Family Structures - One of the themes in King Lear is family. There are many different family structures within the play. Can you identify the different families in the play? How does each family member relate with their other members? What are the relationships like
Deception - Another major theme in King Lear is deception. What forms does deception take? What characters use deception and do you consider their causes good or evil?
Tragedy – King Lear is one of Shakespeare’s Tragedies. What is tragic about the story? What elements make it a tragedy? Which characters are most tragic? What do you think is the overall, great tragedy within the story?
Symbols and Motifs and Themes
Authority vs Chaos
Fate and Destiny
Use of Irony
Suffering and Loss
1. How Lear, in his old age, came to stage the foolish love contest between his daughters, is not Shakespeare's first concern; the consequences of it are. The amount of motivation he does show--the illusion created in a few swift touches of a passionate, autocratic, nonreflective, self- dramatizing temperament grown more difficult in old age-- though not sufficient to satisfy many critics, was sufficient for his purpose. Beneath the enlivening of the character and the changes in the terms in which the characters speak, the old fairy-tale frame is still there, sufficiently recognizable to give an Elizabethan audience the right start. It is the story of the Clever Lass and of Cinderella combined. The father proposes a testing question and the daughters answer it, the wicked daughters openly but falsely, the good daughter riddlingly but truly. Though the heroine's "I love you as much as salt" has gone through the metamorphosis of Geoffrey's epigrammatic "Quantum habes, tantum vales," into Shakespeare's "I love your majesty/According to my bond; nor more nor less," the marks of the riddle have not disappeared, as any Elizabethan audience, understanding the law of Nature and the force of its bonds would know. The terms of the story demand that the father not understand the riddle and cast out the good daughter to suffer Cinderella-like until the day when he discovers the answer and she is vindicated. How else, then, except on such clear and evident lines, would Shakespeare start his play?
Madeleine Doran, Endeavors of Art (Madison: U of Wisconsin P, 1954), pp. 253-4.
2. Lear is constructed, then, as a succession of tragic effects, carefully designed to build a mighty emotional pattern, an imaginative, poetic pattern, rather than as a piece of "realism," a situation taken from ordinary life in which the psychological implications of the action are studied with close attention to logical sequence and interconnection. It is of little avail to try to reduce the events of King Lear to a strict logical coherence, or to construct the motivation of Cordelia and Edgar and the rest from an imaginary account of their previous lives. Shakespeare himself offers us not the faintest suggestion as an encouragement for doing this. We do not know what kind of life Lear and his three daughters led together before the play opens, why Cordelia was his favourite (was it because she was most like her father or most different?), or how Lear could have been deceived for so many years by the hypocrisy of Goneril and Regan, while Cordelia was not. Gloucester is just as naive regarding Edgar. We are given a situation which contains the passionate conflict of the forces of good and evil; we see these forces play themselves out to a tragic conclusion; and the emotional pattern this sequence of events creates for us issues in a mood of sublimity. Here is the "grandeur of conception" of which Longinus wrote; and the effect of awe is so securely achieved that the finer articulations of the parts do not concern us.
H. S. Wilson, On the Design of Shakespearian Tragedy (Toronto: U of Toronto P, 1957), p. 189.
3. The complication in Shakespeare's management of character, whether in Lear or elsewhere, is simply that at any given instant characters may shift along a spectrum between compelling realism and an almost pure representativeness that resembles (and evidently derives from) this esse of the Morality play, though it is not necessarily allegorical.
Maynard Mack, "King Lear" in Our Time (Berkeley: U of California P, 1972), pp. 67-68.
4. The two parties in the play have two Natures and two Reasons. Common sense means a different thing for each because it rests on contrary acts of choice. The orthodox always kept the ideas Reason, Nature, God and Man (as King) close together. In this context Reason is a real common sense. It implies a content on which all men agree. To us this content might appear nothing more than a number of laudable aims. For Hooker and the Elizabethans generally, on the other hand, there was no doubt about the real status of that which Reason descried and which gave Reason its definite body of axioms.. . . Orthodox man felt himself to be part of the grand system of Nature in a real sense. Both his body and his mind were included. His attitude to Nature could not therefore be that of the observant analyst or the industrious watchmaker. Reason did not mean knowledge of how a thing is put together, or of how a thing works. Reason's primary work was to guide man in the exercise of his own nature: it illuminated the path man alone, of all the creatures, had to follow.. . .
Edmund in his opening soliloquy is the compact image of everything that denies the orthodox view. Shakespeare thought of him simply and inclusively as the Bastard, and "bastard" is the Elizabethan equivalent of "outsider". Edmund is a complete Outsider. He is outside Society, he is outside Nature, e is outside Reason. Man, Nature, and God now fall apart. Reason, for Hooker the principle of coherence for all three, dwindles to something regulative rather than constitutive. It is an analyser, a cold calculator. Its knowledge is the knowledge of the watchmaker or engineer, an understanding of cogs and springs and levers, of mining and counter-mining. Nature itself becomes a machine this Reason can have this knowledge of. . . . Now a thing's nature is laid down in its constitution--a stuff of matter and a propellant of appetite. We cannot change our nature or the nature of others. We can only express our nature, and others' natures we can use: for our own advantage. We can make them our tools by a superior knowledge of how they work.. . .
