King Lear Questions and Answers

William Shakespeare

Read real teacher answers to our most interesting King Lear questions.

How does King Lear act following the abdication of his kingdom?

It is frequently observed that when old men decide to make radical changes in their lifestyles it is often a sign that before very long they are likely to die. The decision to make the change, usually in hope of achieving more enjoyment out of their remaining years, is often prompted by an unconscious premonition that their lives are already nearly over. People sense when they are going to die. Radical changes in lifestyles, such as divorce, or losing a long-held job, or moving to a different city or a different country, can be dangerous for any man, as we are told by psychologists, but radical changes for old men can be fatal. It is a common occurrence for a man to reach the retirement age of sixty-five and then to die after only collecting his Social Security checks for a few short years. 

As David Mamet has one of his characters say in his excellent play Glengarry Glen Ross, "A man IS his job." King Lear gives up his job as ruler of a nation but can't give up the belief and the feeling that he is still king. He doesn't realize that without his job he is nothing. And this inability to accept this fact is what leads to his death. He is on a path towards death from the moment he gives away his kingdom. He keeps asking others, in so many words, "Who am I?" He even asks Oswald to tell him:

O, you sir, you, come you hither, sir: who am I, sir? (1.4)

King Lear makes the radical decision to give up his kingdom, to give up his castle and the income from all his lands, and to spend his time hunting and feasting like a man only half his age. He does not realize the truth, which is that his life is already over. Shakespeare's play is about how one generation dies and another generation assumes their places. One generation creates and nourishes the generation that will displace them.

Parallel examples in modern literature would include "Sailing to Byzantium" by William Butler Yeats and "Crossing the Bar" by Alfred, Lord Tennyson. Willy Loman in Arthur Miller's play Death of a Salesman begins planting a garden by moonlight on the very night he is going to die. Willy has already talked himself out of his long-held job as a traveling salesman. Leo Tolstoy's beautiful story "What Men Live By" features a rich man who orders a pair of boots from a fallen angel who knows the rich man is fated to die that night. A similar theme might be detected in Tolstoy's "How Much Land Does a Man Need?" Tolstoy himself died in a railway station when he had made a radical decision to leave his home and family at the age of 82 without apparently having any specific destination in mind.

How can King Lear be understood as a morality play?

There are many features of William Shakespeare’s King Lear that are reminiscent of the morality play, a genre of Medieval theatre. Morality plays are allegories in which the main player meets personified symbols of various virtues and faults. It is heavily drawn from earlier dramas. It is clear from the references in this play that Shakespeare was very familiar with morality drama.

King Lear features a powerful king figure and powers of good and evil. While the deep structure of other Shakespeare plays like Othello are based on the morality play, it only comprises the bare outline. King Lear, however, is full of details that suggest the morality play as well. For instance, the morality play often depicted scenes of “comic depravity” that alternated with scenes of “tragic seriousness." This is clear in the comic elements of the King Lear tragedy. The presence of an “all-licensed fool” in the tragedy is an interesting comedic element (Act 1, Scene 4, Line 198). Also, after being banished, Kent comes back in disguise, which is usually an element of comedies. For the true tragedy, the audience does not need to suspend disbelief, but the verisimilitude of Kent’s disguise is questionable. This feature points towards the morality play.

One of the most obvious ways that this tragedy derives material from the morality play is the plethora of vice characters—Edmund, Goneril, Regan, Oswald, and Cornwall. These characters all have a similar viewpoint on life and nature, which is modeled on that of the vice character’s. Edmund states this worldview: “Thou, Nature, art my goddess; to thy law/My services are bound. Wherefore should I/Stand in the plague of custom and permit/The curiosity of nations to deprive me” (Act 1, Scene 2, Lines 1-4). He, like the rest of the vice characters, believes that people who want something can have it as long as they have the ability to take it. Specifically for Edmund, the rules of legitimacy are manmade rather than natural. It means nothing if Edmund can be clever and strong enough to take his father’s land by cunning manipulation and force.

What is the significance of the lines beginning, "Thou art a soul in bliss; but I am bound Upon a wheel of fire, that mine own tears Do scald like molten lead..."?

