(Shakespearean Criticism)

King Lear

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.

Criticism: Overviews And General Studies

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Levin, Richard. “King Lear Defamiliarized.” In “Lear” from Study to Stage: Essays in Criticism, edited by James Ogden and Arthur H. Scouten, pp. 146-71. Cranbury, N.J.: Associated University Presses, 1997.

[In the following essay, Levin summarizes critical approaches to King Lear from 1960 to 1984, citing Marxist, feminist, and new historicist—as opposed to formalist—interpretations of the play.]

We exist, it turns out, within a single broad universe of discourse and we now have some assurance that the [King Lear] each of us sees is, in some important particulars, the same play.

—Lawrence Danson (1981) 3

Greenblatt's King Lear is, in many ways, perfectly recognizable: good and evil are not in question; … nor is there any question of the human desires that the play engages.

—Jonathan Goldberg (1987) 243

Someone who has not kept up with current critical trends may have to be told that the statement in my second epigraph is meant to be an attack on Stephen Greenblatt's reading of King Lear. There was a time, not so long ago, when the most devastating thing one could say about an interpretation of a literary work was that it rendered the work unrecognizable, but now this is considered a very desirable or even essential thing to do, as evidenced by the number of recent critics who announce that their purpose is to “defamiliarize” or “estrange” the text (no longer a work) by reading it “against the grain” or words to that effect.1 It follows, therefore, that any interpretation that leaves the text perfectly recognizable has failed to do its job.

This complete reversal of the grounds of praise and blame is the result of a revolution in the assumptions about literature and criticism that has taken place in the British and American academy. Before this revolution the field was dominated first by what are now called the old historicists and then by the formalist New Critics, and while these two groups disagreed on many things, they inhabited what Danson, in my first epigraph, refers to as “a single broad universe of discourse” and shared certain basic beliefs: that the meaning of a work is determined by the author's intention; that authors usually want their intended meaning to be grasped by the audience and the audience usually can grasp it; and, therefore, that when a consensus has developed over the years about the meaning and effect of a work, it is probably right and radical departures from it are probably wrong. These assumptions underlie Danson's statement, which is taken from his introduction to a collection of essays on King Lear; he is pleased, and thinks the other contributors will also be pleased, that despite the differences in their interpretations, the play that emerges from them is still recognizable as “the same play”. Since then, however, the newer critical approaches have, in their own terminology, “put in question” these assumptions, which means putting them out of the question, and this has shattered the old “universe of discourse” and led to the opposite viewpoint represented by Goldberg, who censures interpretations that give us “the same play.” The fact that his statement appeared only six years after Danson's is some indication of how fast and how far we have traveled.2

We should not overstate the homogeneity of the period before this revolution, which is a common tendency found both in those who long to return to it and therefore idealize it and in those who reject and demonize it. Although the mainstream of literary criticism was dominated by the old historicists and then the New Critics, there were always some other schools, such as the Freudians and Marxists, operating in the margins. Moreover, in Shakespeare studies (and in other fields as well) each of the two dominant schools had within it an approach—I name them the “ideas-of-the-time” approach and the “ironic” approach, respectively—that opposed the consensus on many plays, usually by arguing that the apparently sympathetic characters are really meant to be unsympathetic.3 We must also remember that no consensus ever developed on the meaning or effect of some of his plays, such as the so-called “problem comedies” (which is why they are so called). But for most of them we did have a general agreement on the two basic points that Goldberg foregrounds: the judgment of “good and evil” in the play and the emotions that “the play engages.”

