Introductory Lecture and Objectives

Introductory Lecture

Often viewed as Shakespeare’s darkest tragedy, King Lear also ranks among his most famous. It is particularly known for the way in which Shakespeare expanded upon his use of subplot, a technique he experimented with in Hamlet but developed further in King Lear. Shakespeare based the work on King Leir, a play of unknown authorship which was performed in London in the early 1590s. However, Shakespeare’s version introduced many new and unique elements, including the king’s madness and the tragic ending.

As the play opens, we meet Gloucester and his sons, who play a sustained role in the subplot. The action then moves directly to Lear, whom we see ready to divide his kingdom among his three daughters. He plans to give the lion’s share to the child who can most convincingly speak of her love for him. Goneril, the eldest, and Regan, the middle child, offer flowery descriptions of their devotion, and each inherits part of the kingdom. Cordelia, his youngest and longtime favorite, however, is plainspoken and cannot bring herself to say anything but “nothing.” For this, Lear rescinds her dowry and banishes her, although luckily the king of France agrees to marry her. Lear then splits the kingdom between the elder daughters, retaining one hundred knights and squires for his own purposes. Lear also banishes his faithful liege, Kent, who attempts to defend Cordelia. However, Kent dons a disguise and manages to return to Lear’s service.

Soon we learn of the villainous nature of Gloucester’s illegitimate son, Edmund, who plots against his legitimate brother Edgar in a ploy to take all the inheritance. Like Edmund, Goneril and Regan are revealed to be evil, as they quickly move to usurp Lear’s remaining power and authority. Several letters are written by and passed among these villainous characters, which contributes to the play’s rising action, the “tangling” of the plot. As Lear begins to ascertain his mistake with Cordelia, his two disloyal daughters and their husbands deprive him of his retinue, place Kent in the stocks, and ultimately shut Lear out in a terrifying storm as his rage begins to cross the line into madness. Chaotic language and disguise play key roles as the action unfolds. Lear’s fool incessantly jokes and rhymes, but in his confusing observations, he offers insight regarding Lear’s dire situation; also, Gloucester’s legitimate son, Edgar, plays at madness as he takes on the disguise of a beggar, poor Tom.

At the end of Act Three, Gloucester’s eyes are brutally gouged out by Cornwall. Losing his literal sight, he metaphorically “sees” that Edgar, not Edmund, is his true and loyal son. Gloucester may suffer physically, but Lear suffers moral and mental torment. In the remainder of the drama, as Lear flees to Dover to meet Cordelia, who has landed with the French army and hopes to restore Lear’s throne, he descends into a state of madness. The British forces win the battle and take Lear and Cordelia captive.

Eventually, the story’s worst villains become victims of their own evil qualities: both Gloucester’s deceitful son Edmund and Lear’s two eldest daughters are killed. However, truly good characters such as Cordelia also die, making the tragic aspect of the play more profound. As the action concludes, Lear grieves for Cordelia and meets his end. There is some sense of justice in the conclusion of the drama. The worst villains are punished appropriately, and Lear pays a dreadful price for his egotism in the sacrifice of Cordelia. However, the play’s conclusion does not imply that fairness is a ruling principle.

Although Edgar’s accepting responsibility for the realm inspires some hope for the future, it’s clear that he would rule alone, as Kent senses his own imminent death. The fate of the kingdom is uncertain, and justice is not meted out fairly by people or by gods.

The moral bleakness and the degree of cruelty in the play were shocking in its time and remain so even today. When it was performed in the early 1600s, some critics called for the gouging-out of Gloucester’s eyes to take place offstage because of its brutality. This is not gratuitous violence, however, since the play’s action underscores enduring issues about the human condition: Trusting in appearances and lacking insight into human nature can lead to dire consequences now, just as they did in Shakespeare’s day. There are many unanswered questions and no happy endings in the play, but that could be be- cause the author himself felt uncertain about the resolution of the play’s thorny issues. For example, Shakespeare’s original version ended with Albany making the final speech and thus ruling the realm. In another version, Edgar makes the final speech and rules the realm. Today’s readers who may mistakenly perceive Shakespearian language and plot as static or antiquated should take comfort in the idea that King Lear is a dynamic story which inspired even its author to interpret it more than one way.

