eNotes Lesson Plan
Introductory Lecture and Objectives
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.
Instructional Focus: Teaching With an eNotes Lesson Plan
This eNotes lesson plan is designed so that it may be used in numerous ways to accommodate ESL students and to differentiate instruction in the classroom.
Student Study Guide
• The Study Guide is organized for an act-by-act study of the play. Study Guide pages may be assigned individually and completed at a student’s own pace.
• Study Guide pages may be used as pre-reading activities to preview for students the vocabulary words they will encounter in reading each act and to acquaint them generally with its content.
• Before Study Guide pages are assigned, questions may be selected from them to use as short quizzes to assess reading comprehension.
• Study Guide vocabulary lists...
(The entire section is 951 words.)
Essay and Discussion Questions
1. Describe what we learn about Lear’s character over the course of the play. What are his flaws? How does he change?
2. Lear describes himself as ready “to shake all cares and business from our age, / Conferring them on younger strengths while we / Unburdened crawl to death.” What does this declaration reveal about his attitude towards his responsibilities and power as king?
3. Cordelia refuses to give Lear a flowery public assurance of her love; her response to Lear’s love test is “Nothing.” Lear encourages her to expand upon her words: “Nothing will come of nothing,” he says. How does this idea recur throughout the play, and what does it mean?...
(The entire section is 565 words.)
Act One, Scene One
Apollo: Greek/Roman mythology sun god
benison: a blessing
champaigns riched: rich and open countryside
durst: archaic dared
Hecate: Greek mythology goddess of witchcraft and the moon
inflamed: glowing, ardent
Jupiter: Roman mythology supreme god
liege: a lord
mar: to spoil
meads: archaic meadows
miscreant: a villain
moiety: archaic a half; a part or portion
(The entire section is 701 words.)
Act One, Scene Two
abominable: detestable, loathsome
anon: archaic soon
auricular assurance: hear for yourself
base: low-born, unworthy
casement: a window
closet: a private room
compounded: archaic had sex
fain: archaic willingly, obligingly
fops: weak fools
forbear: to be patient; to hold back, to restrain oneself
honest madam’s issue: a legitimate child
moonshines: archaic months...
(The entire section is 497 words.)
Act One, Scenes Three, Four, and Five
abatement: a reduction
carp: to complain
clotpoll: an idiot
coxcomb: a fool’s headgear with a crest like a cock’s comb
crab: sour crab apple
darkling: in the dark
dotage: foolish old age
epicurism: a philosophy of pleasure seeking
event: the outcome
forsooth: in truth
gall: archaic bitterness
Jug: slang generic name for a prostitute
kibes: inflamed heels
kite: a scavenger bird
knave: a tricky and deceitful fellow; a servant
perforce: by necessity,...
(The entire section is 644 words.)
Act Two, Scene One
alarumed: archaic stirred
bewray: archaic to expose
capable: able to inherit
ear-kissing arguments: rumors
ghasted: archaic frightened
moon: (in context) Hecate, the goddess of the moon and of witchcraft
office: role, function, task
parricides: the killings of parents
1. How does Edmund get wounded? How does Gloucester react, and what does he bestow upon Edmund?
Edmund wounds himself but claims that Edgar did it. Gloucester is enraged...
(The entire section is 219 words.)
Act Two, Scene Two
Ajax: Greek mythology a great warrior known for stupidity
a-twain: in two
beguiled: deceived; seduced, wooed
carbonado: a slash on the diagonal
carbuncle: an infected boil of the skin
fleshment: excitement of first success
halcyon: a kingfisher bird
jakes: a toilet
Juno: Roman mythology wife of Jupiter
obscured course: a disguise, a secret purpose
o’erwatched: overtired, worn...
(The entire section is 656 words.)
Act Three, Scenes One, Two, and Three
Albion: ancient name for Great Britain
caitiff: archaic a villain, a wretch
cataracts: downpours, floods
cocks: weathervanes in the form of roosters
court holy-water: flattery
courtesan: a courtier’s mistress
cutpurses: archaic thieves, pickpockets
fie: an exclamation of distaste or outrage
germens: archaic seeds
heretics: religious dissenters
holla: to shout to
out-jest: distract with jokes
pudder: a tumult, a commotion
simular: a pretender...
(The entire section is 479 words.)
Act Three, Scene Four
Athenian: a person from Athens, Greece; a philosopher
bide: to endure
fathom: about six feet
greater malady: mental suffering
importune: to urge
i’th’mouth: archaic face to face
light of ear: interested in gossip and rumor
lopped and windowed: full of holes
out-paramoured: had more lovers than
pelican: a symbol of filial cruelty
pillicock/pillicock-hill: slang male and female genitals
plackets: openings in skirts; slang vaginas
ratsbane: rat poison
(The entire section is 434 words.)
