The Play

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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 out for him. Cordelia is frightened of these “filthy old men” and cannot understand her husband’s priorities. While they all sleep, Warrington appears. His attempt to stab Lear fails, and he must hide in the well.

After a long rest, Lear awakes to see the arrival of a local carpenter, in love with Cordelia; he brings a cradle for the child Cordelia is expecting. The farmer, having been told by his wife that the water from the well is unclean, discovers that Warrington has fallen in and broken his neck. The farmer attempts to bring the body to the surface, but as he does so, soldiers arrive to arrest Lear. In a horrific climax to the first act, the soldiers murder the farmer and rape Cordelia. The carpenter, John, who has been fetching tools to mend a broken door, returns and kills the soldiers.

The third phase of Lear begins with Lear returning to his former kingdom, where he stands trial before his daughters. His grasp of the world has deteriorated so much that the judge declares...

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him insane and sentences him to imprisonment. Bodice and Fontanelle then turn their attention to an uprising against the state, led by Cordelia.

In prison, Lear is visited by the ghost of the Gravedigger’s Boy. Together Lear and the ghost share their sufferings, along with the ghosts of Lear’s daughters as they were when young. This moment in the play is important because it allows Lear to see and understand the forces that have made his children the way they are. Cordelia, her new husband John the carpenter, and the army continue in their fight against Bodice and Fontanelle, whose power is dwindling. In the final throes of their rule, the two sisters both arrest their husbands, the dukes, who have tried to escape, and sign Lear’s death warrant.

Despite the sisters’ efforts to maintain control, the state disintegrates. Fontanelle is caught by Cordelia’s soldiers and imprisoned with a number of men, including her father, who fails to recognize her. The past still haunts the present as the decomposing ghost of the Gravedigger’s Boy appears, forgives Lear for endangering his home, and embraces him as a father. In the same way that Lear used his authority in the first scene by killing the worker, Cordelia’s husband now orders Fontanelle shot, and Lear watches her autopsy. Bodice is also arrested, and is bayoneted to death by soldiers. The prison doctor, wishing to gain advancement with the new administration, makes Lear “politically ineffective” by removing his eyes.

The final act returns to the Gravedigger Boy’s farm, now occupied by Thomas, his pregnant wife Susan, and John. In their home they shelter Lear and, despite Susan’s reluctance, a few prisoners from the war. Lear speaks in public, and large groups of people come to listen. Cordelia, who has ordered the reconstruction of the wall, sees his speeches as dangerous to state security and requests that these activities cease. Lear, recognizing his earlier mistake in thinking that the wall would bring peace, informs her that it is of no value in the creation of a society. Cordelia refuses to listen and tells Lear that he must stand trial. The ghost of the Gravedigger’s Boy, whose vision of creating a new world within the old has failed, dies.

The final scene shows Lear climbing the wall, attempting to pull it down. A farmer’s son whom he has met earlier, now a junior officer in the army, shoots Lear, who dies at the wall.

Dramatic Devices

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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

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British writers of Bond's generation were profoundly influenced by World War II and its aftermath German leader Adolf Hitler's intense bombing of London, known as the "blitz,'' brought the horrors of war home to British soil At the end of the war, the discovery of the Nazi concentration camps (in which millions were put to death for their perceived threat to the German regime) revealed a previously unimagined evil. The American use of the atomic bomb at the end of the war led to new fears about the future of the planet, fears which were exacerbated when Britain tested its first hydrogen bomb in 1954.

For the British people, the violence of war was very real. At the close of the conflict, Britain began to lose its status as a nation. It had once been said that the sun never set on the British empire. Now that same empire was gradually dismantled as former colonies such as India and Africa regained their autonomy. The Suez crisis of 1956, in which Britain tried to gain control of the Suez Canal in Egypt and was subsequently condemned for its military interference, caused great disillusionment with the government. After the United Nations condemned Britain's action, troops were forced to withdraw, and the prime minister resigned. Equally sobering for leftist causes was the Soviet Union's invasion of Hungary in 1956 and its subsequent invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968. Socialism, seen by many as a hope for the future, was revealed to be as aggressive, dictatorial, and violent as any other political system.

The postwar years m England also saw the development of the Welfare State, in which responsibility for the poor would rest largely on the government. In 1946, the National Insurance Act and the National Health Service Act were passed. The National Assistance Act of 1948 was designed to provide government relief for the poor. Many believed that through the government's actions, poverty and unemployment would be abolished, a line of reasoning that was quickly proven false. The belief in the need for government assistance for the poor, however, continued into the late 1960s and early 1970s. In these later years, government policies also became increasingly liberal. Homosexuality, previously illegal, was now considered outside of government jurisdiction. The National Health Service began to fund contraception and abortions for the poor. Women and members of minority groups began to agitate for their rights. The Lord Chamberlain's power to censor the theater was abolished.