When Lear regains consciousness in Cordelia's tent he thinks he is still dead and that she is an angel. His imagination of being dead and in hell is so vivid that he can still see the instruments with which the demons torture the condemned souls. His own form of torture is being bound on a burning wheel and turned around and around like an animal being barbecued over a blazing fire. This metaphor reflects Lear's mental suffering, which he has been experiencing throughout the play. The genius of Shakespeare is evident in the words, "...that mine own tears do scald like molten lead." This contains an alliteration of L sounds in "scald," "like," "molten," and "lead." It is highly unusual to use L sounds in alliteration, but it is especially effective here because it suggests the slow, relentless dripping of hot molten lead. There are also three L sounds in the preceding words, "soul," "bliss" and "wheel," so that there are actually seven L sounds in the sentence. The words "wheel" and "fire" help to suggest the image of a turning wheel. The word "fire" can sound like two syllables, and coming right after "wheel," it is intended to augment the image of a turning wheel with the addition of flames. Instuments of torture similar to the one Lear describes may have actually existed in his time, but he is suggesting that the demons have much better technology down below. Lear has certainly come a long way down from the proud man he was in the opening scene of the play.

How does King Lear portray the theme of "age?"

These words, spoken by Edmund just before he goes to betray his father to the Duke of Cornwall, may well be the most important in the play. These seven words sum up what the play is really about. Shakespeare is dramatizing a supreme fact of life--that each generation is followed by a generation which will inevitably assume all its power and property and will eventually bury or cremate it. Keats expresses the idea in his best poem, "Ode to a Nightingale," when he says to the bird, "No hungry generations tread thee down." Both Lear and Gloucester are being trodden down by members of the hungry generation which they themselves have helped to create. Goneril and Regan have acquired everything that belonged to their father King Lear. Edmund, the illegitimate son, is about to supplant his own father as the Earl of Gloucester. It is a simple, inescapable, inevitable fact of life. At any given time there are five generations in existence: the children from ages one to twenty; the youths from twenty to forty; the middle-aged from forty to sixty; the elders from sixty to eighty; and the decrepit and nearly invisible generation from eighty onwards, who are dependent and powerless. Those from sixty to eighty have been pushed aside by the ones from the really strong, mature, ambitious, and hungry generation of people forty to sixty, and these people will find themselves losing their vigor and self-assurance, wondering what's it all about, as they are being infiltrated by the generation from twenty to forty. Life is like a moving sidewalk conveying everyone towards the same destination. The fact that Lear has one kind daughter and Gloucester one kind son does not change their fathers' fates. Both old men die, and both are glad to do so.

Here is a pertinent quotation from Sister Carrie by Theodore Dreiser, a great American writer who deserves much more attention and respect than he currently receives:

A man’s fortune or material progress is very much the same as his bodily growth. Either he is growing stronger, healthier, wiser, as the youth approaching manhood, or he is growing weaker, older, less incisive mentally, as the man approaching old age. There are no other states.

How is King Lear complicated by English-French relations?

Shakespeare treats the French landing on English soil gingerly. His English theater audience will not like this incursion, regardless of the fact that the French are only there to restore King Lear to his throne and are, in effect, allies rather than invaders. At the very beginning of Act IV, Scene iii, the Gentleman establishes that the King of France is not even present.The Gentleman tells Kent in vague terms that the French king had to attend to

Something he left imperfect in the state, which since his coming forth is thought of; which imports to the kingdom so much fear and danger, that his personal return was most required and necessary.

But the real reason for excluding him was that his presence would make the intrusion look more like an invasion. With the French king gone, it is Cordelia, an English girl and daughter of King Lear, who is at least the spiritual leader of the expeditionary force. She is a sort of English Joan of Arc. Shakespeare has downplayed the French invasion ever since Gloucester first hinted at it to his son Edmund in Act III, Scene iii. Shakespeare realized that treating the matter as the French coming to the rescue would seem unpatriotic and not only offend his audience but might get him in trouble in higher places. At the same time, Shakespeare realized that Lear's only chance of obtaining revenge on his hated daughters and their husbands was in being restored to his throne; and that would require military assistance from a foreign power. Rather ironically, it was because he disowned Cordelia that she married the King of France, and her husband is only sending his forces to England because he loves Cordelia and Cordelia loves her father.

Although it would seem that the French invasion was intended to be a rescue mission, the French had to lose the battle for patriotic reasons. In the end both Cordelia and Lear are prisoners and the English are totally victorious. The rescue is a complete failure. Cordelia and Lear both die. It is the conflicts among Goneril, Regan, Albany, Edgar, and Edmund that restore order. Dover is mainly significant because it draws all these characters, as well as Lear and Kent, to the one spot where the French are landing. But the French have to be defeated, and Lear has to die, since this is his tragedy. 

How do Goneril, Regan, and Edmund view their respective parents?