This was certainly true of King Lear, where the moral status of the characters and the emotions they are meant to evoke seemed perfectly obvious (in fact some critics complained that these are too obvious). Everyone recognized that Cordelia, Edgar, Kent, and the Fool are good people who are supposed to win, and do win, our complete sympathy; that Goneril, Regan, Edmund, Cornwall, and Oswald are wholly evil and wholly antipathetic; and that the protagonists of the two plots, Lear and Gloucester, are not evil but make terrible mistakes and as a result must undergo great suffering, which again evokes our sympathies. The anthologies and surveys of Lear criticism published between 1960 and 1984 show that this basic moral ground of the play was never “in question,” as Goldberg puts it.4 This does not mean that there was no disagreement among the critics. They argued about the motivation of Albany (which involves the problem of the two texts) and the disappearance of the Fool, about the interpretation of difficult scenes such as the initial love test and Gloucester's attempted suicide, about the roles of imagery and allegory, and many other aspects of the play; thematic critics differed on the identity of its “central theme”; and there was a prolonged debate between those who felt that the play presents a redemptive, often Christian, view of the world and those who felt that its view is bleak or even nihilistic, with various intermediate positions. But these disagreements seemed so important at the time only because they occurred within a general agreement on the basic moral values of the play. The “ideas-of-the-time” critics did not claim that the Jacobean judgment of the characters was radically different from our own; Harold Goddard and Roy Battenhouse, probably the foremost ironizers of Shakespeare, did not find any ironic subtext here that subverted this judgment; and Jan Kott's “King Lear or Endgame,” which created such a stir when it appeared, only argued for an extreme nihilistic view of the play's world, at the opposite pole from Goddard and Battenhouse, without questioning the definition of good and evil characters or our emotional engagement with them.

A comparison of Kiernan Ryan's anthology and Ann Thompson's survey of Lear criticism with those published up to 1982 demonstrates that we no longer have this consensus, but we must not assume that all the new readings of the play reject it completely or that they form another consensus. Our present critical scene is even less homogeneous than the old one, since there is no single dominant school. The new hegemony in Shakespeare studies is divided among three major schools of criticism—Marxism, or cultural materialism; feminism; and new historicism—and the situation is further complicated because of overlapping and because some of these schools have gone through important changes or subdivisions, even within the brief period of their ascendency.5 For that reason I will not generalize about the new interpretation of Lear but will focus instead on a number of individual readings selected to represent the most significant trends. I should add that, while I try to present the main points of each reading accurately, it will obviously not be possible in my brief summary to take account of every aspect or nuance of the critic's argument.

The Marxist school of criticism, as I noted, was on the scene long before the recent revolution. During this earlier period, most Marxist Shakespeareans accepted the mainline assumptions about literature and criticism that I described but attempted to relate the plays to what they regarded as the major socioeconomic change of the time, the transition from a declining feudal society ruled by the landed aristocracy to the nascent capitalist society of the rising bourgeoisie. This approach is exemplified in Arnold Kettle's study of Lear, published in an anthology that was the Marxists' contribution to the quatercentenary festivities. He argues that the play presents two opposing concepts of nature—one expressed by Lear and Gloucester that sees nature as an organic whole of interdependent parts, operating on the human level in a “natural” network of reciprocal obligations; and one expressed by Edmund that sees an atomistic nature of warring individuals and regards the obligations of the other view as “unnatural” restraints imposed by convention on our “natural” drive for self-aggrandizement. These two views really are in the play, and Kettle's claim that they correspond to the opposing ideologies of feudalism and capitalism is quite convincing,6 much more convincing than his further claim that Lear's speeches about the plight of the poor and corruption of justice in 3.4 and 4.6 represent a “breakthrough” to a third alternative or “better way” that he calls “humanism” and identifies with “the democratic content of the bourgeois-democratic revolution” (168), which is embodied in Cordelia and affirmed at the end of the play in “a kind of utopian promise” (168, 170).

