Introduction to King Lear
King Lear is one of the popular Shakespearean tragedies. It was originally written in 1605 or 1606, and performed in 1606 on St. Stephen’s Day. However, it was published after two years in 1608 in a quarter where it was listed as history, though, later it was performed with its full title as The Tragedy of King Lear. It is called tragedy as it is the tragic story of a king who tests his daughters and found them deficient in love except one. He suffered for his immaturity after he was thrown out of the palace by the daughters vowing to love him the most.
Summary of King Lear
The play starts with as the Earl of Gloucester talking about his illicit son, Edmund, to the Earl of Kent. King Lear, the King of Britain, arrives with his court. Since he is now old, he decides to divide his kingdom between his three daughters – Goneril, Regan, and Cordelia. He wants to divide the kingdom depending on the excellence of each princess’s affirmations. This affirmation must talk about how much they love their father, in front of the court members. Goneril, the eldest daughter and Duchess of Albany, and Regan, the second daughter, Duchess of Cornwall, show their love as they flatter their father and earn their father’s praise in return. However, Cordelia, the youngest daughter, who is also not yet married, says nothing. Though she loves her father, she fails to express her deep love for King Lear. King Lear refuses to acknowledge as one of the heirs and banishes her from the kingdom after a misunderstanding that Cordelia doesn’t love him. The Earl of Kent is also sent away after he defends Cordelia against the King’s judgment.
After Cordelia leaves the king divides the kingdom between Goneril and Regan. Unfortunately for Cordelia suitor, the Duke of Burgundy cancels their marriages after she is sent away from the kingdom. However, the bad event turns for good when the King of France approaches Cordelia. He values Cordelia’s honesty and takes her as his wife. King Lear’s kingdom has already shared between Goneril and her husband, the Dukes of Albany, and Regan and her husband the Dukes of Cornwall. So, he assumes that he can live alternatively with each of his daughters.
On the other side of the story, Edmund, the illegitimate son of Gloucester wants to be recognized as a rightful son at any cost. He tricks his father and persuades him that Edgar, his legitimate son is plotting to kill Gloucester. Edgar realizes that his life is in danger, and leaves the kingdom in the disguise of a Bedlam beggar. Edmund then becomes a courtier to Goneril. At this point, Goneril is grows increasingly frustrated by King Lear’s behavior and his hundred companions. She insults her father that he is upsetting her life at Albany’s castle and making it harder for him to bear.
The Earl of Kent returns from his exile and disguises as a servant to King Lear to stay with him. Unfortunately, the Earl of Kent sees King Lear curses his elder daughter Goneril for insults against him and for criticizing his judgment before leaving. Without informing Regan, King Lear decides to live with her in Cornwall. During his arrival, she is not at the palace and has gone to visit Gloucester. When King Lear arrives at Gloucester’s place searching for Regan, she publicly despises and insults him along with his followers. She particularly insults the court jester, the Fool.
Here, King Lear starts falling into despair because of his both daughters. He begins to miss Cordelia and regrets abandoning Cordelia. On the night he leaves, there is a great storm. King Lear begins to go mad. The King and the Fool have no option but wander on the common land until Gloucester offers them shelter. Then he asks the Earl of Kent’s help to take them to the coast. They want to meet Cordelia who lands with a French army to fight against her sisters and their husbands. She decides to protect her father. Gloucester decides to leave them and returns.
Meanwhile, Edmund becomes a messenger between the sisters Goneril and Regan, and both sisters flirt with Edmund, without one telling the other. Edmund persuades the dutchess of Cornwall, Regan that Gloucester, his father is an enemy. He lies to her that he is in touch with the kingdom of France to help Lear. He tells her that King Lear seeks revenge as he was turned away by Regan. Regan shows her cruelty and utmost contempt and punishes Gloucester assuming that he betrayed her. She plucks his eyes and is about to leave him on the street. Shockingly, when Gloucester is being blinded, a servant kills Cornwall. However, Regan continues to rule her part of the kingdom with Edmund’s help.
