King Lear is a tragedy Shakespeare wrote between 1603 and 1606. It is based on the legendary King Leir of Britain, an ancient pagan king who foolishly gives his power to his two evil daughters, Goneril and Regan, while banishing his good daughter Cordelia for not flattering him as her sisters have. After Leir has lost everything due to the wickedness of her sisters, Cordelia–having married the King of France–raises the French army, invades England, and restores the throne to Leir.
Shakespeare replaced the legend’s happy ending with a heartbreakingly tragic one, shocking his audience, who were used to the original story. Because his version was too sorrowful for most people at the time to bear, a happy ending was created by Nahum Tate later in the 17th century, after the Restoration; this version–in which Lear’s throne is restored (a fitting reference to Charles II’s own restoration), the Fool is omitted completely, and Cordelia lives and even marries Edgar–was used until the 19th century, when Shakespeare’s ending was reconsidered and restored.
Now, the tragic ending is not only preferred, but is considered, along with the rest of the play, a supreme artistic achievement, on a level with Beethoven’s 9th Symphony, or Michelangelo’s Pieta. King Lear is a profound analysis of human suffering in all its forms, therefore justifying the tragic ending.
Here are some famous quotes:
1. “Which of you shall we say doth love us most?” –Lear, Act I, scene i, line 50
2. “Nothing will come of nothing: speak again.” –Lear, Act I, scene i, line 89
3. “Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks; rage, blow./You cataracts and hurricanoes, spout/Till you have drench’d out steeples, drown’d the cocks./You sulphurous and thought-executing fires,/Vaunt-couriers of oak-cleaving thunder-bolts,/Singe my white head. And thou, all-shaking thunder,/Strike flat the thick rotundity o’ th’ world;/Crack nature’s moulds, all germens spill at once,/That makes ingrateful man.” –Lear, Act III, scene ii, lines 1-9
4. “I am a man/More sinn’d against than sinning!” –Lear, Act III, scene ii, lines 59-60
5. “The prince of darkness is a gentleman.” –Edgar, as ‘poor Tom’, Act III, scene iv, line 139
6. “As flies to wanton boys are we to th’ gods–/They kill us for their sport.” –Gloucester, Act IV, scene i, lines 37-38
7. “Ay, every inch a king.” –Lear, Act IV, scene vi, line 107
8. “If not, I’ll ne’er trust medicine.” –Goneril, on having poisoned Regan, Act V, scene iii, line 97
9. “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. She’s gone for ever./I know when one is dead and when one lives;/She’s dead as earth. Lend me a looking-glass;/If that her breath will mist or stain the stone,/Why, then she lives.” –Lear, Act V, scene iii, lines 257-263
As was mentioned above, this play is a profound exploration of human suffering in many forms. One form in particular is loss. Lear loses everything in this play: by first giving up his kingdom to his two wicked daughters, foolishly thinking they love him, he loses the one hundred knights he reserved for himself. Then he loses all his power and authority as king. When he’s locked out of Gloucester’s castle during a stormy night, he’s lost the protection of shelter. Reduced to the status of a homeless beggar, and realizing his foolishness in trusting evil Goneril and Regan, but not good Cordelia, Lear loses his sanity.
After he’s taken to Dover and restored to health by a doctor Cordelia’s provided, Lear temporarily regains his mental health, as well as gets her back, of course. But after her army loses the war against that of Goneril and Regan, and she is hanged, Lear loses that so fragilely regained wellness of mind; and finally in his heartbreak over losing her forever, the old man loses his life with a heart attack.
He does gain one thing, though: self-knowledge. Underneath the royal pomp, he’s just an old man…and a foolish one, at that. His lack of self-understanding at the beginning of the play is noted by Goneril and Regan, who say he’s only “slenderly known himself.” Later, Lear himself says, “Who am I, sir?” to impudent Oswald, and then to Goneril et al, “Does any here know me? This is not Lear./Does Lear walk thus? Speak thus? Where are his eyes?/Either his notion weakens, or his discernings/Are lethargic.–Ha! waking? ‘Tis not so.–/Who is it that can tell me who I am?”
He isn’t the only one to suffer loss, though. In a subplot that parallels the Lear story, the Earl of Gloucester is deceived by his evil, bastard son Edmund into believing that his good, legitimate son, Edgar, is plotting to kill him to gain his land.
Later, when Edmund betrays Gloucester for trying to help Lear against the machinations of Goneril, Regan and her husband, the Duke of Cornwall, they accuse him of treason, and Cornwall puts Gloucester’s eyes out. Only then does he brokenheartedly realize which son is the good one, and which the bad.
