An Analysis of Shakespeare's "King Lear"

Updated on March 1, 2018
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Working towards a Bachelor of Arts, Simran writes articles on modern history, art theory, religion, mythology, and analyses of texts.

What is King Lear about?

King Lear is a tragedy by the big Billy himself, William Shakespeare. The play's action centres on an ageing king who decides to divvy up his kingdom between his three daughters (Goneril, Regan, and Cordelia) in order to avoid any conflict after his death. This play then depicts the gradual descent into madness of King Lear, after he disposes of his kingdom giving bequests to two of his three daughters based on their flattery of him. The second plot line of the play consists of Gloucester and his sons, Edmund and Edgar. Edmund forges a letter stating that Edgar planned to betray his father. Gloucester believed the forgery, bringing tragic consequences for all characters involved.

The scene after Gloucester had his eyes gouged out
The scene after Gloucester had his eyes gouged out | Source

Sight and blindness

Evidently, the prospect of sight and blindness bears relevance towards the play due to the way in which the binary pair is a constant factor within the play. For instance, this is emphasised through the way in which Gloucester loses his sight. After his eyes were removed he consequently began to gain more insight. This brings more complexity to the play and questions the position of authority and age since Gloucester clearly presents a notion of blindness to Edmond's intention, yet ironically he gains more insight after the loss of his eyes as he is shown to recognise the king. Consequently, this brings irony, insight and complexity to the play, therefore highlighting the significance of blindness and sight.

King Lear Banishing Cordelia (John Boydell, 1803)


Words vs actions

Words and actions bring irony, complexity, and insight to the play. This is through the statements made by the characters that conflict with their actions.For instance, within the play, Lear states that he is sorry for banishing Cordelia.

However, he does not do this in person as his actions lead to her absence from the kingdom. As a result, this shows the clear distinction between the two as although his words had stated; "I loved her the most" (act 1 scene 1) and saying he loved her he allowed his vanity to sit higher than family values, consequently banishing her.

Furthermore, Lear asks "Who is it who can tell me who I am?" as it was clear he thought he was king. However, his actions to divide the kingdom contradicts this as he resulted in being a king with a meaningless title as his actions got rid of the power and authority he had as king in act 1. Consequently, this brings irony, insight and complexity to the play, therefore highlighting the significance of blindness and sight.

Three daughters of King Lear by Gustav Pope


The theme of injustice (Act 2, Scene 4)

The sentimental theme of injustice clearly had been indicated within the Scene and Lear is provoked to the edge of insanity. This is the way in which Regan and Goneril deceptively from their declaration of love to Lear had suddenly turned against him, attacking his pride though the treatment of Kent, Regan and Cornwall refusing to speak with him on command, stating that his authority and age was moving away from him. For instance, Goneril states "Have a command you?" then Regan saying "What need one?". As a result, this takes away the mentality of authority and importance that his servants represented and both daughters have chosen to use his empty status as king against him. Therefore the theme of injustice is evident within this scene through the way in which Regan and Goneril have suddenly turned their back on Lear despite the fact they had proclaimed their love for him days before and left him to the storm where he could have easily fallen sick in his old age.

Cordelia vs Goneril/ Regan

The conflict between the sisters presents irony, the prospect of good and evil, family values, dramatic irony and complexity to the play. This is presented through scene 1 act 1 where Regan and Goneril lie to their father about their love whilst Cordelia refuses to shower Lear with compliments. This presents the audience with irony and dramatic irony as Cordelia was the one who loved her father the most. This presents the opposite sides within the play (good and evil) as the although Goneril and Regan still got the kingdom, they failed to show loyalty to the king which ultimately lead to their demise while Cordelia died in the hands of the law. Consequently, this brings irony, insight and complexity to the play, therefore highlighting the significance of blindness and sight.

King Lear, Act I, scene 2: Edmund's soliloquy, by William Shakespeare

Truth vs untruth

The conflicts between truth and lie present irony, the prospect of good and evil, dramatic irony and complexity to the play. For instance, Edmond lied to Gloucester that Edgar was plotting against him. However, Edgar clearly had nothing to do with the letter that Edmond forged. Although this was true, the lie prevailed and Edgar was reduced to being a fugitive. Consequently, this brings irony, insight and complexity to the play, therefore highlighting the significance of truth and lie.

David Garrick as Lear, 1761, engraved by Charles Spencer after a painting by Benjamin

The importance of the storm

The storm scene could be regarded as a psychical manifestation of chaos created in response to Lear's actions through the political chaos escalated from Lear's actions. This is the way Lear had divided the kingdom leaving his title meaningless, banished Cordelia and Kent, argued with Goneril and was banished by his daughters, reducing him to nothing and breaking the chain of being. To illustrate Lear shouts at the sky;“Nor rain, the wind, thunder, fire, are my daughters: / I tax you not, you elements, with unkindness. I never gave you a kingdom, called you children” (3.2.14–15).