In his preface to Lear Bond writes, "We can see that most men are spending their lives doing things for which they are not biologically designed. We are not designed for our production lines, housing blocks, even cars; and these things are not designed for us." Bond's suspicion of technology is a reflection of his times. During this period the idyllic pastoral rife depicted at the home of Lear's Gravedigger's Boy was fast disappearing as farms became more industrialized There was also the sense that the increase in technology, because of the resulting displacement of workers, was a large contributor to the problems of unemployment and, thus, poverty. Medical advances were also under suspicion. When the first heart transplant was performed in England in 1967, some compared that breakthrough to the depiction of biological technology (and the creation of a monster) in Mary Shelley's novel Frankenstein.

The time in which Bond wrote Lear was also a tune of violence. In 1968 alone the Soviets invaded Czechoslovakia, Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy were both assassinated, and the Six Day War was fought in Israel. During these years, the war in Vietnam was escalating, and British troops were sent into Northern Ireland to quell unrest over that country's sovereignty Students became deeply involved in politics and there were mass demonstrations. It also became clear, however, that the students could turn violent as well. In 1970, three members of the radical American group "The Weathermen" were killed when the bomb they were building for terrorist purposes exploded. It was this type of destruction, this kind of violence, that is dramatized in Lear, a play in which all governments and all revolutions are shown to be violent and, ultimately, alike in their ruthless cruelty and disregard for human life.

Literary Style

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Epic Theater/Alienation Effect
Twentieth-century playwright Bertold Brecht (The Three Penny Opera) developed the modern concept of the epic theater for use in his political dramas. Unlike conventional drama, epic theater develops from a sequence of many scenes, as in Lear, that often take place over a considerable time period and employ a large number of characters. The continuous movement from scene to scene is meant to keep the audience from becoming too emotionally involved with the characters. This lack of emotional involvement is also developed through Brecht's alienation effect, which occurs when the audience is continuously made aware that it is not watching reality but a play.

In Lear characters periodically speak to the audience rather than to one another. This sort of speech is called an "aside" and contributes to the alienation effect. When Warrington is tortured, the darkly comic comments of Bodice and Fontanelle remind the audience that this is an exaggerated fiction removed from reality. This is part of the alienation effect as well. The purpose of this method is to force the audience to use its intellect rather than its emotions in considering the themes and action of the play. Brecht believed that focusing on reason, not emotion, would be more effective in conveying the motives of political drama.

An anachronism is an object or idea that is from a time period different from the one in which a work of literature is set; it is something that is clearly out of context with the rest of the work's environment. The modern workers building Lear's wall are an anachronism, as is the futuristic "scientific device" used to blind Lear. Anachronisms can have two major effects. They are sometimes used to make a story more universal—to illustrate that the story is not only about the time in which it is set but that it uses themes and ideas that apply to all times. Anachronisms can also contribute to the alienation effect, creating a sense of the surreal that reinforces the unreality of the proceedings. In Lear, Bond's anachronistic technique serves both purposes.

An allusion refers to something outside of the play, usually a literary work. By using allusion, the playwright is able to enrich the audience's experience of the drama. Though a complete story in itself, Bond's entire play is an allusion to William Shakespeare's

King Lear

. Because the play is about Shakespeare's text, familiarity with King Lear will deepen the audience's understanding of Bond's interpretation. Bodice's knitting in times of mayhem is an allusion to Charles Dickens's A Tale of Two Cities, a novel about the French Revolution in which the character Madame Defarge, one of the revolutionaries, knits a list of aristocrats who must die into a scarf.

Bond's play takes place in a year numbered 3100, presumably in ancient Britain, although Bond fills his story with modern devices, indicating that the action may be taking place in some distant future. Read in this manner, Bond could be condemning the phenomenon of history repeating itself. If the play is set in the future, then the events are a recreation of the original Lear legend that took place centuries before.

The action of the play takes place in a multitude of locations, but there are some that reappear within the play. Although the audience does not actually see Lear's wall until the final scene, the play opens near the wall, which becomes a pervasive symbolic presence throughout the play. Frequent references to the wall cause the audience to sense a feeling of enclosure and claustrophobia that is representative of the oppression caused by the different regimes throughout the play. Paradoxically, in the final scene the audience is shown the wall, and thus the possibility of a future on the outside; the inspiration for freedom is deepened by Lear's insistence that the structure, and all that it symbolizes, be destroyed.

The Gravedigger's Boy's house is also an important location. It is in this more pastoral setting that Lear experiences the possibility of change and the depth of human kindness. It is to this house that the blind Lear returns and establishes a sanctuary for fugitives from the regime. The house represents the chance of happiness and freedom, an idyll from oppression. Another important location is the prison, where Lear learns of his own responsibility for the suffering of others. Imprisoned with his daughters, he becomes aware that their evil is a reflection—and creation—of his own capacity for such behavior.