Edgar, taking care of his blind father after he’s been thrown outside as Lear was, manages to dissuade Gloucester from committing suicide; but when Edgar reveals himself, Gloucester also has a heart attack, and loses his life.
With all of the loss and suffering, we come to another important theme in the play: nihilism. As we have seen, Lear and Gloucester are reduced to nothing. Other characters to die are, as we have seen, Cordelia, Goneril, Regan, Cornwall, Oswald, and Edmund, though we may not mourn the loss of those last five so much. The kingdom of England all but falls to pieces by the end of the play, its fragile state to be restored by Edgar and the Duke of Albany. The Earl of Kent will kill himself, since he senses the ghost of Lear requiring his continued services in the afterlife. Words of negation, like ‘nothing’ and ‘never’, are stated many times throughout the play. Then there is mad Lear’s shout, “kill, kill, kill, kill, kill, kill!”
Sometimes when we compare levels of suffering, one can find comfort for oneself in pitying the greater suffering of another, as Edgar does in a soliloquy in a shelter Gloucester has provided for homeless Lear et al. Edgar’s witnessing of Lear’s real madness in the storm, as opposed to Edgar’s feigned insanity in his role as ‘poor Tom’, makes him realize his persecution by his father isn’t so bad a situation to be in. But the next day, when he sees his eyeless father driven to despair, the heaviness of Edgar’s sorrow returns.
One particularly striking feature of this tragedy is how it inhabits an upside-down world. In this world, as in Macbeth, what is normally bad is good, and what is normally good is bad. Those who speak bluntly or rudely (Cordelia, Kent, and the Fool) are good, and they are censured, punished, and even banished by the wicked Cornwall or foolish king. Those who speak politely, who flatter, are evil, as Goneril, Regan, and Cornwall are (see also Quote 5). To be a traitor against England, as Gloucester is against the rule of Goneril and Regan, is good; to be loyal to their rule is evil, as Oswald is. To invade England, as Cordelia’s French army does, is good.
Good sons and daughters are confused with evil ones, as we have seen. Sons and daughters switch roles with parents, since Goneril and Regan are supposed to give shelter to retired Lear in their castles, while Cordelia actually takes care of him in Dover, and Edgar protects his blind father. The Fool even notes the switch of parent/daughter roles, mentioning the foolish notion to Lear: “…e’er since thou mad’st thy daughters thy mothers; for when you gav’st them the rod, and put’st down thine own breeches…” (Act I, scene iv, lines 170-173)
To disobey an edict of banishment is good, as Kent does in disguising himself as Caius and continuing to serve Lear, and Cordelia does in coming back to England with the French army.
A king is reduced to a beggar: in his homelessness in the rainstorm, he contemplates his meagre charity to other wretches in the same plight. He says, “Poor naked wretches, wheresoe’er you are,/That bide the pelting of this pitiless storm,/How shall your houseless heads and unfed sides,/Your loop’d and window’d raggedness, defend you/From seasons such as these? O, I have ta’en /Too little care of this! Take physic, pomp:/Expose thyself to feel what wretches feel,/That thou mayst shake the super flux to them,/And show the heavens more just.”
The feigned madness of ‘poor Tom’ seems like philosophy to deranged Lear. Indeed, as Edgar is maniacally ranting, Lear wishes to continue listening to “this philosopher”, “this same learned Theban”, “Noble philosopher”, and “good Athenian”.
When Lear has his sanity, he foolishly and vainly believes Goneril’s and Regan’s empty words of flattery are truth; in his madness, he finally knows the wicked daughters’ true nature. A sane Lear banishes Kent and disowns Cordelia: fatally foolish mistakes. In his mania, he realizes they are his true friends, as is the blunt Fool, who, no real fool, speaks only witty wisdom throughout the play, telling Lear of his folly.
When Gloucester has his eyes, he is blind to Edmund’s slanders about Edgar; in his blindness, eyeless Gloucester knows which son is truly good, and which truly evil.
When Cordelia refuses to flatter her father, she is truly loving, for she won’t speak loving words just to gain land and power; Goneril and Regan gush with speeches of love, but think only of gaining his land. Kent is similarly rude to his king, but loves him and cares for him so much, he’ll kill himself to serve his master’s ghost.
Illegitimate Edmund will gain his father’s land, but legitimate Edgar, forced to flee his home, is hounded by his father’s servants.
All of these examples of an upside-down world indicate its chaos, symbolized by the storm that occurs appropriately right in the middle of the play, when the king is made into a beggar. Small wonder Akira Kurosawa called his Japanese movie version of King Lear by the name of Ran, meaning ‘chaos’, ‘disorder’.
(If you liked what you just read, please sign up for my newsletter; a link can be found at the side of this page.)
11 thoughts on “Analysis of ‘King Lear’”