At the beginning of the play Lear has been King for many years. He has had total power for a long time and has lived in a sheltered, privileged world unquestioned by anyone. He decides to retire and:
‘shake all cares and businesses from our age
Conferring them on younger strengths, while we
Unburthen’d crawl toward death’.
Initially this seems like a wise move and it appears that he has already decided to divide the kingdom equally between his three daughters. To indulge his vanity, however, he invites the daughters to proclaim their love for him publically, promising to reward the most lavish flattery with the most land:
‘Which of you shall we say doth love us most?
That we our largest bounty may extend
Where nature doth with merit challenge.’
This childish ‘love test’ is evidence of Lear’s dual flaws of pride and vanity especially when it does not go as he had planned. Lear’s elder daughters Goneril and Regan indulge his need for extravagant expressions of devotion: ‘Sir I love you more than words can wield the matter’ but his youngest and favourite daughter Cordelia refuses to participate: ‘What shall Cordelia speak? Love, and be silent.’ Cordelia detests her sisters’ fawning dishonesty: ‘Why have my sisters husbands, if they say They love you all?’ but Lear is blind to the truth and sees only Cordelia’s disobedience. His pride wounded he lashes out in a rage and within minutes has rashly banished Cordelia and his loyal servant Kent who had the courage to question his actions: ‘See better, Lear.’
Lear had planned to stay with Cordelia in retirement: ‘I loved her most and thought to set my rest/On her kind nursery’ but has to come up with an alternative plan after his temperamental outburst. He decides to stay with Goneril and Regan on alternating months and to retain 100 knights to attend him. Goneril and Regan are fully aware of Lear’s weaknesses: ‘’Tis the infirmity of his age: yet he hath ever but slenderly known himself.’ They realise it will be a challenge to control his rash and volatile nature and promise to stick together to maintain their new powerful positions.
Of course conflict arises as a result of this situation, Lear is not used to taking orders from others and Goneril and Regan are eager to assert and consolidate their power. His daughters attempt to reduce his retinue of knights and Lear’s pride is again offended by the ‘filial ingratitude’ displayed by his children. He stubbornly refuses to accept their terms:
‘No, rather I abjure all roofs, and choose
To wage against the enmity o’ the air
To be a comrade with the wolf and owl,
Necessity’s sharp pinch!’
Word Bank: Come up with synonyms (words that have the same meaning) for each of the following words:
Thrown out in the middle of a storm Lear experiences great suffering: physical, mental and moral. He is reduced to the state of a beggar and as the storm rages around him a psychological storm rages in his mind as he ruminates on the actions of Goneril and Regan.
‘Here I stand, your slave,
A poor, infirm, weak and despised old man.
But yet I call you servile ministers,
That will with two pernicious daughters join
Your high-engendered battles ‘gainst a head
So old and white as this.’
He is filled with self-pity, still blaming others for his problems: ‘I am a man more sinned against than sinning.’
The Fool , Lear’s loyal jester, is unafraid to tell Lear the truth and acts as Lear’s conscience in the play. He mocks Lear for his foolish decision to divide his kingdom: ‘When thou clovest thy crown I’ the middle and gavest away both parts, thou borest thy ass on thy back o’er the dirt’. Previously a relationship of master and slave, as Lear and the Fool suffer together in the storm their roles change. The Fool becomes the voice of wisdom and authority as Lear displays foolishness and eventually loses his sanity.
All of the figures who accompany Lear in the storm: Kent disguised as Caius, Edgar disguised as Poor Tom and the Fool, help Lear to grow in self-awareness and compassion for others: ‘Poor Fool and knave, I have one part in my heart/ That’s sorry yet for thee.’ He begins to see the sufferings of others and realise that as he was King for so long he bears responsibility: ‘O I have ta’en too little care of this!’
The next time we see Lear in Act 4 Sc 6 he appears mad, dressed in wild flowers and talking in chaotic riddles. He also, however, has spasmodic flashes of insight and wisdom about the world around him: ‘When we are born, we cry that we are come To this great stage of fools.’
The ‘reason in madness’ paradox that underlies the play is seen most clearly at this point.
Reunited with Cordelia he is utterly humbled and, despite being imprisoned, is content so long as he is in her company: ‘Come, let’s away to prison;/ We two alone will sing like birds i’ the cage.’ He has learned the value of real love and is a better, wiser man for his sufferings. His punishment is unfortunately not over and the death of Cordelia takes his last bit of strength from him and he dies of a broken heart: ‘No, no, no life! Why should a dog, a horse, a rat, have life And thou no breath at all?’ It is this last cruelty of fate that perhaps does show a man ‘more sinned against than sinning.’
Gloucester’s story parallels Lear’s throughout the play. The Earl of Gloucester was also a powerful but flawed man and he also endures the cruelties of an ‘ungrateful’ child, Edmund. The opening scene of the play shows Kent and Gloucester discussing the illegitimate Edmund. Gloucester is dismissive about the ‘sport’ he had during Edmund’s conception and immediately appears as a man of questionable morality utterly blind to his own fault.