Goneril and Regan do not hate their father, King Lear. This is what is a little eerie about their relationship with him and what makes them seem so inhuman. They care nothing about him at all. He is a non-person. It is very easy for them to lie about how much they love him, since they have no true emotions to hide. It is a little uncanny how they can express their love in such glowing terms without feeling a thing. Edmund is very much like Goneril and Regan with regard to his father, the Earl of Gloucester. Edmund does not hate the old man at all. He cares nothing about him. For him, Goneril, and Regan, Lear is only in the way, and his kingdom and property are things they expect and feel they deserve to acquire. This idea is expressed in the forged letter which Gloucester takes from Edmund and reads aloud:

This policy and reverence of age makes the world bitter to the best of our times; keeps our fortunes from us till our oldness cannot relish them. I begin to find an idle and fond bondage in the oppression of aged tyranny; who sways, not as it hath power, but as it is suffered. Come to me, that of this I may speak more. If our father would sleep till I waked him, you should enjoy half his revenue for ever, and live the beloved of your brother, EDGAR (Act I, Scene 2).

This same cynical notion is expressed by the Duke masquerading as a friar in Act III, Scene 1 of Measure for Measure, where he is supposedly consoling the condemned Claudio:

Friend hast thou none; For thine own bowels, which do call thee sire, The mere effusion of thy proper loins, Do curse the gout, serpigo, and the rheum, For ending thee no sooner.

How does King Lear view women?

In Act 4, Scene 6, the mad king expresses his disgust with women, obviously inspired by his recollection that it was his lust and copulation that produced Goneril and Regan, the two daughters who have made a fool of him with their false protestations of love and who have taken everything away from him, leaving him a dirty, homeless wretch.

Down from the waist they are Centaurs, Though women all above: But to the girdle do the gods inherit, Beneath is all the fiends'; There's hell, there's darkness, there's the sulphurous pit, Burning, scalding, stench, consumption; fie, fie, fie! pay, pah!

The pessimistic German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860) has expressed his own unfavorable opinion of women and copulation as follows:

However, it might even seem to us that here the devil wanted merely to hide his game, for copulation is his currency and the world his kingdom. For has it not been observed how illico post coitum cachinnus auditur Diaboli? [‘Directly after copulation the devil’s laughter is heard.’] Seriously speaking, this is due to the fact that sexual desire, especially when through fixation on a definite woman it is concentrated to amorous infatuation, is the quintessence of the whole fraud of this noble world; for it promises so unspeakably, infinitely, and excessively much, and then performs so contemptibly little.                       

In Shakespeare's famous Sonnet 129, he writes:


Th' expense of spirit in a waste of shame Is lust in action...

Shakespeare continues, "Enjoyed no sooner but despised straight." He seems to be expressing the same thought as Schopenhauer does in saying "for it [sexual intercourse] promises so unspeakably, infinitely, and excessively much, and then performs so contemptibly little."

How does King Lear portray disillusionment?

A man may see how this world goes with no eyes. Look with thine ears: see how yond justice rails upon yond simple thief. Hark, in thine ear: change places; and, handy-dandy, which is the justice, which is the thief? 

King Lear is not disgusted with the world because of being betrayed by his two daughters but rather because he had never really seen the real world before his quarrel with Goneril and Regan impelled him to go out into it. His disgust is largely based on what he has seen and personally experienced since that event precipitated it. His daughters were only examples of humanity. There were many more to follow. 

Lear's disillusionment with the world can be compared to characters like the Prince in Mark Twain's The Prince and the Pauper. Lear can also be compared with Cervantes's Don Quixote, Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn, Charles Dickens' Oliver Twist, and J. D. Salinger's Holden Caulfield. There are many other such characters in literature, including Pip in Dickens's Great Expectations, Herman Hesse's Siddhartha, and the hero of Voltaire's Candide, who starts out thinking that everything is for the best in this best of all possible worlds.

Lear led a privileged and sheltered life. He had a false impression of humanity because he was surrounded by flatterers. When he decided to "abjure all roofs," he had no idea what he was getting himself into, although his Fool certainly knew from a lifetime of abuse what to expect from most people in the world at large.

How does King Lear inform our ideas about survival?

