There are really two plots in King Lear, a main plot and a fully developed subplot. Each has its own
set of characters.
In the main plot, there is the head of the family, the 80-plus-year-old king of Britain, Lear. He has
three daughters, Goneril, Regan, and Cordelia. The Duke of Albany is married to the oldest, Goneril, and
the Duke of Cornwall is married to Regan, the middle daughter. Cordelia has two suitors, the Duke of
Burgundy and the King of France. The court jester, the Fool, is by extension a member of the Lear family
and part of the main plot, as is the Earl of Kent, Lear's loyal follower.
The Earl of Gloucester, also a member of Lear's court, is the head of another family and the focus of
the subplot. He has two offspring, an older, legitimate son named Edgar and a younger, illegitimate or
bastard son named Edmund.
Various minor characters appear from time to time. They are easily identified by their connections
with whatever main character they serve or speak of.
As the play opens, Lear has decided to retire and divide his kingdom among his three daughters.
Cordelia's husband will be chosen for her immediately after Lear executes this "living will."
Before he allots the shares, Lear asks each daughter to make a profession of her love for him in order to
receive her entitlement. Goneril and Regan waste no time professing love for their father, but Cordelia is
speechless. She loves her father as any daughter should, no more and no less. Lear is outraged by what he
sees as her lack of devotion. He cuts Cordelia out of her share and banishes her. Her share is divided
between Goneril and Regan. Lear gives them everything but keeps a retinue, a following of 100 knights
who will accompany him as he alternates monthly visits between his two daughters. Cordelia's suitors are
called in. Without a dowry, Burgundy rejects her; but the King of France sees her true worth and leads
Cordelia off to marriage and his protection.
At Gloucester's castle, Edmund reveals that he will not let his illegitimate birth and older brother
prevent him from inheriting his father's estate. He devises a plan to convince Gloucester that Edgar is
secretly planning to kill his father to get his hands on the family property and enjoy it while he's still
young. Edmund then tells Edgar that their father is after him for some mistaken notion of a reported
crime. Eventually Gloucester is convinced of Edgar's treachery and seeks to put his older son to death.
Edgar flees for his life.
Meanwhile, Lear discovers that living with his two daughters is no joy. He is so outraged by their
cruel behavior toward him that he curses them and rushes out into a violent storm. During his exposure to
the elements he is accompanied by Kent, the Fool (his court jester), and eventually by Edgar, who has
disguised himself as a lunatic beggar named "poor Tom."
Gloucester tries to help Lear and his followers but is betrayed to Cornwall and Regan by Edmund. As
punishment, Gloucester is blinded and sent out into the storm, too. Edgar, still disguised, discovers his
blind father and leads him to Dover, where he joins Lear, who has gone mad from exposure to the
elements and the anguish he has suffered at the hands of his daughters.
The news of Lear's treatment had reached Cordelia, and the King of France has sent an invading
force to England to help restore Lear's rights to him. In Dover, where they have landed, Cordelia finds
Lear and helps to restore his sanity by loving care.
While preparing to fight the French invaders, Goneril and Regan have developed a passion for
Edmund. But before they can do anything about it, the battle is fought. The French lose, and Lear and
Cordelia are taken prisoners.
Edmund sends Lear and Cordelia to prison with orders for them to be secretly killed. When Albany
enters, he accuses Edmund of treason for plotting with Goneril against him and the interests of the state.
Edmund is given the chance to defend his honor in a duel. Edgar appears in a new disguise to take up this
challenge and mortally wounds Edmund. Goneril sees the handwriting on the wall and flees from the
scene. Edmund confesses all his crimes as a servant enters and announces that Goneril has poisoned
Regan and killed herself. Edmund then reveals that he has ordered Lear's and Cordelia's deaths. Albany
sends soldiers to prevent it, but he's too late. Lear enters carrying the dead Cordelia in his arms. As he
weeps for her, surrounded by the bodies of Goneril and Regan, the survivors can only stare in respectful
Albany, the victor of the battle, relinquishes rule of the country to Kent and Edgar, but the worn-out
Kent doesn't accept. Edgar is left to restore order in England as the bodies of the dead are carried away.
