Places Discussed

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Heath. Large tract of uncultivated land covered with small plants and shrubs (the type of landscape also known as a “moor” in Britain), on which the play’s memorable scenes are set. Barren and desolate, far removed from civilized society, the heath represents elemental Nature, a place for fools and madmen—and tragic kings. In the pelting rain and stripped of the garments of majesty, Lear vents his grief and anger by railing against his daughters’ ingratitude, the injustice rampant in society, and the forces of Nature surrounding him.

Lear’s palace

Lear’s palace. Royal residence of King Lear in whose stateroom the play opens. The palace provides a visual contrast with the scenes on the heath, and the setting for the first scene displays Lear at his most powerful. Supported by this environment and invested with the external objects of majesty, Lear can function arbitrarily in the division of his kingdom.

Gloucester’s castle

Gloucester’s castle (GLAHS-ter). Residence of the duke of Gloucester, which is the site of two of the most painful scenes in the play—the moments when Lear is rejected by Goneril and Regan, and when Gloucester is blinded. Significantly, the setting is located halfway between the palace of absolute power and the heath of total nothingness.

Fields near Dover

Fields near Dover. Region in southeastern England, on the edge of the British kingdom, where Gloucester attempts suicide and Lear deteriorates into madness. It is the landing place for Cordelia and the forces that will restore order and justice. These fields are a place of the natural world, where men must deal with themselves as merely “poor, bare, forked animals.”

Historical Background

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Shakespeare’s work can be understood more clearly if we follow its development as a reflection of the rapidly-changing world of the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries in which he lived. After the colorful reign of Henry VIII, which ushered in the Protestant Reformation, England was never the same. John Calvin and Michelangelo both died the year Shakespeare was born, placing his life and work at the peak of the Reformation and the Renaissance in Europe. When Queen Elizabeth I came to the throne in 1558, the time was right to bring in “the golden age” of English history. The arts flourished during the Elizabethan era. Some of Shakespeare’s contemporary dramatists were such notables as Christopher Marlowe and Ben Jonson.

King James VI of Scotland succeeded Elizabeth to the throne after her death in 1603 uniting the kingdoms of England and Scotland. The monarch’s new title was King James I. Fortunately for Shakespeare, the new king was a patron of the arts and agreed to sponsor the King’s Men, Shakespeare’s theatrical group. According to the Stationers’ Register recorded on November 26, 1607, King Lear was performed for King James I at Whitehall on St. Stephen’s night as a Christmas celebration on December 26, 1606.

The legend of King Lear, well-known in Shakespeare’s day, was about a mythical British king dating back to the obscurity of ancient times. It was first recorded in 1135 by Geoffrey of Monmouth in Historia Britonum. In 1574 it appeared in A Mirror for Magistrates and later in Holinshed’s Chronicles in 1577. The subplot, which concerned Gloucester and his sons, was taken from Philip Sidney’s Arcadia. An older version of the play called The True Chronicle History of King Leir first appeared on the stage in 1590. Comments on public response to the play in Shakespeare’s day would necessarily be based on conjecture but in 1681, an adaptation of the original play was published by Nahum Tate, a dramatist of the Restoration period. Tate’s sentimental adaptation gives the play a happy ending in which Lear and Gloucester are united with their children. Virtue is rewarded and justice reigns in Tate’s version. It was not until 1838 that Macready reinstated Shakespeare’s original version on the stage.

Modern Connections

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Modern audiences of King Lear often observe the recurrence of images and references not only the eyes but things associated with the eyes, like crying, looking, and seeing. The numerous references to the eyes and their associated functions contribute to a thematic development which is almost certainly more than accidental to Shakespeare's purpose. We can look at several specific references to elaborate further the significance of this theme of "eyelessness" or ''blindness" in the play.

First, and most obvious is Gloucester's "I stumbled when I saw" (IV.i.19). He comes to believe that when he had full use of his eyes, he still had not been able to see the truth in the situation between his two sons (Edgar and Edmund) and realizes that there is an internal sense more keen in determining the truth than eyesight, which is considered our primary sense.

While initially Lear fails to recognize the truth about his daughters' love for him, he soon realizes that Goneril and Regan, having subsumed the power that was once his, have turned against him. He asks the gods ''If it be you that stirs these daughters' hearts / Against their father" (II.iv.274-75). Lear's primary problem, it might be argued then, is not that he, like Gloucester, fails to see the truth about his offspring. Perhaps Lear's ultimate failure is that he cannot see through his tears. He is often moved to cry but feels that the tears he sheds are not becoming to either his gender or his position.

Old fond eyes,
Beweep this cause again, I'll pluck ye out,
And cast you, with the waters that you loose,
To temper clay. (I.iv.301-04)

When he does understand that Goneril and Regan have turned on him, he fights his tears fiercely, beseeching the gods in this manner:

. . . touch me with noble anger
And let not women's weapons, water-drops,
Stain my man's cheeks ... . . .
You think I'll weep:
No, I'll not weep.
I have full cause of weeping, but this heart
Shall break into a hundred thousand flaws
Or ere I'll weep. (II.iv.276-78; 282-84)

His anger at his tears is indicative of his inability to trust and experience the truth of his feelings This inability is what caused him, in the first place, to misjudge the emotional bond that existed between him and Cordelia. He had to test her, and her response was, perhaps, an incredulous reaction to that distrust. The result was a peevish rejection of her that overlay his real feelings, prompting Kent to say, ''See better, Lear, and let me still remain / The true blank of thine eye" (Li. 158-59). One might argue that Lear's petulance is an emotional truth that must be followed if the argument is that feelings, rather than sight, are the barometer of truth. But, arguably, Lear's love for Cordelia is primary and his dissatisfaction with her only a temporary perversion of the greater emotional truth.

Lear's failure to trust in this emotional truth— that of Cordelia's love for him—is perhaps one of the most universal and timeless aspects of the play. How often is the love between parents and children tested by one, or by both, parties? Today's parents, like Lear, may often feel compelled to question their children's love, pointing out all they have done for them, especially when the children are about to embark on or have chosen a coarse of action disapproved of by the parents. Similarly, children who are being disciplined by their parents may feel the punishment unjust (as perhaps Cordelia felt her banishment was unjust), and may question their parents' love for them.

In 1681, Nahum Tate adapted Shakespeare's King Lear. In Tate's version, which superseded Shakespeare's until well into the nineteenth century, the ending is a happy one. Cordelia lives and Lear's crown is restored by Albany. Additionally, Tate eliminated both Lear's Fool and the blinding of Gloucester and added a love affair between Edgar and Cordelia.

Tate's happy ending, which was endorsed by critics and audiences for nearly 150 years, may make modern readers wonder why Shakespeare chose to end his King Lear in such a dismal fashion. In fact the issue of Shakespeare's tragic ending has been the focus of much debate for centuries. A number of explanations have been put forth. Some people believe that the play's ending is simply a natural and inevitable culmination of Lear's suffering. While some people read the ending as evidence that there is no divine existence or divine retribution for evil, others argue that the ending emphasizes the play's Christian focus on the redemptive power of love. Finally, many people maintain that the ending is not pessimistic or optimistic, but that it reflects the mystery of human existence.

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Connections and Further Reading