The Play

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

Lear is a powerful, complex, and violent study of how men and women are crushed by the society they have created. The play focuses on Lear, who, to compensate for the errors of his life, attempts to change his society. Lear can be divided into four distinct phases: Lear as king; Lear at the house of the Gravedigger’s Boy; Lear in his former kingdom, now run by his daughters; and finally, Lear as outcast.

The first phase shows King Lear building a wall to prevent an attack by armies led by the Dukes of North and Cornwall. During an inspection of the wall, Lear uses the accidental death of a laborer to speed up the work. He falsely accuses another laborer of causing the accident and passes a death sentence on him. Bodice and Fontanelle, Lear’s two daughters who accompany him, publicly denounce their father’s actions and choose this moment to inform him of their intended marriages to the dukes. Such an action establishes Lear’s daughters as enemies of the state. Provoked, and partly in order to prove his power, an angry Lear shoots the innocent worker.

Warrington, Lear’s chief administrator, receives letters from Bodice and Fontanelle; each urges him to betray both the king and the other sister. In separate comic asides, Bodice and Fontanelle tell of their dissatisfaction with married life and reveal ambitions to destroy each other as well as their husbands, marry Warrington, and run the country through him.

Civil war follows, and although Lear’s two daughters fail to destroy each other or their husbands, the army succeeds in overthrowing the king. Warrington survives the war but, with his knowledge of each sister’s counterplot, needs to be silenced. Fontanelle has his tongue removed; the two women then watch while he is tortured. As a result of their military takeover, Lear is forced out of his kingdom and deserted. The play, having shown the destruction of Lear’s power, now presents an alternative way of life.

The second phase of the play opens in the wilderness, where Lear is befriended by the Gravedigger’s Boy. Together, they return to the man’s farm. Lear is content here and, under the cloak of anonymity, is able to rest. As he sleeps, the Gravedigger’s Boy, so named because he used to dig graves with his father, argues with his wife, Cordelia, over his rescue of Lear. The farmer is compassionate and has also taken pity on a “wild man” from the wars, the silenced Warrington, who roams the woods. The farmer leaves bread and water...

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Dramatic Devices

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

Lear uses as its central figure the character of King Lear, who, according to Raphael Holinshed, “lived about the year 3100 after the creation.” William Shakespeare’s play, King Lear (pr. c. 1605-1606), deals with an old man who, through his own rash deed and misjudgment of his daughters, is subjected to terrible suffering. Lear is not a rewriting of Shakespeare’s play but an examination of certain aspects of a myth in the light of Edward Bond’s own experience of the world. There are, however, numerous similarities with Shakespeare’s play that illuminate Bond’s version.

The Gravedigger’s Boy is Bond’s fool, able to indicate Lear’s mistakes but not to solve them. Bodice and Fontanelle, like Goneril and Regan, are created and given license to act by their father but turn this power against him. Although in Lear Cordelia is not the king’s daughter, Bond does make a connection between the two characters. Cordelia inherits Lear’s position as head of state and carries out her duties with a similar self-righteousness. Bond dramatically explores this reinvention of the political wheel, showing that the same mistakes are inevitable. The impact Shakespeare’s play makes on a theater audience is such that a reinterpretation of the legend, such as Bond is attempting, can create new tensions and challenge an audience into thinking afresh about the issues contained in the play.

Lear, despite shocking scenes which arrest an audience’s attention, also provides splendid moments of comic relief. Much of this humor arises from a contrast between the grotesque and the ludicrous: Bodice knits while Warrington is tortured, and the doctor calms Lear, after the removal of his eyes, with pleasant, soothing words. Moments such as these provide one of the keys to Bond’s success as a writer. He is able to capture his total experience of the world and convert it into theatrical metaphors that operate on many different levels simultaneously. For Bond, these metaphors must always be political.

Historical Context

(Drama for Students)

British writers of Bond's generation were profoundly influenced by World War II and its aftermath German leader Adolf Hitler's intense...

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Literary Style

(Drama for Students)

Epic Theater/Alienation Effect
Twentieth-century playwright Bertold Brecht (The Three Penny Opera) developed the modern...

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Compare and Contrast

(Drama for Students)

1971: Advances in science and technology create fears that humankind is tragically abandoning its bucolic past. Contemporary problems...

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Topics for Further Study

(Drama for Students)

Discuss the difference between William Shakespeare's King Lear and Bond's Lear. In what ways has Bond changed Shakespeare's...

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What Do I Read Next?

(Drama for Students)

King Lear, a play written by William Shakespeare in about 1605, is the original source of Bond's adaptation In essence, Bond's play is...

(The entire section is 241 words.)

Bibliography and Further Reading

(Drama for Students)

Hay, Malcolm and Philip Roberts. Bond- A Study of His Plays, Eyre Methuen, 1980, p. 103.

Lappin, Lou....

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(Great Characters in Literature)

Sources for Further Study

Hay, Malcolm, and Philip Roberts. “Lear.” In Edward Bond: A Companion to the Plays. London: TQ, 1978.

Hirst, David L. Edward Bond. New York: Grove Press, 1986.

Lappin, Lou. “Lear and the Reconstruction of Tragedy.” In The Art and Politics of Edward Bond. New York: P. Lang, 1987.

Mangan, Michael. Edward Bond. London: British Council, 1998.

Oppel, Horst, and Sandra Christenson. Edward Bond’s “Lear” and Shakespeare’s “King Lear.” Wiesbaden, Germany:...

(The entire section is 116 words.)