There may well have been an ancient king of Britain named Lear. And he may have had daughters to
whom he relinquished his kingdom and his authority when he retired at an early age. But we can only
speculate about these people because there is no historic record of such a ruler. Lear may be only a popular
By the time Shakespeare came to write about Lear, there were several available versions of the story.
We know that Holinshed's Chronicles, Shakespeare's source for several of his histories, contained a Lear
story. There was also another play performed at that time called The True Chronicle History of King Leir.
The author is unknown, but there is a record of its performance in London in 1594, some 12 years before
Shakespeare's King Lear appeared. Edmund Spenser's great epic poem The Faerie Queen also includes the
Some fine points differ in these stories, but Shakespeare's version is unique in one uncontestable
aspect: the others had happy endings. Some even had a sequel showing how the "happily ever
after" turned out! And none had the Gloucester subplot. Shakespeare took the outline of this story
from a contemporary romance, Sir Philip Sidney's Arcadia. He changed names and adapted its theme of
filial ingratitude as a parallel to reinforce the tension and impact of his main plot.
Since he was concerned with tragedy, not history, Shakespeare was free to take whatever liberties he
chose in order to shape the drama to his purpose. And that was his story of King Lear.
[King Lear Contents]
- KING LEAR
The title character of this play is unquestionably its dominant figure. Although the name
"Lear" comes from some ruler who may never have actually lived, Shakespeare has created a
flesh-and-blood monarch whose actions and reactions determine the main course of events in the play.
You must remember that Lear is first of all a king. He is now in his 80s and is accustomed to all the
power, the authority, the responsibilities, and the privileges of an absolute monarch. In our age, when
such total rule is rare, we might not really comprehend what that means. But if you think back to every
story of every king you've ever heard about, even fairy-tale monarchs, you'll have some idea of how the
Elizabethans felt about a king.
As a man, Lear is the ruler of a family. To the Elizabethans, the family unit was just a miniature
version of the government. So the power and authority of the father was given the same respect.
In a world where the life expectancy was much lower than our own, 80 was an exceptional age to
attain. When King Lear was first performed, Queen Elizabeth I had only recently died at age 70. So as a
"geriatric," not much would have been expected of Lear. Still, retirement was unknown. The
tradition of the day was that you worked as long as you were able.
From the moment Lear announces his retirement, we have to keep an eye on him to detect any sign of
weakness or infirmity, to see if the action is justified. The physical strength it took to survive the fierce
storm would appear to contradict such a view. Even his final act of carrying in the body of Cordelia is
quite an achievement for an 80-year-old.
But what about his mind- the moodiness, the rash judgments, the rage? Are these the telltale signs of
old age or senility? You have to decide for yourself when Lear is in his right mind, when he is being
manipulative, and when he is actually mad.
Lear is never entirely alone on the stage; he is attended by someone even in his most contemplative
moments. But Shakespeare has given him such an aura that the spotlight is always on him and he is
always in focus. We can examine his every word and every move microscopically.
Observe the skill with which he tries to manipulate his daughters. Notice how he rouses our
sympathy with references to himself as "tired," "poor," and "old."
You'll notice that Lear really only acts in the first scene and that all the rest is reaction. But it is the most
skillful reaction imaginable since it never fails to hold our interest and attention.
In the final analysis, Lear himself must be judged on several counts. He undoubtedly triggered the
forces that brought England to the brink of civil war. It took a foreign invasion to restore authority and
order. This makes Lear guilty of something. But is the suffering he endures, the extent of his punishment
and final loss, deserved? As you watch his progress through the play, you alone must decide whether he
is indeed, "...a man / More sinn'd against than sinning" (III, ii, 59-60).
The stubborn streak that Lear's youngest daughter exhibits in the first scene is the one saving gesture
that redeems Cordelia from being "too good to be true."
We don't know much about Cordelia except that she is her father's favorite. As a princess, she
obviously has led a privileged life, but it doesn't appear to have spoiled her as it has her older sisters.
Cordelia is not stupid. She may not be wise enough to avoid losing her share of Lear's kingdom, but
she can speak up when her honor as well as interest are at stake. She makes sure that the King of France
does not get the wrong idea about her error of judgment and consider it a crime.
Although she disappears from the stage after the first scene and doesn't return until the last scene of
the fourth act, her image is kept before us and periodically polished. This leads to great expectations.