Someone whose knowledge of criticism is limited to the current trends may be surprised to find a Marxist praising “humanism,” since it is a dirty word in the new Marxist vocabulary, as we will see, but Kettle is following the orthodox line of his day. Aleksandr Smirnov's book on Shakespeare, for example, which bore the imprimatur of what was then the only Marxist regime, asserts that “bourgeois humanism” was a “progressive” or “revolutionary” force and that Shakespeare was the “champion of [its] heroic ideals” but denounced the bourgeoisie when they departed from them, thereby demonstrating “the correctness of [his] basic ideology” (26-27, 92-93).7 Kettle goes him one better by arguing that the “humanism” of Lear “leads him to question the validity of property itself,” so that his “development is not at all unlike that of later seventeenth-century radicals like Winstanley” (167). Thus, although he denies that he wants to “present Shakespeare as some kind of ‘unconscious’ precursor of Engels” (166), that is what he does. But the attempt to co-opt Shakespeare by proving that his beliefs coincide with the critic's was not limited to Marxism, for most of the mainline critics during this period also engaged in it. Thematists found that each play's attitude toward its “central theme” was the same as theirs, ironic critics found that each play's subversive subtext embodied their own values, and this tendency can also be seen in the arguments about King Lear mentioned above: critics like Goddard and Battenhouse who claimed that it presented a Christian, redemptive view of the world clearly shared this view, and Kott saw in it his own skeptical nihilism. Indeed, Kettle's reading is like those of the redemptive critics, except that he gives Lear a Marxist rather than a Christian redemption.

A notable exception to this widespread tendency is Paul Delany's reading of the play. Like Smirnov and Kettle, he bases his analysis on the conflict between feudal and bourgeois values, but he comes to the opposite conclusion, for while he recognizes (unlike them) the complexity of Shakespeare's attitude toward this conflict, he argues persuasively that in Lear the “feudal-heroic values” are espoused not only by Lear and Gloucester, but also by Cordelia, Edgar, Kent, and all the other sympathetic characters, and that the play reveals its author's “nostalgia” for those values and his inability “to reconcile himself with the emerging bourgeois forces” represented by all the unsympathetic characters (439). He also demonstrates that Lear's speeches on poverty and injustice, which Kettle relies on to construct a third alternative, either “view social inequality from the traditional perspective” of an organic, feudal state or else revel in a nihilistic version of society, and therefore do not point toward bourgeois democracy, much less toward socialism (435-36). That presents Delany with a problem of evaluation, since Smirnov and Kettle and almost all other Marxist critics of this period find the value of the play in its “progressive” endorsement of the right (that is, left) side of this conflict, the side of the future; but he confronts this too and argues, in Marx's own terms, that a powerful tragic effect can be evoked by the representation of a declining social order (437). It is an impressive performance, marked by a sophistication and honesty that make it, I believe, the best Marxist interpretation of the play to appear before the critical revolution.

As I already noted, we must not expect that all readings produced after this revolution will break completely with earlier criticism or evolve from it in a simple chronological sequence. Kiernan Ryan's essay, one of the latest we will examine, follows the same basic scheme as Kettle's: he finds that Lear presents the “rival ideologies” of the declining feudal aristocracy and the rising bourgeoisie and a third egalitarian alternative (68), located again in Lear's speeches in 3.4 and 4.6. There are, however, significant differences. Unlike Kettle and Smirnov, he does not relate this third position to progressive elements of the bourgeoisie or to any other contemporary force, but insists instead that it “reject[s] both the waning and the waxing world-views,” since both are grounded in a “class-divided” society (68, 71), and also insists that the evil effects of class division depicted in the play underlie “our own predicament” (66), so his analysis seems to float free of history. He also differs from them in claiming that the “causes” or “main-springs” of the tragedy are these “injustices of a stratified society” (71-73) and that the play gives us a “compelling dramatisation” of this causal connection that “leaves us no choice” but to “seek the implied solution” in the third alternative, a classless society (66, 72). But in fact all the tragic actions involve relations between members of the ruling class, so it is hard to see how they can be caused by class divisions, and it is even harder to see how the play's lesson on the evils of class division can be so compelling when Ryan complains that previous critics failed to notice it (66-67), which looks like a paradox. Actually no one has noticed this lesson except Marxists who already know it and bring it with them to the play. Ryan praises Lear for its educational value, but apparently this is limited to preaching to the converted.