This line is spoken by Edmund at the very end of Scene 3 in Act 3. It is a wonderful closing line. It expresses succinctly what the play is really all about--and what the world is all about. Shakespeare's play dramatizes a few examples of how one generation is relentlessly and remorselessly supplanted by the generation behind it, a natural process which cannot be changed. Everywhere and at all times the generation that owns the property and runs the world is growing older and weaker. We do not see this happening as quickly and as completely as it does in Shakespeare's famous tragedy, but it is happening every minute of every day. When a top executive of a corporation retires, some younger person is moved up into his spot, leaving a vacancy which will be filled by someone coming up behind him--and that person will likely leave an entry-level vacancy to be fill by a young newcomer fresh out of college. Whenever a person dies, others, usually younger people, take over his home and his possessions, not realizing that someday the same thing will be happening to them. A good example of this is to be found in Leo Tolstoy's bitterly truthful story "The Death of Ivan Ilyich."

So on receiving the news of Ivan Ilych's death, the first thought of each of the gentlemen in that private room was of the changes and promotions it might occasion among themselves or their acquaintances.

"I shall be sure to get Shtabel's place or Vinnikov's," thought Fedor Vasilievich. "I was promised that long ago, and the promotion means an extra eight hundred rubles a year for me besides the allowance."
"Now I must apply for my brother-in-law's transfer from Kaluga," thought Peter Ivanovich. "My wife will be very glad, and then she won't be able to say that I never do anything for her relations."

These are the true thoughts of Ivan Ilyich's friends and colleagues immediately after hearing the news of his death. There are only so many niches in the world, and when a niche becomes vacant it will quickly be filled by a newcomer. It is part of the universal struggle for survival.

What happens following King Lear's abdication?

Evidently Shakespeare thought that an absolute monarch was necessary for a stable government. When Lear decides to abdicate and divides his kingdom into two parts, he not only brings down disaster on his own head, but he creates chaos. This is represented by conflicts between Edmund and Edgar, between Gloucester and Edgar, and later between Edmund and his father. There are conflicts between Gloucester and Regan, conflicts between Gloucester and Albany, and between Albany and one of his servants, into which Regan intervenes. The fact that one of Gloucester's servants turns against him suggests a revolutionary spirit developing at the lower social levels. There are also conflicts between Goneril and Gloucester and between Cornwall and Gloucester. Then Kent enters the scene, and there are conflicts between him and Oswald, between Kent and Albany, Kent and Regan, Kent and Goneril, and Kent and Cornwall. Lear has serious conflicts with both his daughters and their husbands. Then Lear has a conflict with the storm, which seems to symbolize the coming troubles that will beset the land. Edgar has a similar sort of conflict with the elements. After Cornwall's death, there is conflict between Goneril and Regan over the handsome, ambitious Edmund. There was already a conflict brewing between the sisters' husbands over political and territorial matters, as Gloucester confides to Edmund. When news of Lear's mistreatment by his two daughters reaches France, a French army invades England, leading to a large-scale international conflict. Cordelia, who arrives with the French forces, is now in conflict with Goneril, Regan, and Albany. Edgar comes into conflict with Oswald and kills him. There are so many conflicts going on in different places at more or less the same time that it is hard to keep track of them all. This may have been Shakespeare's intention. He may have wanted to represent a state of general chaos. None of these conflicts would have occurred if Lear had not given up his throne and with it his status as a symbol of law and order. 

When Macbeth murders the legitimate King Duncan, a state of chaos develops in Scotland, leading to the invasion by an English army of 10,000 men. The monarch must be powerful and legitimate.

Shakespeare dramatizes a similar theme in Julius Caesar. After Caesar's assassination, a power vacuum is created. He was a symbol of unity, stability, and supreme authority, and he was on his way to becoming crowned king when the conspirators struck. Mark Antony predicts what is going to happen as a result of absolute rule being demolished.

Over thy wounds now do I prophesy
Which like dumb mouths do ope their ruby lips
To beg the voice and utterance of my tongue,
A curse shall light upon the limbs of men;
Domestic fury and fierce civil strife
Shall cumber all the parts of Italy;
Blood and destruction shall be so in use,
And dreadful objects so familiar,
That mothers shall but smile when they behold
Their infants quarter'd with the hands of war;
All pity choked with custom of fell deeds,
And Caesar's spirit ranging for revenge,
With Ate by his side come hot from hell,
Shall in these confines with a monarch's voice
Cry “Havoc!” and let slip the dogs of war,
That this foul deed shall smell above the earth
With carrion men, groaning for burial.
            Act III, Scene 1

Why is King Lear unable to recognize the Duke of Kent?

Readers have questioned why Lear is unable to recognize his familiar friend and loyal vassal the Duke of Kent when Kent returns to him disguised as Caius. Shakespeare makes it clear that Lear and Kent are very well acquainted in the following lines.