Still, we're not disappointed when she does return to the stage. From that point on she is the soul of
gentleness and goodness in her devotion to her aged father and his welfare.
By endowing Cordelia with such powerful virtue, Shakespeare seems to be indulging us in our eternal
wish for the ultimate fairy-tale princess. We want her to make everything come out an right. Because it
doesn't, despite her noble efforts, her last moments on the stage are all the more poignant.
In terms of pure evil, it may be difficult to distinguish Lear's two older daughters from each other. But
these are not identical twins. Goneril, whom we get to know first, is the firstborn and has an imperious
manner not unlike Lear's. Highly intelligent, she has long been aware of her father's moodiness, and she
decides to play it for all it's worth. Although she conspires initially with her sister Regan to protect their
mutual interests, greed gets the better of her. When it combines with lust, there's no stopping this
powerful force. When she is confronted with evidence of her treachery by her husband, she sneers,
"Who can arraign me for't?" (V, iii, 160.)
As one of the three principal villains in King Lear, Goneril does her share to provide a broad picture
of evil. And if you think she is cruel only in her behavior to her father, listen to her conversations with
her husband and her recommendation for Gloucester's punishment. Finally, of course, who else would
stoop to poison as a means of getting what she wants?
In her fancy clothes, Goneril couldn't care less about degrading her father with haggling over the size
of his retinue. She is interested only in "looking after number one." And when there is no
longer a way out, when she is utterly trapped in the web she has spun, only she will have the final say.
The cruelty and the evil inherent in Regan are harder to detect at first. We may be taken in as much
as Lear is by her sugary words. This second daughter is extremely well spoken. She uses words as a tool
and a weapon more craftily than her older sister.
As the middle child, Regan is less accustomed to initiating; she usually follows her older sister's lead,
particularly if it serves her self-interest. When Lear turns to her after he has been turned out by Goneril,
we can see why Regan doesn't rush to welcome him. But the force in her rejection of his request, her
denial of any comfort, and her instant willingness to turn this old man out into the violent storm remind
us that there is evil just below her sweet exterior.
Regan is more the stiletto to Goneril's sword. Even though Regan schemes, she is faithful in her
marriage. And she kills only to try to save her husband's life. But she can be vicious and strong willed.
She is capable of terrifying venom when she unleashes her fury.
If her thirst for power is her primary motivation, her powerful lust is her eventual undoing. All we
can do is speculate as to whether she wanted Edmund for his body or as a partner in a future struggle for
rule over England. But because Regan is always "number two, she dies without knowing that her
lover could never have won the battle she would have waged.
Gloucester is a counterpoint to Lear. There are as many parallels as there are differences between
them, though they are in similar circumstances by the end of the play.
Like Lear, Gloucester is elderly. He is gullible and easily taken in by his son Edmund. But Gloucester
is no weak, infirm geriatric either. He braves the storm repeatedly to bring creature comforts to his king
and master. And even after being blinded, he is capable of enduring the long trek to Dover.
Unlike Lear, Gloucester is more the "average man." He speaks plainly, with little
indulgence in fancy rhetoric. He doesn't really concern himself with philosophic matters until he is
pushed almost to the limit of his endurance. Gloucester doesn't ask a lot of questions. He has faith in
astrology much the same way he trusts Fortune.
He must have served Lear in some senior court capacity for some time, since he isn't easily disturbed
by the ebb and flow of politics. But when forced to get involved, he isn't very good at it, and ultimately
suffers for his lack of cunning.
This good-natured man is also not particularly perceptive about his children. From the very
beginning, when he jokes about Edmund's birth in front of his illegitimate son, Gloucester is singularly
lacking in vision.
But Gloucester can be very brave. He is willing to risk his life for the king and the order and stability
that Lear represents for him.
As the protagonist of the subplot, Gloucester is its pivot. Like Goneril and Regan- Lear's daughters
who exude evil- Gloucester's son Edmund is also evil. To what degree is Gloucester responsible for this
evil? And is his punishment in due proportion to his "crime"? Answering these questions will
give you greater insight into the main plot's similar situation and Lear's own final judgment. And that, of
course, is one of the great services the character of Gloucester performs in King Lear. That he can arouse
emotions and stimulate our interest in his own predicament is a testimony to the craftsmanship of the
playwright who created him.
