Title of Paper : King Lear
Grade Received on Report : 96
Historians en masse have
determined that Shakespeare was most definitely not the first one to come up with the general plot lines
contained in King Lear. Though the play revolves mainly around the conflict between the King and his
daughters, there is a definite and distinct sub-plot dealing with the plight and tragedy of Gloucester as well.
The play (both stories really) has origins in many different sixteenth century works, with nearly all the
pertinent facts such as the name of the King, the three daughters, their husbands, the answers of the three
daughters when Lear asks them to profess their love, Cordelia’s ensuing disgrace, and the cruelty of the two
dukes and duchesses to the King contained in Raphael Holinshed’s Chronicles. (Chapters five and seven of
the Second Book of the History of England, second ed., 1587) Shakespeare is also believed to have
borrowed, significantly less however, from a play that was entered in the Stationer’s Register, 14!
May 1594, called, The moste famous Chronicle historye of Leire kinge of England and his Three
Daughters. This piece was considered to be “quite un-Shakespearian” and untragical, and was entered
subsequently on the Stationer’s Register as The Tragecall historie of Kinge Leir and his Three Daughters, as
it was latelie acted. Much of Shakespeare’s account of the Gloucester story was borrowed from Sir
Philip Sydney’s Arcadia, 1590. In terms of the Gloucester-Edmund-Edgar plot, we can find many
similarities in the second book of Arcadia, chapter ten, in a narrative called, The pitifull state, and story of
the Paphlagonian unkind king, and his kind son, first related by the son, then by the blind father. The main
difference here, of course, is that Shakespeare has intertwined this plot with the plight of Lear and his three
There are many differences between these texts and the Shakespearian version of King Lear.
None of these earlier works had the signature character of the Fool, and Shakespeare creatively transformed
what was known earlier as a, “melodramatic story with a ‘happy ending’,” into a biting and, above all else,
sad story of the relationship between parents and their children.
One of the main themes that Shakespeare chooses to focus on in King Lear is the dysfunctional
nature of not only the royal family and Gloucester, but the heartache and emotional strain that goes along
with being a parent and having to make a decision that will divide your children. This play focuses on not
only the after effects of this decision, but the way in which it affects the King, his children and his subjects
A strong case can be made for King Lear as Shakespeare’s most tragic effort of his career. The
fact that nearly the entire cast of this play either is murdered or dies with little to no redemption makes the
strongest case for this. In nearly every other Shakespearian work, save perhaps Othello, at least some of
the characters enjoy a bit of redemption or salvation with the resolution of the conflict. King Lear’s
characters are privy to neither of these. The bitterness, sadness, and reality of the human psyche that is
contained throughout this work demonstrate its tragic nature best, however.
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The tie emotionally and physically between a father and a daughter (or son, in relation to the
Gloucester/Edmund/Edgar plot) is something entirely different than husband-wife or boyfriend-girlfriend in
many of Shakespeares other plays. In the very beginning of the play, when Lear is foolishly dividing up his
kingdom between his three daughters, and after he has asked Cordelia’s two older sisters what they “think”
of him, he turns to her and asks the same question. Her reply shows the true nature of her character, as she
says, “Unhappy that I am, I cannot heave my heart into my mouth. I love Your Majesty according to my
bond, no more, nor less.” (1.1, ll. 91-93) His words could almost be considered threatening by declaring
that her unwillingness to express her love in words might, “mar her fortunes.” We are privy to definitive
foreshadowing with Cordelia’s reply of, “Good my lord, you have begot me, bred me, loved me. I return
those duties back to you as are right fit, o!
bey you, love you, and most honor you. Why have my sisters husbands if they say they love you all?
Haply, when I shall wed, that lord whose hand must take my plight shall carry half my love with him, half
my care and duty. Sure I shall never marry like my sisters, to love my father all.” (1.1, ll. 96-104) One
must note that during this time, women were supposed to be subordinate and obediant to men, Codelia’s
position here is a precarious one, and one that must be backed by firm belief, as she still will not give in to
Lear after his threats, which shows us from the very start that she is an extremely strong-willed and
determined young woman. The mere existence of this incredibly foolish “game” illustrates to us Lear’s
overwhelming insecurities about his relationship with his three daughters. Cordelia’s refusal angers him,
painting a picture of (not for the last time) Lear’s poor capacity for dealing with relationships, father-
daughter or otherwise. This scene also show!
s us the banishment of loyal Kent, who (other than Cordelia) speaks the only wise words in the scene, some
of which are directed right to Lear himself, “What woulds’t thou do, old man? Think’st thou that duty shall
have dread to speak when power to flattery bows? To plainess honor’s bound when majesty falls to folly.