There are many ways to understand King Lear, literally and otherwise. In 1681, Nahum Tate created a now infamous adaptation of the play. In Tate’s version, which superseded Shakespeare’s for nearly 150 years, 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. Eventually, Shakespeare’s version again became the touchstone, and the way scholars and critics interpret it has varied over time. Lear’s fate can be seen pessimistically, as evidence that there is no divine justice, or optimistically, as proving the redemptive power of filial love. In King Lear, Shakespeare draws us in and defies our expectations, while revealing some of the darkest and most fundamental aspects of the human condition.

By the end of the unit the student will be able to:

1. Identify the subplot and explain its significance in the play.

2. Identify and discuss the primary themes in King Lear.

3. Determine what makes King Lear such a timeless and popular work.

4. Explain how Lear’s relationship to authority and power is central to the plot.

5. Identify examples of sight and blindness, both physical and metaphorical, in the text and explain their significance.

6. Discuss elements of madness and nonsense in the play and Shakespeare’s possible intentions regarding them.

Instructional Focus: Teaching With an eNotes Lesson Plan

This eNotes lesson plan is designed so that it may be used in numerous ways to accommodate ESL students and to differentiate instruction in the classroom.

Student Study Guide

• The Study Guide is organized for an act-by-act study of the play. Study Guide pages may be assigned individually and completed at a student’s own pace.

• Study Guide pages may be used as pre-reading activities to preview for students the vocabulary words they will encounter in reading each act and to acquaint them generally with its content.

• Before Study Guide pages are assigned, questions may be selected from them to use as short quizzes to assess reading comprehension.
• Study Guide vocabulary lists...

(The entire section is 951 words.)

Essay and Discussion Questions

1. Describe what we learn about Lear’s character over the course of the play. What are his flaws? How does he change?

2. Lear describes himself as ready “to shake all cares and business from our age, / Conferring them on younger strengths while we / Unburdened crawl to death.” What does this declaration reveal about his attitude towards his responsibilities and power as king?

3. Cordelia refuses to give Lear a flowery public assurance of her love; her response to Lear’s love test is “Nothing.” Lear encourages her to expand upon her words: “Nothing will come of nothing,” he says. How does this idea recur throughout the play, and what does it mean?


(The entire section is 565 words.)

Act One, Scene One


adieu: goodbye

Apollo: Greek/Roman mythology sun god

barbarous: uncivilized

benison: a blessing

brazed: hardened

champaigns riched: rich and open countryside

dowers: dowries

durst: archaic dared

Hecate: Greek mythology goddess of witchcraft and the moon

inflamed: glowing, ardent

Jupiter: Roman mythology supreme god

liege: a lord

mar: to spoil

meads: archaic meadows

miscreant: a villain

moiety: archaic a half; a part or portion

orbs: planets

ponderous: weighty

potency: power


(The entire section is 701 words.)

Act One, Scene Two


abominable: detestable, loathsome

anon: archaic soon

auricular assurance: hear for yourself

base: low-born, unworthy

casement: a window

character: handwriting

choler: anger

closet: a private room

comedy: play

compounded: archaic had sex

divine: celestial

fain: archaic willingly, obligingly

fond: foolish

fops: weak fools

forbear: to be patient; to hold back, to restrain oneself

fortunes: inheritance

got: conceived

honest madam’s issue: a legitimate child

idle: useless

moonshines: archaic months


(The entire section is 497 words.)

Act One, Scenes Three, Four, and Five


abatement: a reduction

carp: to complain

chiding: rebuking

clotpoll: an idiot

coxcomb: a fool’s headgear with a crest like a cock’s comb

crab: sour crab apple

darkling: in the dark

derogate: degenerate

dispositions: moods

disquantity: reduction

dotage: foolish old age

epicurism: a philosophy of pleasure seeking

event: the outcome

forsooth: in truth

gall: archaic bitterness

Jug: slang generic name for a prostitute

kibes: inflamed heels

kite: a scavenger bird

knave: a tricky and deceitful fellow; a servant

perforce: by necessity,...