Edmund and Edgar are two sides of one coin. To say that one of these sons of the Earl of Gloucester
has a particular trait is to claim the opposite of the other. Yet Shakespeare develops each character fully.
Edmund's villainy is obvious as soon as we see him alone on stage and listen to what he has to say.
But during our very first introduction at the start of the play, he looks like a victim twice over. Not only is
he the product of an illicit liaison, but duty makes him stand by while his father cracks jokes about his
birth. Is it any wonder that Edmund has turned out the way he has?
Still, for all his carping about his illegitimacy, the trouble he causes and his treacherous behavior
seem well beyond the point of fair compensation. Edmund's glib tongue works hard to persuade us that
he's doing only what he must. It reveals a keen intelligence within his warped mind. Combined with his
overpowering ambition, this intelligence makes Edmund capable of seizing every opportunity that comes
The passion of Lear's older daughters is something this young adventurer barely acknowledges. He
allows Fate to decide which one shall have him. Is this a more mature Edmund giving a nod to higher
To observe Edmund's villainy throughout King Lear is to see more than a case study in evil. It also
reveals the twisted path of a tortured soul.
We probably see more facets of Gloucester's older son than of any other character in King Lear. He
ranges from the insipid dupe we meet at the beginning of Act I, Scene ii, to the heroic heir to the
kingdom in the final scene. In between we discover a lot about Edgar, primarily through his own speech
and action. Very little is said to him except the slanderous comments of the bastard, Edmund.
Considering the source, they are almost endearing.
Throughout the play we see an Edgar who has faith in the gods and their justice. Still, when troubles
arise, he can think and act for himself. As the madman beggar, an imaginative notion to begin with, he
acts the part well enough to deceive his father and godfather. And, while running wildly about in his fake
madness, he manages to comfort Lear and provide extraordinary assistance for Gloucester.
We may ridicule Edgar's stupidity for allowing Edmund to drive him from his home, but we have to
admire his achievement of stature at the end. There are difficult journeys for many characters in King
Lear, and Edgar's is not an easy one. But it is ultimately and deservedly rewarding.
Another significant contrast in the play is Albany. He is almost as unlike his brother-in-law,
Cornwall, as Gloucester's two sons are different.
It is easy to see why the alliance between the two poles of Albany and Cornwall would never last. Not
only are their names opposites- Albany was the ancient name for Scotland, and Cornwall is located in
the southwestern-most part of England- so are their temperaments. The hot and fiery Cornwall could
never be compatible with the cool, calm Albany.
The foul-mouthed Goneril calls her husband Albany cowardly, but he doesn't display any lack of
courage. He's enough of a military commander to win a significant victory. And he's ready to meet
Edmund in one-on-one combat. More than courageous, Albany is decisive when something must be done.
Altogether, Albany is an admirable character and a fitting champion for justice. The decency of his
behavior makes his wife's crueller nature stand out in bold relief.
As befits the role of son-in-law, especially to a king, Cornwall hasn't much to say or do when we first
see him. He is willing to stand by and get his fair share as Lear parcels out the kingdom.
When we first meet him on his own turf, as a guest but nevertheless as Gloucester's "arch and
patron," he is assertive and authoritative. In a matter of moments he has taken things over and is
making all the important decisions.
Cornwall is evil, but certainly not a coward. It takes him a while, but he does own up to Lear that he
had Kent put into the stocks. And he's ready to defend that action.
In his own mind, Cornwall is a fair judge. Having decided from Edmund's report that Gloucester is a
traitor, he makes a pass at giving the old man a chance to speak for himself. But getting nowhere and not
discovering anything new, Cornwall doesn't hesitate to execute the sentence with zest.
For all the violence, tempest, rage, anger, and horror in the play, only one pair of hands in King Lear
is really bloodied. That they are Cornwall's is a mark and measure of his villainy. He is, after all, a fitting
partner for the cruel Regan.
Kent is the ideal first mate to the commander of the ship of state. From the moment we meet him and
observe his tactful response to Gloucester's bawdy chatter, we know we can rely on this good man. It
doesn't take long for us to become better acquainted.
When Lear banishes Cordelia, and Kent speaks up in her behalf, he is bold but courteous. And he
sticks to his guns, even at the risk of his own banishment.
The measure of his devotion to his master, the king, is shown by his assumption of a disguise. This
enables him to continue in Lear's service.
