Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1030
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 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...
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