinctive innovations on the legend; base, meaning illegitimate, ignoble, low, servile, worthless—the negation of all that Lear and his courtiers have believed in. Six times Edmund repeats 'base' or 'baseness' (as well as 'bastard') in his soliloquy, with scornful defiance for 'the plague of custom' and 'the curiosity of nations'—attributes, however contestable, of an organised society. And base is Kent's term of contempt for the social upstart, Oswald (I. iv. 86, II. ii. 16). But baseness recoils, as it were, against Kent, against the other legitimist, Edgar, and against Lear as well. When, after venting his spleen against Oswald, Kent is forced by Cornwall into the stocks, Gloucester protests on his behalf that this 'purpos'd low correction / Is such as basest and contemned'st wretches / For pilf 'rings and most common trespasses / Are punish'd with' (II. ii. 142); the morality-play icon of virtue martyred in the stocks becomes an icon of social transposition, of the confusion of moral values. Kent's championship of the old order has brought him to what seems like the vilest degradation. But, three acting minutes later, Edgar, who is in part Gloucester's victim, will save his life by assuming voluntarily 'the basest and most poorest shape / That ever penury, in contempt of man, / Brought near to beast' (II. iii. 7). Here again Shakespeare's departure from his narrative sources involves a movement towards 'baseness'. And 'baseness' takes on dynamic force in Lear's mind in his decisive quarrel with Goneril and Regan, when, after appealing in vain to the 'bond of childhood' and fuming over Kent's imprisonment in the stocks, he is compelled to listen to the cold logic of his daughters' refusal to harbour his unnecessary retinue:

Return to her? and fifty men dismiss'd?
No, rather I abjure all roofs, and choose
To wage against the enmity o' th' air,
To be a comrade with the wolf and owl—
Necessity's sharp pinch. Return with her?
Why, the hot-bloodied France, that dowerless
 took
Our youngest born, I could as well be
 brought
To knee his throne, and squire-like, pension
 beg
To keep base life afoot.
                                    (II. iv. 207)

Baseness here is the counterpart to his rejection of Cordelia; a few speeches later, Lear's thought of it recalls Edgar:

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.
                                  (II. iv. 264)

It is in this crucial speech, where Lear glimpses, as if for the first time, the possibility, and even the exemplariness, of total destitution, that he begins to echo the high-pitched tones of Seneca's Oedipus, passionate to visit his own guilt on the world around him. In the Thebais, when Oedipus is told of the war between his sons, he cries out (in language heightened further by the Elizabethan translator), not for peace, but for destruction:

Your weapons and artillery for war bring out
 with speed,
Consume with flame your native soil, and
 desolation breed
In ev'ry house within the land; a hurly burly
 make
Confusedly of every thing. Make all the realm
 to quake,
And in exile their days let end; make level
 with the ground
Each fenced fort and walled town: the Gods
 and all confound,
And throw their Temples on their heads; their
 Images deface,
And melt them all; turn upside-down each
 house in ev'ry place.
Burn, spoil, make havoc, leave no jot of City
 free from fire,
And let the flame begin his rage within my
 chamber dire.…

This civil war is nothing like to that which I
  devise:
These trifling broils for such a Sea of harms
  cannot suffice.…
Some heinous Fact, unheard-of yet, some
  detestable deed
Must practised be; as is to me, and mine by
  Fate decreed.…

In Shakespeare's scene, the king contemplates for a moment the 'patience' that had been displayed by Leir in the old play, rejects it in favour of 'noble anger', and throws himself into the strains of Oedipus:

               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!
                                 (II. iv. 278)

In the course of his next sentence, comes the first outburst of Storm and tempest; and Lear will soon be heard, on the heath, commanding the hurricane to 'spout / Till you have drench'd our steeples, drown'd the cocks', and ordering the thunderbolt to 'Strike flat the thick rotundity o' th' world', to 'Crack nature's moulds, all germains spill at once / That makes ingrateful man!' (III. ii. 1-9). Whereas in the old play Leir had been tricked by Ragan into going from her court into the wilderness, the immediate cause of departure in Shakespeare's play is the king's angry choice; and by the same dramaturgical decision, Shakespeare turns from the precedent of the old play to that of Seneca. However, there is continuity in Lear's mind, from thoughts of baseness to annihilation.