There are several additional facets of Kent's personality. He can be hotheaded, as in the outburst that
infuriates Lear in the very first scene. And his treatment of Oswald is hardly gentle. Kent even shows a
sense of humor in his lengthy description of Goneril's steward.
Kent is not a great philosopher, but he does acknowledge that there are greater forces determining our
fates. He endures disfavor and discomfort stoically.
His devotion and faithfulness are always in our minds. In the midst of the final turmoil, we still have
compassion for Kent when he tells us that he cannot fulfill the only formal request made of him. He
cannot share the responsibility for restoring order to England because he is nearing his own end. Who
would deny him his final rest and reward?
- THE FOOL
Although he is an oddity to us, the Fool was greeted by an Elizabethan audience with great
familiarity. The monarch in Shakespeare's time may not have had an official court jester, but the position
was a historic one. In conventional drama of the day, as a holdover from morality plays of earlier days
and the traveling stock companies that wandered the countryside, the role was classic. A Fool had
established characteristics and responsibilities.
Among them, the Fool had license to roam the stage and approach the audience family, often joking
with them and talking directly to them. He acted as a bridge between the action on stage and the
audience's own experience. We might think of this today as "low comedy," but it was welcome
in its day. The better the Fool, the greater his popularity with the "groundlings"- those
members of the audience who stood directly around the stage (today's closest equivalent would be the fans
seated in the bleachers of the ballpark).
Shakespeare exploits this aspect of the Fool to make him a character in the play as well as a
commentator on the action, much the way the chorus functioned in Greek tragedy.
The notion of the Fool providing comic relief is difficult to see in the darkness of King Lear, but such
relief does occur. This is not the thigh-slapping humor we might expect, but is more colorful relief in the
very presence of the Fool as well as his bits of light verse, songs, riddles, etc. The role demands an actor
physically nimble, adept at tongue-twisting speech, quick at comebacks, and intelligent enough to let the
Fool's performance speak for itself.
Tradition has it that the Fool in Elizabethan tragedy is the instructor of the wise man. Speaking in
riddles, the Fool repeatedly reminds Lear of his folly, which we know to be the truth. As such, the Fool is
our champion, giving vent to our thoughts and emotions. No wonder audiences can't help loving the Fool.
It is probably just as well that we don't see the Fool give up the ghost. Though it can be dramatically
justified, we still miss the Fool during the latter half of the play.
The role of Goneril's steward is another holdover from earlier forms of drama. Shakespeare has,
however, adapted this stock character to his own purpose in King Lear.
Oswald is not completely the traditional two-dimensional buffoon and cowardly servant. He is brave
enough, or firm enough, to resist Regan's attempt to pry information from him. Is this loyalty to Goneril?
Or is it the blind following of instructions? Even when he is slain, he is true to his mission, asking his
executioner to forward the messages he carries.
But Oswald is all too ready to conspire with Goneril and share her villainy. He is delighted to carry
out her order to snub Lear and his retinue. In fact, it was his complaint that started the trouble between
Goneril and Lear.
Of course, Oswald is really nothing compared to the arch villains of this play. Edgar has the ultimate
say after he has disposed of his father's would-be killer:
I know thee well: a serviceable villain;
As duteous to the vices of thy mistress
As badness would desire.
(Act IV, Scene vi, lines 248-50)
That sums up Oswald.
[King Lear Contents]
King Lear takes place in mythological, prehistoric England. It begins in Lear's palace but never
returns to that spot. Once the action starts to move, it doesn't stop until the last note of the recessional is
Geography isn't really important, although it does figure in the play. We know we are somewhere to
the north at Albany's castle when Lear first quarrels with Goneril. Later we move to Gloucester's castle,
within and outside the walls.
We can't miss knowing when we are outside in a storm, and it's obvious when we move inside to
some form of shelter. The lack of changeable scenery made it necessary to be nonspecific, but the
Elizabethan platform stage with its recess in the rear allowed for certain suggestions of movement and
Eventually, the action moves to the southeast of England. Edgar guides the blind Gloucester toward
Dover, where the king's party has already been sent. Eventually the two meet.
