King Lear is widely regarded as one of Shakespeare's finest artistic achievements. Set in ancient Britain, the dark tragedy centers upon the foolish and ultimately destructive actions of a delusional king, who demands a display of love from his three daughters before dividing his kingdom among them. When his youngest daughter Cordelia refuses to take part in this empty ceremony, Lear banishes her, leaving her devious elder sisters Goneril and Regan to plot his overthrow. In the end, Lear realizes his misjudgment and dies holding the body of Cordelia, who has returned from France to fight for him. Since its introduction, King Lear has confounded audiences and scholars with its seemingly hopeless conclusion. For more than a century an alternative version of the play, with a more optimistic ending, was performed in its place. Shakespeare's original version was restored to the stage in the nineteenth century, and has since been widely performed and studied. Critics such as Helen Gardner (see Further Reading), who called King Lear “the most universal and profound of Shakespeare's plays,” have continued the process of explicating this complex drama. Others have attested to the extraordinary magnitude of scholarly interest in the work, including Richard Levin, whose 1997 study surveys recent feminist, new historical, and Marxist critical approaches to the play.
Shakespeare's delineation of character has long been a central component of scholarship regarding King Lear, with a majority of interest directed toward Lear and his daughters, especially Cordelia. Focusing on Lear and the subject of his madness, Josephine Waters Bennett (1962) demonstrates how Shakespeare deepened and intensified his tragic theme by shifting attention toward the internal conflict of the play's protagonist as he loses his sanity. Arthur Kirsch (1988) focuses on religious, specifically Christian, elements in the characters of King Lear. Kirsch concentrates on the figures of Lear and Cordelia, and examines their relation to motifs of love, suffering, and death. Michael Holahan (1997) focuses his inquiry on Cordelia, observing the ways in which she contributes to the process of “aesthetic closure” in the drama and analyzing her significant role in effecting change in the figure of Lear. In a break from more traditional criticism, feminist critic Carol Rutter (see Further Reading) looks to the expanded possibilities of character interpretation of Lear's daughters offered by stage performance. Rutter observes that conventional understandings of Goneril, Regan, and Cordelia have been constrained by patriarchal assumptions that generally fail to allow these figures more than stereotypical and superficial qualities.
Although not well-received in Shakespeare’s day, King Lear has gained popularity on the stage, especially since the twentieth century. In a review of the 2001 production of King Lear at the Globe Theatre, Heather Neill admires director Barry Kyle's directness and clarity in presenting the drama in both its bleak and humorous dimensions. Studying the same production, Stanton B. Garner, Jr. contends that the outdoor venue was quite detrimental to the production, which he faults for overemphasizing the comic effects and blunting the tragic atmosphere of Shakespeare's drama. In contrast, Richard Hornby calls Kyle's production the “salvation of the 2001 Globe season,” and offers complimentary assessments of both Julian Glover's robust Lear and Kyle's seamless direction and elegant use of theatrical space. Bruce Weber evaluates the 2001 international, multilingual, and deconstructive production of King Lear by the Belgian troupe Needcompany in Brooklyn. Weber finds director Jan Lauwers's energetic obliteration of theatrical conventions in regard to language and character compelling, if not completely satisfying. Matt Wolf comments on Jonathan Kent's 2002 staging of the drama at King's Cross for the Almeida Theatre in London. Wolf contends that the roaring aural effects and expressionistic lighting threatened to unbalance the production, but praises the cast, especially Oliver Ford Davies as King Lear. Critic Katherine Duncan-Jones also examines Kent’s production and praises the cast, including Davies's sympathetic if thoughtless Lear, but found Kent's design choices sometimes excessive. Overall, Duncan-Jones deems the “fast-moving” production, despite minor flaws, a significant one. John Stokes concurs, citing the emotional rendering of Lear's collapse into insanity as a central component of Kent's modern, yet “deeply humane” stage interpretation.
Thematic criticism of King Lear in the late twentieth century suggests a confluence of new and old critical traditions. Many recent commentators have continued to explore the drama in terms of A. C. Bradley's influential, early twentieth-century analysis, which privileged themes of suffering and redemption in the drama. Others have sought to apply contemporary poststructuralist and new historical methods to the work by uncovering ambiguities embedded in its rich, evocative language and archaic sources. In line with Bradley, Michael Goldman (1972) highlights a pattern of accumulated suffering in King Lear. Similarly, Edward Pechter (1978) analyzes the role of punishment, vengeance, and pain in the drama's subplot involving Gloucester, a nobleman loyal to Lear who suffers the cruelty of his bastard son Edmund just as Lear endures the wickedness of Goneril and Regan. Far from recapitulating Bradley's assessment, however, Pechter questions whether Gloucester and Lear achieve redemption in the drama. Considering the related topics of source material and theme, F. D. Hoeniger (1974) comments on the stark, primitive, and brutal form and meaning of King Lear, while Howard Felperin (1977) contends that the drama defies reductive analysis precisely because it manipulates the traditional models of tragedy that preceded it. James L. Calderwood (1986) remarks on the principal of “uncreation”—the movement from order to chaos—in King Lear, and contends that those seeking traditional closure or a cathartic resolution to the play are unlikely to find it. Finally, Lyell Asher (2000) studies the motif of lateness in King Lear, maintaining that Shakespeare's use of this motif compounds the tragedy and sense of hopelessness in the play.