King Lear: General Introduction The epic tragedy, King Lear, has often been regarded as Shakespeare’s greatest masterpiece, if not the crowning achievement of any dramatist in Western literature. This introduction to King Lear will provide students with a general overview of the play and its primary characters, in addition to selected essay topics. Studying a Shakespearean play deepens students’ appreciation for all literature and facilitates both their understanding of themes and symbolism in literary works and their recognition of effective characterization and stylistic devices.
Dozens of versions of the tale of old Lear were readily available to Shakespeare and shaped the main plot of his own drama. However, it is clear that Shakespeare relied chiefly on King Leir, fully titled The True Chronicle History of King Leir, and his three daughters, Gonorill, Ragan, and Cordella, the anonymous play published twelve years before the first recorded performance of Shakespeare’s King Lear. Exploring what changes Shakespeare made to the drama is an excellent way to gain a full understanding of King Lear. King Lear: Plot SummaryOrder now
The story opens in ancient Britain, where the elderly King Lear is deciding to give up his power and divide his realm amongst his three daughters, Cordelia, Regan, and Goneril. Lear’s plan is to give the largest piece of his kingdom to the child who professes to love him the most, certain that his favorite daughter, Cordelia, will win the challenge. Goneril and Regan, corrupt and deceitful, lie to their father with sappy and excessive declarations of affection. Cordelia, however, refuses to engage in Lear’s game, and replies simply that she loves him as a daughter should.
Her lackluster retort, despite its sincerity, enrages Lear, and he disowns Cordelia completely. When Lear’s dear friend, the Earl of Kent, tries to speak on Cordelia’s behalf, Lear banishes him from the kingdom. Meanwhile, the King of France, present at court and overwhelmed by Cordelia’s honesty and virtue, asks for her hand in marriage, despite her loss of a sizable dowry. Cordelia accepts the King of France’s proposal, and reluctantly leaves Lear with her two cunning sisters. Kent, although banished by Lear, remains to try to protect the unwitting King from the evils of his two remaining children.
He disguises himself and takes a job as Lear’s servant. Now that Lear has turned over all his wealth and land to Regan and Goneril, their true natures surface at once. Lear and his few companions, including some knights, a fool, and the disguised Kent, go to live with Goneril, but she reveals that she plans to treat him like the old man he is while he is under her roof. So Lear decides to stay instead with his other daughter, and he sends Kent ahead to deliver a letter to Regan, preparing her for his arrival. However, when Lear arrives at Regan’s castle, he is horrified to see that Kent has been placed in stocks.
Kent is soon set free, but before Lear can uncover who placed his servant in the stocks, Goneril arrives, and Lear realizes that Regan is conspiring with her sister against him. Gloucester arrives back at Regan’s castle in time to hear that the two sisters are planning to murder the King. He rushes away immediately to warn Kent to send Lear to Dover, where they will find protection. Kent, Lear, and the Fool leave at once, while Edgar remains behind in the shadows. Sadly, Regan and Goneril discover Gloucester has warned Lear of their plot, and Cornwall, Regan’s husband, gouges out Gloucester’s eyes.
A servant tries to help Gloucester and attacks Cornwall with a sword – a blow later to prove fatal. News arrives that Cordelia has raised an army of French troops that have landed at Dover. Regan and Goneril ready their troops to fight and they head to Dover. Meanwhile, Kent has heard the news of Cordelia’s return, and sets off with Lear hoping that father and daughter can be reunited. Gloucester too tries to make his way to Dover, and on the way, finds his own lost son, Edgar. Tired from his ordeal, Lear sleeps through the battle between Cordelia and her sisters.
When Lear awakes he is told that Cordelia has been defeated. Lear takes the news well, thinking that he will be jailed with his beloved Cordelia – away from his evil offspring. However, the orders have come, not for Cordelia’s imprisonment, but for her death. Despite their victory, the evil natures of Goneril and Regan soon destroy them. Both in love with Gloucester’s conniving son, Edmund (who gave the order for Cordelia to be executed), Goneril poisons Regan. But when Goneril discovers that Edmund has been fatally wounded by Edgar, Goneril kills herself as well.
As Edmund takes his last breath he repents and the order to execute Cordelia is reversed. But the reversal comes too late and Cordelia is hanged. Lear appears, carrying the body of Cordelia in his arms. Mad with grief, Lear bends over Cordelia’s body, looking for a sign of life. The strain overcomes Lear and he falls dead on top of his daughter. Kent declares that he will follow his master into the afterlife and the noble Edgar becomes the ruler of Britain. King Lear: Versification and Diction From King Lear. Ed. Henry Norman Hudson. New York: Ginn and Co. , 1911. BLANK VERSE
The greater part of King Lear is in blank verse, the unrhymed, iambic five-stress (decasyllabic) verse, or iambic pentameter, introduced into England from Italy by Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, about 1540, and used by him in a translation of the second and fourth books of Vergil’s Aeneid, Nicholas Grimald (Tottel’s Miscellany, 1557) employed the measure for the first time in English original poetry, and its roots began to strike deep into British soil and absorb substance. It is peculiarly significant that Sackville and Norton should have used it as the measure of Gorboduc, the first English tragedy.
