Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 776
Lear, the king of England, now in his old age. Lear’s enterprise to protect his lands from attack by the dukes of North and Cornwall is near completion. By constructing a wall around his kingdom, Lear is shown as a strong and politically effective leader. His failure, however, is...
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Lear, the king of England, now in his old age. Lear’s enterprise to protect his lands from attack by the dukes of North and Cornwall is near completion. By constructing a wall around his kingdom, Lear is shown as a strong and politically effective leader. His failure, however, is that in keeping enemies out, Lear also traps within the country various internal destructive forces. Consequently, civil war breaks out, and Lear is driven from his own kingdom. Wandering in the wilderness, he returns to an almost childlike state, shrugging off responsibility for the society he created. Captured by the new government, Lear begins to learn, for the first time, the kind of king and father he has been. Strict and authoritarian, but with the best of intentions, Lear has been overprotective, suffocating his daughters’ individuality and causing them to respond viciously to the world. Now, as their prisoner, Lear is made “politically ineffective” by the removal of his eyes. Lear’s blinding symbolically begins his growth in understanding, and he begins to see that the only way forward is a peaceful one. Lear is shot attempting to destroy the wall, which represents the severe and annihilating man Lear was as both a parent and a king.
Bodice, Lear’s daughter. Ambitious, intelligent, organized, and dangerous, Bodice, like her sister, craves political power. Unlike Fontanelle, however, Bodice is not easily fooled. She marries North expecting nothing and so is not surprised at discovering that her husband’s bravery is far from genuine. Having taken joint control of the country, she discovers the limitations of power and fails to achieve the success and fulfillment she desires. Bodice emerges as an isolated and lonely woman.
Fontanelle, Lear’s daughter. Fontanelle’s psychological scars, caused by a lonely childhood without a mother and living surrounded by the death of soldiers in war, go deeper than those of her sister. Fontanelle, a scheming but not particularly intelligent woman, is searching for the love and security always denied her. She does not find it through her acquisition of power, her marriage to Cornwall, the torture of Lear’s chief adviser, Warrington, or her countless romantic affairs.
Duke of North
Duke of North, Bodice’s husband. North is a foolish character who is simply a pawn in the political game played by Lear’s daughters. According to his wife, North is impotent and a coward afraid of war.
Duke of Cornwall
Duke of Cornwall, Fontanelle’s husband. Like North, Cornwall is fraudulent, deceiving Fontanelle into marrying him by sending the letters and pictures of others. Cornwall, described by Fontanelle as a “frightened little boy,” like North is afraid of fighting.
The Gravedigger’s Boy
The Gravedigger’s Boy, a thoughtful and compassionate man. His farm serves as a model of self-sufficiency, demonstrating how it is possible to survive in spite of the political world in which he lives. Generous to Warrington and Lear, providing both with food and Lear with a place to stay, the Gravedigger’s Boy has an ignorance of politics that leads to his death. His ghost returns to provide Lear with hope of an escape from reality. Lear’s gradual insight into the cause of suffering, however, means that the vision Lear has of the boy fades: The Gravedigger’s Boy dies for a second time.
Cordelia, the Gravedigger’s Boy’s Wife, a happily married and pregnant farmer’s wife. From the beginning of the play, Cordelia is concerned about her husband’s philanthropic nature. The arrival of Lear also causes her great concern. Cordelia’s fears for their well-being are justified by the arrival of the soldiers, the murder of her husband, and her own rape and subsequent miscarriage. As a result of this incident, Cordelia becomes openly aggressive, determined to wage war on those responsible for shattering her life. Cordelia, along with her new husband, John, lead an army against the forces of Bodice and Fontanelle. Having successfully acquired control of the state, she sets about creating the society of which Lear could only dream. Unfortunately for Cordelia, in doing so she repeats the mistakes of Lear.
John the Carpenter
John the Carpenter, a character who demonstrates integrity and bravery. Despite his love for Cordelia, John respects her marriage to the Gravedigger’s Boy and settles for simply visiting her at the farm. One such occasion is the time of the soldiers’ attack. John saves Cordelia, murders the aggressors, and subsequently marries her. Together, they attack the armies of Bodice and Fontanelle. John is unrelenting in his attitude toward Lear’s daughters, apparently unconcerned by the pain and suffering he causes.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1846
Ben is an orderly m the prison who is kind to Lear When Ben, pursued by soldiers, later appears at the Gravedigger's Boy's house, Lear takes him in despite the danger in doing so.