Moreover, Shakespeare distances Lear's cursings from any Senecan parallel. 'You think I'll weep', Lear tells his daughters, immediately after uttering threats intended to be terrifying (II. iv. 282);

No, I'll not weep.
I have full cause of weeping, but this heart
                         Storm and tempest.
Shall break into a hundred thousand flaws
Or ere I'll weep. O Fool, I shall go mad!
        Exeunt Lear, Gloucester, Gentleman,
          and Fool.

Lear's curses are hysterical, grotesque and pitiful as well as tragic according to any Senecan model. His tirades are qualified by an awareness of human weakness and folly, in the vein of folk-tales or moral interludes. At the same time, his helplessness, his pathetic exposure, belongs to circumstances of romance, to the pattern of contrast between castle or city and sea or wilderness that recurs again and again in romantic adventures. In Shakespeare's treatment of the story, exposure to the storm seems an answering consequence to Lear's reduction of his moral world to baseness, his exclusion of love and breeding from the 'bonds' contained in Nature; it is a physically extreme and morally devastating exposure, not, as in the old play, merely an unhappy flight. And Shakespeare's thunder is wholly different from the thunder that is heard as a providential signal in the old play. Nevertheless, in all probability Shakespeare owed his first suggestion for the storm scenes to the anonymous earlier playwright, who had been the first among the narrators of the Lear legend to convert the king's journey to Cordelia for assistance into an episode from romance.

Shakespeare brings in reminiscences from romance, also, even where he alters the plot of the old play, or enlarges it. Although King Lear's world is predominantly pagan, for example, there are moments in the play that recall romances of chivalry. Shakespeare dismisses the absurd wooing scene from the old play where the French king and his companion, disguised as palmers, set out in quest of the famed princesses of Britain and, by a happy accident, meet the outcast Cordella; yet he keeps the tone of chivalry in Lear's reference to France and Burgundy, 'long in our court … [making] their amorous sojourn' (I. i. 47), and in France's resounding troth-plight to 'Fairest Cordelia, … most rich being poor, / Most choice forsaken, and most lov'd despis'd' (II. i. 250)—the counterpoint to her father's imputation of baseness. Possibly because of the magnetic influence of the first authority for the Lear legend, Geoffrey of Monmouth, there are passing references to the Arthurian world (through 'Camelot', 'Merlin' and 'Childe Rowland'). And the trial-at-arms between Edgar and Edmund, with Edgar as an unknown champion, is a chivalric episode independent of Sidney's story.

In the old play, Perillus (a new figure in the legend) accompanies his king, but not disguised, like Kent; in Sidney's tale, the legitimate son, cast off by his father, becomes a private soldier, not a disguised beggar, and goes to help his father intentionally, instead of meeting him unexpectedly. As well as recalling the symbolism of changes of dress in the morality plays, the equivalent passages in Shakespeare's play recall the tradition of romances, with their mysterious encounters, concealed identities, hazardous journeys and unexpected meetings. (As a clumsy token of that tradition, there is the episode in the old play where Cordella and her husband, for no compelling reason, dress up as simple country-folk for an excursion to the French coast, where they fall in with and succour Leir and Perillus, after the old men have been robbed of their money and have been forced to pay for their Channel crossing by exchanging cloaks with the mariners.) With the doubtful exception of Titus Andronicus, Shakespeare had not used personal disguise in his previous tragedies (even Iago cloaks his purpose, but not his identity); the employment of disguises, so frequent in King Lear, is a signal of romance conventions.

Concurrently, however, these romance-like disguises contribute to Shakespeare's variation on the theme of the Abasement of the Proud King. In moralities such as Magnificence and The Cradle of Security, changes of costume had served to show regal pride reduced to the status of folly; but there was an alternative theme, during Shakespeare's early career, in the shape of medleys of allegory, history and romance, showing a king mastering his own vices and searching out hidden crimes in his kingdom with the aid of disguise (somewhat like Henry V on the eve of Agincourt). One such play (which Shakespeare could well have known, since it was acted by his then company, Strange's men, in 1592-3) was A Knack to Know a Knave, which has two series of overlapping episodes; in one series, the king learns to govern his own desires magnanimously, while in the other he purges his kingdom of social abuses through the instrumentality of a new servant named Honesty, who has presented himself to the king, unsummoned, as a 'plain' fellow, 'A friend to your grace, but a foe to Flatterers', and who exposes, among others, an upstart, sycophantic courtier. Honesty is both a personified quality from the moral interludes and the mysterious servant-helper from romance; and Kent's rôle follows the same general lines. In view of the prominence Shakespeare gives to Edgar, who has one of the few Saxon names in a cast otherwise British and Norman, it is worth adding that the monarch in A Knack is another Edgar, the Saxon king.