About the time when Shakespeare arrived in London the infinite possibilities of blank verse as a vehicle for dramatic poetry and passion were being shown by Kyd, and above all by Marlowe. Blank verse as used by Shakespeare is really an epitome of the development of the measure in connection with the English drama. In his earlier plays the blank verse is often similar to that of Gorboduc. The tendency is to adhere to the syllable-counting principle, to make the line the unit, the sentence and phrase coinciding with the line (end-stopped verse), and to use five perfect iambic feet to the line. In plays of the middle period, such as The Merchant of Venice and As You Like It, written between 1596 and 1600, the blank verse is more like that of Kyd and Marlowe, with less monotonous regularity in the structure and an increasing tendency to carry on the sense from one line to another without a syntactical or rhetorical pause at the end of the line (run-on verse, enjambement). Redundant syllables now abound, and the melody is richer and fuller. In Shakespeare’s later plays the blank verse breaks away from bondage to formal line limits, and sweeps all along with it in freedom, power, and organic unity.
In the 2238 lines of blank verse in King Lear are found stress modifications of all kinds. There are 67 feminine (or double, redundant, hypermetrical) endings, 5 light endings, 90 speech endings not coincident with line endings, and 191 short lines, the greatest number of short lines in any Shakespeare play. Such variations give to the verse flexibility and power, in addition to music and harmony. It is significant that inKing Lear is only one weak ending. Light endings and weak endings2 are found most abundantly in Shakespeare’s very latest plays.
For example, in The Tempest are 42 light endings and 25 weak endings. ALEXANDRINES While French prosodists apply the term Alexandrine only to a twelve-syllable line with the pause after the sixth syllable, as in I, i, 219, it is generally used in English to designate iambic six-stress verse, or iambic hexameter, of which we have examples in I, i, 217; II, ii, 138; IV, iii, 42, etc. Many of these occur when there is a change of speaker. The Alexandrine was a favorite Elizabethan measure, and it was common in moral plays and the earlier heroic drama.
English literature has no finer examples of this verse than the last line of each stanza of The Faerie Queene. In King Lear are about 60 Alexandrines. RHYME 1. Couplets. In the history of the English drama, rhyme as a vehicle of expression precedes blank verse and prose. Miracle plays, moral plays, and interludes are all in rhyming measures. In Shakespeare may be seen the same develop ment. A progress from more to less rhyme is a sure index to his growth as a dramatist and a master of expression.
In the early Love’s Labour’s Lost are more than 500 rhyming five-stress iambic couplets; in the very late The Winter’s Tale there is not one. In King Lear are 37 rhyming five-stress iambic couplets, used chiefly for the following purposes: (1) to give a certain amount of emotional pitch and intensity, as in the king of France’s farewell, I, i, 248-255, Lear’s reply, I, i, 256-259, and Edgar’s speech, III, vi, 100-111; (2) to give epigrammatic effect to a sententious generalization, I, iv, 335-336; and (3), as so frequently in Elizabethan plays, to mark an exit or round off a speech. . The Fool’s Snatches. The Fool’s longer snatches of rhyming ‘patter’ recall both in spirit and in rhythm the extraordinary verse in which John Skelton wrote his satires against Wolsey and the vices and social abuses of the time of Henry VIII. Such ‘Skeltonical verse’ as that of I, iv, 111-118; I, iv, 307-311, etc. , may be regarded either as irregular anapaestic two-stress (dimeter) with feminine ending and the first foot an iamb, or as amphibrachic two-stress changing to anapaestic in the closing couplet.
In I, iv, 130-137, are eight lines of iambic three-stress (trimeter), and the two stanzas in the speeches which follow are, like the eight lines in II, iv, 72-79, examples of the ballad stanza of four- stress (tetrameter) iambic alternating with three-stress (‘common metre’). The regular measure of the old ballads seems to have been originally four-stress throughout, as in the famous stanza, III, ii, 69-72. The Fool’s ‘prophecy,’ III, ii, 75-86, is in iambic four-stress (octosyllabic) verse with feminine endings and trochaic variations. 3.
Edgar’s Snatches. Most of Edgar’s snatches are in ballad rhythm, more or less irregular and with a tendency towards doggerel, but the most characteristic bit of rhyming verse which he utters when feigning madness, III, vi, 64-71, is in the four-stress trochaic verse catalectic, so often used by Shakespeare for the speech of supernatural beings. These lines may be regarded as a spell or incantation. PROSE In the development of the English drama the use of prose as a vehicle of expression entitled to equal rights with verse was due to Lyly.
He was the first to use prose with power and distinction in original plays, and did memorable service in preparing the way for Shakespeare’s achievement. Interesting attempts have been made to explain Shakespeare’s distinctive use of verse and prose; and of recent years there has been much discussion of the question “whether we are justified in supposing that Shakespeare was guided by any fixed principle in his employment of verse and prose, or whether he merely employed them, as fancy suggested, for the sake of variety and relief. It is a significant fact that in many of his earlier plays there is little or no prose, and that the proportion of prose to blank verse increases with the decrease of rhyme. In King Lear four kinds of prose may be distinguished: (1) The prose of formal documents, as in the forged letter, I, ii, 41-48 ; Goneril’s letter, IV, vi, 239-245; and the Herald’s proclamation, V, iii, 111-114. In Shakespeare, prose is the usual medium for letters, proclamations, and other formal documents. 2) The prose of ‘lowlife’ and the speech of comic characters, as in the Fool’s speeches. This is a development of the humorous prose found, for example, in Greene’s comedies that deal with country life. (3) The colloquial prose of dialogue, as in the talk between Kent, Gloucester, and Edmund, when the play opens. (4) The prose of abnormal mentality. It is an interesting fact that Shakespeare should so often make persons whose state of mind is abnormal, or seemingly so, speak in prose.