At first glance Margot Heinemann's essay seems to be more historically specific, for much of it is devoted to the relationship of Lear to the conflict between King James and Parliament and to other contemporary issues. But her conclusion is similar to Ryan's, since she states that “the causes of disaster lie” in “the horror of a society divided between extremes of rich and poor,” which is the “central focus” and “central concern” of the play, and that the basic features of this “unjust society” are the same in Lear's world and Shakespeare's and in the England of 1990 (78-79), so they are just as unspecific as Ryan's “injustices of a stratified society.” Her account of the action is just as inaccurate as his, for the initial mistakes of Lear and Gloucester and the suffering resulting from them are not caused by, or even related to, the presence in the society of extremes of rich and poor. Her view of the play's effect, however, is different from his: she denies that it “propound[s] an ideal, simplified, harmonious solution for [its] conflicts” (76), which he claims it does in its “implied solution” of a classless society. Yet this turns out to be only a difference in degree, for she goes on to explain that the play is “demystifying the mystery of state” and so “empowers ordinary people in the audience to think and judge for themselves” about these matters, encourages the “resistance” of “the common people” to injustice, and even suggests “a justified popular rising” against it, through the “subversive” use of the “world upside down” trope (76, 80), so the play is teaching a Marxist lesson after all, although her version of it is vaguer than Ryan's.

My last two examples make a clearer break with earlier Marxist criticism, since they are influenced by the ideas now known as “poststructuralist theory” (or simply “theory”) that reject the old assumptions about literature. Thus in these readings Shakespeare virtually disappears and his activity is taken over by the play or “text,” whose meaning is not determined by his intention and does not reflect his view of society. The critic's focus, moreover, is not on that society but on “ideology” as redefined by revisionist Marxists like Louis Althusser, which means that the play does not simply affirm a set of conscious beliefs but does “ideological work” through strategies of which the audience may not be conscious. James Kavanagh, like most other Marxist critics, sees Lear as a “clash” between the feudal “hierarchical ideology” and the bourgeois “individualist ideology” (156-57), but unlike most of them he places the play on the side of feudalism, which was Delany's view. His analysis, however, is very different from Delany's. He does not account for the play's stance in terms of Shakespeare's feelings, which are irrelevant. More important, he sees the “egalitarian” ideas that emerge in Lear's speeches in Acts 3 and 4 (which Delany, we saw, had to explain away) as an “ideological move” to elicit sympathy for him and to make a “sharp criticism of the anarchic world of isolated, calculating egos that is the feudal ideology's image” of the “bourgeois ethic,” so that the play “appropriates egalitarianism,” which is an “element of bourgeois ideology,” in order to “incorporate” it as a “dominated element of a transformed aristocratic ideology” (157-58). He faces the same problem of evaluation as Delany, since he too locates Lear on the side of the past, but he solves it in a different way by praising the play's “fearlessness in representing … such opposed ideological elements” (159), which is a pretty daring “move” on his part (though he never explains how an inanimate object can be fearless, or why this is a virtue) that helps to make this, in my view, the most interesting of these new Marxist readings.

