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...

(The entire section is 1030 words.)