Teaching Approaches

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Understanding Oneself in a Complex World as Theme: Like other tragic heroes, King Lear is on a journey to discover himself amid layers of complicated relationships. He strives to understanding who he is as king and what it means to lose political power. He strives to understand who he is as a father and who his daughters are as adults. He strives to understand his aging self, the limits of his mental and physical strength and what it means to approach the end of his life. 

  • For discussion: Describe the way in which Lear relinquishes political power, as well as his reasons for doing so. Is he a successful leader? Why or why not? 
  • For discussion: How does Lear define his relationships with his daughters? How does he measure their affections in act 1? How do their affections change over the course of the play? 
  • For discussion: What control does Lear have over his own future? How does Lear’s agency develop over the course of the play? 

Compassion in a Cruel World as Theme: King Lear is a play marked by undeniable cruelty and tragedy, yet the familial and political ties that move some characters to treachery move others to compassion. 

  • For discussion: Consider the instances of cruelty and compassion in the play. Which characters display cruelty and which characters display compassion? Why? Which characters, if any, display both? 
  • For discussion: Many argue that the play expresses a pessimistic, or nihilistic, worldview. Do you agree or disagree? Why or why not? 

Conflict Between Fathers and Children as Theme: Though King Lear has a considerable political layer, it is also a family drama. The parallel narrative of Gloucester and his sons accentuates the intimate familial conflicts in Lear’s story arc. 

  • For discussion: What motivates Lear to ask his daughters to compete for his affection? Why does Cordelia refuse to respond? 
  • For discussion: What obligation do Goneril and Regan have to their father? Is Lear justified in his demands? Are Goneril and Regan justified in casting him out? 
  • For discussion: Why does Edmund pursue power? Is his pursuit justified? 
  • For discussion: Compare and contrast Gloucester and Lear as fathers. Do they deserve the treatment they receive from their children? 

The Pain of Losing Power as Theme: When Lear abdicates the throne, he sets off a sequence of events that ends in his rambling, crazed and naked, through the wilderness. King Lear enacts both the timeless story of a king’s fall from power as well as the decay inherent in the aging process. 

  • For discussion: What authority does Lear have at the start of the play? How does he exert his authority? How does Lear lose his power and how it is redistributed over the course of the play? 
  • For discussion: Over the course of the play, Goneril, Regan, Edmund, and Edgar all attain varying degrees of political power. How do they achieve it? How does it affect each of them? 
  • For discussion: Compare and contrast Lear as a paternal and political character. How does his relationship with his courtiers compare to his relationships with his daughters? Is he able to maintain power over one group more or less effectively than the other? 

Motifs Underscoring Themes in the Play: A variety of motifs appear over the course of the play that emphasize major themes in the text. Motifs are generally images that repeat throughout a work, carrying symbolic or thematic meanings. 

  • Castles and wilderness: These contrasting locales offer the two primary settings throughout the play. The castle comes to symbolize social order and both political power and family ties. Alternately, the wilderness comes to represent a chaos and madness; it is a place far from the human world where characters can pursue their authentic selves. 
  • Costumes: Lear wears various regalia over the course of the play before ultimately disrobing, and Kent and Edgar both don disguises. Costumes come to symbolize the difficulty characters having in recognizing themselves and one another. 
  • Sight and blindness: Sight, figuratively and literally symbolizes characters’ capacity to see the truth about themselves and others. 
  • The Fool: The Fool stands opposite the elite cast in social standing, yet he is the only character Lear allows to criticize him. A purveyor of irony, the Fool warns Lear as early as act 1, scene 4 that it was a mistake to give up his land to his daughters. Mysteriously, the Fool disappears after act 3, scene 6. 

Tricky Issues to Address While Teaching

Shakespeare’s Diction and Syntax Are Unfamiliar: Shakespeare is known as a great wordsmith, and his inventive language has puzzled and intimidated students and audiences for centuries. For many, reading Shakespeare is akin to reading a foreign language, both for its archaic diction and its riddlesome qualities. 

  • What to do: Introduce students to common Shakespearean dramatic devices before starting the play and critical vocabulary before studying specific scenes. 
  • What to do: Describe the character, setting, and plot before tackling the text itself. When possible, show scenes from productions of King Lear or allow students the opportunity to perform passages themselves. Context will support student understanding of figurative language. 
  • What to do: Give students ample time for collaborative and guided reading in class. Similarly, consider giving students the permission to skim sections that are less relevant to the class discussion. 

The Plot Is Complex and Confusing: King Lear can be a confusing play to keep track of. There are two separate plots, which follow the narratives of Lear and Gloucester; there are two characters with similar names (Edmund and Edgar); and there are two characters who use multiple disguises (Kent and Edgar). 

  • What to do: Draw on a variety of study guides and organizational techniques to support students as they read the play. Employ creative reading strategies to aid student comprehension. For example, consider having students act out scenes that develop the plot of a specific character, as opposed to scenes that follow sequentially in the text. 
  • What to do: Share the following mnemonic: Edgar the Good; Edmund the Mean. 
  • What to do: Watch a sampling of film adaptations concurrent with the class’s reading of the text. Have students dramatize key scenes, using a variety of simple costumes to enact disguises. 

Misogyny Is Rampant: The society within King Lear reflects a patriarchal and often misogynistic worldview that held primogeniture as the foundation of political power and property ownership. The opening conflict of the play—the division of Lear’s kingdom— would have been instantly resolved had he had a son. As Lear’s conflict with Goneril and Regan escalates, his view of women in general as threatening, problematic, disloyal, promiscuous, and even monstrous becomes increasingly apparent. 

  • What to do: Invite students into a close reading of the text, analyzing passages in which Lear addresses the topic of gender. Lead them in a discussion about his attitude toward women. Does it change over the course of the play? Is it inherent in his nature, a result of his changing circumstances, or a product of his madness? 
  • What to do: Ask students to translate Lear’s language about women into modern parlance. Ask them to reflect on the extent to which such attitudes about women pervade American culture today. 

Alternative Approaches to Teaching King Lear

While the main ideas, character development, and discussion questions above are typically the focal points of units involving this text, the following suggestions represent alternative readings that may enrich your students’ experience and understanding of the play. 

Focus on Goneril and Regan as antiheroes. Invite students to read the text from the perspective of Goneril and Regan. Discuss with them the ways in which women had less access to familial, social, and political power than men did. Evaluate the extent to which Goneril and Regan were justified in the actions they took. 

Focus on social and class conflict. Edgar and Kent both experience changes in social class over the course of the play. Discuss how these changes give them access to different freedoms and privileges as they move between the worlds of nobility and wilderness. 

Focus on the Fool as a rhetorical device. The Fool is often considered the primary vehicle for social critique in the play, voicing social truths that reverberated in pre- Christian Britain and Shakespearean England alike. Discuss the wisdom of the Fool and the unique position he occupies in the world of the court. 

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