The early Jacobean variant on plays of this type was a group showing the ruler himself as a detective in disguise—plays such as Marston's Fawn and The Malcontent, Middleton's Phoenix and, in particular, Measure for Measure. In his modifications of the Lear legend, Shakespeare recalls the plays using this motif, at the point where the king, after deciding to 'abjure all roofs', begins to equate himself with the 'poor naked wretches' of whom hitherto he has taken 'too little care'. Only, here, the king's adviser is the Fool; it is the representative subjects, Kent and Poor Tom, who are disguised; and the king's pursuit of ideal justice becomes the fantasy of a madman. In traditional romance, the wandering hero may meet supernatural helpers; here, he meets Poor Tom, apparently possessed by devils. The central episodes in Shakespeare's play depend upon the use, and the inversion, of allegorical motifs from romance.

In the reconciliation between Lear and Cordelia, on the other hand, Shakespeare strikes the note of serious romance more purely and fully than in any of his plays...

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Patriarchal Order

Rosalie L. Colie (essay date 1974)

SOURCE: "Reason and Need: King Lear and the 'Crisis' of the Aristocracy," in Some Facets of King Lear: Essays in Prismatic Criticism, edited by Rosalie L. Colie and F. T. Flahiff, University of Toronto Press, 1974, pp. 185-219.

[In the excerpt below, Colie suggests that in King Lear Shakespeare dramatized the deterioration of an aristocratic, hierarchical social order as well as the decline in parental authority during the English Renaissance.]

No; he's a yeoman that has a gentleman to his son; for he's a mad yeoman that sees his son a gentleman before him. (3.6.12-14)...

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Sexuality And Gender

Robert H. West (essay date 1960)

SOURCE: "Sex and Pessimism in King Lear," in Shakespeare Quarterly, Vol. XI, No. 1, Winter, 1960, pp. 55-60.

[In the essay that follows, West explores the complex way that the negative attitudes toward sexuality expressed in the play support a sense of awe and mystery necessary to true dramatic tragedy.]

Critics of King Lear are rather generally agreed that in some sense or other it is a pessimistic play. Johnson, Swinburne, Bradley, Spencer, Chambers, Knight, and many others notice that Shakespeare is here picturing a very dark world, which Cordelia's goodness and Lear's redemption by no means...

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The Daughters

Roy W. Battenhouse (essay date 1965)

SOURCE: "Moral Experience and Its Typology in King Lear," in Shakespearean Tragedy: Its Art and Its Christian Premises, Indiana University Press, 1969, pp. 269-302.

[In the excerpt below, Battenhouse, viewing King Lear as a Christian play, examines how Cordelia's sense of morality shifts during the play through her experiences with love.]

Cordelia, we must recognize, does not initially understand love as forgiveness. Her behavior in the opening scene's crisis, while less gravely faulty than Lear's, is nevertheless allied to his and helps precipitate his "hideous rashness." For she too seeks...

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Further Reading

Berlin, Normand. "Boundary Situation: King Lear and Waiting for Godot." In The Secret Cause: A Discussion of Tragedy. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1981, pp. 87-107.

Attempts to uncover the "secret cause"—what Berlin believes is the essence of tragedy—in both works.

Brooke, Nicholas. Shakespeare: King Lear. London: Edward Arnold Publishers Ltd., 1963, 62 p.

Summarizes the play, addressing plot, poetic language, imagery, and sources.

Burke, Kenneth. "King Lear: Its Form and Psychosis." Shenandoah XXI, No. 1 (Autumn 1969): 3-18.

Suggests that readers take a very...

(The entire section is 615 words.)