The French have obviously landed in that area, and Cordelia catches up with Lear and has him
brought to her camp to rest. It is not far from there that the final battle is fought and the action of the play
The rapid flow of events in King Lear makes what is happening infinitely more interesting than
where it takes place.
There is a wide range of themes running through King Lear. Often they are straightforward, but just
as frequently they are buried or seemingly contradictory. It's important to remember that Shakespeare
makes many points by parallel or contrasting words and actions. If something is significant in the main
plot, it will probably turn up in some fashion in the subplot, and vice versa.
Some of the important themes are:
- THE FOLLY OF OLD AGE- THE INGRATITUDE OF YOUTH
Lear's division of his kingdom, his "early retirement," unleashes the forces that lead
ultimately to the catastrophic ending of the play. Gloucester is no less responsible for his calamity, for
being rash in his judgment of his older son and blindly trusting his younger. Are these men senile? How
much of the suffering that they endure do they deserve?
And considering how they are abused by their fathers, don't Edgar and Goneril deserve some
sympathy, some satisfaction? Regan, too- should she have to put up with her father's rowdy entourage? Or
are these, indeed, thankless children? Do they try to grab more than is rightfully theirs?
There are several references to how "golden-agers" should be looked after by their
children. What do you think of those making the comments, as well as those they're discussing? How you
feel, how your sympathies shift, will affect your attitude toward the ending of King Lear.
- GOOD AND EVIL
With the exception of momentary lapses, the good characters in this play are all very good, and the
bad characters are quite evil. Other than the heads of the two families, Lear and Gloucester, there is little
growth or development. But those characters undergo such profound experiences that there is enough
internal activity to keep the play moving forward.
Other characters talk about benign or malevolent forces, but Lear wrestles with them head-on. His
plunge into insanity is marked by his ever-increasing awareness of the presence of good and evil in areas
he had never before considered. And even the generally placid Gloucester exhibits new awareness as he
proceeds toward his final moment.
Since the play ends with the death of all those we have come to love, except those who must carry on,
it has been called a study in pessimism. Do you accept that judgment? Or do you see redeeming aspects? Is
the play only about a struggle between good and evil or is there a broader interpretation?
Shakespeare's concept of nature in King Lear is a kaleidoscopic picture of the prevailing Elizabethan
attitude. It is not always the picture we expect, but all the pieces are there.
The Elizabethans viewed nature as order. It consisted of a universe in which there was an established
hierarchy; everything had its own relative position. Heaven, the Divine Being, and the stars and planets
were all above. On earth, the king was at the head of the class structure, with the nobles next, and on
down to the peasantry, and beneath them were the lowliest humans: beggars, lunatics, and so on. Below
that came the animals.
When this order was disturbed, things were considered unnatural or "monstrous." Chaos
ruled the unnatural, and malevolent forces were involved.
There are constant references to nature and unnatural things and forces throughout the play.
Shakespeare was deeply concerned with this concept and stretched it to the limit in King Lear. Did he
finally believe that such a system existed and operated in the determination of man's fate? Your
interpretation of the play should provide you with the answer to this question.
- VISION AND BLINDNESS
There are more overt references to vision and blindness than almost any other theme. There are subtle
variations woven through the drama, too. Obviously, when someone is behaving intelligently, he has
vision. Conversely, he acts blindly when he does something foolish.
You may notice what seem to be contradictions. For example, madness is folly and should produce
blindness. But in the midst of Lear's madness, he comes up with some provocative insights. What does
this tell us?
Don't come to a hasty conclusion about the theme of vision and blindness. Evaluate the obvious
references in the text, and consider the theme as it applies to the characters' actions throughout the play.
A new student of Shakespeare will find King Lear quite different from any contemporary play.
Elizabethan drama had its own set of rules, and Shakespeare was guided, if not bound, by most of them.
Most noticeable is the somewhat formal speech in verse. You may have heard about Shakespeare's
iambic pentameter, which is nothing more than a description of a poetic form- a five-beat line with a
stress on every second syllable. It's used frequently, though not exclusively, in King Lear. This was
simply Shakespeare's way of approximating the sound of upperclass speech or the way it was believed
serious matters should sound when discussed. In addition, there is his use of verse. Poetry gave him the
opportunity to say a lot in a few words.
Don't read the dialogue in a singsong pattern. Just read it straight through and let the punctuation
guide you to the rests and stopping points. After a while it will become as natural as reading prose.