Jonathan Dollimore's essay also focuses on the play's dominant ideology, but he defines it as “essentialist humanism,” which is the “mystified” belief in an intrinsic and universal human nature. According to him, this is the ideology of the bourgeoisie and is closely related to “Christian essentialism,” the equally “mystified” ideology of feudalism (155-56, 194), so these two world views are not opposed in the play. The real opposition is between any form of essentialism or humanism and “materialism” (that is, Marxism), which is not an ideology, presumably because ideologies involve a “mystification” or “misrecognition” of reality, whereas materialism sees the truth.8 He claims that the play uses the materialist perspective to subject essentialist humanism “to skeptical interrogation” that “demystifies” or “repudiates” it by revealing that “human values” like kindness are “dependent upon” and “operate in the service of” the “material realities” of “power and property” (197-98, 202). Thus his version of Lear also teaches a Marxist lesson, though it is very different from the lesson found by earlier Marxists (in fact, we have come full circle from Smirnov and Kettle, who saw “humanism” as the hope of the future). The problem is that Cordelia, Edgar, and Kent never learn this lesson but go on being kind to Lear and Gloucester after these two men lose all their power and property (Gloucester also risks his life to help the powerless and property-less Lear), while the lesson is already known by Goneril, Regan, and especially Edmund, whose “revolutionary insight” leads him to reject essentialist humanism and so makes him the chief spokesperson for the truth (198, 201). This reading, then, seems to meet the criteria stated by Goldberg in my epigraph: it makes the play virtually unrecognizable by reversing our moral judgments, since the apparently good characters are wrong and the apparently evil ones are right, and by negating our emotional engagement, since we cannot sympathize with those reactionary essentialist humanists (Dollimore stops short of saying we should sympathize with Edmund, who is guilty of a “misuse of revolutionary insight” because he fails to “liberate himself from his society's obsession with power [and] property”—201). In his review of this book, however, Goldberg criticizes it for another reason; he says its analysis is ahistorical since the materialist “revolutionary” anti-essentialism it finds in Lear (and other plays of the period) is “unmoored” from the social context of Jacobean England or even of the succeeding bourgeois hegemony, so “the only revolution” it points to is “the one that Marx predicts and which has yet to arrive” (74-75). And he is right.

Although these new Marxist readings differ in many ways, we can note some general tendencies that most of them share. One is a tension (contradiction?) between their need to be “historically specific” by relating Lear to the conflicts of its own time and their need to be “relevant” by making it convey a message for our time.9 This accounts for the insistence in many of these readings that the social problems presented by the play are still with us, and that the solution for them recommended by the play is still the only solution for our problems—that is, socialism. Most of them, in other words, make Shakespeare or his text a proto-Marxist. They also locate the cause of the tragic actions “beyond the conscious culpability of individuals in the iniquitous structures” of society, as Ryan puts it (72).10 This in itself, we saw, need not seriously alter our judgments of and feelings toward the characters, although it tends to weaken those feelings and our sense of the play as a tragedy.11 Moreover, it confuses a necessary condition with a sufficient cause. The society of the play, where kings and fathers have absolute power, property is inherited, and so on, makes the tragic actions possible, since they could not occur (at least in the same way) in another kind of world, but it does not cause those actions, since other people living in this society do not act in this manner; indeed all the witnesses to Lear's rejection of Cordelia view it as a shocking departure from the norms of their society. Finally, these essays tend to be highly selective in citing evidence. Goldberg complains that Dollimore “raids Renaissance texts; he does not read them” (75), and this is more or less true of the other critics, who seize on those elements of the play that fit their thesis and ignore the others (which is also more or less true of most non-Marxist critics). For example, they discuss at length Lear's attack on the corruption of justice in 4.6 but do not mention his attack on women a few lines earlier, which is apparently not relevant to the Marxist approach, although it is very relevant to the next one we will examine.

Unlike Marxism, the feminist approach entered the critical scene at the beginning of, and as a major cause of, the revolution I described at the outset. Many of the early feminist critics of Shakespeare adopt the methods of New Critical thematism in which they were trained; thus Marianne Novy sees Lear as a conflict between “patriarchy” and “mutuality” that serves the same function as the old New Critical “central themes” like “reason vs. passion.”12 The play presents an “exploration of some behavior that patriarchy fosters in men and women” and an “implicit criticism” of it (150) by showing that it is responsible for Lear's mistakes and by having him learn, through suffering, the lesson Shakespeare is teaching—not a Marxist lesson on the evils of private property and the need for socialism, but a feminist lesson on the evils of patriarchy and the need for mutuality, which is embodied in Cordelia. This analysis leads to some real insights into Lear's psychology, especially his desire to be mothered by his daughters (152-53), and to an explanation of his misogynistic outburst in 4.6 (which the Marxists ignored) in terms of “patriarchal society's split of human qualities” into “masculine and feminine” and his urge to deny and project the feminine in himself by “scapegoating” women (156). Yet her attempt to blame patriarchy for his initial mistakes involves the same confusion of necessary condition with sufficient cause that we found in the Marxists and is open to the same objection—that all the witnesses see his actions, not as normal patriarchal behavior, but as a shocking deviation from it. While her reading does not violate our feelings for the characters, it dilutes them by focusing on the abstract thematic lesson. Indeed she herself shows a concern for this problem that is very rare in thematic criticism:

