Frequently described as the most tragic of Shakespeare's tragedies, King Lear relates the tale of a father and a ruler who loses his family and his kingdom. The play's ending in particular fascinates audiences and critics alike, who can reach no consensus on whether the final scene, in which Lear follows his daughter Cordelia in death, is meant to impart a sense of hopelessness, chaos, and despair, or affirm the existence of love and hope in the world. First performed in 1606 for the court of King James I, critics speculate that there were public performances of King Lear prior to this date. It was not performed again in London, in court or elsewhere, unlike many of Shakespeare's other tragedies. The reason for this lack of revival is unknown, although some scholars suggest that the play's depiction of a foolish king and its presentation of the poor as victims of the rich was viewed as too subversive. Although the play was popular enough to be published in 1608, it is also possible that the reason it was not performed again was that the wholly tragic and disheartening ending displeased audiences. In 1681, Nahum Tate wrote a new version of the play which included a romance between Cordelia and Edgar and a happy ending for King Lear. It was Tate's version of the play, not Shakespeare's, that was performed for more than 150 years. By the 1820s, however, Shakespeare's version was restored and in 1838, William Charles Macready reintroduced the character of Lear's Fool, which had been omitted from performances for years.
In fact, the role of Lear's Fool has been the subject of critical debate, especially in the twentieth-century. Unlike the fools and clowns in Shakespeare's other plays, the Fool in Lear is more clearly drawn, possessing an emotional depth foreign to Shakespeare's other fools. Bente A. Videbaek (1996) has observed that Shakespeare's other clowns mainly serve to indicate and illuminate a turning point in the play's action. In contrast, Lear's Fool not only serves as "truth-teller" but also is a truly and deeply sad clown. The critic has further characterized Lear's Fool as "a creature whose whole being is founded on understanding of the human condition and pity for those who cannot cope with the harsh realities of Lear's world." Other critics study the way in which the Fool enhances the tragic mood of the play, or his relationship with Lear. Glena D. Wood (1972) has observed the ironic juxtaposition between Lear's actions and the Fool's words. Wood has demonstrated that the Fool's words and actions precipitate Lear's growth and at the same time increase both the irony and the tragic-comic effect in the play. In analyzing the rhetoric of the Fool, Toshiko Oyama (1963) has maintained that through the Fool's use of logical argumentation in his conversations with Lear, the Fool increases the ambiguity of the play's events and thereby heightens the tragic atmosphere and tension.
Lear and Cordelia have also generated considerable criticism. Each have been studied individually, but critics are equally concerned with the relationship of Lear and Cordelia, as well as their relationships to other characters in the play. Alexander Leggatt (1988) and Phoebe S. Spinrad (1991) are, like many critics, particularly interested in Lear's death and how it should be interpreted. Leggatt has used Gloucester's experience as a way, through contrast, of understanding Lear's own situation. While demonstrating Lear's resistance throughout the play to new knowledge, Leggatt has observed that in the Folio edition of the play, Lear is centered on Cordelia as he dies, suggesting, perhaps, that Lear has indeed learned how much he loves his daughter. In contrast, Spinrad has found little evidence that Lear has learned or demonstrated growth. Despite this lack of evidence, Spinrad has argued, audiences grieve at the end of the play. After stressing that Lear's death defies explanation through traditional dramatic or philosophical theories, Spinrad has concluded that the emotional response of audiences to Lear's death is perhaps generated by compassion. Cordelia's role in the play is often examined in its relationship to the Fool's. Richard Abrams (1985) has examined the theory that Cordelia and the Fool were played by the same actor in early productions of King Lear. Abrams has cited the theatrical benefits of such a doubling of the parts, as the two characters both serve as Lear's "truth-tellers." Mark Berge (1994) also has linked Cordelia to the Fool, arguing that both characters illustrate the play's theme of dramatic irresolution. Lear and Cordelia, as well as Goneril and Regan, are also studied together in another manner—as a family. Harry Berger, Jr. (1979) has explored the psychological motivation behind the rivalry between the sisters and Lear's division of his kingdom and his subsequent treatment of his children. Similarly, Thomas McFarland (1981) has examined the dynamics of the Lear family. McFarland has noted that in contrast to the family situation in Hamlet, Lear's situation is not "flamboyant or unique." McFarland has argued that in many ways, Lear's emotional attitude toward his children is an amplified version of similar emotions other parents might at one time feel toward their offspring. Additionally, McFarland has maintained that the tragic situation is sparked by the tension Lear feels between his role as father and as king.
It is this dual dimension of Lear's character—the fact that he is a king as well as a father—that fuels another area of critical commentary. Margot Heinemann (1992) has stated that too often, King Lear is presented only as a personal, family drama. Heinemann has emphasized the political nature of the play, demonstrating that it is as much about a personal loss of power as it is about the fractured social and political affairs in Lear's kingdom. Janet M. Green (1995) also has focused on a more public, civil aspect of this play, discussing its references to legal issues and to judgement, both secular and divine. Green has observed that the repeated references to legal situations in the play tend to heighten the experiences of "heavenly wrath" and "human cruelty" rather than creating the hope for justice or mercy, thus reinforcing the themes of the play.