A metaphor is a word or phrase whose literal meaning is subverted to represent something else. The wall, the play's greatest metaphor, is a presence which pervades the play even when it is not seen. It is representative of the oppression and control of various corrupt regimes. Bodice and Fontanelle as well as Cordelia initially see the wall as something that must be dug up. Yet whoever ascends to power realizes that the wall is a means to preserve their authority. At the same time, the people see the wall as the source of their misery. Because of the massive effort put into constructing the wall, their farms are lost and the men sicken and die. The structure is also a metaphor for the "wall" that Lear has figuratively built between himself and his adult daughters, as well as between himself and the emotional needs of his subjects Lear's final attempt to dig up the wall represents his realization that such oppressive structures must be demolished to advance humanity.

The blinding of Lear is also metaphoric. In literature blindness is often associated with greater insight, Tiresias, the mythological Greek prophet, is blind as is the character of Oedipus. Lear is blinded just as he begins to realize his own responsibility for the pain of others. In these cases, physical blindness enables greater insight into the human condition. It is also symbolic of an epiphany or great self-reflection. As with the legend of Oedipus (who unwittingly killed his father, married his mother, and, upon learning what he had done, blinded himself), Lear's blinding occurs at the moment that he gains full realization of his life's atrocities.

Compare and Contrast

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1971: Advances in science and technology create fears that humankind is tragically abandoning its bucolic past. Contemporary problems such as overpopulated urban areas and vast unemployment are blamed on technological advances that replace humans with machines

Today: Computers have revolutionized business, education, and personal lives in developed countries but are also criticized for leading to alienation and an escape from "real" life. The successful cloning of sheep leads to questions about medical ethics.

1971: American intervention in Vietnam and British military presence in Northern Ireland make the horrors of war real as American and British young men die in violent altercations with the results being televised Four student protesters are killed at Kent State University in Ohio, leading to a further sense of violence at home.

Today: Wars continue, including those in the Balkan regions and the Persian Gulf, but public protests against these conflicts are less visible. Concern about violence focuses more on gang wars and other types of urban crime.

1971: Focus on helping the poor is primarily evidenced in legislation and government assistance, but there is some movement toward abolishing Britain's welfare state as Education Minister Margaret Thatcher ends the free milk program in schools.

Today: Many government social programs of the 1960s and 1970s have been dismantled. There are still efforts at governmental assistance to the poor, but people in general are more skeptical that government can make such programs work. Focus is on the assistance of the private sector and there is a greater emphasis on volunteerism.

1971: Despite the oppression of socialist regimes, such as those of the Soviet Union and East Germany, socialism is romanticized, particularly by the young. In Britain especially, socialism is considered a viable alternative form of government.

Today: The Soviet Union has been dismantled and the Berlin Wall torn down. Socialism is rarely romanticized as it was. There are comparatively few socialists in the United States, but the movement still has some strength in Britain. This is particularly evident on the British stage.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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

Lappin, Lou. The Art and Politics of Edward Bond, Peter Lang, 1987, p. 129

Roberts, Phihp. Editor Bond on File, Methuen, 1985, pp 23-24.

Schanne, Richard. The Plays of Edward Bond, Bucknell, 1975, pp.184-209

Further Reading
Chambers, Cohn and Mike Prior. Playwrights' Progress: Patterns of Postwar British Drama, Amber Lane, 1987.
This book is a good general introduction to British drama after World War II. It includes individual chapters on Bond and a number of his contemporaries.

Hirst, David L Edward Bond, Macmillan, 1985.
This is a general introduction to Bond's work.

Sked, Alan, and Chris Cook. Post-War Britain: A Political History, Penguin, 1990.
This book provides a history of politics in Great Britain from World War II through the 1980s, including a detailed look at the 1970s, when Lear was first produced.

Spencer, Jenny S. Dramatic Strategies in the Plays of Edward Bond, Cambridge, 1992.
Spencer's book provides strong analyses of many of Bond's plays, including Lear.

Trussler, Simon, Editor. New Theatre Voices of the Seventies, Eyre Methuen, 1981.
This book contains sixteen interviews with contemporary British playwrights, including Bond, reprinted from Theatre Quarterly. In his interview, Bond discusses Lear.


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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: Steiner, 1974.

Scharine, Richard. “Lear: ’Suffer the Little Children.’” In The Plays of Edward Bond. Lewisburg, Pa.: Bucknell University Press, 1976.

Smith, Leslie. “Edward Bond’s Lear.” Comparative Drama 13 (1979): 65-85.

Spencer, Jenny S. Dramatic Strategies in the Plays of Edward Bond. Cambridge, Mass.: Cambridge University Press, 1996.


Critical Essays


Teaching Guide