The Bishop appears briefly in the first act, blessing Lear's army. He tells Lear that God will support him, not the women who act against him.
Bodice is Lear's daughter and Fontanelle's sister. In the first scene, she objects to her father's cruelty in killing one of his workmen, but when she marries the Duke of North and leads a successful rebellion against her father, she becomes more cruel than he was, even coolly planning her own husband' s murder. Although in many ways she is quite similar to her sister, Bodice is the more cold and calculating of the two. While Warrington is being tortured, Bodice calmly knits, and her concentration on her knitting throughout this horrid scene is so extreme that it becomes darkly comic. As the play progresses, Bodice's desire for power grows, and she imprisons her husband and speaks of eventually killing her sister. She is, however, the more introspective of the two sisters, and in a monologue speaks of her own feeling that all of her power traps her and makes her its slave. When Bodice is finally imprisoned, she is as calculating as ever. She is killed by Cordelia's soldiers while in prison, and it is clear that she has learned nothing.
The Carpenter is first seen at the home of the Gravedigger's Boy and his wife, Cordelia. The Gravedigger's Boy says that the Carpenter comes to their home often because of his love for Cordelia. Shortly after soldiers kill the Gravedigger's Boy and rape Cordelia, the Carpenter comes on stage and kills the soldiers. He and Cordelia marry. Although his killing of the soldiers seems to be a noble act, when Cordelia gains power, he becomes a part of her corrupt government.
The audience first sees Cordelia, the Gravedigger's Boy's Wife, at home with her husband when Lear comes seeking shelter. She is not as compassionate as the Gravedigger's Boy and wants Lear to leave. After her husband is killed by the soldiers who cruelly rape her, Cordelia marries the Carpenter and leads a rebellion against Bodice and Fontanelle. Her rebellion is successful, but once in power, she is every bit as cruel as those she fought against. It is Cordelia who leaves her own wounded soldier to die alone, who orders the executions of Bodice and Fontanelle, and the blinding of Lear She allows Lear to live but tries to stop his public speaking. It is one of her soldiers who finally kills Lear.
Duke of Cornwall
The Duke of Cornwall begins as an enemy of Lear's kingdom, but Fontanelle says that by marrying him, she can bring peace between him and her father. Instead, he becomes a part of Fontanelle and Bodice's revolution against Lear. Fontanelle quickly tires of him and attempts to have him killed. He survives, but Fontanelle later has him imprisoned. As a character, he is virtually interchangeable with the Duke of North.
Duke of North
Initially an enemy of Lear's kingdom, the Duke of North marries Bodice, supposedly in order to bring peace, but then supports Bodice and Fontanelle's revolution. Bodice, however, soon grows tired of him and tries to have him killed. Although that attempt fails, she eventually succeeds in having him imprisoned. There is little difference between the Duke of North and the Duke of Cornwall, Fontanelle's husband.
The Farmer appears by Lear's wall with his wife and son shortly after Lear is released, blinded, from prison. When Lear asks to rest in his home, the Farmer explains that he has lost everything due to the madness of the king and his obsession with building the wall. Lear begins to see the real effects of what he has done and to feel compassion for the people of the kingdom.
The Farmer's Son appears with his mother and father at Lear's wall. At the time Lear meets him, he is being conscripted into Cordelia's army. Lear begs him not to go, but to run away instead. In the final scene, it is the Farmer's Son, now a soldier, who shoots and kills Lear.
The Farmer's Wife appears at Lear's wall with her husband and son. She is resigned to the dark fate of her family.
Firing Squad Officer
The Firing Squad Officer commands the firing squad that is supposed to shoot one of Lear's workers at his command. When they are not quick enough, Lear shoots the man himself.
Fontanelle is Lear's daughter and Bodice's sister. In the first scene, her objection to her father's killing of a workman makes her seem compassionate, but when she and Bodice lead the rebellion against Lear, it becomes clear that she is immensely cruel. Fontanelle plans the murder of her husband, an effort which fails, but is shown at her cruelest during the torture of Warrington, when she becomes so excited about Warrington's suffering that the result is a sort of black humor. Her extreme pleasure in the torture contrasts with Bodice's calm state. Although Fontanelle and Bodice are supposedly working together, they are not loyal to one another; Fontanelle has her own spies. Fontanelle is finally imprisoned by Cordelia and executed. Afterwards, she is autopsied onstage and Lear is moved by the beauty of the inside of her body In viewing Fontanelle's autopsy, Lear becomes aware of his
responsibility in the formation of his children's characters. Although she learns nothing herself, in death Fontanelle contributes to Lear's clearer understanding of his own cruelty.