Reserve thy state, and in thy best consideration check this hideous rashness. Answer my life my
judgement, thy youngest daughter does not love thee least, nor are those emptyhearted whose low sounds
reverb no hollowness.” (1.1, ll. 146-155) Lear answers him in line 155 with, “Kent, on thy life, no more.”
These are but the seedlings of the gruesome plot which follows, as Kent, and more importantly, Cordelia,
are both gone.
In the second scene of the first act, the Glocuester/Edmund/Edgar plot is introduced. We see
Edmund, the bastard son, plotting to dupe the honest brother Edgar out of his paternal inheritance in a
soliloquy, “Legitimate Edgar, I must have your land.” (Act 1.2, l. 16) It is a bit discouraging to see devilish
individuals like Edmund, Goneril, and Regan prosper in these first two scenes, but this is all with a specific
Act one scene four illustrates just how loyal Kent really is, when he risks his life by returning to
his majesty’s court, in disguise, in order to perhaps persuade Lear into letting him continue to be near the
King, and to consul him in this time of his great distress. We see the extent of Kent’s loyalty with his
soliloquy in the early part of the scene, “Now, banished Kent, if thou canst serve where thou dost stand
condemned, so may it come thy master, whom thou lov’st, shall find thee full of labors.” (1.4, ll. 4-7) It
should be noted that the King that appears in this scene remains the victim of the same extreme emotion
that ruled his judgment a few scenes earlier. Shakespeare also uses this scene to establish the fool as a
sympathetic character, when we learn that since Cordelia’s departure for France, he has been moping about.
Also, the King greets him warmly, with, “How now my pretty knave, how dost thou?” (1.4, ll. 94-95) Also,
we recognize the Fool’s character as!
a supportive and un-threatening one, and at this point there is something to be said for that.
The insidious plot of Gloucester’s bastard son is furthered in the second act, scene one. After
Edmund learns of the possibility of an outbreak of civil dissession between the two Dukes, he calls his
legitimate brother in and convinces him that he should flee because their father has learned of his presence,
and the Duke of Cornwall suspects him of treasonous dealings with Albany. This scene brings together
many of the villains of this piece, with Cornwall, Regan, and Edmund all ending the scene as “allies.”
In the second scene of this act, finally now at Gloucester’s castle, we see the fight between Oswald
and Kent erupt, only to have Cornwall intervene and stop it. Cornwall orders Kent to be placed in the
stocks, something which a modern reader cannot probably comprehend. “I serve the King, on whose
employment I was sent to you. You shall do small respect, show too bold malice against the grace and
person of my master, stocking his messanger.” (2.2, ll. 130-135) This action is probably meant to be seen
as an act of rebellion against Lear himself, symbolizing his dethronement. The fact that this man (Kent) is
a direct messanger of the King, and is treated so poorly, is unforgivable. Though Gloucester pleads with
Cornwall, he is outnumbered, as Cornwall and Regan both have made up their minds. It is obvious from
this scene that if any bit of respect had been left for the King by these two tyrants, it is now gone.
Lear goes through an extraordinary range of emotions in the fourth scene of the second act. He
exhibits bewhilderment at the fact that Regan and Cornwall would have left without an explanation, and
when he learns that those two are the ones responsible for placing Kent in the stocks, the wrath that was
evdient in earlier scenes dominates once again. Lear sees this all as almost incomprehensible, as he is
King, and they are supposed to be his subjects. Lear has, for his entire life, commanded, not requested, and
when Gloucester tells Lear that he has, “inform’d” Cornwall and Regan that the King wishes to speak to
them, Lear needs all the restraint he can muster not to blow up. Lear says, “We are not ourselves when
nature, being oppress’d, commands the mind to suffer with the body.” (2.4, ll. 104-106) This statement is
applicable mainly to his state of mind, more than anything else. The pathos appeal of this once strong ruler
remaining so willfully blind to all of this is!
