King Lear (c. 1605-06) is widely regarded as one of Shakespeare's finest artistic achievements and is also considered by many to be his darkest tragedy. Set in ancient Britain, the plot 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 the 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 dead body of Cordelia, who is killed after she returns from France to fight for her father. Gloucester, the central figure of the play's subplot, is betrayed by his illegitimate son Edmund, blinded, and sent into the wilderness to die. Since its introduction, King Lear has confounded audiences and scholars with its seemingly hopeless conclusion. Critics remain divided on Shakespeare's intended message: while some commentators view King Lear as representing a pessimistic vision of life, others contends that the play contains an explicit message of hope and redemption. King Lear was not popular on the stage in Shakespeare's day. 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 mid-nineteenth century, however, and it is now one of Shakespeare's most popular plays in performance.
Shakespeare's delineation of character has long been a central component of scholarship regarding King Lear, particularly the characterization of the title figure. Terence Hawkes (1995) focuses on verbal and non-verbal communication in King Lear, contending that the play reveals a significant change in Lear's character through his movement from understanding only “explicit verbal statement” at the play's beginning to his ability to note unspoken emotions and ideas in the play's final scene. Stephen Booth (1983) illustrates how the audience's original evaluations of the characters in King Lear are thrown into question by later events, a process that mirrors Lear's misjudgment of his daughters. Examining both Lear and Gloucester, Lawrence Rosinger (1968) notes their parallel development in King Lear, pointing out that both characters initially treat others as a means of achieving self-gratification, but are able to express compassion for others by the play's end. Richard Knowles (1999) attempts to uncover Cordelia's motivation to return from France to her native country, which causes her to “lose everything, including her life,” and suggests that Shakespeare left her unexplained return purposefully ambiguous in order to enhance the play's dramatic impact.
Critics have questioned whether King Lear can be successfully staged throughout its performance history. Various issues have made this play a challenge for the stage, including its vastness and complexity as well as the difficulty in representing such elements as the character of Lear, the blinding of Gloucester, and the storm scene. Nonetheless, the play continues to be produced on a regular basis and remains one of Shakespeare's most frequently performed plays in the twenty-first century. Jonathan Miller's 2002 Stratford Festival of Canada production of King Lear drew considerable attention because of the appearance of international film and theater star Christopher Plummer in the title role. John Bemrose (2002) contends that Plummer's portrayal of Lear was “the performance of his life.” Reviewing the same production, Ben Brantley (2002) compliments the clarity, intimate tone, and quick pace of the production, but also reserves his highest praise for Plummer's Lear. In his negative review of the 2000 Alabama Shakespeare Festival staging of the play, Craig Barrow (2000) maintains that the production was weak overall and faults Barry Boys's performance as Lear, noting that the actor was “unable to communicate Lear's painful journey through madness to wisdom.” Lois Potter (2002) favorably reviews the 2001 staging of King Lear at the Globe Theatre, commenting that the production “generally felt ‘right,’ both simple and to the point.”
The controversy over the meaning of the ending of King Lear—whether it represents a negative or positive vision of life—is a major source of critical commentary. Sears Jayne (1964) advocates a pessimistic reading of King Lear, focusing on the lack of charity among the characters. Jayne views the play as an expression of “the desperate need which human beings have for each other, and their paradoxical inability to satisfy that need.” Taking an opposite view, Michael Edwards (2000) disagrees with critics who view King Lear as an expression of a godless existence, contending that the play is “an eminently Christian work” that dramatizes human imperfection and the possibility of redemption. In another Christian reading of the play, Cherrell Guilfoyle (1990) finds a message of Christian redemption in King Lear and contends that several figures in the play assume Christ-like qualities. Jonathan Dollimore (1984) argues against both Christian and humanist interpretations of King Lear, noting that “the play concludes with two events [the deaths of Cordelia and Lear] which sabotage the prospect of both closure and recuperation.” Scholars have also studied the unique dramatic structure of the play's ending. Alan Rosen (2001) examines the unconventional dramatic form of King Lear, particularly the appearance of the climax early in the play instead of at the end, where it traditionally occurs. June Schlueter (1995) discusses the conclusion of King Lear, noting that the play “both embodies and disrupts” literary conventions.