Often viewed as Shakespeare’s darkest tragedy, King Lear also ranks among his most famous. It is particularly known for the way in which Shakespeare expanded upon his use of subplot, a technique he experimented with in Hamlet but developed further in King Lear. Shakespeare based the work on King Leir, a play of unknown authorship which was performed in London in the early 1590s. However, Shakespeare’s version introduced many new and unique elements, including the king’s madness and the tragic ending.
As the play opens, we meet Gloucester and his sons, who play a sustained role in the subplot. The action then moves directly to Lear, whom we see ready to divide his kingdom among his three daughters. He plans to give the lion’s share to the child who can most convincingly speak of her love for him. Goneril, the eldest, and Regan, the middle child, offer flowery descriptions of their devotion, and each inherits part of the kingdom. Cordelia, his youngest and longtime favorite, however, is plainspoken and cannot bring herself to say anything but “nothing.” For this, Lear rescinds her dowry and banishes her, although luckily the king of France agrees to marry her. Lear then splits the kingdom between the elder daughters, retaining one hundred knights and squires for his own purposes. Lear also banishes his faithful liege, Kent, who attempts to defend Cordelia. However, Kent dons a disguise and manages to return to Lear’s service.
Soon we learn of the villainous nature of Gloucester’s illegitimate son, Edmund, who plots against his legitimate brother Edgar in a ploy to take all the inheritance. Like Edmund, Goneril and Regan are revealed to be evil, as they quickly move to usurp Lear’s remaining power and authority. Several letters are written by and passed among these villainous characters, which contributes to the play’s rising action, the “tangling” of the plot. As Lear begins to ascertain his mistake with Cordelia, his two disloyal daughters and their husbands deprive him of his retinue, place Kent in the stocks, and ultimately shut Lear out in a terrifying storm as his rage begins to cross the line into madness. Chaotic language and disguise play key roles as the action unfolds. Lear’s fool incessantly jokes and rhymes, but in his confusing observations, he offers insight regarding Lear’s dire situation; also, Gloucester’s legitimate son, Edgar, plays at madness as he takes on the disguise of a beggar, poor Tom.
At the end of Act Three, Gloucester’s eyes are brutally gouged out by Cornwall. Losing his literal sight, he metaphorically “sees” that Edgar, not Edmund, is his true and loyal son. Gloucester may suffer physically, but Lear suffers moral and mental torment. In the remainder of the drama, as Lear flees to Dover to meet Cordelia, who has landed with the French army and hopes to restore Lear’s throne, he descends into a state of madness. The British forces win the battle and take Lear and Cordelia captive.
Eventually, the story’s worst villains become victims of their own evil qualities: both Gloucester’s deceitful son Edmund and Lear’s two eldest daughters are killed. However, truly good characters such as Cordelia also die, making the tragic aspect of the play more profound. As the action concludes, Lear grieves for Cordelia and meets his end. There is some sense of justice in the conclusion of the drama. The worst villains are punished appropriately, and Lear pays a dreadful price for his egotism in the sacrifice of Cordelia. However, the play’s conclusion does not imply that fairness is a ruling principle.
Although Edgar’s accepting responsibility for the realm inspires some hope for the future, it’s clear that he would rule alone, as Kent senses his own imminent death. The fate of the kingdom is uncertain, and justice is not meted out fairly by people or by gods.
The moral bleakness and the degree of cruelty in the play were shocking in its time and remain so even today. When it was performed in the early 1600s, some critics called for the gouging-out of Gloucester’s eyes to take place offstage because of its brutality. This is not gratuitous violence, however, since the play’s action underscores enduring issues about the human condition: Trusting in appearances and lacking insight into human nature can lead to dire consequences now, just as they did in Shakespeare’s day. There are many unanswered questions and no happy endings in the play, but that could be be- cause the author himself felt uncertain about the resolution of the play’s thorny issues. For example, Shakespeare’s original version ended with Albany making the final speech and thus ruling the realm. In another version, Edgar makes the final speech and rules the realm. Today’s readers who may mistakenly perceive Shakespearian language and plot as static or antiquated should take comfort in the idea that King Lear is a dynamic story which inspired even its author to interpret it more than one way.
There are many ways to understand King Lear, literally and otherwise. In 1681, Nahum Tate created a now infamous adaptation of the play. In Tate’s version, which superseded Shakespeare’s for nearly 150 years, the ending is a happy one. Cordelia lives and Lear’s crown is restored by Albany. Additionally, Tate eliminated both Lear’s fool and the blinding of Gloucester and added a love affair between Edgar and Cordelia. Eventually, Shakespeare’s version again became the touchstone, and the way scholars and critics interpret it has varied over time. Lear’s fate can be seen pessimistically, as evidence that there is no divine justice, or optimistically, as proving the redemptive power of filial love. In King Lear, Shakespeare draws us in and defies our expectations, while revealing some of the darkest and most fundamental aspects of the human condition.
By the end of the unit the student will be able to:
1. Identify the subplot and explain its significance in the play.
2. Identify and discuss the primary themes in King Lear.
3. Determine what makes King Lear such a timeless and popular work.
4. Explain how Lear’s relationship to authority and power is central to the plot.
5. Identify examples of sight and blindness, both physical and metaphorical, in the text and explain their significance.
6. Discuss elements of madness and nonsense in the play and Shakespeare’s possible intentions regarding them.