KENT: Royal Lear, Whom I have ever honour’d as my king, Loved as my father, as my master follow’d, As my great patron thought on in my prayers,--

Readers have also questioned why Lear is so gullible that he believes the outrageous flattery of his greedy daughters Goneril and Regan while failing to appreciate Cordelia's genuine love and honesty.

The Earl of Gloucester shows a similar gullibility in trusting his villainous son Edmund while turning against his loyal and loving son Edgar, then failing to recognize Edgar when the young lad appears as Mad Tom and assists and protects his father out of pure filial devotion.

Apparently Shakespeare intended for it to be understood that both Lear and Gloucester had been wise and shrewd men earlier in their lives but were becoming weak-minded in old age. This is the common denominator between the two characters. They are suffering from the early stages of senility.

Even in our own times, we see that old people are favored targets of con artists and are continuously preyed upon by petty crooks as well as sophisticated big-time swindlers. Not only that, but old people are frequently victimized by their own children, just as Lear and Gloucester are victimized in Shakespeare’s play.

Readers also ask questions about Shakespeare’s characters’ “tragic flaws,” as if Shakespeare was obliged to provide Lear, Hamlet, Othello, Macbeth, and others with their tragic flaws just because Aristotle decreed it almost two thousand years earlier. Shakespeare was a playwright, director, producer, actor, and even part-owner of the theater; Aristotle’s only exposure to the theater was sitting on a cold stone bench as a spectator. It should also be noted that Aristotle knew only Greek plays. Shakespeare deliberately violated Aristotle’s rules, as we can see in the way King Lear violates the sacrosanct Unity of Place by spreading the action all over the map of England.

Shakespeare seemed to favor mistakes rather than character flaws as the causes of his tragedies. Both Lear and Gloucester make glaring mistakes: Lear in trusting his two older daughters, and Gloucester in trusting his bastard son. Gloucester had also made a terrible mistake years before in engaging in an adulterous union which resulted in Edmund, who is directly or indirectly responsible for the deaths of Lear, Cordelia, Goneril, Regan, Cornwall, and Edmund's own father Gloucester. Othello made a mistake in trusting Iago. Brutus made a mistake in trusting Cassius and then another mistake in trusting Antony. Julius Caesar made a mistake in trusting Brutus. Cassius, mistakenly thinking the battle is lost, in effect commits suicide by having Pindarus stab him. Messala comments,

Mistrust of good success hath done this deed.
O hateful Error, Melancholy's child,
Why dost thou show to the apt thoughts of men
The things that are not? O Error, soon conceived,
Thou never com'st unto a happy birth,
But kill'st the mother that engendered thee.

Romeo and Juliet both died because of their mistakes. Macbeth was mistaken in listening to his wife and to the three witches. King Duncan was mistaken in trusting Macbeth and the vicious Lady Macbeth. Prospero, in The Tempest, was mistaken in trusting his brother Antonio and letting him run the government while he buried himself in his mystical books.

Lear fails to recognize Caius as Kent, and Gloucester fails to recognize Edgar as his son, for the same reasons that Lear disowned Cordelia and banished Kent, and for the same reasons that Gloucester was so easily turned against Edgar.

To what extent does King Lear hate his daughters Goneril and Regan?

No, you unnatural hags, I will have such revenges on you both, That all the world shall—I will do such things,—What they are, yet I know not: but they shall be The terrors of the earth. 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. O fool, I shall go mad! (Act II, Scene 4)

King Lear must continue to express how much he hates his daughters Goneril and Regan throughout the play in order to explain why he doesn't go back and live with them on their terms. He doesn't have to suffer cold, exposure, and hunger. They have both said in Act II, Scene 4 that they would be happy to accommodate him without his hundred knights. He would have a whole staff of servants to look after him and access to the best food and wine. His daughters are no doubt heartless, but they would both like to ease their consciences by taking good care of their father in his old age. Their husbands Cornwall and Albany would also be content with such a satisfactory solution to the problem. It doesn't look too good for any of them, the daughters or their husbands, to have the King wandering utterly destitute in the open country after he has given them his entire kingdom. Shakespeare not only made Lear outraged and furious, but he also made him a little bit insane. (When Lear says in the above quote, "O fool, I shall go mad!" it is to inform the audience that Lear is already beginning to lose his mind.) Lear has to be both angry and insane not to realize that he should go back to his daughters on their terms. (He might make some kind of bargain to have his knights receive modest "severance packages" and some accommodation to be made for his Fool.) Lear wouldn't have to consort with his daughters or his sons-in-law at all. He could probably have a whole suite to himself and live out the rest of his life in comfortable solitude. He has to be both ungovernably angry and insane, as Shakespeare has portrayed him, to endure the foul kind of homeless existence he suffers after the end of Act 2. At his age, such hardships can lead to an early death. In Act III, Scene 2, even his Fool counsels,

O nuncle, court holy-water in a dry house is better than this rain-water out o' door. Good nuncle, in, and ask thy daughters' blessing: here's a night pities neither wise man nor fool.