The storm is a psychical reflection of the It reflects the madness and psychological anguish, regret, betrayal and emotional chaos that Lear felt within this situation. This shows the metaphysical connection Lear had to the storm as he shows that he regrets giving his kingdom to his children and he comes to the realisation he had made a mistake.The strength of the storm mirrors the political chaos Lear he created by breaking the chain of being as the hierarchical structure within England had been put into turmoil due to Lear's irrationality. This brings Britain into a state of chaos where the villains of the play, Goneril, Regan, Edmond and Cornwall have the most power. Instead of in a castle, the king is outside shouting at the storm like a mental patient. Therefore this shows that Lear had been reduced to nothing, as the fool had stated he had become old before he became wise which ironically defeats the purpose of a king.

King Lear and the Fool illustrated by H.C. Selous, 1864. Source: Cassell's illustrated Shakespeare

Within the storm scene, it is evident that Lear had been drawn to a state of anguish, regret, humiliation and madness. This is clearly through the way in which he is shown provoking the storm to grow even more tempestuous. For instance, Lear yells;“Nor rain, the wind, thunder, fire, are my daughters: / I tax you not, you elements, with unkindness” (3.2.14–15). Through this Lear bellows at the storm as though it was a physical being showing that he had been drawn to a state of delusion. This shows that Lear had lost touch with reality or an ordinary sense of understanding of nature. To this Lear lividly questions whether he deserves such harsh treatment from the gods and if not how they would allow his own daughters to betray and humiliate him as they had. It is clear that Lear had regretted dividing his kingdom and sees himself as a victim in comparison to the rest of the characters. Therefore his reveals that Lear's state of mind had been pushed into turmoil, hostility, confusion and on the verge of complete madness.

Within the storm scene, Kent and Fool provide a sense of rationality despite their titles. This was distinctly through the way both characters attempt to help the king despite his delusional state. For instance, the Fool says to Kent "Marry here's grace and a codpiece; that's a wise man and a fool". The characters show the blur in between both in which the question; "which is the king? The wise man or the fool" comes into play. It is shown that Kent and Fool had no significant titles and were regarded as nothing, they still had their sanity whereas the king had become delusional.

King Lear and the Fool in the Storm (c. 1851) by William Dyce

Both characters represent irony as although they are regarded as nothing, they both stay to help the King to shelter where Lear's daughters Goneril and Regan had discarded their father to the mercy of the storm. This clearly shows who was loyal to the king. Therefore it is clear that the significance of Kent and Fool were to represent irony, rationality, loyalty and humanity within the situation.

The introduction of Poor Tom into the storm scene impacts on the play through irony, emotional response, suspense and complexity. This is distinctly due to the way Gloucester is shown to hold hands with Edgar although he was the one to put the death penalty on his head. For instance, Gloucester confesses to Kent;"I had a son. Now outlawed from my blood; he sought my life, But lately, very late. I loved him. No father his son dearer/ The grief has crazed my wits" (3.4.150-155). The way in which Edgar disguised as old Tom was in front of him without Gloucester recognising him creates irony. As a result, this reveals Gloucester deteriorating insight and wisdom despite his old age, creates an atmosphere of tension and suspense towards the audience along with disgust towards Gloucester as a father and sympathy for Edgar. This makes the play further complex as the audience anticipates whether or not Gloucester is to recognise Edgar and how he would react. Therefore the entrance of Tom brings further insight to the topic of family turmoil within the play, irony, more complexity to the plot and provokes an emotional response from the audience.

King Lear 3.2 (storm scene)

Wealth versus poverty

Conflicting ideals of class and wealth becomes ingrained throughout the play as it undermines King Lear and his title. For instance, within act 4 Lear is thrown out into the storm without anything. In comparison to acting 1, Lear had lost everything such as his authority, title, money and family. When Lear was wealthy he clearly lacked insight while at the end of the play, although he was reduced to nothing he showed insight when he remembered Cordelia. Consequently, this brings irony, insight and complexity to the play, therefore highlighting the significance of wealth and poverty.

The meaning of the Fool's speech to Lear

Within the context of Lear, it is evident that the 'Fool', was the court jester who generally cared for King Lear as he is projected as the voice of Lear's conscience and reason. This is clear though his speech to Lear since in a derisive way, the fool highlight the facts of his degrading character, power and position as king and the blatant deceive of Gonerall and Regan. To illustrate the Fool states; 'Thou hadst little wit in thy bald crown when thou gavst given thy golden one away'. Through this, the Fool blatantly states that Lear had been foolish enough to give his crown away to his daughters and be bought over by their empty compliments to build his egotism, and still he is still in denial. Due to this Lear's title is now perceived as empty. Therefore the meaning of the fool's speech to Lear was to state and try to convince him to see what he is in denial of; having an empty title as king, Lear being foolish to banish Cordelia and being blind to Gonerall and Regan's manipulation.