Prose is the speech of Lady Macbeth in the sleep-walking scene; Hamlet when playing the madman speaks prose, as Edgar does when feigning madness; Ophelia in her insanity either sings snatches of old songs or speaks prose; the development of Lear’s insanity may be traced by the prose form of his speech, and, as Professor Bradley has pointed out, almost all his speeches, after he has become definitely insane, are in prose; where he wakes from sleep recovered, the verse returns.
Bradley remarks further3: The prose enters with that speech which closes with his trying to tear off his clothes; but he speaks in verse some of it very irregular in the Timon-like speeches where his intellect suddenly in his madness seems to regain the force of his best days (IV, vi). . . The idea underlying this custom of Shakespeare’s evidently is that the regular rhythm of verse would be inappropriate where the mind is supposed to have lost its balance and to be at the mercy of chance impressions coming from without (as sometimes with Lear), or of ideas emerging from its unconscious depths and pursuing one another across its passive surface. Shakespeare’s Characters: Lear (King Lear) From King Lear. Ed. Henry Norman Hudson. New York: Ginn and Co. , 1911. Lear is perhaps Shakespeare’s finest creation in what may be called the art of historical perspective.
The old king speaks out from a large fund of vanishing recollections, and in his present we have the odor and efficacy of a remote and varied past. The play forecasts and prepares, from the outset, that superb intellectual ruin where we have “matter and impertinency mix’d, reason in madness”; the earlier transpirations of the character being shaped and ordered with a view to that end. Certain presages and predispositions of insanity are manifest in his behavior from the first, as the joint result of nature, of custom, and of superannuation.
We see in him something of constitutional rashness of temper, which, moreover, has long been fostered by the indulgences and flatteries incident to his station, and which, through the cripplings of age, is now working loose from the restraints of his manlier judgment. He has been a wise and good man, strong in reason, in just feeling and rectitude of purpose, but is now decidedly past his faculties; which, however, as often happens, is unapparent to him save as he feels it in a growing indisposition to the cares and labors of his office.
So that there is something of truth in what Goneril says of him; just enough to make her appear the more hateful in speaking of it as she does: “The best and soundest of his time hath been but rash; then must we look from his age to receive not alone the imperfections of long-engraff’d condition, but therewithal the unruly way wardness that infirm and choleric years bring with them. ” He is indeed full of inconstant starts and petty gusts of impatience, such as are excusable only in those who have not yet reached, and those who have plainly out lived, the period of discretion and self-restraint.
These growing infirmities of nature and time are viewed by his children with very different feelings. The two elder are inwardly glad of them. They secretly exult in the decays and dilapidations of his manhood as incapacitating him for his office, and so speeding their hopes of the inheritance. They know it is his disease to be gratified with such hollow and hyperbolical soothings as would else be the height of insolence. And so in the name of duty they study to inflame the waywardness that provokes their scorn.
They crave reasons for persecuting him, and therefore will say anything, will do anything, to pamper the faults which at once prompt and seem to justify their contempt of him. In a word, it is their pleasure to bring oil to his fire, that he may the sooner be burnt out of their way. With Cordelia all this is just reversed. The infirmities of a beloved and venerated father are things which she does not willingly see; when she sees, she pities them; and in a true filial spirit never thinks of them but as a motive to greater tenderness and respect.
That his mind is falling out of tune, inspires her with the deeper reverence: she would rather go mad herself than see him do so. Partly from a conscious purpose, but more from an instinct of dutiful affection, she tries to assuage and postpone his distemper with the temperate speech of simple truth ; duty and love alike forbidding her to stimulate his disease with the strong waters of fleering and strained hyperbole. Then too a fine moral tact seems to warn her that the medicine of reason must be administered to the dear old man in very gentle doses, else it will but feed his evil.
And her treatment is well adapted to keep his faculties in tune, but that her holy purpose is baffled by the fulsome volubility of her sisters. The first two speeches of the play make clear that the division of the kingdom has already been resolved upon, the terms of the division arranged, and the several portions allotted. This fact is significant, and goes far to interpret the subsequent action, inasmuch as it infers the trial of professions to be but a trick of the king’s, designed, perhaps, to surprise his children into expressions which filial modesty would else forbid.
Lear has a morbid hungering after the outward tokens of affection; he is not content to know that the heart beats for him, but craves to feel and count over its beatings. The passion is indeed a selfish one, but it is the selfishness of a right-generous and loving nature. Such a diseased longing for sympathy is not the growth of an unsympathizing heart; and Lear naturally looks for the strongest professions where he feels the deepest attachment. “I loved her most, and thought to set my rest on her kind nursery,” such is his declared preference for Cordelia.
And the same thing comes out still more forcibly when, hearing him speak of her as Unfriended, new-adopted to our hate, Dower’d with our curse, and stranger’d with our oath, , the King of France replies, This is most strange, That she, that even but now was your best object, The argument of your praise, balm of your age, Most best, most dearest, should in this trice of time Commit a thing so monstrous, to dismantle So many folds of favour! And the same doting fondness that suggested the device makes Lear angry at its defeat; while its success with the first two heightens his irritation at ts failure with the third. Thwarted of his hope where he has centred it most and held it surest, his weakness naturally flames out in a transport of rage. Still it is not any doubt of Cordelia’s love, but a dotage of his trick that frets and chafes him. For the device is a pet with him. And such a bauble of strategy would have had no place in his thoughts had he been of a temper to bear the breaking of it. Being thus surprised into a tempest of passion, in the disorder of his mind he at once forgets the thousand little daily acts that have insensibly wrought in him to love Cordelia most, and to expect most love from her.
