King Lear: Study Guide


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It was common at this time to re-work older stories and combine them into modern versions. We still do this today with movie remakes and "reboots. This study guide and infographic for William Shakespeare's King Lear offer summary and analysis on themes, symbols, and other literary devices found in the text.

Have study documents to share about King Lear? Upload them to earn free Course Hero access! Literature Study Guides King Lear. Download a PDF to print or study offline. Download Study Guide. In text Course Hero. Chicago Bibliography Course Hero. Overview Author William Shakespeare. Years Written — To explain the significance of "nothing" in Lear see S. Burckhardt, ". The quality of Nothing," MinnR, 2 : and S. Homan, Jr. For Cordelia's possibly rebuking Lear on the folly of trying to quantify love, see I. Morris, "Cordelia and Lear," Shakespeare Quarterly, 8 : , For the baby's howl and love in King Lear, see L.

King Lear Study Guide

For an overly optimistic reading of the last scene of King Lear see R. Materialist Shakespeare, ed. Ivo Kamps London: Verso, For further readings into the s, see Rosenberg's full bibliography in Masks of King Lear. Susanne L. The world of King Lear is pagan, and even the pagan gods might be dead there. Still, it is necessary for you to have some Christian background, especially on "wisdom" and folly.

King Lear - Top 10 Questions

For it is written, I wil destroye the wisdome of the wise, and wil cast away the vnderstanding of the prudent [Isaiah Where is the wise man? But we preach Christ crucified: unto the Jews even a stumbling block, and unto the Grecians, foolishness. For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger then men. For brethren, you see your calling, how that not many wise men after the flesh, not many mighty, not many [of] noble [birth] are called [i. For the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God; for it is written, "He catcheth the wise in their own craftiness" [Job 5.

Consider the possibility that Lr attempts to define "wisdom" in a world in which the old value systems are crumbling—a world in which Divine Justice may be just a pleasant myth. Begin the play with a general and tentative working definition of "wisdom. I have a handout with selections from Machiavelli's The Prince.

Read it and consider whether Goneril and Regan and Cornwall are wise—i. In terms of Machiavellian Realpolitik, is it wise for them to persecute Lear? Is Edmund a proficient Machiavellian? Does he see the world as managed by the gods for the benefit of the pious and good? What is his vision of Nature? Is it our nature, red in tooth and claw? Is it the traditional patriarchal hierarchy: a great chain of being with a place for everyone and everyone having the duty to remain in his or her place?

See below, comments on 1. Consider the possibility that Shakespeare made Edmund inconsistent: this devout cynic fights that duel at the end of the play. In the Sermon on the Mount, Christ says that God "maketh his sun to arise on the evil and the good, and sendeth rain on the just and unjust" Matthew 5. In this play does the rain fall on the good and the evil alike?

Are the evil smart enough to be inside when it's raining out? Is this the gentle rain of Judea? Note the world-views of the various characters and their statements on the play's themes. Is the Nature believed in by the older characters the same as Edmund's? Do the views of the older characters change as the play progresses? Do the old characters call upon the gods for assistance? Do they receive it? Note Albany's lines on the gods; he's pious, but dumb. Edgar is also pious, but he may lack charity. Does Cordelia talk about the gods? Look for significant repeated words and phrases. Some important ones are references to wisdom, folly, and the senses; "nature, "duty", "bond," nothing," "everything," "all.

Note also the animal imagery. King Lear has a pre-Christian setting; everyone in the cast is a pagan. If we accept a hard-nosed Christian view, Cordelia may be as damned as Edmund. What are the possibilities for ethical action in such a world? What would it profit a man or woman to be good?

If the gods are dead or indifferent or ineffective or amoral or evil, then who's to set absolute standards for human conduct? Even if people could invent some sort of ethics, what sort of sanctions would there be for any conduct? Would Edmund have been Gloucester's heir even if he'd been legitimate? You should assume that primogeniture—look it up—was in effect in ancient Britain. Why is Edmund at court and not Edgar? Is there a minor theme of apathy in the play? How many people speak up for Cordelia?

