For further information on the critical and stage history of King Lear, see SC, Volumes 46 and 61.
Questions regarding Cordelia's and Lear's deaths, the nature of the king's insanity, the comic element of the play, and the Gloucester sub-plot have consistently interested scholars throughout King Lear's critical history. Twentieth-century criticism has continued to broaden in scope. Major issues of importance to contemporary commentators have involved gender roles, the relation of the drama to social and economic forces of Shakespeare's time, the patriarchy and its influence on the family and state, and the position of women.
One of the main emphases of modern critics has been to apply historical approaches to the play in order to uncover links between the portrayal of both personal and political power in King Lear and the exercise of both during the reigns of Elizabeth and James. Rosalie L. Colie (1974), for instance, used Lawrence Stone's The Crisis of the Aristocracy, 1558-1641 to illustrate how Shakespeare dramatized the eventual decline of the patriarchy as well as the loss of paternal authority. Investigating the overlap between familial and state politics in the world of the play, Kathleen McLuskie (1985) explored the relationship between power and gender, finding that "insubordination" by female characters results in chaos, since it threatens the balance of power within the family. Several other critics have viewed power in King Lear as revolving around both the political, in the form of the collapse of a sociopolitical state, and the personal, involving the breakdown of an individual and his family. Examining Lear's love-test as a testimony to the king's authority, many scholars have speculated on what it reveals about the allocation of power and love between Lear and his daughters. Some commentators have found Lear's motivation to be solely the transfer of power, calling the test a highly developed, politically shrewd plan for the continued success of the kingdom. Others, however, have maintained that the desire for love drives the king; Stephen Greenblatt (1982), for example, contended that Lear "wishes to be the object—the preferred and even the sole recipient—of his child's love," and uses the test to prove that love. Still another critic, Stanley Cavell (1966-67), proposed that Lear's intense wish to avoid revealing his inner self and his love not only motivates the test, but causes his tragic downfall.
Explorations of gender identity, the role of women in a father-dominated family, and male-female bonding mark other arenas of emphasis for contemporary critics of King Lear. An insightful study by Coppélia Kahn (1986) focuses on the absence of a maternal figure in the drama. Assessing the play from a feminist and historicist point of view, Kahn contended that part of the reason for Lear's failure is that he fights against his own repressed need for a mother figure; according to Kahn, Lear begins to recognize and accept his own vulnerability, dependency, and capacity for love only as his life nears its end. Taking as his subject bonding between men within the play, Peter Erickson (1985) concluded that although Lear tries to counter the loss of his daughters with the fellowship and nurturance of other male characters, these male bonds are "finally a minor resource compared with the unequivocal centrality of Cordelia for Lear." Lear's relationship with his daughters, particularly in light of the patriarchal structure under which they live, has also continued to intrigue modern critics. Analyzing the principle of mutuality (or reciprocity) in the play, Marianne Novy (1984) suggested that King Lear criticizes the powerful rights fathers held over their daughters. As Novy pointed out, Lear abuses his authority over Cordelia, then needs her forgiveness. The balance of the patriarchal structure is subsequently threatened, as the traditional ruler/subject relationship is upset.
The study of the individual women characters in King Lear has become an increasingly important part of the play's scholarship. Considering the moral development of Cordelia, Roy W. Battenhouse (1965) described how her experiences with love inspire her to adopt a more altruistic outlook and cast off her former preoccupation with the self. John Bayley (1981) compared Shakespeare's Cordelia with other versions of her character, including her portrayals in the historical Leir story of 1605 and in Nahum Tate's 1681 version. Finding Shakespeare's Cordelia devoid of a past and existing in a "simple reality," Bayley showed how this depiction contributes to the playwright's emphasis on the matter at hand in the play, rather than on the individual stories of the characters. Expounding upon the natures of Goneril and Regan, William R. Elton (1966) found them to be typical of Renaissance pagans, since they possess an intense preoccupation with the natural and with the self. Elton also proposed that the two sisters were modeled after the Machiavellian villain. Several other contemporary critics have commented on Goneril's and Regan's sensuality as well as their cruelty, and at least one commentator has proposed that they prefigure some of the characteristics of the writings of the Marquis de Sade.
Some of the most suggestive criticism of the play has sought to explore and decipher the meaning behind its references to sexuality. Noting the "unpleasant" manner in which Shakespeare refers to women and sexuality throughout the play, several critics have found the playwright's inclusion of sexuality superfluous, and have speculated that Shakespeare's own repulsion toward sex influenced him significantly during the composition of the drama. Other scholars, however, have found the theme of sex wholly necessary to the tragedy. Focusing on Lear's increasing self-discovery during the play, Paul A. Jorgensen (1967) alleged that the king achieves a greater understanding of human nature through his anatomization of the female body. Studying the negative attitudes displayed toward sexuality in King Lear, Robert H. West (1960) observed that the play exalts, rather than indicts, sexuality and love, creating an impression of awe and mystique essential to tragedy.