His behavior towards her, indeed, is like that of a peevish, fretful child, who, if prevented from kissing his nurse, falls to striking her. How deeply the old king, in this spasm of wilfulness, violates the cherished order of his feelings, appears in what follows, but especially in his shrinking soreness of mind as shown when the Fool’s grief at the loss of Cordelia is mentioned. The sense of having done her wrong sticks fast in his heart, and will not let him rest. And his remorse on this score renders him the more sensitive to the wrongs that are done him by others.
He could better endure the malice of his other daughters, but that it reminds him how deeply he has sinned against her love who has ever approved herself his best. Hence, when Goneril is stinging her ingratitude into him, he exclaims, O most small fault, How ugly didst thou in Cordelia show! Which like an engine wrench’d my frame of nature From the fix’d place ; drew from my heart all love, And added to the gall. In the delineation of Lear the most impressive thing is the effect and progress of his passion in redeveloping his intellect.
For the character seems designed in part to illus trate the power of passion to reawaken and raise the faculties from the tomb in which age has quietly inurned them. And so in Lear we have, as it were, a handful of tumult embosomed in a sea, gradually overspreading and pervading and convulsing the entire mass. In his conscious fulness of paternal love, Lear confides unreservedly in the piety of his children. The possibility of filial desertion seems never to have entered his thoughts; for so absolute is his trust, that he can hardly admit the evidence of sight against his cherished expectations.
Bereft, as he thinks, of one, he clings the closer to the rest, assuring himself that they will spare no pains to make up the loss. Cast off and struck on the heart by another, he flies with still greater confidence to the third. Though proofs that she too has fallen off are multiplied upon him, still he cannot give her up, cannot be provoked to curse her; he will not see, will not own to himself the fact of her revolt. When, however, the truth is forced home, and he can no longer evade or shuffle off the conviction, the effect is indeed terrible.
So long as his heart had something to lay hold of and cling to and rest upon, his mind was the abode of order and peace. But now that his feelings are rendered object less, torn from their accustomed holdings, and thrown back upon themselves, there springs up a wild chaos of the brain, a whirling tumult and anarchy of the thoughts, which, till imagination has time to work, chokes down his utterance. Then comes the inward, tugging conflict, deep as life, which gradually works up his imaginative forces, and kindles them to a preternatural resplendence.
The crushing of his aged spirit brings to light its hidden depths and buried riches. Thus his terrible energy of thought and speech, as soon as imagination rallies to his aid, grows naturally from the struggle of his feelings, a struggle that seems to wrench his whole being into dislocation, convulsing and upturning his soul from the bottom. Thence proceeds, to quote Hallam, “that splendid madness, not absurdly sudden, as in some tragedies, but in which the strings that keep his reasoning powers together give way one after the other in the frenzy of rage and grief. In the transition of Lear’s mind from its first stillness and repose to its subsequent tempest and storm; in the hurried revulsions and alternations of feeling, the fast-rooted faith in filial virtue, the keen sensibility to filial ingratitude, the mighty hunger of the heart, thrice repelled, yet ever strengthened by repulse ; and in the turning-up of sentiments and faculties deeply embedded beneath the incrustations of time and place; in all this we have a retrospect of the aged sufferer’s whole life; the abridged history of a mind that has passed through many successive stages, each putting off the orm, yet retaining and perfecting the grace of the preceding. LEAR’S INSANITY It is significant that experts in mental diseases consult and quote King Lear as though it were the history of an actual case of insanity. Essays and treatises on the subject are numerous. 1 That Shakespeare should have entered so perfectly into the consciousness of insanity as thus to project, not a mere likeness of the thing, but the very thing itself, is one of the mysteries of his genius. 2 No philosophy has yet explained or begun to explain the secret of it.
To be sure, the same holds true of his other representations of madness; but this of Lear is in some respects the most wonderful of them all, for it is the resurgence of a decayed intellect, with the faculties wrenched into unhingement, and thrown into exorbitancy, by the fearful violence that has evoked them from their repose. The methods used for the recovery of the old king anticipate those employed as the result of modern scientific study and experience. In a note on the Doctor’s reply to Cordelia, IV, iv, 11-15, Dr.
Kellogg says: “This reply is significant, and worthy of careful attention, as embracing a brief summary of almost the only two principles recognized by modern science, and now carried out by the most eminent physicians in the treatment of the insane. ” So again with regard to the Doctor’s directions for preventing a relapse, Dr. Brigham remarks that, “although near two centuries and a half have passed since Shakespeare wrote this, we have very little to add to his method of treating the insane as thus pointed out.
To produce sleep, to quiet the mind by medical and moral treatment, to avoid all unkindness, and, when the patients begin to convalesce, to guard, as he directs, against everything likely to disturb their minds and cause a relapse, is now considered the best and nearly the only essential treatment. ” Shakespeare’s Characters: Cordelia (King Lear) From King Lear. Ed. Henry Norman Hudson. New York: Ginn and Co. , 1911. In the trial of professions, there appears something of obstinacy and sullenness in Cordelia’s answer, as if she would resent the old man’s credulity to her sisters’ lies by refusing to tell him the truth.