Shakespeare breaks the monotony of the verse with prose speech when appropriate. How certain
forms are used at certain times can be very revealing.
All languages change. Differences in pronunciation and word choice are apparent even between
parents and their children. If language differences can appear in one generation, it is only to be expected
that the English used by Shakespeare four hundred years ago will diverge markedly from the English that
is used today. The following information on Shakespeare's language will help a modern reader to a fuller
understanding of King Lear.
MOBILITY OF WORD CLASSES
Adjectives, nouns, and verbs were less rigidly confined to particular classes in Shakespeare's day.
Nouns were often used as verbs. In Act I, Scene i, the King of France uses monsters in a context where
modern usage would require "makes it appear monstrous."
Sure her offense
Must be of such unnatural degree
That monsters it....
Adjectives could be used as adverbs. In Act I, Scene iv, line 230 Lear says: "I should be false
persuaded" whereas the modern equivalent would require falsely. They could also be used as verbs,
as in Act II, Scene ii, line 118, where worthy becomes a verb meaning "win honor for" in:
"That worthied him."
CHANGES IN WORD MEANING
The meanings of words undergo changes, a process that can be illustrated by the fact that chip
extended its meaning from a small piece of wood to a small piece of silicon. Many of the words in
Shakespeare still exist today but their meanings have changed. The change may be small, as in the case
of comfortable, which meant "comforting, ready to give comfort," as in: "I have another
daughter, / Who, I am sure, is kind and comfortable." (I, iv, 304-5) Or the change in meaning is
more fundamental, as when character meant "handwriting" (I, i, 260), curious meant
"elaborate" (I, iii, 32), fond meant "foolish" (I, iv, 299), presently meant
"immediately" (I, ii, 98), prevented meant "came before, forestalled" (I, i, 44), and
teem meant "have children": "If she must teem, / Create her child of spleen...." (I,
Words not only change their meanings, but are frequently discarded from the language. In the past,
leman meant "sweetheart" and sooth meant "truth." The following words used in
King Lear are no longer current in English, but their meanings can usually be gauged from the contexts
in which they occur:
- BRAZED (I, i, 10)
- KNAVE (I, i, 20)
- CHAMPAINS (I, i, 68)
- grassy plains
- SECTARY ASTRONOMICAL (I, ii, 147)
- student of, believer in astrology
- CLOTPOLL (I, iv, 46)
- EPICURISM (I, iv, 241)
- KIBES (I, v, 9)
- GASTED (II, i, 54)
- BEWRAY (II, i, 106)
- discover, reveal
- FINICAL (II, ii, 17)
- CULLIONLY (II, ii, 31)
- FRONT (II, ii, 105)
- MEINY (II, iv, 34)
- FETCHES (II, iv, 86)
- BEMADDING (III, i, 38)
- CAITIFF (III, ii, 55)
- OUT-PARAMOURED (III, iv, 89)
- had more mistresses than
- CORKY (III, vii, 29)
- SOT (IV, ii, 8)
- SIMPLES (IV, iv, 14)
- medicinal herbs
- WHELKED (IV, vi, 71)
- FITCHEW (IV, vi, 121)
- polecat, prostitute
- LIST (V, iii, 62)
Shakespearean verb forms differed from modern usage in three main ways:
- Questions and negatives could be formed without using do/did as when Edmund asks:
Why brand they us
(I, ii, 9-10)
whereas today we would say: "Why do they brand us as base, low born?" Another
example occurs when Gloucester states: "I know not"; modern usage demands: "I do not
know." Review the lists that follow. Shakespeare had the option of forms a and b, whereas
contemporary usage permits only form a.
How do you look? How look you?
How did he look? How looked he?
You do not look well. You look not well.
You did not look well. You looked not well.
You did not look well. You looked not well.
- A number of past participles and past tense verb forms are used that would be ungrammatical
today. Among these are strucken for "struck": "I'll not be strucken, my Lord" (I,
iv, 83); writ for "written": "...I have writ my sister" (I, iv, 338), forbid for
"forbidden": "This courtesy forbid thee shall the Duke / Instantly know...." (III,
iii, 21); holp for "helped": "...he holp the heavens to rain." (III, vii, 60); and
spoke for "spoken": "Ere you had spoke so far." (V, iii, 64).