King Lear now finds shelter along with Edgar who is still disguised as the beggar. They are safe and sound, away from the storm. The Fool, King Lear, and Edgar are now supporting each other before going their separate ways. Edgar then finds Gloucester roaming alone and in pain and blinded. Edgar takes Gloucester to the coast as he accepts his new life without eyesight. They reach Cordelia’s camp. Gloucester meets King Lear who is at the brink of madness at the Dover beach. With the help of Earl of Kent, King Lear is saved. Cordelia and King Lear are united. Gloucester peacefully dies after reuniting with Edgar.
The Albany’s army is led by Edmund. As the French forces are overtaken, King Lear and Cordelia are arrested. Out of jealousy and to gain Edmund’s affection, Goneril poisons Regan. Edgar is now pretending as a loyal knight, challenges Edmund to a duel with him. Edmund is mortally wounded. Goneril commits suicide knowing she lost Edmund. While dying, Edmund confesses all mistakes and frees Cordelia. Sadly, the tragedy continues and Cordelia is hanged to her death. Hearing the news, King Lear breaks down, carries Cordelia’s body in his arms, and dies of a broken heart. Albany and Edgar reorder the kingdom and work on ending the civil wars.
Major Themes in King Lear
- Aging: Age is one of the major themes of King Lear. King Lear represents old age when he only needs flattery from his daughters. Sadly, two daughters plot against him and abandon him in the storm. Before that, King Lear disowns his youngest daughter, Cordelia, who truly loves him. Apart from aging, the deceitfulness of his elder daughters makes him disenchanted as well as lunatic, while Edmund, the illegitimacy son of Gloucester, also waits for his old father to die and leave the estate for him. The process of aging shows that the younger generation becomes impulsive to replace the old people on account of greed and greediness when they should serve them.
- Family Relations: Familial fidelity and relationships is another major theme of King Lear shown through the family relations of the king’s daughters and Gloucester’s sons. Both elder sisters turn out to be treacherous and greedy when their father transfers his estate to them, while the youngest, to whom he spurned for less flattery, comes to his help. Similarly, Edmund, the illegitimate son of Gloucester weaves conspiracies to win legitimacy, but his real son, Edgar comes to his rescue.
- Madness: Madness and lunacy in King Lear is shown through the victimized the people who have already suffered at the hands of their loved ones. King Lear becomes a lunatic when he sees his own daughters turning against him, who at first, falsely flattered him and claimed to love for him. Similarly, the Fool shows him that the irrationality of his decisions has cost him dearly.
- Significance of Order: Order and its benefits is another theme of King Lear in that the estate of the king is in perfect order when he rules it justly. However, when he tries to award the flatterers and leave the loyalists, such as Cordelia, chaos ensues. The Fool comments on this chaos through in his commentary. Then he rebukes him for letting his country going to dogs and causing disruption in the order.
- Loyalty: King Lear shows the testing of loyalty as King Lear asks his daughters to show him their love to which the response from the hypocrites was in the shape of flattery of the excellent type, while the sincere one, Cordelia, only shows the love that is true. However, when the time comes, Goneril and Regan demonstrate their true colors, driving out the king, while the loyal one even lays down her life for her father. Similarly, some other characters also demonstrate their loyalty to the king by showing him his blunders such as the court jester.
- Justice: The idea of justice in the play is associated with the royalty in that the king does not treat his sincere daughter, Cordelia, justly when she could not flatter him. However, he showers praises on his hypocrite daughters and divides his kingdom between them, treating his third daughter unjustly. Similarly, Gloucester has caused jealousy and revengeful feelings in Edmund by treating him unjustly even though he is an illegitimate son.
- Appearance and Reality: The play also shows themes of appearance and reality, which are often deceptive as well as quite bitter. Goneril and Regan show appearances, while reality lies in the sincerity of Cordelia. Edmond also sees another side of reality, refusing to accept it.
- Compassion: Compassion in the play has been shown through the treatment King Lear gets from his daughters. While the first and second daughter lacks compassion, the Fool demonstrates compassion towards the king. Cordelia is compassionate as she returns to defend her father. The king also is compassionate towards Edgar, who pretends to be a beggar. Edgar also shows compassion towards his father and King Lear.
- Nature: King Lear shows nature in the shape of the storm that tests not only human beings but also the natural world. The changing weather conditions show human attitude during good and bad times.