How many servants try to save Gloucester? Note Lear's changing relationship with the Fool as the play proceeds. Lear may be about the education of the old King, with his relationship with the Fool one of his teachers as sort of a gauge of Lear's progress. Does Lear learn to see the world "feelingly"? Does he learn something about political power and political authority? Does he learn about justice—divine and human?

Does he learn about love and faith and true loyalty and good service?

King Lear Graphic Novel Study Guide (Digital Download)

Does Lear have a tragic flaw? Does he make a tragic mistake? Note well: Aristotle said that we associate with a tragic hero hamartia, which translates as "flaw" or "mistake. Far more important, Aristotle never saw King Lear or any other Renaissance tragedy. What leads Lear to his destruction?

Was that destruction necessary for his education? Three ideas from outside the play that might be important to King Lear. In Shakespeare's early comedy, The Merchant of Venice, the winning casket has the inscription, "Who chooseth me must give and hazard all he hath. In Shakespeare's earlier tragedy, Othello, we learn that a woman's "honor is an essence that's not seen" 4.

Paul's ". Is Lear's initial problem putting too much "faith" in what his senses tell him are Goneril's and Regan's loves for him—and too little faith in Cordelia's love? Paul on love 1 Corinthians And though I had the gift of prophecy and knew all secrets and all knowledge;yea, if I had all faith so that I could move mountains, and had not love, I were nothing. And though I feed the poor with all my goods and though I give my body that I be burned, and have not love, it profiteth me nothing.

Love suffereth long; it is bountiful; love envieth not; love does not boast itself; it is not puffed up. It rejoiceth not in iniquity, but rejoiceth in the truth. It suffereth all things; it believeth all things; it hopeth all things; it endureth all things. Love does not fall away, though that prophecyings be abolished, or the tongues cease, or knowledge vanish away.

For we know in part, and we prophecy in part. But when that which is perfect is come, then that which is in part shall be abolished. When I was a child, I spoke as a child; I thought as a child. But when I became a man, I put away childish things. For now we see through a glass darkly; but then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know as I am known.

And now abideth faith, hope, and love, even these three. But the chiefest of these is love. Kent seems to accept Edmund; Gloucester seems to like Edmund—but speaks flippantly and with some contempt about Edmund and Edmund's mother. Note that Gloucester has an older, legitimate son, but says he loves both.

How should we interpret "He [Edmund] hath been out nine years, and away he shall again"? Does Gloucester send his bastard away to be rid of him? Has Gloucester sent the beloved Edmund off for schooling, training, travel—the education that befits a gentleman the bastard of a Great Man in the kingdom? Is this correct? Would it be correct if Lear really were going to base the division of the kingdom on a "love contest"? Does Lear base the division on the love contest?

How should the map be marked? Is the love contest a mere ceremony—a ritual, like marriage, where the responses are set, and any variation is a bit shocking? Note Cordelia's first "public" word: nothing. Does she become nothing by the end of this scene?

Does Lear become "nothing" here? Must Lear become "nothing" to learn? If "nothingness" is crucial to education, is Cordelia wise throughout the play? Is Cordelia mocking Lear's attempts at quantifying love by claiming to love him "According to my bond, no more nor less"? Does she love him "more" than that? If that's all that she loves him, why does she return to Britain later, after Lear has renounced the bond? How strong is the father-daughter bond in Cordelia's eyes? Note that she promises him about all that a wife promises a husband: love, honor, obedience.

Lear intends to give away his "sway," lands, and "revenue" but keep l00 knights and "The name, and all th' addition to a king. How many troops can the name of king put into the field? If Kent is so loyal, why is he so unmannerly? Note the insult implied in Kent's use—at a formal court ceremony, no less—of the familiar "thou": "What wouldst thou do, old man? I'll tell thee thou dost evil. Is he a wise servant? Compare and contrast the views on love and marriage of France and Burgundy. Are we to ask questions like, "What in the world will the French Estates think of their king's marrying a dowerless woman?