How does the Fool function within King Lear?

Lear's Fool has many functions in the play. He serves as a sort of chorus. He provides some comedy. He is a companion to Lear and thereby enables Shakespeare to have the King express his thoughts and feelings in dialogue. Additionally, the Fool serves to represent all of Lear's other retainers. Goneril confronts her father in Act 1, Scene 4 with this accusation:

Not only, sir, this your all-licensed fool, But other of your insolent retinue Do hourly carp and quarrel; breaking forth In rank and not-to-be endured riots.

Shakespeare could not show Lear's one hundred knights misbehaving on the stage. It would have been awkward, as well as expensive, even to stage a scene with a dozen knights carousing. And anyway, Lear claims that his knights are perfect gentlemen. So Shakespeare probably preferred not to demonstrate either good behavior or rowdy behavior by Lear's "retinue." Instead he uses the Fool to represent that entire retinue. And the Fool, since he is apparently "all-licensed," can be as disrespectful to Goneril as he wants. Thus the Fool is demonstrating to the audience the kind of behavior of which Goneril accuses Lear's one hundred followers. The audience probably believes that the truth lies somewhere between Goneril's description of Lear's retinue and Lear's defense of them. It is hard to believe that one hundred vigorous young soldiers would behave with perfect propriety, especially when Lear himself, enjoying his second childhood, was setting them a bad example. No doubt they all consumed a lot of wine and ale with their meals, and there must have been a lot of loud laughter, joking, and bawdy conversations in which the Fool was a major participant and therefore a plausible representative of the entire retinue.

What is the tragedy of old age?

King Lear is about the universal tragedy of old age. This theme shows that Shakespeare had a broad world vision (Weltanschauung), as evidenced in that famous soliloquy in As You Like It where Jacques says, "All the world's a stage, and all the men and women merely players." Growing old is a tragedy in itself—a tragedy for every man and woman who lives long enough to have to experience it. Lear and Gloucester both suffer through the tragedy of being old, despised, unnecessary, and unwanted. The fact that both find themselves homeless in the wilderness is symbolic of the cold and lonely condition of old age. They have both been displaced by the younger generation. They both had their "entrances" and are about to make their "exits" from the world stage. They have lost their property and their rights. Somebody has to take care of them, as if they are children. Gloucester has even lost his sight. They both understand life as they never understood it before. Schopenhauer writes,

Only the man who attains old age acquires a complete and consistent mental picture of life; for he views it in its entirety and its natural course, yet in particular he sees it not merely from the point of entry, as do others, but also from that of departure. In this way, he fully perceives especially its utter vanity, whereas others are still always involved in the erroneous idea that everything may come right in the end.

Both Lear and Gloucester comment on the "utter vanity" of life. It is significant that the two old men in the play were once rich and powerful, surrounded by people and highly esteemed. Lear was actually the king, and Gloucester was an earl. They learn the bitter truth about old age is that they will soon have to die and will be deprived of everything, including their bodies. Nobody really cares about old people. They are only in the way. Younger people find them boring and annoying.

In Act II, Scene 4, Lear tells the plain truth to Regan when he says,

Dear daughter, I confess that I am old;
Age is unnecessary

Why is "age unnecessary"?

Goneril and Regan are only extreme examples of human nature. Shakespeare was taking a common phenomenon, as he often did, and embellishing on it for dramatic purposes. Many children find their parents a burden and nuisance after they are fully grown and have their own families to raise and lives to lead. King Lear is an extreme example of an aging parent who becomes an annoyance. He even seems to realize this himself when he pretends to be speaking to his daughter Goneril: 

Dear daughter, I confess that I am old;
Kneeling
Age is unnecessary: on my knees I beg That you'll vouchsafe me raiment, bed, and food.

This is a situation being enacted on a smaller scale in homes all across America. Married couples with families are confronted with the problem of caring for an aged father or mother. The parent may create conflict in their homes, but sending him or her to a nursing home can be ruinously expensive and may seem heartless. If the nursing home is close by, then the problem is only half resolved. And what if the old man or old woman refuses to go?