When Edmund initiates a plot against his legitimate step-brother Edgar, Gloucester acts rashly, failing to assess the situation and ascertain the truth: ‘Abhorred villian! Unnatural, detested, brutish villain!’ Like Lear he gives his child no opportunity to defend himself and is gullible to the lies of those who want his power. Gloucester has a superstitious nature and reads pessimistically into recent eclipses (a possible reference to eclipses of the sun and the moon in 1605): ‘These late eclipses of the sun and moon portend no good to us’. In a way he represents medieval attitudes of fatalism (believing all actions and events are subject to fate) which are contrasted with Edmund’s more modern belief that people control their own destiny.
As the play progresses and Goneril and Regan’s true natures become apparent, Gloucester acts to defend Lear and begins to display noble qualities. He questions them when Kent is put in the stocks and later shows great moral courage in going out in the storm to help Lear: ‘If I die for it, as no less is threatened me, the king my old master must be relieved.’
He continues however to misplace his trust in Edmund and when he returns from helping Lear he is accused of treason and brutally assaulted. Goneril demands that they ‘Pluck out his eyes!’ and Cornwall obliges in the most graphically violent scene in the play: ‘Out vile jelly!’
Regan then reveals to him that it was Edmund who betrayed him and thus at the moment of his physical blinding he finally begins to see the truth. He instantly repents his treatment of Edgar: ‘Kind gods forgive me that, and prosper him!’
His story continues to parallel Lear’s as he is banished onto the heath and like Lear he is aided by someone loyal to him: Edgar who, like Kent, keeps his identity secret. Gloucester falls into a deep depression at the thought of his treatment of Edgar and asks ‘Poor Tom’ to lead him to Dover where he can end his life: ‘From that place I shall no leading need.’
In the course of their journey Gloucester articulates some profound wisdom on the nature of human society: ‘Distribution shall undo excess/And each man have enough’. Edgar tricks him into thinking he has fallen off a cliff but miraculously survived in an effort to restore his desire to live: ‘The clearest gods, who make them honours Of men’s impossibilities, have preserved thee.’ He succeeds temporarily and when Edgar finally reveals his identity Gloucester is comforted to know he has been forgiven. The shock of all that has happened is too great for him and he dies seemingly of a broken heart: ‘But his flawed heart, Alack too weak the conflict to support, ‘Twixt two extremes of passion, joy and grief, Burst smilingly.’
- Eldest of Lear’s daughters and married to the Duke of Albany
- Unafraid to exert her power and manipulate situations to her ends.
- Clever, cunning and ruthless.
- Opportunistic: ‘I would breed from hence occasions.’
- In the love test she declares her love in lavish terms ‘I love thee more than word can wield the matter.’
- Perceptive of Lear’s rash and unpredictable behaviour – recognises the threat to her rule.
- Cold and cynically pragmatic: ‘We must do something and i’ the heat.’
- Lays down the law with Lear and his ‘riotous knights’ - is determined to dominate and control her father.
- Lear calls her ‘marble-hearted fiend’ and ‘a detested kite.’ (bird of prey)
- Views her husband as weak ‘milky gentleness’ and sees nothing wrong in committing adultery with Edmund.
- Her cruelty becomes fully visible when Lear is forced out into the storm: ‘must needs taste his folly.’
- Suggests the blinding of Gloucester and is unsympathetic to his sufferings.
- Later in the play her lust for Edmund begins to override other considerations.
- Albany eventually recognises the depths of her malignity: ‘Humanity must perforce prey on itself/ Like monsters of the deep.’
- Becomes consumed with passion for power and for Edmund. – is terrified Regan will steam him after Cornwall’s death. She’d prefer to ‘lose the battle than that sister Should loosen him and me.’
- Poisons Regan out of jealousy and when she realises Edmund will not be King she kills herself.
- Audience has little sympathy for her at the ending of the play.
· Second daughter of Lear
· Similar to Goneril in mentality and disposition – governed by self-interest.
· Displays a vindictive quality – extends Kent’s sentence ‘Till night, my Lord and all night too.’
· Lear calls her ‘unnatural hag.’
· Declares that Gloucester should be hanged and mocks him before Cornwall gouges out an eye – she demands the other also ‘One side will mock another Th’other too!’
· Taunts Gloucester with Edmund’s betrayal.
· When a servant attacks Cornwall she takes a sword and kills him,
· Throws Gloucester out and suggests he should ‘smell his way to Dover.’
· Shows no grief over death of her husband, lusts after Edmund.
· Jealous of Goneril- Edmund says : ‘each jealous of the other as the stung are of the adder.’
· Poisoned by Goneril – audience feel little sympathy.
· Name means ‘heart’ or possibly ‘heart of a lion’ (coeur de lion) à symbol of true love.
· Lear’s youngest daughter – origin texts have her having a different mother to Goneril and Regan.