Major Characters in King Lear
- King Lear: King Lear is the king who invites chaos by putting his daughters to test for their love for him. Surprisingly, he finds out his elder daughters showering flattery and younger, the favorite one, showing parsimony in expressing her love. By valuing the flattery, King Lear lays the foundation of his own downfall, for when the time comes, both elder sisters turn him out. He then learns wisdom from the Fool when he is turned out in a storm and meets the poor Tom. He later dies after his favorite daughter Cordelia is killed by Edmund.
- Cordelia: A paragon of virtue, loyalty, and love, she stays loyal to the king despite his harsh treatment toward her for not expressing her love for the king openly. Her role in the play is defining one. She makes the king realizes his blunder after he rebuffs her sincerity and love. Her significance doubles when she reappears to restore order, help her father. Cordelia loses her life in her efforts when Edmund hangs her to death and makes it look like a suicide.
- Edmund: The illegitimate son of Gloucester, Edmund is a Machiavellian character who manipulates situations to win legitimacy, as he desires legitimate status like his brother, but fails. He makes things worse for him by engaging in conspiracies and bringing the son and father against each other. However, by the end, he feels repentance for Cordelia’s end which shows a good side of this negative character.
- Goneril: Goneril is the eldest daughter who deceives the king through her flattery like her sister, Regan. However, when she wields power after inheriting the estate, she shows her dark side of her personality by throwing the king out of the castle. Sadly, while still married, she develops relationships with Edmund, the illegitimate son of Gloucester. She ends her own life by the end of the play, seeing no way out of the tangle she gets caught up herself in.
- Regan: Another villainous character, Regan welcomes her father, showing deceptive side like her sister. Similar to her sister Goneril, she maintains an affair with Edmund. She demonstrates this again when she shuts the door to her father and throws him out during a stormy night. Finally gives way to the pressure of the people.
- Gloucester: Earl Gloucester is another character who shows flaws as he has an illegitimate son, Edmund. He is blinded by Cornwall after which he accuses his stars of bringing devastation to his family. By the end, he saves the king winning public applause and sympathy.
- The Fool: The Fool is an important character who rescues King Lear and assists him when he is in need. His commentary on the prevalent situation makes King Lear see things from a different perspective.
- Edgar: Edgar is a secondary character who appears in disguise and beggar Tom in the play when Edmund conspires against his father. He kills Edmund by the end after seeing that the hopeless fellow has taken him by surprise by making him turn against his father. He joins hands with Albany at the end to take care of the kingdom.
- Kent: The Earl of Kent is a significant character. He helps King Lear about Cordelia’s real nature when he decides not to include her in her property. Later, he disguises as Caius and meets Lear to advise him. He uncovers himself when he thinks that the king has realized his mistake.
- Albany: Albany is Goneril’s husband, who is deceived by her. Surprisingly, he is a good-natured person. After the tragedy, he rules the kingdom with Edgar.
Writing Style of King Lear
Similar to other tragedies, King Lear also demonstrates the Shakespearean technique of showing different stylistic niceties such as grandeur, comedy, and tragedy. A range of expressions has been used to demonstrate different emotional states of the people which include losses, deprivations, miseries as well as fury. Even the speech of King Lear witnesses transformation throughout the play, as he speaks with confidence in the first part but when the table turns against him, his speech shows austerity. However, the inclusion of the Fool in the text brings comic elements, making the atmosphere a bit lighthearted as compared to the initial stages where it becomes charged with emotions.
Analysis of Literary Devices in King Lear
- Alliteration: A play written in blank verse; King Lear shows many examples of the use of alliteration. For example,
- He hath been out nine years, and away he shall again. (Act -I, Scene -I, Line -30)
- In better phrase and matter than thou didst. (Act -IV, Scene -VI, Line -9)
- Of Bedlam beggars, who with roaring voices (Act -II, Scene -III, Line, 14)
- Here I disclaim all my paternal care, Propinquity and property of blood. (Act-1, Scene-1, Lines,100-101)
The above-given lines taken from different acts show the use of alliteration that means the use of consonant sounds in quick succession in a line. For example, /h/, /th/, /b/ and /p/sounds have occurred in these lines.