(The entire section is 644 words.)

Act Two, Scene One


alarumed: archaic stirred

bewray: archaic to expose

capable: able to inherit

consort: company

differences: disputes

ear-kissing arguments: rumors

faithed: believed

ghasted: archaic frightened

moon: (in context) Hecate, the goddess of the moon and of witchcraft

office: role, function, task

parricides: the killings of parents

unprovided: unprotected

Study Questions

1. How does Edmund get wounded? How does Gloucester react, and what does he bestow upon Edmund?

Edmund wounds himself but claims that Edgar did it. Gloucester is enraged...

(The entire section is 219 words.)

Act Two, Scene Two


Ajax: Greek mythology a great warrior known for stupidity

a-twain: in two

beguiled: deceived; seduced, wooed

blood: lineage

carbonado: a slash on the diagonal

carbuncle: an infected boil of the skin

cullionly: rascally

depositaries: trustees

dolours: grief

finical: fussy

fleshment: excitement of first success

glass-gazing: vain

halcyon: a kingfisher bird

infirmity: illness

intrinse: intertwined

jakes: a toilet

Juno: Roman mythology wife of Jupiter

mire: mud

obscured course: a disguise, a secret purpose

o’erwatched: overtired, worn...

(The entire section is 656 words.)

Act Three, Scenes One, Two, and Three


Albion: ancient name for Great Britain

caitiff: archaic a villain, a wretch

cataracts: downpours, floods

cocks: weathervanes in the form of roosters

court holy-water: flattery

courtesan: a courtier’s mistress

cutpurses: archaic thieves, pickpockets

fie: an exclamation of distaste or outrage

footed: ashore

germens: archaic seeds

heretics: religious dissenters

holla: to shout to

out-jest: distract with jokes

perchance: perhaps

privily: secretly

pudder: a tumult, a commotion

scanted: withheld

simular: a pretender


(The entire section is 479 words.)

Act Three, Scene Four


Athenian: a person from Athens, Greece; a philosopher

bide: to endure

fathom: about six feet

foul: wicked

greater malady: mental suffering

importune: to urge

i’th’mouth: archaic face to face

light of ear: interested in gossip and rumor

lopped and windowed: full of holes

out-paramoured: had more lovers than

pelican: a symbol of filial cruelty

pendulous: overhanging

physic: medicine

pillicock/pillicock-hill: slang male and female genitals

plackets: openings in skirts; slang vaginas

pomp: splendor

ratsbane: rat poison

Smulkin: the...

(The entire section is 434 words.)

Act Three, Scenes Five, Six and Seven


angler: a fisherman; a thief

apace: rapidly

avaunt: begone

bobtail tyke: a dog with a short tail

corky: dry

counterfeiting: pretense

Dover: a port on the south coast of Britain

festinate: hasty, quick

Frateretto: the name of a devil

hizzing: hissing

holp: helped

horn: a vessel for drinking carried by beggars

intelligent party: an informer

litter: a vehicle containing a bed

Persian: luxurious

pinion: to bind

post: travel swiftly

questrists: seekers

quicken: to come to life

ravish: to pluck

sessa: a cry of encouragement used in hunting


(The entire section is 467 words.)

Act Four, Scenes One and Two


abused: deceived

bending: overhanging

brother: brother-in-law

commodities: benefits

contemned: despised

cowish: cowardly

distaff: a spindle for weaving, symbolic of womanhood

esperance: hope

fourscore: eighty

milk-livered: cowardly

mistress: ruler, lover

musters: troop gatherings

mutations: changes

plague: affliction

‘pparel (apparel): clothing

prove effects: be fulfilled

reason: sanity

remorse: pity

rude: rough

services: sexual services

strokes: afflictions

venge: to avenge

wanton: unruly, immoral


(The entire section is 493 words.)

