King Lear, written circa 1605-06, is considered by many to be Shakespeare’s darkest tragedy. The play is set in the early history of Britain and centers upon the foolish and ultimately destructive actions of a delusional king. As the play opens, Lear demands a display of love from his three daughters before dividing his kingdom among them. His youngest daughter Cordelia, though loyal, refuses to take part in this empty ceremony and Lear banishes her. Cordelia's devious sisters, Regan and Goneril, plot to dethrone the king and drive him from the kingdom. In the end, Lear realizes his misjudgment and dies holding the body of Cordelia who has returned to fight for him. Likewise, Gloucester, who is the central figure in the play’s subplot, is betrayed by his illegitimate son Edmund who is attempting to oppose the legitimate heir Edgar. In the course of the play, Lear is driven mad and Gloucester blinded. Since it's introduction, King Lear has confounded audiences and scholars with its dark, seemingly hopeless conclusion. In fact, for more than a century an alternative version of the play, with a more uplifting ending, was often performed; it wasn't until the 1820s that Shakespeare's original version was restored to the stage. Modern scholarship on King Lear is typified by a focus on the meaning of Shakespeare's ending, the application of new gender theory, and the influence of social history.
Scholars have applied their emerging understanding of Elizabethan society aggressively to Shakespearian studies; the resulting scholarship on King Lear varies widely in focus. For instance, in her 1996 essay, Cristina León Alfar challenges the extensive body of existing gender theory on King Lear. Focusing on Goneril and Regan, Alfar maintains that rather than representing evilness and the antithesis of prescribed female attributes, Goneril and Regan look out for their own interests effectively in the patrilineal society in which they exist. She argues that critics would not find fault with these characters if they were male, thus reflecting a double standard in the academic community which Shakespeare did not necessarily share. David Margolies (see Further Reading) states that King Lear is about society and a new social order in which the individual played an increasingly powerful role. Margolies outlines the dichotomy between characters who represent traditional and conventional ways of thinking, such as Lear, Edgar, Kent, and Gloucester, and those who promote the emerging political philosophy of individualism and personal advantage, such as Goneril, Regan, Cornwall, and Edmund. Margolies argues that by exaggerating the differences between these two types, Shakespeare heightened the conflict and focused attention on changing roles. Considering King Lear's relation to the transfer of power from Queen Elizabeth to James I, William Zunder (1997) argues that Shakespeare was concerned with the politically troubling times of the early seventeenth century. Zunder believes that Lear's behavior is a commentary on aristocracy and the monarch and that the play spotlights the tension between the former feudal order, as represented by Gloucester and Lear, with the new social order characterized by Edmund. Jerald W. Spotswood (1998) addresses the play’s radical transition in social structure. He maintains, in opposition to earlier scholarship, that in King Lear Shakespeare did not describe, and thus promote, a society in which authority is subverted and the social order inverted. Rather, like other Renaissance drama, the play reflects a transition in which previously held beliefs about inheritance and elitism were questioned but class distinctions were maintained.
Other scholars have focused on the language and structure of King Lear. In his 1997 essay, Brian Crick writes candidly about the complexity of the play and its baffling conclusion. He admits that while attempting to explain King Lear to university undergraduates he suffered a crisis of faith, doubting his own mastery of the play. Through his exploration of the relationship between Lear and Cordelia, Crick attempts to regain his comprehension. Douglas Burnham (2000) studies the nature of narrative, theoretically outlining its characteristics and applying them to King Lear. He argues that the nature of narrative, which aims to create order from chaos, is essential to comprehending this play. Paul W. Kahn (2000) maintains that in King Lear, Shakespeare explored the mutually exclusive nature of love and power. He critiques the opening scene, arguing that the love trial is, in fact, a political trial. Such literary critics as William Zak (1984) and Thomas Kennedy (1999) are fascinated by the relationship of Shakespeare's version of King Lear to other sources. Both scholars contend that Shakespeare based his play on The True Chronicle History of King Leir (c. 1588). Zak states that Shakespeare demonstrated that suffering does not always lead to wisdom while Kennedy argues that Shakespeare placed spiritual values over material circumstances.