strong, but it taxes Lear to the point where, after he tells his own daughter, Goneril, that they will never see
each other again, we begin to wonder how much sanity he has left. With Lear’s speech, “But yet thou art
my flesh, my daughter; or rather a disease that’s in my flesh, which I must needs call mine; thou art a boil, a
plague-sore, an embossed carbuncle, in my corrupted blood,” (2.4, ll. 222- 226) we see that perhaps he
recognizes that the cause of his daughters’ evil and manipualtion lies within himself, and the foolish
declaration he made at the beginning of the play.
Act three scene two is one of the most powerful and gripping scenes in all of Shakespearian
literature. The picture of this depressed, dejected, and despondent, but once great ruler wandering
aimlessly through the wind, rain, and lightning is a poignant one. We see the calming and soothing
influence of Lear’s Fool, who urges him to seek shelter, even if he has to beg, then launching into an
unrequested commentary of the events of the first scene of the play. In the words of H. Granville-Barker,
Lear is a “Promethean figure. . .Lear great not in corporal but in intellectual dimemsions.” Lear has shown
us that, though he describes himself as an infirm old man, he is definitely not, and his speech, “I am a man
more sinned against than sinning,” (3.2, ll. 58-59) shows us that the fight is not quite out of him yet.
Edmund’s scheming continues in act three scene three, but far more important events occur in act
three scene four. The storm outside obviously symbolizes the tempest that rages inside Lear’s head at this
point, and Lear remarks that his problems are so great that he barely feels the storm outside. Soon after the
party is confronted with Edgar in disguise as Poor Tom. The Fool flees in fear, when Lear, in a state of
near madness, says, “Is man no more than this?” (3.4 ll. 101-102) And then procedes to strip off all his
clothes and join Edgar in nakedness. When Lear refers to Poor Tom (Edgar) as a, “learned philospher” we
must begin to question his sanity. Our sympathy mounts for Lear however, when we realize that, for
whatever Lear had done earlier in the play, however foolish that may have been, the punishment certainly
does not fit the crime here. Kent augments our suspicion of an insane Lear with the comment to
Gloucester, “Importune him to go once more my lord, his !
wits begin t’ unsettle.” (3.4, ll. 159-60)
In perhaps the saddest scene of the play, we see the punishment of noble Gloucester. Act three
scene seven illustrates the wickedness and sheer beastiality of the figures that are Goneril, Regan, and
Cornwall. When Gloucester is summoned before these three fiends for questioning, Regan plucks his beard
and torments him, until he finally decalres triumphantly that he has sent Lear away to safety. “Because I
would not see thy cruel nails pluck out his poor old eyes; nor thy fierce sister in his anointed flesh rash
boarish fangs.” (3.7 ll.59-61) Not only does Cornwall gouge out both his eyes for this, and crush them
beneath his boots, but when Gloucester cries for Edmund, these three inform him of his bastard son’s
trickery. Gloucester is then cast out and left to, “smell his way to Dover.”
Act four scene one is a touching one, as father and son are reunited. (Gloucester and Edgar) Edgar
realizes that his father is so despondant that he must continue to play the role of Tom o’ Bedlam.
Gloucester wishes to be taken to the cliffs, and Edgar (as Tom) agrees to take him there, knowing that his
father wishes to kill himself. Gloucester’s sadness is best summed up with his quote, “As flies to wanton
boys, are we to th’ gods, they kill us for their sport.” (4.1, ll. 36-7)
Albany emerges in act four scene two as a changed man. In this scene we learn that Cornwall has
died from the wound he receieved fighting his servant when he sought to pluck out Gloucester’s remaining
eye. Albany takes this as a form of divine intervention, and tells Goneril, “O Goneril! You are not worth
the dust which the rude wind blows in your face.” (4.2, ll. 31-2)
After Cordelia returns from France to find her father insane, the action shifts to Edgar and
Gloucester in a field that Edgar convinces him to be the cliffs. When his father falls down, and blacks out,
Edgar wakes him and virtually “saves” him from his despair, as was his intention all along. Edgar manages
to convince the blind old man that he has actually fallen from the cliffs, but miraculously lived through it.