There is so much sympathy with Lear at the end that it seems cold to turn from feeling with him to any further analysis of the play in terms of sex-role behavior, but … part of the effect of the play is to impress on us the...

(The entire section is 10770 words.)

Josephine Waters Bennett (essay date spring 1962)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Bennett, Josephine Waters. “The Storm Within: The Madness of Lear.” Shakespeare Quarterly 13, no. 2 (spring 1962): 137-55.

[In the following essay, Bennett interprets Lear's internal struggle with insanity as it shapes and defines his character in King Lear.]

An understanding of Lear's madness is essential to any serious interpretation of the play and to any understanding of its structure. Yet critics have not agreed about when Lear goes mad, and almost no attention at all has been given to the dramatic function of his madness. Some put the onset of madness at the entrance of Edgar as Poor Tom of Bedlam in III. iv.1 Others would have it at the...

(The entire section is 11409 words.)

Arthur Kirsch (essay date summer 1988)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Kirsch, Arthur. “The Emotional Landscape of King Lear.Shakespeare Quarterly 39, no. 2 (summer 1988): 154-70.

[In the following essay, Kirsch 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.]

The tragedy of King Lear raises large religious, as well as political and social, questions, and there is a disposition in recent scholarship to treat the play as if it were an argument that gives unorthodox, if not revolutionary, answers to them. Prominent critics have contended that...

(The entire section is 9543 words.)

Michael Holahan (essay date winter 1997)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Holahan, Michael. “‘Look, Her Lips’: Softness of Voice, Construction of Character in King Lear.Shakespeare Quarterly 48, no. 4 (winter 1997): 406-31.

[In the following excerpt, Holahan studies the treatment of literary character in King Lear, stressing the construction and function of Cordelia in relation to Lear.]


Slack and sleeping senses must be addressed with thunder and heavenly fireworks. But the voice of beauty speaks gently: it creeps only into the most awakened souls.1

Twentieth-century theorists have been severe with the notion of literary...

(The entire section is 13044 words.)

Heather Neill (review date 1 June 2001)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Neill, Heather. Review of King Lear. Times Educational Supplement, no. 4431 (1 June 2001): S24.

[In the following review of director Barry Kyle's King Lear at the Globe, Neil admires the “clarity” of the staging and highlights themes of family and political disintegration in the production.]

The Globe is transformed for this first production of the theatre season. A rough plank facing hides the familiar decorated back of the stage, and swags of fairy-lit leaves and twigs are looped around the galleries. The latter add to a sense of occasion, but not perhaps the right one, being too reminiscent of a high street shop window at Christmas. The...

(The entire section is 441 words.)

Bruce Weber (review date 2 November 2001)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Weber, Bruce. Review of King Lear. New York Times (2 November 2001): E6.

[In the following review, Weber evaluates Jan Lauwers's 2001 experimental interpretation of King Lear, noting the production's deconstructive approach to language and summarizing individual performances.]

If poetry is crucial to your appreciation of Shakespeare, you can pass on the King Lear by the Belgian theater troupe Needcompany, at the Brooklyn Academy of Music's Harvey Theater through Sunday.

In fact, those who harbor expectations of any theatrical conventions at all would do well to abandon them before buying a ticket, lest the...

(The entire section is 943 words.)

Richard Hornby (review date winter 2002)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Hornby, Richard. Review of King Lear. Hudson Review 54, no. 4 (winter 2002): 657-63.