Here we have an extreme example of a common family problem. Lear not only wants to come and stay with his daughters—who have cut their own throats, so to speak, by publicly declaring their overwhelming, undying love for him—but he wants to bring a hundred drinking and hunting buddies, plus a Fool who is "all licensed" to insult everybody. It doesn't occur to Lear that he might be making a bit of a nuisance of himself. Older people are stereotyped as stubborn, impatient, inflexible, and demanding. Lear is all these things to the ultimate extreme. 

In present day, the problems of grown children with aging parents are often much greater than they were in Shakespeare's day, simply because people live longer. In fact, they might come to seem immortal to their grown children. If a couple takes an aging parent into their home, they might be stuck with an increasingly difficult house guest for decades.

What lines best indicate King Lear's insanity?

In Act 4, Scene 6, Shakespeare gives a glimpse of how Lear's mind is working. 

Look, look, a mouse! Peace, peace; this piece of toasted cheese will do 't. 

Lear has been living in the open fields and evidently has actually been reduced to eating mice and anything else he can find. He is like Poor Tom, who told him in Act 3, Scene 4:

But mice and rats, and such small deer, Have been Tom's food for seven long year.

What is ironic about Lear is that he doesn't know whether he is a derelict in a field or a king in a palace. He is hungry and wants to eat the mouse, but he plans to tempt it nearer with a piece of toasted cheese. Here he is planning to use a gourmet tidbit to attract a mouse so that he can eat it. This indicates that he is mentally in two places at once: his palace and the open field near Dover. He is so far gone that he doesn't know where he is, but he can't quite let go of the notion that he is still the king. This little snatch of dialogue would be funny if it were not so pathetic.

How should one understand the line, "Howl, howl, howl, howl! O, you are men of stones"?

This line cannot be fully appreciated without picturing what is happening on the stage. Lear enters carrying the dead body of Cordelia in his arms. Everyone is frozen and struck dumb by the sight. When Lear says, "Howl, howl, howl, howl!" he is not addressing the group as a whole but addressing the word "howl" to four separate individuals. They do not move and do not respond because they are frozen, rather surrealistically, in whatever positions they were in when Lear entered. Then when Lear tells these four individuals, "O, you are men of stones," he is describing literally what the audience sees. Not only are the men as motionless as stone statues, but they appear to have no more feeling than statues. Lear says they are "men of stones," not "men of stone," because he wishes to convey the idea that each has been carved out of a separate stone. If Lear entered and simply cried out, "Howl, howl, howl, howl!" it would not only be ineffective but awkward. An actor would find it hard to say the words naturally. But if Lear looks at one person with each utterance of the word "Howl" and if each person fails to react, the four imperative "howls" can be effective. Lear wants somebody to howl, and he can't get anybody to do it. He thinks this is because they don't care about his daughter or his grief, but the opposite is true: they are paralyzed with horror at the sight. They don't know what to say or do. The audience is horrified at the sight, too. They were hoping there might be a chance that Cordelia could be saved at the last moment. 

When was King Lear originally performed and published?

The first known performance of King Lear was on St. Stephen's Day (26 December) in 1606. It was first published in 1608, and also appears in the First Folio of 1623, a collection of 36 of Shakespeare's plays entitled Mr. William Shakespeare's Comedies, Histories, & Tragedies, edited by Shakespeare's colleagues John Heminges and Henry Condell.

What does King Lear tell us about old age?

Shakespeare did not get his greatest themes from ancient Greece or from anywhere but real life. King Lear is a tragedy about old age. Growing old is a tragedy in itself--a tragedy for every man and woman who lives long enough to have to endure it. Lear and Gloucester both experience the tragedy of being old, despised, unnecessary and unwanted. The fact that both find themselves homeless in the wilderness is symbolic of the condition of old age. They have both been displaced by the younger generation. They have lost their property and their rights. Gloucester has even lost his sight. They both understand life as they never understood it before. Schopenhauer writes:

Only the man who attains old age acquires a complete and consistent mental picture of life; for he views it in its entirety and its natural course, yet in particular he sees it not merely from the point of entry, as do others, but also from that of departure. In this way, he fully perceives especially its utter vanity, whereas others are still always involved in the erroneous idea that everything may come right in the end.