- Allegory: King Lear is an allegory in that it shows that the older society having a doting king has fallen. Instead, the new order has replaced it with a new vision after the king is rejected by his unfaithful daughters.
- Assonance: The play, King Lear, shows good use of assonance. For example,
- I have this present evening from my sister
Been well informed of them. (Act-II, Scene-I, Line, 101)
- If he be taken, he shall never more
Be feared of doing harm. (Act-II, Scene-I, Line, 110-111)
In the above examples, vowel sounds appear after some pauses in such a way that they create a sort of melodious impacts in the verses. The sounds of /ee/, /ae/ and /ow/ are used in the above lines.
- Antagonist: Edmund seems to be the main antagonist of King Lear on account of his bad attitude and wily nature. An illegitimate son of the earl, he shows his illegitimacy through his actions, too.
- Allusion: The below lines are the best example of allusions.
- Nothing will come from nothing . (Act-I, Scene-I, Lines, 89)
- Fortune, good night: smile once more: turn thy wheel.(Act-II, Scene-II, Lines, 82-83)
- This prophecy Merlin shall make; for I live before his time. (Act-III, Scene-II, Lines, 92)
These lines show a reference to the earliest mythical figures. The first is the reference to the philosopher, Paramedes, who lived in pre-Socratic era, while the second alludes to the Roman goddess of luck, Fortuna. The third is the reference of Merlin’s Prophecy a poem wrongly attributed to Chaucer, the great English poet.
- Conflict: There are two types of conflicts in King Lear. The first one is the external conflict that is going on between King Lear and his elder daughters, Goneril, and Regan. The second conflict is the mental conflict in the mind of King Lear. However, there are other conflicts such as good against evil and Edgar against Edmund.
- Consonance: The play shows the use of consonance at various places. For example,
- Hark, the Duke’s trumpets. I know not why he comes. (Act-II, Scene-I, Line, 79)
- Strike, you slave. Stand, rogue, stand. You neat
slave, strike. (Act-II, Scene-II, Line, 37)
In both of these examples, consonant sounds such as /k/ /t/ /nd/ and /t/ are repeated in such a way that they create a musical quality in these lines.
- Dramatic Irony: Dramatic Irony occurs at several places in King Lear. For example, Gloucester does not know that the audience knows about his son and that he is charged falsely for betraying his father.
- Foreshadowing: The first example of foreshadowing in King Lear occurs in the very first act where Cordelia says that “Time shall unfold what plaited cunning hides” (Act-I, Scene-I, Lines, 281). It makes the readers aware of her sincerity and the cunningness of the other sisters, and she echoes the same after a few lines in response to Regan,
“He always loved
our sister most, and with what poor judgment he hath now
cast her off appears too grossly” (Act-I, Scene-I, Lines, 290-292).
- O, madam, my old heart is cracked, it’s cracked!. (Act-II, Scene-I, Line, 90)
- Let it fall rather, though the fork invade
The region of my heart.. (Act-IV, Scene-1, Line, 146-147)
- Than on a wretch whom Nature is ashamed
Almost t’acknowledge hers? (Act-I, Scene-1, Lines, 214-215)
These lines show the sensory images that Shakespeare has used sparingly in the entire play. These three examples show the use of the sense of hearing, touch, and sight.
- Metaphor: King Lear has plenty of rich metaphors throughout the play. For example,
- Unhappy that I am, I cannot heave
My heart into my mouth. (1.1.76-77)
- Peace, Kent!
Come not between the dragon and his wrath. (1.1.109-110)
- Ingratitude, thou marble-hearted fiend (1.4.173)
These are three metaphors among various other metaphors. In the first metaphor, Cordelia compares her feelings to her heart; in the second Lear compares his persona to that of a dragon, while ingratitude has been compared to a fiend in the third one.
- Mood: The entire play shows different moods according to the situation. When the play opens, it shows a very happy tone of King Lear. However, when this phase moves to the next, it becomes unruly and chaotic with King Lear becoming bitter and the environment becoming stormy. This situation subsides by the end of the play.
- Protagonist: King Lear is the main protagonist of the play, as he causes chaos by dividing his kingdom between his daughters, Regan, Goneril and Cordelia. He lets the events of the play take place and sees the outcomes of his unthoughtful action.