But, in the first place, she is considerately careful and tender of him; and it is a part of her religion not to feed his dotage with the intoxications for which he has such a morbid craving. She understands thoroughly both his fretful waywardness and their artful hypocrisy; and when she sees how he drinks in the sweetened poison of their speech, she calmly resolves to hazard the worst rather than wrong her own truth to cosset his disease. Thus her answer proceeds, in part, from a deliberate purpose of love, not to compete with them in the utterance of pleasing falsehoods.
In the second place, it is against the original grain of her nature to talk much about what she feels, and what she intends. They love but little who can tell how much they love, or who are fond of prating about it. Love is apt to be tongue-tied, and its best eloquence is when it disables speech. It is the beautiful instinct of true feeling to embody itself sweetly and silently in deeds, lest from showing itself in words it should turn to matter of pride and conceit. A sentimental coxcombry is the natural issue of a cold and hollow heart.
It is not strange, therefore, that Cordelia should make it her part to “love and be silent. ” Yet she is not one whom it is prudent to trifle with, where her forces are unrestrained by awe of duty. She has indeed a delectable smack of her father’s quality, as appears in that glorious flash of womanhood when she so promptly switches off her higgling suitor: Peace be with Burgundy! Since that respects of fortune are his love, I shall not be his wife. Mrs. Jameson rightly says of Cordelia that “everything in her lies beyond our view, and affects us in such a manner that we rather feel than perceive it. And it is very remark able that, though but little seen and heard, she is nevertheless a sort of ubiquity. All that she utters is but about a hundred lines, yet her speech and presence seem to fill a large part of the play. It is in this remoteness, this gift of presence without appearance, that the secret of her power mainly consists. Her character has no foreground; she is all perspective, self-withdrawn, so that she comes to us rather by inspiration than by vision. Even when she is before us we rather feel than see her; so much more being meant than meets the eye, that e almost lose the sense of what is shown, in the interest of what is suggested. Thus she affects us through finer and deeper susceptibilities than consciousness can grasp, as if she at once both used and developed in us higher organs of communication than the senses, or as if her presence acted in some mysterious way directly on our life, so as to be most operative within us when we are least aware of it. The effect is like that of a voice or a song kindling and swelling the thoughts that prevent our listening to it.
What has been said of Cordelia’s affection holds true of her character generally. For she has the same deep, quiet reserve of thought as of feeling, so that her mind becomes conspicuous by its retiringness, and draws the attention by shrinking from it. What Cordelia knows is so bound up with her affections that she cannot draw it off into expression by itself; it is held in perfect solution, so to speak, with the other elements of her nature, and nowhere falls down in a sediment, so as to be producible in a separate state.
She has a deeper and truer knowledge of her sisters than any one else about them; but she knows them by heart rather than by head, and so can feel and act, but not articulate, a prophecy of what they will do. Ask her, indeed, what she thinks on any subject, and her answer will be that she thinks, nay, she cannot tell, she can only show you what she thinks.
For her thinking involuntarily shapes itself into life, not into speech ; and she uses the proper language of her mind when, bending over her “child-changed father,” she invokes restoration to “hang his medicine on her lips”; or when, kneeling before him, she entreats him to “hold his hands in benediction o’er her. ” She remembers with inexpressible sorrow the curse he had pronounced upon her, for a father’s curse is a dreadful thing to a soul such as hers, and her first concern is to have that curse replaced with a benediction.
All which shows a peculiar fitness in Cordelia for the part she was designed to act, which was to exemplify the workings of filial piety, as Lear exemplifies those of paternal love. To embody this sentiment, the whole character in all its movements and aspects is made essentially religious. For filial piety is religion acting under the sacredest of human relations; and religion is a life, and not a language; and life is the simultaneous and concurrent action of all the elements of our being.
Which is perfectly illustrated in Cordelia, who never thinks of her piety at all, because her piety keeps her thoughts engaged upon her father. Shakespeare’s Characters: Goneril and Regan (King Lear) From King Lear. Ed. Henry Norman Hudson. New York: Ginn and Co. , 1911. The characters in King Lear fall into strongly contrasted groups of good and evil beings; and as the main action of the drama is shaped by the energy of evil, it is natural to begin with those in whom that energy prevails.
There is no accounting for the conduct of Goneril and Regan but by supposing them possessed with a strong original impulse of malignity. The main points of their action were taken from the old story. Character, in the proper sense of the term, they have none in the legend; and the dramatist invested them with characters suitable to the part they were believed to have acted. Whatever of soul these beings possess is all in the head; they have no heart to guide or inspire their understanding, and but enough of understanding to seize occasions and frame excuses for their heartlessness.
Without affection, they are also without shame; there being barely so much of human blood in their veins as may suffice for quickening the brain without sending a blush to the cheek. With a sort of hell-inspired tact, they feel their way to a fitting occasion, but drop the mask as soon as their ends are reached, caring little or nothing for appearances after their falsehood has done its work. There is a smooth, glib rhetoric in their professions of love, unwarmed with the least grace of real feeling, and a certain wiry virulence and intrepidity of mind in their after-speaking, that is very terrible.