Do we ask what King and Queen Charming will think of Prince Charming's wanting to marry a commoner like Cinderella on the basis of a few dances and shoe size? Note well the fairy-tale atmosphere here: Three daughters, the older two hypocritical and the youngest good; a French king who marries for love; a whole bunch of rime; a love contest. These two will become major villains in the play.

But Shakespeare's villains sometimes see quite clearly—especially into the weaknesses of others. Do they seem to know Lear better than Lear knows himself? If so, it may be appropriate that they become "mothers" and schoolmistresses to Lear. They may have much to teach him. In this soliloquy, does Edmund talk much about being a younger brother? Does he seem to be crushed by the awful fact of his illegitimacy? What could this "nothing" motif mean? In Christian doctrine, everything came out of nothing. The letter Gloucester reads expresses Edmund's ideas, not Edgar's. Note how "bond" has become "bondage.

Does this letter deny bonds between parents and children? Does it contain an inconsistency in talking about the possibility of love between brothers? Does its denial of authority suggest a system in which those with power have some sort of natural right to rule? Does it assume the sort of Nature that Edmund invoked in his soliloquy? Does it lay the philosophical groundwork for taking away order and degree? Would it lead to what Ulyses describes as happening if we "take but degree away"?

Take but degree away, untune that string, and hark what discord follows [. Force should be right; or rather right and wrong, Between whose endless jar justice resides, Should lose their names, and so should justice too; Then everything include itself in power, Power into will, will into appetite. And appetite, an universal wolf, So doubly seconded with will and power, Must make perforce an universal prey And last eat up himself. Troilus and Cressida l. Gloucester, too, acts against the bonds that he seems to assume are part of nature.

Consider the possibility that Edmund understands Gloucester better than Gloucester understands himself. Note how Edmund denies astrological determinism. Does Edmund here believe in some other sort of determinism—perhaps, that he is what he is evil, among other things , and that's all there is to it? Is he behavior foolish only from Edmund's point of view: "foolish honesty"? Is he saying that he'll use any means to get his ends? Do Lear's knights seem to be an unruly mob? Does Lear seem to be senile?


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Note well Lear's question "Who am I, sir? Who is Lear, now that he has only the title of king? Try to find some powerful, active verbs to suggest to an actress how she should pronounce Goneril's various speeches to Lear. Where does she threaten Lear? Where should she attempt to shame him. Does she try to insult and humiliate him here? Does Nature answer his prayer? Does this curse come true? Note the relationship between Goneril and Albany. Does he seem pious?

Does he seem able to stand up to his wife? Does she do all the thinking? Kent is still on stage in the stocks, presumably asleep when Edgar makes his speech about becoming Tom of Bedlam. Picture this. For the scene the early editors call ed 2. Note also Kent's apparent belief in Fortune. Note the disguised Kent's line about having "more man than wit about me"; it's significant for the definitions of "manhood" and "wisdom.

Note the Fool's lines about Fortune an "arrant whore" never opening her door for the poor. This foreshadows Lear's being locked out of the castle; it also starts up a sexual motif that is important in the play. Fortune is a prudent whore; she puts out for money, not for love; she is never faithful to her "lovers. Note very well the Fool's song and his juxtaposition of "knaves" and "fools.

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We have already seen this happening to Lear, and the political trend will continue until Lear is almost totally deserted on the heath. The Fool asserts, though, that he will remain loyal: a foolish act politically imprudent and, hence, decorous in a Fool. So far, so clear: mostly choric comment on what's happened already and foreshadowing of what will happen.