Act Three, Scenes Five, Six and Seven
angler: a fisherman; a thief
bobtail tyke: a dog with a short tail
Dover: a port on the south coast of Britain
festinate: hasty, quick
Frateretto: the name of a devil
horn: a vessel for drinking carried by beggars
intelligent party: an informer
litter: a vehicle containing a bed
pinion: to bind
post: travel swiftly
quicken: to come to life
ravish: to pluck
sessa: a cry of encouragement used in hunting
(The entire section is 467 words.)
Act Four, Scenes One and Two
distaff: a spindle for weaving, symbolic of womanhood
mistress: ruler, lover
musters: troop gatherings
‘pparel (apparel): clothing
prove effects: be fulfilled
services: sexual services
venge: to avenge
wanton: unruly, immoral
(The entire section is 493 words.)
Act Four, Scenes Three and Four
ado: a fuss
colours: military banners
darnel: a weed
descry: to discover
fumiter: a weed
hemlock: a plant with lethal properties of sedation
oeillades: archaic amorous looks
preparation: ready military force
rank: excessively vigorous in growth
remediate: to heal
unpublished virtues: secret powers
1. Scene Three opens at the French encampment near Dover. Whom...
(The entire section is 306 words.)
Act Four, Scene Five
ague-proof: immune to fever and sickness
a-height: on high
apothecary: a preparer of drugs or perfumes
ballow: a cudgel
bark: a small ship
beadle: an officer of the law
brown bills: long-handled weapons or soldiers who carry them
centaurs: mythical creatures, symbolic of lust
challenge: written challenge to a duel
choughs: birds in the crow family
clout: archery target
costard: archaic a human head
crow-keeper: a scarecrow
Cupid: Roman mythology god of love, usually blind...
(The entire section is 693 words.)
Act Four, Scene Six
flakes: locks of hair
o’erpaid: already more than enough
rogues: destitute vagabonds
settling: calmness of the mind
temperance: moderation, self-restraint
wheel of fire: a torture for the damned in hell
wind up: to tune, as an instrument
1. As the scene opens, Cordelia speaks with Kent, who is still in disguise. What does Cordelia suggest to him that he decides against?
She suggests he change out of the clothes he has worn while in disguise, but he states that he is not yet ready to have his identity known....
(The entire section is 250 words.)
Act Five, Scenes One and Two
ancient of war: experienced army officers
familiar: sexually intimate
father: general way to address an old man
host: a shelter
know the riddle: to see through a trick
miscarry: to lose the battle
ope: archaic open
1. Edmund and Regan expect to see someone as they enter the British camp near Dover, but the individual is not there. Who is missing, and what are their speculations about this person’s absence?...
(The entire section is 294 words.)
Act Five, Scene Three
arraign: to bring to trial
banns: archaic an announcement of intent to marry
bespoke: spoken for
canker-bit: eaten away by grubs
cast down: defeated
cup: painful experience
dame: a woman
enjoy: have sexual relations as between wife and husband
falchion: a curved sword
full-flowing stomach: anger
gilded butterflies: overindulgent courtiers
gored: pierced or stabbed
interlude: a short comic...
(The entire section is 699 words.)
Multiple-Choice Test and Answer Key
1. Which character or characters are key in the play’s subplot, which parallels and informs the main plot?
C. Kent and Edmund
D. Gloucester, Edmund, and Edgar
E. Gloucester and Kent
2. Lear indicates that he is ready to give up the throne, but what does he want that reveals his continued desire for the trappings of royalty?
A. He wants to keep Kent as his liege.
B. He wants to keep his castle so that he doesn’t have to live with his daughters.
C. He wants to keep one hundred knights and squires.
D. He wants to keep his...
(The entire section is 2005 words.)
Essay Exam Questions With Answers
1. Describe the importance of the subplot in King Lear; select and analyze at least two scenes that show how the subplot heightens the central themes of the play.
The subplot that revolves around Gloucester, Edmund, and Edgar intensifies themes at the core of King Lear. Gloucester’s character and the development of the subplot parallel Lear’s character and the development of the plot of the drama. Both Gloucester and Lear must contend with self-interested children who essentially want them to die, just as each rejects the child that truly loves him. Both characters exemplify folly; each makes errors in judgment due to flaws in his own character which bring about tragic results. Lear is deprived of the...
(The entire section is 2754 words.)