No touch of nature finds a response in their bosoms; no atmosphere of comfort can abide their presence: we feel that they have somewhat within that turns the milk of humanity to venom, which all the wounds they can inflict are but opportunities for casting. The subordinate plot of the drama serves the purpose of relieving the improbability of their behavior. Some have indeed censured this plot as an embarrassment to the main one, forgetting, perhaps, that to raise and sustain the feelings at any great height there must be some breadth of basis.
A degree of evil which, if seen altogether alone, would strike us as superhuman, makes a very different impression when it has the support of proper sympathies and associations. This effect is in a good measure secured by Edmund’s independent concurrence with Goneril and Regan in wickedness. It looks as if some malignant planet had set the elements of evil astir in many hearts at the same time; so that “unnaturalness between the child and the parent” were become, it would seem, the order of the day. Besides, the agreement of the sister fiends in filial ingratitude might seem, of itself, to argue some sisterly attachment between them.
So that, to bring out their characters truly, it had to be shown that the same principle which unites them against their father will, on the turning of occasion, divide them against each other. Hence the necessity of setting them forth in relations of such a kind as may breed strife between them. In Edmund, accordingly, they find a character wicked enough, and energetic enough in his wickedness, to interest their feelings; and because they are both alike taken with him, therefore they will cut their way to him through each other’s life.
And it is noteworthy that their passion for him proceeds mainly upon his treachery to his father, as though from such similarity of action they inferred a congeniality of mind. For even to have hated each other from love of anyone but a villain, and because of his villainy, had seemed a degree of virtue in beings such as they are. There is so much sameness of temper and behavior in these two she-tigers that we find it somewhat difficult to distinguish them as individuals; their characteristic traits being, as it were, fused and run together in the heat of a common malice.
Both are actuated by an extreme ferocity; which, however, up to the time of receiving their portions, we must suppose to have been held in check by a most artful and vigilant selfishness. And the malice of Goneril, the eldest, appears still to be under some restraint, from feeling that her husband is not in sympathy with her. For Albany, though rather timid and tardy in showing it, remains true to the old king; his tardiness probably springing, at least in part, from a reluctance to make a square issue with his wife, who, owing to her superiority of rank and position, had somewhat the advantage of him in their marriage.
Regan, on the other hand, has in Cornwall a husband whose heart beats in perfect unison with her own against her father; and the confidence of his sympathy appears to discharge her malice entirely from the restraints of caution, and to give it a peculiar quickness and alertness of action. Near the close of the king’s last interview with them, we have the following: GONERIL. Why might not you, my lord, receive attendance From those that she calls servants or from mine? REGAN. Why not, my lord ? If then they chanc’d to slack you, We could control them.
If you will come to me For now I spy a danger I entreat you To bring but five-and-twenty; to no more Will I give place or notice. LEAR. I gave you all. REGAN. And in good time you gave it. LEAR. Made you my guardians, my depositaries; But kept a reservation to be follow’d With such a number. This passage is quoted mainly to draw attention to the concentrated wolfishness of heart in those few words, “And in good time you gave it,” snapped out in reply to the pathetic appeal, “I gave you all. Human speech cannot be more intensely charged with fury. And this cold, sharp venom of retort is what chiefly discriminates Regan from Goneril; otherwise they seem too much like repetitions of each other to come fairly within the circle of nature, who never repeats herself. Yet their very agreement in temper and spirit renders them the fitter for the work they do. For the sameness of treatment thence proceeding is all the more galling and unbearable forasmuch as it appears the result of a set purpose, a conspiracy coolly formed and unrelentingly pursued.
That they should lay on their father the blame of their own ingratitude, and stick their poisoned tongues into him under pretence of doing him good, is a further refinement of malice not more natural to them than tormenting to him. It is indeed difficult to conceive how creatures could be framed more apt to drive mad any one who had set his heart on receiving any comfort or kindness from them. For the behavior of Regan and Goneril after the death of Cornwall, and their final transports of mutual fierceness, Shakespeare prepares us by the oralizing he puts into the mouth of Albany: That nature which contemns its origin Cannot be border’d certain in itself. meaning, apparently, that where the demon of filial ingratitude reigns, there the heart is ripening for the most unnatural crimes, so that there is no telling what it will do, or where it will stop. The action of Goneril and Regan, taken all together, seems the most improbable thing in the drama. It is not easy to think of them otherwise than as instruments of the plot; not so much ungrateful persons as personifications of ingratitude.
Kent Kent, King Lear’s loyal and selfless companion, is one of Shakespeare’s most cherished creations. “Kent is, perhaps, the nearest to perfect goodness in all Shakespeare’s characters, and yet the most individualized. ” (Complete Works of Samuel Coleridge, Vol. IV, edited by W. G. T. Shedd, Harper and Bros. , New York: 1884, pp. 138). Edgar Edgar, the banished son of Gloucester and brother to the villain Edmund, is the primary character in the sub-plot of King Lear. The dutiful Edgar is much like Cordelia and suffers throughout the play due to his father’s transgressions.
Unlike Cordelia, however, Edgar remains alive at the end of the drama, and becomes King of Britain. Shakespeare’s Characters: Edmund (King Lear) From King Lear. Ed. Henry Norman Hudson. New York: Ginn and Co. , 1911. For the union of wit and wickedness, Edmund stands next to Richard and Iago. His strong and nimble intellect, his manifest courage, his energy of character, and his noble person, prepare us on our first acquaintance to expect from him not only great undertakings, but great success in them.