[In the following review, Hornby comments on Barry Kyle's 2001 staging of King Lear at the Globe, acknowledging its excellent use of design and blocking, as well as Julian Glover's dynamic Lear.]

The salvation of the 2001 Globe season was the production of King Lear, starring Julian Glover, and directed by Barry Kyle, a former associate of the Royal Shakespeare Company who understands the principles of staging and knows a thing or two about Shakespeare. Designs were by Hayden Griffin, another distinguished professional in his Globe debut. His...

(The entire section is 890 words.)

Matt Wolf (review date 18 February 2002)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Wolf, Matt. Review of King Lear. Variety 386, no. 1 (18 February 2002): 42-3.

[In the following review, Wolf finds Jonathan Kent's 2002 modernistic staging of King Lear at King's Cross generally well-realized, and praises the performance of Oliver Ford Davies as Lear.]

There comes a time in any worthwhile production of King Lear—and Jonathan Kent's largely stirring Almeida production is certainly that—when the sorrowful heart of this mightiest of plays bursts wide open. That moment arrives relatively early in this final Kent staging after a decade co-running (with Ian McDiarmid) the Almeida, to generally thrilling results. (The pair...

(The entire section is 879 words.)

Katherine Duncan-Jones (review date 25 February 2002)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Duncan-Jones, Katherine. Review of King Lear. New Statesman 131, no. 4575 (25 February 2002): 42, 44.

[In the following review of Jonathan Kent's production of King Lear for the Almeida Theatre, Duncan-Jones praises the combined performances—including Oliver Ford Davies's Lear and those of the supporting cast—but laments weaknesses in setting and design.]

King Lear, with which the Almeida Theatre's run at King's Cross is coming to a close, gives the company a last opportunity to showcase the theatrical potential of an old bus depot. Two possibilities must have presented themselves: a primitive Lear, or an explicit “bus depot”...

(The entire section is 666 words.)

John Stokes (review date 1 March 2002)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Stokes, John. Review of King Lear. Times Literary Supplement, no. 5161 (1 March 2002): 20.

[In the following review of Jonathan Kent's staging of King Lear at King's Cross for the Almeida Theatre, Stokes lauds the production's “high aesthetic” style and Oliver Ford Davies's Alzheimer's-informed Lear.]

The actor Tim Pigott-Smith said on the radio recently that one of the greatest strengths of the Almeida Theatre while it has been under the artistic control of Jonathan Kent and Ian MacDiarmid is that it has remained “an actor's theatre”. The word “actor” here was probably in silent opposition to “accountant”, rather than to director...

(The entire section is 1662 words.)

Stanton B. Garner, Jr. (review date 2002)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Garner, Stanton B., Jr. Review of King Lear. Theatre Journal 54 (2002): 139-66.

[In the following excerpted review of Barry Kyle's Globe Theatre production of King Lear, Garner observes that the Globe stage is not well-suited to the tragic elements of the drama, and cites a number of weak individual performances within the drama's main plot.]

Presented with Macbeth and Cymbeline as part of the Globe's “Celtic Season 2001,” Kyle's King Lear is a starkly theatrical interpretation of Shakespeare's vast tragedy. The Globe stage is reduced to its forestage playing area, and the backdrop of its set is built out of weathered...

(The entire section is 970 words.)

Michael Goldman (essay date 1972)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Goldman, Michael. “The Worst of King Lear.” In Shakespeare and the Energies of Drama, pp. 94-108. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1972.

[In the following essay, Goldman argues that King Lear is essentially a play about suffering.]

At the end of IV, i of King Lear, Gloucester directs Edgar to take him to Dover. His words, like so many in the play, seem to have a wide and rich application to its entire action:

There is a cliff, whose high and bending head
Looks fearfully in the confined deep.
Bring me but to the very brim of it,
And I'll repair the misery thou dost bear
With something rich about me.

(The entire section is 4434 words.)