Virtue trimuphs in this scene, if only temporarily, as Edgar dispatches Oswald with ease, and recognizes
from the letter, the virtue and goodness of Albany, even if he is forced to fight Cordelia’s army.
Cordelia and her father are finally reunited in act four scene seven, when she and Kent watch Lear
“wake-up” before their eyes. The doctor informs them that the King’s mind is, at least for the moment,
restored, but he should not be reminded of the earlier experiences. Lear is mystified how Cordelia can not
have contempt for him and hate him, as he actually gave her cause to do so. He says, “Be your tears wet?
Yes, faith. I pray, weep not. If you have poison for me I will drink it. I know you do not love me, for your
sisters have, as I do remember, done me wrong. You have some cause, they have not.” (4.7, ll. 72-7) She
tearfully replies, “No cause, no cause.” (l. 78) As if we needed any further proof of Cordelia’s love, this
scene above all shows us that she is a paragon of selflessness and love for her father.
Edmund’s forces prove victorious in the ensuing battle, and Cordelia and Lear are both taken as
prisoners. Fittingly, Goneril poisons Regan, and then goes on to commit suicide after she learns what has
happened. Edgar enters and fights with Edmund, who is slain. The two brothers reconcile before Edmund
passes away, and Edmund repents to some degree, telling his brother that he had ordered Cordelia to be
hanged, and giving up his sword as a token of reversal for that order. All this proves too late however, as
before it can be stopped, Lear enters with the dead Cordelia in his arms crying out in anguish, “Howl, howl
howl! O, you are men of stones! Had I your tongues and eyes, I’d use them so that heaven’s vault should
crack. She’s gone forever. I know when one is dead and when one lives; she’s dead as earth. Lend me a
looking glass; if that her breath will mist or stain the stone, why then she lives.” (5.3, ll. 62-68)
Shakespeare illustrates this scene in such a way !
that we as readers can almost feel the rage within him, and the death of his beloved daughter pushes him
finally over the edge to his own death.
Throughout the text, and from act one, Lear is surrounded by, (albeit few at times), a compliment
of people that love him dearly, people who would gladly sacrifice their lives for him. He turns on most, if
not every single one of these people, and when he really starts to lose sanity, things only go from bad to
worse. After Lear and Cordleia’s first exchange, she is not seen again until act four, scene seven, where she
returns from France to save her father, who by now is an absolute physical and mental wreck despite Edgar
and Kent’s attempts to keep him sane and coherent. So much has transpired since Cordelia was last seen, so
much psychological damage has been done to her father, that he is hardly the same man as when she left.
The play shows minor signs of hope when, after seeing Cordelia for the first time since he went
mad, Lear says, “I am a very foolish fond old man, fourscore and upward, not an hour more nor less; and,
to deal plainly, I fear I am not in my perfect mind. Methinks I should know you, and know this man, yet I
am doubtful; for I am mainly ignorant what this place is; and all the skill I have remembers not these
garments, nor I know not where I did lodge last night. Do not laugh at me, for, I am a man, I think this lady
to be my child Cordelia.” (4.7, ll. 60-70) As Edmund and his soldiers come to take these two away to
prison, he lapses into a fit of rage again.
It is easy to pity Lear in this play, it is harder, however, to understand why he did what he did.
Certainly, at the very least, he was a foolish old man, who thought the idea of dividing his kingdom up
among his three daughters according to who said she loved him most would flatter his ego. Ironically it
was Gloucester who was blinded physically, when in reality Lear was just as blind figuratively. All around
him for the entire play were people who loved him more than life itself, yet his passion and the madness
created by that passion would not let him see. Lear’s undying love is seen most of all when we are given
this extremely vivid mental picture of a despondent father carrying his dead daughter in his arms, tears
streaming down his face.
We see what Lear is like in the end of his life, and he is a very sympathetic character, but the
King’s character in the beginning is all about his personal power and ultimate control. His exrtremely
arrogant pride provides him the strength and confidence to defend and rule a feudal kingdom, but at the
same time blinds him from recognizing true love and loyalty. That is the tragic “flaw” which eventually
costs him both his kingdom and his beloved daughter, the only one of the three who loved him as a father,
and the only daughter who cared about a jealous, foolish, and impulsive old man.