The circumstances of our first meeting with him, the matter and manner of Gloucester’s talk about him and to him, go far to explain his conduct; while the subsequent outleakings of his mind in soliloquy let us into his secret springs of action. With a mixture of guilt, shame, and waggery, his father, before his face, and in the presence of one whose respect he craves, makes him and his birth a theme of gross and wanton discourse; at the same time drawing comparisons be tween him and “another son some year elder than this,” such as could hardly fail at once to wound his pride, to stimulate his ambition, and to awaken his enmity.
Thus the kindly influences of human relationship and household ties are turned to their contraries. He feels himself the victim of a disgrace for which he is not to blame; which he can not hope to outgrow; which no degree of personal worth can efface; and from which he sees no escape but in the pomp and circumstance of worldly power. Always thinking, too, of his dishonor, he is ever on the watch for signs that others are thinking of it; and the jealousy thence engendered construes every show of respect into an effort of courtesy, a thing that inflames his ambition while chafing his pride.
The corroding suspicion that others are perhaps secretly scorning his noble descent while outwardly acknowledging it, leads him to find or fancy in them a disposition to indemnify themselves for his personal superiority out of his social debasement. The stings of reproach, being personally unmerited, are resented as wrongs; and with the plea of injustice he can easily reconcile his mind to the most wicked schemes. Aware of Edgar’s virtues, still he has no relentings, but shrugs his shoulders, and laughs off all compunctions with an “I must”; as if justice to himself were a sufficient excuse for his criminal purposes.
With “the plague of custom” and “the curiosity of nations” Edmund has no compact; he did not consent to them, and therefore holds himself unbound by them. He came into the world in spite of them; perhaps he owes his gifts to a breach of them; may he not, then, seek to thrive by circumventing them? Since his dimensions are so well compact, his mind so generous, and his shape so true, he prefers nature as she has made him to nature as she has placed him, and freely employs the wit she has given, to compass the wealth she has withheld.
Thus our free-love philosopher appeals from convention to nature; and, as usually happens in such cases, takes only so much of nature as will serve his turn. For convention itself is a part of nature, it being no less natural that men should grow up together in families and communities than that they should grow up severally as individuals. There is not in Edmund, as in lago, any spontaneous or purposeless wickedness. Adventures in crime are not at all his pastime; they are his means, not his end; his instruments, not his element. He does not so much make war on duty, as bow and shift her off out of the way, that his wit may have free course.
He deceives others, indeed, without scruple, but then he does not consider them bound to trust him, and tries to avail himself of their credulity or criminality without becoming responsible for it. He is a pretty bold experimenter, rather radical in his schemes, but this is because he has nothing to lose if he fails, and much to gain if he succeeds. Nor does he attempt to disguise from himself, or gloss over, or anywise palliate, his designs ; but boldly confronts and stares them in the face, as though assured of sufficient external grounds to justify or excuse them. ng Lear: Study Questions 1) Trace the different stages of Lear’s insanity. Is it true that King Lear is the tragedy of a “man going sane”, as some critics suggest? 2) Discuss the role of the Fool in King Lear. 3) What is the significance of the Gloucester subplot? 4) Compare Lear’s three daughters. By what means does Shakespeare deepen the contrast between Cordelia and her two sinister sisters. 5) Sketch the character of Kent. How is he similar to Lear? 6) Discuss the effect of suffering on both Lear and Gloucester. ) Explain the irony in the deaths of Lear and Cordelia. 8) Compare the character Edmund in King Lear to the character Iago in Othello. Are their motives similar? Is one a more developed character than the other and why is this so? 9) Analyze the following quote taken from the letters of John Keats. Take a stand for or against the argument posed: “The excellence of every art is its intensity, capable of making all disagreeables evaporate from their being in close relationship with Beauty and Truth. Examine King Lear and you will find this exemplified throughout. (“Keats in a letter to George and Thomas Keats”, 1817) ing Lear: Q & A When was King Lear first performed? The first recorded performance of the play was on December 26, 1606, before James I at Whitehall Palace. “My cue is villainous melancholy, with a sigh like Tom O’Bedlam. ” Can you explain the reference to “Tom O’Bedlam”? And what does “cue” mean here? 1) “Cue” means “part” in the above quote. 2) In 1247 a convent was founded just outside the London wall for the order of St. Mary of Bethlehem. By 1330 the convent had become the General Hospital of St.
Mary of Bethlehem, ready to treat the gamut of common ailments. However, by 1403, Bethlehem had developed into a hospital for the mentally ill, the first such institution in England. In 1547 King Henry VIII granted Bethlehem Hospital, known by now as Bedlam, to the city of London as an asylum for the mentally deranged. By the time Shakespeare wrote “King Lear”, Bedlam had a solid reputation as a brutal, inhuman prison. Shakespeare refers to Bedlam and the “Bedlam beggars”, commonly known by the generic name “Tom O’Bedlams”, several times in his plays.
In Act 2 of “King Lear”, Shakespeare describes the actions of some inmates: The country gives me proof and precedent Of Bedlam beggars, who, with roaring voices, Strike in their numb’d and mortified bare arms Pins, wooden pricks, nails, sprigs of rosemary; And with this horrible object, from low farms, Poor pelting villages, sheep-cotes, and mills, Sometime with lunatic bans, sometime with prayers, Enforce their charity… poor Tom! (2. 3. 13-19) Edgar says, “The prince of darkness is a gentleman/Modo he’s call’d, and Mahu” (3. 4. 143). I’ve read many editions but they do not annotate this passage.