- Archaic verb forms sometimes occur with thou and he/she/it.
Follow me; thou shalt serve me.
(I, iv, 40)
Thou wast a pretty fellow when thou hadst no
need to care.
(I, iv, 188)
What he hath uttered...
(I, iv, 330)
Shakespeare and his contemporaries had one extra pronoun, thou, which could be used in addressing
a person who was one's equal or social inferior. You was obligatory if more than one person was
addressed: "Tell me, my daughters / ...Which of you..." (I, i, 47ff). But you could also be used
to indicate respect, as when Goneril told her father: "Sir, I love you more than words can wield the
matter..." (I, i, 54).
Frequently, a person in power used thou to a subordinate but was addressed you in return, as when
Edmund and Curan speak.
Edmund: Save thee, Curan.
Curan: And you, sir. I have been with your father.
(II, i, 1ff)
But if thou was used inappropriately, it might be offensive. The Fool uses thou when speaking to Lear
to underline the fact that Lear has given away his power along with his lands.
O nuncle, court holy water in a dry house is better than this
rain-water out o'door. Good nuncle, in; ask thy daughters'
blessing: here's a night pities neither wise men nor fools.
(III, ii, 10ff)
One further pronominal reference warrants a comment. Lear uses the royal plural we when he has or
thinks he has power.
Right noble Burgundy,
When she was dear to us, we did hold her so;
(I, i, 194ff)
But he changes to I as he begins to appreciate his weakness:
Howl, 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.
(V, iii, 256ff)
Prepositions were less standardized in Elizabethan English than they are today, and so we find several
uses in King Lear that would have to be modified in contemporary speech. Among these are on for
"by," as in: "...as if we were villains on necessity..." (I, ii, 118); with for
"by" in: "He is attended with a desperate train..." (II, iv, 303); of for
"by" in: "Unwhipped of justice..." (III, ii, 53); and in for "into" in:
There is a cliff whose high and bending head
Looks fearfully in the confined deep.
(IV, i, 73)
Contemporary English requires only one negative per statement and regards such utterances as
"I haven't none" as nonstandard. Shakespeare often used two or more negatives for emphasis:
Gloucester: He cannot be such a monster.
Edmund: Nor is not, sure.
(I, ii, 91ff)
And Lear says: "No eyes in your head, nor no money in your purse?" (IV, vi, 142ff)
FORM AND STRUCTURE
Elizabethan plays were written to be performed in circumstances peculiar to their time. A wooden
platform thrust out into the audience could serve as a stage. Although even the poorest performing troupe
indulged in the most elaborate costumes they could afford, there was no scenery and no special lighting.
A private performance might be held indoors, but most were outside. Theaters of the time were
modeled after inn courtyards with tiered galleries running around the perimeter. The cheapest admission
was for the ground area where there were no seats, so the audience stood or roamed about.
Actors- there were no actresses; men performed all the roles- entered from the back of the stage area
left and right, and exited the same way. Sometimes there was a recessed area in the back across which a
curtain might be drawn when appropriate.
There was no signal- no curtain coming down, no lowering of the lights- to indicate a change of scene
or act. Action at a particular place ended when all the characters involved left the stage. The best
available records or scripts of Shakespeare's plays therefore don't contain the act and scene divisions we
commonly use today. King Lear was written to be performed under these circumstances. These conditions
dictated its form and structure, which should actually be viewed as one uninterrupted piece.
One way Shakespeare maintains pace and interest is to alternate scenes between the main plot and the
subplot. As the story line unfolds, he interweaves other scenes- Albany's castle, Cordelia's tent- but the
focus shifts back and forth between Lear's story and Gloucester's.
Shakespeare also balances these changing scenes with a range of dynamics. The howling intensity of
the storm scenes, for example, is interrupted before the high pitch loses its effect. Each time we return to
Lear and the thunder and lightning, we expect a little more; we are wound up and ready rather than
exhausted by the tumult.
The parallel and contrasting aspects of the two plots also create an undercurrent of interest. They
combine to give the play stimulus as well as dramatic texture.
Within the limitations of what we consider "primitive" theatrical technology, Shakespeare
applied his special skills in King Lear to produce an experience of profound theatrical tragedy, a riveting
THE AUTHOR AND HIS TIMES
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