- Pun: King Lear shows several uses of puns. For example,
- I cannot conceive you. (Act-I, Scene-I, Line, 11)
- I cannot wish the fault undone, the issue of it being
so proper. (Act-I, Scene-I, Line, 116)
In the first example, Kent plays upon the word “conceive” in the sense of thinking as well as impregnating, while in the second he plays upon the word “issue” which means a problem as well as siblings.
- Paradox: The play also shows good use of paradoxes. For example,
- i am better than thou art now, I am a fool, thou art nothing.” (Act-I, Scene-IV, Lines, 193-94)
- We are not the first/Who, with best meaning, have incurr’d the worst. (Act-V, Scene-III, Lines, 3-4)
These lines show paradoxes that mean to use contradictory ideas in the same statement. For example, the first statement shows the contradiction in the conversation of the Fool while the second shows it again.
- Rhetorical Questions: The play has rich examples of rhetorical questions in several places.
- How now, Cordelia? Mend your speech a little,
Lest you may mar your fortunes. (Act-I, Scene-I, Line, 96-97)
- Why have my sisters husbands, if they say
They love you all? (Act-I, Scene-I, Lines 101-102)
These examples show the use of rhetorical questions mostly posed by the character of King Lear as in the first example and Cordelia as in the second example. They also show Shakespeare’s expertise in using rhetorical devices and coupling them with literary devices to serve his purpose of having a multiplicity of meanings.
- Simile: The play also is rich with various similes. For example,
- He comes like the catastrophe of the old comedy.
My cue is villainous melancholy, with a sigh like Tom o’
Bedlam.(Act-I, Scene-II, Lines, 126-128).
- Then ’tis like the breath of an unfeed lawyer, you gave
me nothing for’t. (Act-I, Scene-IV, Lines, 120-121)
- Such smiling rogues as these,
Like rats, oft bite the holy cords atwain (Act-II, Scene-II, Lines 68-69)
The first simile compares the figure of Edmund with the old comedy, while the second simile compares the feeling like that of ‘unfeed lawyer.’ The third simile shows that rogues are compared to rats.
- Soliloquy: The play shows some memorable soliloquies. For example,
- Thou, Nature, art my goddess; to thy law
My services are bound. Wherefore should I
Stand in the plague of custom, and permit
The curiosity of nations to deprive me,
For that I am some twelve or fourteen moonshines
Lag of a brother? Why bastard? wherefore base? (Act-I, Scene-II, Lines, 1-6)
- This is the excellent foppery of the world, that when
we are sick in fortune, often the surfeits96 of our own
behavior, we make guilty of our disasters the sun, the moon,
and the stars, as if we were villains by necessity, fools by
heavenly compulsion, knaves, thieves, and treachers by
spherical predominance, drunkards, liars, and adulterers by
an enforced obedience of planetary influence and all that
we are evil in by a divine thrusting on. (Act-I, Scene-II, Lines, 111-118)
- Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! rage! blow!
You cataracts and hurricanoes, spout
Till you have drench’d our steeples, drown’d the cocks!
You sulph’rous and thought-executing fires,
Vaunt-couriers to oak-cleaving thunderbolts,
Singe my white head! And thou, all-shaking thunder,
Strike flat the thick rotundity o’ th’ world,
Crack Nature’s moulds, all germains spill at once,
That makes ingrateful man! (Act-III, Scene-II, Lines, 1-9
These are some of the memorable soliloquies of King Lear. The first two were delivered by Edmund, showing his inner nature, while the third one by King Lear sheds light on the psychological thinking of the king after losing his state.
- Sir I do love you more than words can wield the matter. (Act-I, Scene-I, Lines, 55)
- “This is the excellent foppery of the world, that when we are sick in fortune… …we make guilty of our disasters the sun, the moon, and stars, as if we were villains on necessity; fools by heavenly compulsion.” (Act-I, Scene-II, Lines, 111-115)
This use of verbal irony is apparent as, in the first instance, Goneril tries to convince the king that she loves her more than the words can express. The second one shows the verbal irony used by Edmund for himself.
- Character: The play shows different characters such as King Lear, Edmund, Goneril, and other characters who make up the storyline of a play or a short story or a novel.