See Gravedigger's Boy
The Gravedigger's Boy plays a strong part in teaching Lear about compassion When he first meets Lear, the Gravedigger's Boy is living in a pastoral setting with his pregnant wife, Cordelia. The simplicity of his life and his kindness bring about the beginning of Lear's change. After the Gravedigger's Boy is murdered by soldiers, he later appears to Lear in his prison cell, now as a Ghost. As the Ghost, he continues to teach Lear as he tries to help him, but the Ghost himself is in a state of continuing deterioration. He is slowly dying and is afraid. Lear, calling the Ghost his boy, becomes his protector, but is unable to save the Ghost from his decline. Meanwhile, the Ghost continues in his protective attitude toward Lear. The two learn to help and teach each other and to show one another true kindness and compassion. Finally, however, the Ghost is mauled to death by maddened pigs, and Lear feels the pain of his second death.
Gravedigger's Boy's Wife
John lives with Thomas, Susan, and Lear at the Gravedigger's Boy's house. He is more critical of Lear and eventually leaves for the city, asking Susan to leave Thomas and come with him She stays with Thomas and Lear
The Judge, who is clearly under the control of Bodice and Fontanelle, presides at Lear's trial and concludes that Lear is mad.
Lear is the play's title character. The action revolves largely around his growth as an individual. When he first appears on stage, it is as a cruel king bent on building a wall around his kingdom, supposedly to protect his people. His actions, however, soon show his indifference to their lives, as he kills a workman who has accidentally killed another and thus delayed the completion of the wall. When Lear is deposed by his daughters, Bodice and Fontanelle,
he begins to suffer and to change through that suffering. When the rebellion first begins, Lear denies that he even has daughters, but he eventually takes responsibility for his part in building their characters. His relationship with the Gravedigger's Boy, and subsequently with the Gravedigger's Boy's Ghost, also changes him as he begins to see the possibility of true kindness. Much of Lear's change, in fact, comes because of his relationships with other people. As he sees the world through their eyes, he develops compassion and is finally willing to give his own life because of the good it might do others. His final act, an attempt to dig up his own wall, shows the extent of his transformation. It is this transformation that is the center of the play.
The Officer comes to the Gravedigger's Boy's house while Lear is living there with Thomas, Susan, and John. He accuses Lear of harboring deserters and takes the Small Man away to be executed.
The Old Councilor is loyal to whatever regime is in power. He begins as a minister of Lear's, supports Bodice and Fontanelle when they are in power, and eventually works for Cordelia.
Four Prisoners appear with Lear in a prison convoy. One of them is also the Prison Doctor who performs the autopsy on Fontanelle and later blinds Lear.
The Small Man is a deserter pursued by soldiers. He asks Lear, Thomas, Susan, and John to hide him. Lear tries to protect him, but he is eventually found by the soldiers and taken away to be executed.
Fourteen soldiers have speaking parts in the play, and others appear on stage. These soldiers are a frequent presence throughout the play and are usually seen in the act of killing or torturing people. They are in the service of the various corrupt regimes.
Susan is Thomas's wife and lives at the Gravedigger's Boy's house with Thomas, John, and Lear Like Thomas, she is concerned that Lear's compassion for others will endanger the household, but it is she who leads Lear to his wall so that he can commit his defiant final act.
Thomas, his wife Susan, and John live with Lear at the Gravedigger's Boy's house after Lear has been blinded and released from prison. Thomas is compassionate, but unlike Lear, he is reluctant to endanger the household by helping those pursued by Cordelia's army. He is also concerned that Lear's public speaking will bring trouble. Yet he says he wants to fight for the good of the people. Susan and John want him to leave Lear, but he refuses.
Warrington is loyal to Lear. He is captured and brutally tortured under the direction of Lear's daughters when they first rebel against their father. The daughters decide not to kill Warrington and for a time he lives in the woods and is referred to as ' 'the wild man" by the Gravedigger's Boy and his wife. He drowns in their well.
The three workmen appear in the first scene, where they are seen building Lear's wall. Their only value to Lear is in their ability to work on the wall. When one is accidentally killed, Lear's only concern is for the resulting delay in building the wall.
Wounded Rebel Soldier
The Wounded Rebel Soldier was injured fighting in Cordelia's army. She, the Carpenter, and the other rebel soldiers abandon him to die alone.