· Frustrated my her sister’s lies she refuse to participate in the ‘love test’: ‘What shall Cordelia speak? Love and be silent.’
· Sincere and honest – her husband will have half her love: ‘Why have my sister’s husbands, if they say They love you all?’
· Lear’s favourite and so he reacts to, as he perceives it, rude behaviour with fury: ‘They truth then by thou dower.’ He refuses to give her a dowry and banishes her.
· Fortunately France recognises her virtues and marries her anyway.
· She’s wise: ‘Time shall unfold what plighted cunning hides.’
· The Fool loved her: ‘The Fool hath much pined away.’ Characters seem to be linked.
· She’s absent from the play after Act 1 Sc 1 until Act 4 Sc 3 where we hear about her reaction to the news of Lear’s sufferings – she wept: ‘holy water from her heavenly eyes.’
· Compassionate to Lear’s insanity and forgiving: ‘No blown ambition doth our arms incite/ But love, dear love and our aged father’s right.’
· Selfless character, loving and merciful. Lear says: ‘Thou art a soul in bliss but I am bound upon a wheel of fire.’
· Imagery of redemption and Christianity are associated with her.
· In prison Cordelia and Lear are content in each other’s company.
‘We are not the first
Who with best meaning have incurred the worst
For thee oppressed King, am I cast down;
Myself could else outfrown false Fortune’s frown.’
· Edmund bribes a guard to kill Cordelia and make it look like suicide.
· Is Cordelia’s death gratuitious? (It is absent from other versions)
· Lear subsequently dies of a broken heart.
· Illegitimate son of the Earl of Gloucester.
· Bitter about his lowly ‘base’ position in society.
· Hates his brother Edgar for being legitimate and therefore in line to inherit his father’s land and title
· Code of values is Pagan: ‘Thou Nature are my Goddess’
· Amoral, fueled by self-interest
· Despises goodness: ‘foolish honesty’.
· Views his father as weak and superstitious: ‘an admirable evasion of whoremaster man, to lay his goatish disposition to the charge of a star.’
· Machiavellian figure – clever and ruthless: ‘Let me, if not by birth, have lands by wit.’
· Sociopath? Doesn’t appear to have a conscience for most of the play.
· Handsome and charming – both Goneril and Regan are attracted to him. He has affairs with both but does not truly love them – using them as pawns: ‘Let her who would be rid of him devise His speedy taking off.’
· Treatment of his father parallels Goneril and Regans treatment of Lear: ‘The younger rise when the old doth fall.’
· Allies with Cornwall to get his father’s title but his ambition rises to the throne of England.
· No sympathy when Goneril and Regan die: ‘Yet Edmund was belov’d’
· Bribes a guard to kill Cordelia and make it look like suicide.
· When fatally wounded by Edgar he undergoes a change of heart and says he will do some good but it comes to late to save Cordelia.
· Loyal, honest and selfless (mirrors character of Cordelia)
· Also naïve and gullible – trusts Edmund - ‘a brother noble..on whose foolish honesty my practices ride easy.’ (Edmund)
· As a result of Edmund’s plotting and his banishment he chooses to disguise himself as ‘Poor Tom’, a Bedlam beggar.
· Pretends to be mad which feeds into the theme of ‘reason in madness’
· Shakespeare uses him as a choric commentator and social satirist of injustices at the time. ‘When we our betters see bearing our woes, We scarcely think our miseries our foes....’
· He becomes a catalyst for Lear’s madness – inspires Lear to strip away the vestiges of civilisation – to see man as an animal
· Shows great sympathy for his blinded father and helps him: ‘The worst is not So long as we can say 'This is the worst.’
· Reveals Edmund’s adultery to Albany and bravely challenges Edmund to a duel and kills him.
· Traditionally a court jester or entertainer for the King – can get away with saying more than most in guise of humour.
· Lear’s Fool represents Truth/Honesty/Wisdom à Lear’s conscience.
· Relates to theme of ‘reason in madness’
· He dramatises the nature of folly but also the nature of wisdom.
· Calls a Lear a fool ‘sweet and bitter fool’, ‘the one in motley here/The other found out there.’ Points out Lear’s mistake: ‘Thou has little wit in thy bald crown when thou gavest thy golden one away.’
· For a long time Lear refuses to register what is being said: ‘Dost thou call me fool boy?’
· Sometimes speaks obscurely mirroring Lear’s mad ramblings: Lear: “Who is it can tell me who I am?’ Fool ‘Lear’s shadow.’
· Seems reluctant to tell these uncomfortable truths: ‘Prithee nuncle, keep a school master that can teach thy fool to lie. I would fain learn to lie.’
· Offers his coxcomb to Kent as a sign of his foolishness but does not follow his own advice staying loyal to Lear: ‘I will tarry, the fool will stay And let the wise man fly Thy knave turns fool that runs away The fool, no knave perdy.’
· Reminds us of Cordelia – both were Lear’s favourites – he expects indulgence from them but instead gets brutal honesty.