The Fool goes on, though, to assert a profound paradox; a paradox I believe to be central to the play: "The knave turns fool that runs away. But the universe in King Lear is not Christian, and it is a paradoxical statement of faith for the Fool to assert that hypocritical "prudence" is ultimately foolishness. Do the Fool's later actions affirm what he says? Note how Gloucester would like everything to be nice again. Note how Lear hypothesizes excuses for Cornwall and Regan; it shows that he's trying to learn patience; perhaps he's even picked up a cue from Gloucester and is trying not to make waves.

But Lear's messenger is still stocked; something Gloucester would ignore, but Lear and the audience cannot. Lear is old, and he does need patience; and in Regan's "philosophy," "Age is unnecessary" as Lear sarcastically asserts and receives "raiment, bed, and food" only from the charity in its most materialistic modern sense of the young and strong.

They reverse the "love contest" of the opening scene: this time, Lear must do the begging.

The Tragedy of King Lear: Study Questions

The number of knights they allow him has something to do with his self-respect, his identity as a King, their love for him. They try with a great deal of success to strip him of all. It's quite logical, actually: he gave them all—so what good is he to them now? If man is but an animal an animal below the level of a baboon or goose, if recent ethological research is correct , then he doesn't need anything beyond the "raiment, bed, and food" his betters might allow him. How do you feel about such logic? In the course of the play, what seems to be the result of using premises like "Given, the human animal is a mere beast, motivated by gut and groin and the will to power?

More, if such premises are all that reason can use, would you join with Lear and yell, "O reason not the need! They're going to teach the old man a lesson, make Lear "taste his folly. The prudent have all deserted him; Lear will have with him on the heath only the Fool, Kent, Edgar, and off and on Gloucester. He calls for the utter destruction of humankind—even for cracking the "moulds" for making us.

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Marvin Rosenberg stresses the sexual undertones in Lear's opening speech, especially, the idea of "the cosmic womb. Nature's orgasm is sulphurous—has a stench" Masks of Lear, section on 3. Rosenberg also stresses the imagery of Lear, Edgar, et al. Note also the elements as "servile ministers"—perhaps another version of the theme of good and evil service. Be sure you get the sexual connotations of the Fool's song: "cod- piece" is slang for "phallus. More important, I think, is the part of the Fool's song about "toe" and "heart. If a man's toe is soft, his corns will hurt him all the more.

But if a man makes his toe hard, that'll give him a corn—or at least callouses—by definition Erlich's suggestion; note also what the editor of your text says. Note the ambiguity of the text on just who's "grace" and who's the "codpiece" Is "grace" here the King?

If so, has Lear started to become "a wise man"? Is the "codpiece" the Fool or Kent or both? Is a "fool" a codpiece in the sense of "malicious prick"? Is a "fool" a codpiece in the sense of "poor, dumb schmuck"? Is this mere self-pity? Note very well that Lear figures out here that the Fool is cold. The logic of this implies besides observation that Lear recognizes that the Fool is a human being. Lear also seems to care about the Fool's suffering. We can debate what the Fool's "prophecy" means. He asks permission of Cornwall, et al. Contrast the rash, knee-jerk loyalty of Kent and the heroic love of Cordelia.

Contrast also the strength in evil that Edmund shows in this scene. Somewhere in through here, though, Lear does go mad; an actor must carefully consider just where to place the slide into madness. One standard place to have the descent into madness is right after this section, with the entrance of the disguised Edgar.

Note very well Lear's line to the Fool, "In, boy; go first. In exactly which order isn't significant. Here, Lear tells the Fool to "go first. Lear can logically deduce that he is a man, and the Fool is a man; he—Lear— is suffering from the elements,though more from his mental torment, so the Fool is probably suffering. He certainly looks like he's suffering. There is a finite amount of shelter here. But, to get to "In, boy; go first" Lear must either make a leap of compassion, or add to his logic an unspoken rule like "Do unto others as you would have others do unto you.

Does Lear make a similar generalization and a similar protest? Did Lear have to expose himself "to feel what wretches feel" to learn compassion? Does Lear admit his own errors here?

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