Act Four, Scenes Three and Four


ado: a fuss

belike: probably

blown: corrupt

burdocks: weeds

colours: military banners

convenient: fitting

cuckoo-flowers: wildflowers

darnel: a weed

descry: to discover

fumiter: a weed

hemlock: a plant with lethal properties of sedation

ignorance: folly

nighted: darkened

oeillades: archaic amorous looks

preparation: ready military force

rank: excessively vigorous in growth

remediate: to heal

unpublished virtues: secret powers

ways: roads

Study Questions

1. Scene Three opens at the French encampment near Dover. Whom...

(The entire section is 306 words.)

Act Four, Scene Five


ague-proof: immune to fever and sickness

a-height: on high

apothecary: a preparer of drugs or perfumes

aught: anything

ballow: a cudgel

bark: a small ship

beadle: an officer of the law

brown bills: long-handled weapons or soldiers who carry them

case: sockets

centaurs: mythical creatures, symbolic of lust

challenge: written challenge to a duel

choughs: birds in the crow family

civet: perfume

clout: archery target

costard: archaic a human head

cozener: cheater

crow-keeper: a scarecrow

Cupid: Roman mythology god of love, usually blind


(The entire section is 693 words.)

Act Four, Scene Six


bliss: heaven

flakes: locks of hair

o’erpaid: already more than enough

rogues: destitute vagabonds

settling: calmness of the mind

suited: dressed

temperance: moderation, self-restraint

weeds: clothes

wheel of fire: a torture for the damned in hell

wind up: to tune, as an instrument

Study Questions

1. As the scene opens, Cordelia speaks with Kent, who is still in disguise. What does Cordelia suggest to him that he decides against?

She suggests he change out of the clothes he has worn while in disguise, but he states that he is not yet ready to have his identity known.


(The entire section is 250 words.)

Act Five, Scenes One and Two


ancient of war: experienced army officers

avouched: declared

doubted: feared

familiar: sexually intimate

father: general way to address an old man

forfended: forbidden

host: a shelter

know the riddle: to see through a trick

machination: plotting

miscarry: to lose the battle

ope: archaic open

powers: troops

rigour: harshness

state: government

Study Questions

1. Edmund and Regan expect to see someone as they enter the British camp near Dover, but the individual is not there. Who is missing, and what are their speculations about this person’s absence?...

(The entire section is 294 words.)

Act Five, Scene Three


arraign: to bring to trial

asquint: crookedly

aye: forever

banns: archaic an announcement of intent to marry

bespoke: spoken for

bootless: pointless

canker-bit: eaten away by grubs

cast down: defeated

compeers: equals

conspirant: conspirator

cup: painful experience

dame: a woman

enjoy: have sexual relations as between wife and husband

falchion: a curved sword

fordid: killed

full-flowing stomach: anger

gilded butterflies: overindulgent courtiers

gored: pierced or stabbed

habit: clothing

half-blooded: illegitimate

interlude: a short comic...

(The entire section is 699 words.)

Multiple-Choice Test and Answer Key

1. Which character or characters are key in the play’s subplot, which parallels and informs the main plot?

A. Kent

B. Gloucester

C. Kent and Edmund

D. Gloucester, Edmund, and Edgar

E. Gloucester and Kent

2. Lear indicates that he is ready to give up the throne, but what does he want that reveals his continued desire for the trappings of royalty?

A. He wants to keep Kent as his liege.

B. He wants to keep his castle so that he doesn’t have to live with his daughters.

C. He wants to keep one hundred knights and squires.

D. He wants to keep his...

(The entire section is 2005 words.)

Essay Exam Questions With Answers

1. Describe the importance of the subplot in King Lear; select and analyze at least two scenes that show how the subplot heightens the central themes of the play.

The subplot that revolves around Gloucester, Edmund, and Edgar intensifies themes at the core of King Lear. Gloucester’s character and the development of the subplot parallel Lear’s character and the development of the plot of the drama. Both Gloucester and Lear must contend with self-interested children who essentially want them to die, just as each rejects the child that truly loves him. Both characters exemplify folly; each makes errors in judgment due to flaws in his own character which bring about tragic results. Lear is deprived of the...

(The entire section is 2754 words.)