Who are Modo and Mahu? Modo and Mahu are fiends originally found in a work called the Declaration of Egregious Popish Impostures, written in 1603 by Samuel Harsnett. Do we know what happened to King Lear’s wife? The only reference to Lear’s wife in the play is in Act 2 (“I would divorce me from thy mother’s tomb” (2. 4. 130)) and so, although we know she is dead, we do not know the circumstances surrounding her death. A little more information is given in Shakespeare’s source King Leir, but not much: Thus to our grief the obsequies perform’d Of our too late deceas’d and dearest queen,
Whose soul I hope, possess’d of heavenly joys, Doth ride in triumph ‘mongst the cherubins (1. 1. 1-4) Why Study Shakespeare? The Reasons Behind Shakespeare’s Influence and Popularity Ben Jonson anticipated Shakespeare’s dazzling future when he declared, “He was not of an age, but for all time! ” in the preface to the First Folio. While most people know that Shakespeare is, in fact, the most popular dramatist and poet the Western world has ever produced, students new to his work often wonder why this is so. The following are the top four reasons why Shakespeare has stood the test of time. ) Illumination of the Human Experience Shakespeare’s ability to summarize the range of human emotions in simple yet profoundly eloquent verse is perhaps the greatest reason for his enduring popularity. If you cannot find words to express how you feel about love or music or growing older, Shakespeare can speak for you. No author in the Western world has penned more beloved passages. Shakespeare’s work is the reason John Bartlett compiled the first major book of familiar quotations. Here are some examples of Shakespeare’s most popular passages: • The seven ages of man Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day? • We band of brothers • The green-eyed monster • What’s in a name? • Now is the winter of our discontent • If music be the food of love • Beware the ides of March • We are such stuff as dreams are made on • Something is rotten in the state of Denmark • To be, or not to be: that is the question 2) Great Stories Marchette Chute, in the Introduction to her famous retelling of Shakespeare’s stories, summarizes one of the reasons for Shakespeare’s immeasurable fame: William Shakespeare was the most remarkable storyteller that the world has ever known.
Homer told of adventure and men at war, Sophocles and Tolstoy told of tragedies and of people in trouble. Terence and Mark Twain told cosmic stories, Dickens told melodramatic ones, Plutarch told histories and Hand Christian Andersen told fairy tales. But Shakespeare told every kind of story – comedy, tragedy, history, melodrama, adventure, love stories and fairy tales – and each of them so well that they have become immortal. In all the world of storytelling he has become the greatest name. (Stories from Shakespeare, 11) Shakespeare’s stories transcend time and culture.
Modern storytellers continue to adapt Shakespeare’s tales to suit our modern world, whether it be the tale of Lear on a farm in Iowa, Romeo and Juliet on the mean streets of New York City, or Macbeth in feudal Japan. 3) Compelling Characters Shakespeare invented his share of stock characters, but his truly great characters – particularly his tragic heroes – are unequalled in literature, dwarfing even the sublime creations of the Greek tragedians. Shakespeare’s great characters have remained popular because of their complexity; for example, we can see ourselves as gentle Hamlet, forced against his better nature to seek murderous revenge.
For this reason Shakespeare is deeply admired by actors, and many consider playing a Shakespearean character to be the most difficult and most rewarding role possible. 4) Ability to Turn a Phrase Many of the common expressions now thought to be cliches were Shakespeare’s creations. Chances are you use Shakespeare’s expressions all the time even though you may not know it is the Bard you are quoting. You may think that fact is “neither here nor there”, but that’s “the short and the long of it. Bernard Levin said it best in the following quote about Shakespeare’s impact on our language: If you cannot understand my argument, and declare “It’s Greek to me”, you are quoting Shakespeare; if you claim to be more sinned against than sinning, you are quoting Shakespeare; if you recall your salad days, you are quoting Shakespeare; if you act more in sorrow than in anger, if your wish is father to the thought, if your lost property has vanished into thin air, you are quoting Shakespeare; if you have ever refused to budge an inch or suffered from green-eyed jealousy, if you have played fast and loose, if you have been tongue-tied, a tower of strength, hoodwinked or in a pickle, if you have knitted your brows, made a virtue of necessity, insisted on fair play, slept not one wink, stood on ceremony, danced attendance (on your lord and master), laughed yourself into stitches, had short shrift, cold comfort or too much of a good thing, if you have seen better days or lived in a fool’s paradise – why, be that as it may, the more fool you, for it is a foregone conclusion that you are (as good luck would have it) quoting Shakespeare; if you think it is early days and clear out bag and baggage, if you think it is high time and that that is the long and short of it, if you believe that the game is up and that truth will out even if it involves your own flesh and blood, if you lie low till the crack of doom because you suspect foul play, if you have your teeth set on edge (at one fell swoop) without rhyme or reason, then – to give the devil his due – if the truth were known (for surely you have a tongue in your head) you are quoting Shakespeare; even if you bid me good riddance and send me packing, if you wish I were dead as a door-nail, if you think I am an eyesore, a laughing stock, the devil incarnate, a stony-hearted villain, bloody-minded or a blinking idiot, then – by Jove! O Lord! Tut, tut! for goodness’ sake! what the dickens! but me no buts – it is all one to me, for you are quoting Shakespeare. (The Story of