The Fool vs King Lear

The binary oppositions of the Fool and Lear's personalities highlighted how Shakespeare addresses the prospect of wisdom, moral values, dramatic irony and complexity within his play. Their position on the chain of being is different as Lear is a king and Fool is only a servant. Although this was so, Lear lacked the insight that was required to have from a king as due to his division of the kingdom he lost his title. This contradicts the fact that Fool had enough insight to recognise Kent in act 2 and the King did not. Consequently, this demonstrated irony, insight and complexity to the play, therefore highlighting the significance of the Fool and Lear.

Naturalness versus unnaturalness

The prospect of naturalness and unnaturalness is presented as an issue within the play. This was due to the fact that within the context of Shakespeare's time bastardy was viewed as a crime against religion, therefore spawning in malevolent children. The stigma of bastardy was explored through Edgar and Edmond's nature of birth conflicts as Edgar is a legitimate son of Gloucester while Edmond is illegitimate. As regarded within society the play was set in Edmond clearly presented evil as seen through him plotting to take GLoucester's title whilst Edgar despite being stripped of his title, protected his father. As a result of this naturalness and unnatural natures of birth conflict within the play. Consequently, this brings irony, insight and complexity to the play, therefore highlighting the significance of blindness and sight.

Edmund to Edgar: "Pray ye, go; there's my key. If you do stir abroad, go armed." Source: Cassell's illustrated Shakespeare. illustr. by H.C. Selous 1864
Edmund to Edgar: "Pray ye, go; there's my key. If you do stir abroad, go armed." Source: Cassell's illustrated Shakespeare. illustr. by H.C. Selous 1864

Chaos versus order

Within the play, the concept of order resided within the social structure of the kingdom. This was shown in act 1 scene 1 the chain of being was in place as Lear had his title and those around him showed respect. However, chaos was introduced when he came up with the prospect of dividing his kingdom, shaking the chain of being. As a result, this overthrows political power as from that moment escalated chaos, transpiring to the demise of the old kingdom.

Edmund vs Edgar

The binary characters, Edmund and Edgar explore the superstitious impact that one's birth plays on one's nature. For instance, Edgar and Edmond's nature of birth conflicts along with their personality. As seen through Edmond's actions it is clear that he plotted to take GLoucester's title whilst Edgar, despite being stripped of his title protected his father. As a result, this presents the concept of the good and the bad son. Consequently, this brings irony, insight and complexity to the play, therefore highlighting the significance of Edmond and Edgar's conflict throughout the play.

This is the excellent foppery of the world, that, when we are sick in fortune,--often the surfeit of our own behavior,--we make guilty of our disasters the sun, the moon, and the stars

— Edmund

Kindness versus cruelty

The binary concept of kindness and cruelty was utilised in order to expose the ironic elements within the play. For instance, Goneril and Regan cast lear out into the storm at the end of act 3. This is considered cruel due to the risk of his psychological and physical health. However, Cordelia presents kindness as she forgives Lear in the play. This was ironic due to the way earlier in the play, Lear was quick to dismiss Cordelia from the kingdom due to her disobedience. For a brief time, Lear blindly placed his trust in Goneril and Regan, who deceptively returned his kindness with cruelty. The binary concepts of kindness and cruelty was a tool used to perpetuate and highlight to the audience the extent of Lear's metaphorical blindness, a factor that leads to the demise of his kingdom.

Cordelia's death

Colm Feore as King Lear and Sara Farb as Cordelia in King Lear
Colm Feore as King Lear and Sara Farb as Cordelia in King Lear

The scene at Dover (Act 4, Scene 6)

The Dover (act 4 scene 6) scene contributes to King Lear through the way it essentially presents a development in Lear's character, evokes an emotional response from the audience, presents irony and brings a resolution to Lear and Cordelia's relationship. In this scene Lear is presented as a king, Cordelia and Lear meet, Cordelia shocked with the state of her father while her father barely comprehends her presence. Instead of demanding for his daughter's confession of love and praise he passively says; "I think this lady to be my child Cordelia" instead of claiming that he was a man 'sinned more against than sinning' and demanding an apology. Unlike Kent earlier in the play he recognises Cordelia. Evidently, this reveals the development of Lear's insight into the significance of family values in contrast to Act 1 scene 1. This displays irony as when he is reduced to nothing he shows insight in contrast to when he was king he failed to do so through dividing the kingdom.

Lear's intention to beg for forgiveness is presented since he assumes that Cordelia hated him like Goneril and Regan because of Cordelia, 'had some cause; had not', to hate him. Cordelia shows compassion as she tells him that she had, "No cause", to hate him. Through his, Lear reconnects with the world as well as his daughter and the storm, as a visual representation of his inner turmoil is shown to die down. Through this Cordelia represents an 'angelic', resolution to Lear's mental hell and anguish as although he had banished her, she puts his mind at ease through forgiveness. Through begging Lear no longer sees himself as infallible as in contrast to Act 1 he had been a character of superiority and ego. Therefore this scene is significant due to the character development evokes an emotional response from the audience, presents irony and brings a resolution to Lear and Cordelia's relationship.

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    © 2016 Simran Singh


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