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(Shakespearean Criticism)

King Lear

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...

(The entire section is 96,591 words.)