F. D. Hoeniger (essay date 1974)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Hoeniger, F. D. “The Artist Exploring the Primitive: King Lear.” In Some Facets of “King Lear”: Essays in Prismatic Criticism, edited by Rosalie L. Colie and F. T. Flahiff, pp. 89-102. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1974.

[In the following essay, Hoeniger concentrates on archaic sources and themes associated with nature in King Lear.]

There may once have been a King Lear in ancient Britain after whom the city of Leicester was named, and perhaps he had three daughters. But the story about him which Shakespeare retells, both in the form in which he found it and the form into which he cast it, is highly unreal, utterly remote from any...

(The entire section is 6051 words.)

Howard Felperin (essay date 1977)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Felperin, Howard. “Plays within Plays: Othello, King Lear, Antony and Cleopatra.” In Shakespearean Representation: Mimesis and Modernity in Elizabethan Tragedy, pp. 68-117. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1977.

[In the following excerpt, Felperin suggests that Shakespeare's King Lear defies both simple moral and absurdist readings—the two principal modes of mid-twentieth century critical interpretation of the drama.]

The ways in which a play's central interpretive problem arises from specific changes Shakespeare has wrought on his traditional models are particularly clear and traceable in the case of King Lear. At least...

(The entire section is 6677 words.)

Edward Pechter (essay date summer 1978)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Pechter, Edward. “On the Blinding of Gloucester.” ELH 45, no. 2 (summer 1978): 181-200.

[In the following essay, Pechter elucidates a pattern of vengeance, punishment, and suffering in King Lear.]

We are in the midst of a revolution in Lear criticism. Only six years ago A. L. French declared:

I can confidently say that there is a received reading of Lear—‘received’ in the sense that pretty well everyone seems to accept it. It is a reading that reached full explicitness in Bradley … [who] proposed that we should change the title to “The Redemption of King Lear”, because the intention of the gods...

(The entire section is 8636 words.)

James L. Calderwood (essay date spring 1986)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Calderwood, James L. “Creative Uncreation in King Lear.Shakespeare Quarterly 37, no. 1 (spring 1986): 5-19.

[In the following essay, Calderwood remarks on the principal of “uncreation”—the movement from order to chaos—in King Lear.]

Throughout his career, from the saintly Henry VI sitting on his molehill during the battle of Towton to Prospero breaking his staff and drowning his book, Shakespeare was apparently fascinated with the concept of abdication and truancy. Prince Hal plays truant from his royal studies, Hamlet from his revengeful duties, and Antony from his Roman wars. The academicians in Love's Labor's Lost retreat from the...

(The entire section is 8864 words.)

Lyell Asher (essay date 2000)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Asher, Lyell. “Lateness in King Lear.Yale Journal of Criticism 13, no. 2 (2000): 209-28.

[In the following essay, Lyell analyzes Lear's tragedy as it is delineated and compounded via the motif of lateness.]

If I voyage back to the fatherland I love,
my pride, my glory dies …
true, but the life that's left me will be long,
the stroke of death will not come on me quickly.

—Achilles, in The Iliad

Foolish the friends who called me happy then
Whose fall shows how my foothold was unsure.

—Boethius, The Consolation of Philosophy

—Bad enough! The same old story! When one...

(The entire section is 9957 words.)

Further Reading

(Shakespearean Criticism)


Bennett, Susan. “Godard and Lear: Trashing the Can(n)on.” Theatre Survey 39, no. 1 (May 1998): 7-19.

Evaluates Jean-Luc Godard's celluloid adaptation of King Lear in the contexts of postmodern film and literature.

Buechner, Frederick. “Part 4.” In Speak What We Feel (Not What We Ought to Say): Reflections on Literature and Faith, pp. 125-54. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2001.

Offers a reading of King Lear that is particularly informed by themes of love and mercy.

Danson, Lawrence. “King Lear.” In Tragic Alphabet: Shakespeare's Drama of...

(The entire section is 1136 words.)