It is significant that the two old men in the play were once rich and powerful, surrounded by people and highly esteemed. Lear was actually the king, and Gloucester was an earl. They learn that the bitter truth about old age is that they will soon have to die and will be deprived of everything, even including their bodies. Nobody really cares about old people. They are only in the way. Younger people find them boring and annoying. Hamlet’s attitude towards Polonius is a good example. In Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure, the disguised Duke Vincentio tells the prisoner Claudio who is sentenced to death:

If thou art rich, thou'rt poor; For, like an ass whose back with ingots bows,
Thou bear'st thy heavy riches but a journey,
And Death unloads thee. Friend hast thou none,
For thine own bowels, which do call thee sire,
The mere effusion of thy proper loins,
Do curse the gout, serpigo, and the rheum,
For ending thee no sooner. Thou hast nor youth nor age, But, as it were, an after-dinner's sleep,
Dreaming on both; for all thy blessed youth
Becomes as aged, and doth beg the alms
Of palsied Eld: and when thou art old and rich,
Thou hast neither heat, affection, limb, nor beauty,
To make thy riches pleasant.
(Act 3, Scene 1)

 

 

How does King Lear initially view his "retirement?"

When King Lear introduces his plans to divide his kingdom among his three daughters, he begins with the following words:

Know that we have divided
In three our kingdom: and 'tis our fast intent
To shake all cares and business from our age;
Conferring them on younger strengths, while we
Unburthened crawl toward death. 

In saying that he intends to "crawl toward death," he is showing that he intends to "shake all cares and business from his age" immediately but that he is not in any hurry to die. He is undoubtedly looking forward to another twenty years or so during which he can indulge in hunting, feasting, and merrymaking at the homes of his daughters. For their part, Goneril and Regan would prefer to see the old man die as soon as possible in order to spare them the care and expense of providing for their father, his fool, and a hundred knights. Lear not only deludes himself that he is going to live beyond the average life expectancy, but that his daughters are so much in love with him that they will enjoy playing hostesses for as long as he survives. 

In Measure for Measure, Shakespeare expresses a more realistic attitude of children toward their aged parents when he has the Duke Vincentio, disguised as a friar, tell the imprisoned Claudio a number of reasons why he should look forward to being executed, including the following:

Friend hast thou none;
For thine own bowels, which do call thee sire,
The mere effusion of thy proper loins,
Do curse the gout, serpigo, and the rheum,
For ending thee no sooner. 

Lear will soon learn this truth from Goneril and Regan, while in the subplot Gloucester will learn the same truth from his bastard son Edmund.

What is the function of King Lear's one hundred knights?

The one hundred knights that Lear has retained as followers serve no practical purpose. Their function is to preserve the illusion that Lear is still king. They are loyal only to him and treat him with the same reverence he received from everyone before he gave his kingdom to his daughters. Since Lear is continually surrounded by these one hundred knights, they can sustain his illusion perfectly. They form a wall between him and reality. They represent a sort of mini-monarchy. But they are supernumerary attendants. They are expensive, and it is Goneril and Regan who have to pay for everything they (and their hundred horses) consume, plus some cash wages. These two practical-minded women can see that "downsizing" would be advantageous for both of them. But if Lear loses his one hundred knights, he loses the illusion that goes with them. That is what actually happens when he finds himself stripped of his entire retinue. He is nothing but a weak, helpless old man with nothing but the clothes on his back. The knights themselves cared nothing about him but were only following him because they were able to live in luxury and at leisure. Lear not only loses his knights but his identity, and eventually his sanity. 

What is the significance of the lines beginning, "You do me wrong...?"

When Lear wakes up and finds himself in his daughter Cordelia's tender care he uses one of Shakespeare's most brilliant metaphors:

You do me wrong to take me out o' the' grave.
Thou are a soul in bliss; but I am bound
Upon a wheel of fire, that mine own tears
Do scald like molten lead.

Lear is imagining he is in hell, and he is experiencing his hallucination so vividly that he can describe one of the devices the demons use to torture the damned. 

The alliteration of "L" sounds is unusual, if not unprecedented, but most effective for enhancing the image conveyed.

...mine own tears
Do scald like molten lead.

The "L" sounds in "scald," "like," "molten," and "lead" make the words seem to ooze out slowly like drops of molten lead. "Like molten lead" is a simile, but it is enclosed within a metaphor. We visualize a man on a fiery wheel being roasted throughout eternity and being scalded drop by drop with his own tears. 

A simile within a metaphor. Shakespeare does the opposite in Macbeth where he has Lady Macbeth tell her husband: "Look like the innocent flower, but be the serpent under it." A metaphor within a simile. A real serpent hiding beneath an imaginary flower.

A parallel thought often quoted from The Oresteia of Aeschylus is:

“Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.”