For the two natures and two Reasons imply two societies. Edmund belongs to the new age of scientific inquiry and industrial development, of bureaucratic organization and social regimentation, the age of mining and merchant-venturing, of monopoly and Empire-making, the age of the sixteenth century and after: an age of competition, suspicion, glory. He hypostatizes those trends in man which guarantee success under the new conditions--one reason why his soliloquy is so full of what we recognize as common sense. These trends he calls Nature. And with this Nature he identifies Man. Edmund would not agree that any other Nature was thinkable.
Another Nature was being asserted, however, in Edmund's time, because there was another society not yet outgrown. This is the society of the 16th century and before. The standards Edmund rejects have come down from the Middle Ages. They assume a co-operative, reasonable decency in man, and respect for the whole as being greater than the part: "God to be worshiped, parents to be honoured, others to be used by us as we ourselves would be by them."
John F. Danby, Shakespeare's Doctrine of Nature: A Study of "King Lear" (London, 1948), pp. 43-46.
5. In short, to say, with an increasing number of recent critics, that "the remorseless process of King Lear" forces us to "face the fact of its ending without any support from systems moral . . . belief at all" is to indulge the mid- twentieth-century frisson du nant at its most sentimental. We face the ending of this play, as we face our world, with whatever support we customarily derive from systems of belief or unbelief. If the sound of David crying "Absolom, my son," the image of Mary bending over another broken child, the motionless form of a missionary doctor whose martyrdom is recent, not to mention all that earth has known of disease, famine earthquake, war, and prison since men first came crying hither--if our moral and religious systems can survive this, and the record suggests that for many good men they do and can, then clearly they will have no trouble in surviving the figure of Lear as he bends in his agony, or in his joy, above Cordelia. Tragedy never tells us what to think; it shows us what we are and may be. And what we are and may be was never, I submit, more memorably fixed upon a stage than in this kneeling old man whose heartbreak is precisely the measure of what, in our world of relatedness, it is possible to lose and possible to win. The victory and the defeat are simultaneous and inseparable.
If there is any "remorseless process" in King Lear, it is one that begs us to seek the meaning of our human fate not in what becomes of us, but in what we become. Death, as we saw, is miscellaneous and commonplace; it is life whose quality may be noble and distinctive. Suffering we all recoil from; but we know it is a greater thing to suffer than to lack the feelings and virtues that make it possible to suffer. Cordelia, we may choose to say, accomplished nothing, yet we know it is better to have been Cordelia than to have been her sisters. When we come crying hither, we bring with us the badge of all our misery; but it is also the badge of the vulnerabilities that give us access to whatever grandeur we achieve.
Mack, pp. 116-7.
6. In a tragic and grotesque world, situations are imposed, compulsory and inescapable. Freedom of choice and decision are part of this compulsory situation, in which both the tragic hero and the grotesque actor must always lose their struggle against the absolute. The downfall of the tragic hero is a confirmation and recognition of the absolute; whereas the downfall of the grotesque actor means mockery of the absolute and its desecration. The absolute is transformed into a blind mechanism, a kind of automaton. Mockery is directed not only at the tormentor, but also at the victim who believed in the tormentor's justice, raising him to the level of the absolute. The victim has consecrated his tormentor by recognizing himself as victim.
In the final instance tragedy is an appraisal of human fate, a measure of the absolute. The grotesque is a criticism of the absolute in the name of frail human experience. That is why tragedy brings catharsis, while grotesque offers no consolation whatsoever. . . In Shakespeare's play there is neither Christian Heaven, nor the heaven predicted and believed in by humanists. King Lear makes a tragic mockery of all eschatologies: of the heaven promised on earth, and the Heaven promised after death; in fact--of both Christian and secular theodicies; of cosmogony and of the rational view of history; of the gods and the good nature, of man made in "image and likeness". In King Lear both the medieval and the Renaissance orders of established values disintegrate. All that remains at the end of this gigantic pantomime, is the earth--empty and bleeding. On this earth, through which tempest has passed leaving only stones, the King, the Fool, the Blind Man and the Madman carry on their distracted dialogue.
Jan Kott, "King Lear or Endgame," Shakespeare Our Contemporary, trans. Boleslaw Taborski (Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1966), pp. 132, 147.
7. It is a sad picture; King Lear altogether is not a happy play. But it makes a challenging case about the neglect of the poor and the corruption of justice in high places. It promises no cure of this, for it cannot honestly do so. It shows wickedness in full operation and reveals the harm this does. But it makes a dramatic case for human values, of living with honesty, knowledge, devotion and love for others. And it says that life must be faced and its problems fought through. Those who live by human values may not always triumph, but they have a strength that misfortune cannot overcome.
Sidney Finkelstein, Who Needs Shakespeare? (New York, 1973), p. 187.
8. Why must Cordelia die?
In terms of theme, the question approaches its own answer. In the reconciliation scene (so we have argued) Lear has reached a degree of insight and humility; his insight (which we are meant to share) includes the awareness that all things are ultimately without value, but that a beloved person has infinite value. Thus, life and death are of no consequence, because love, which might be called an intuition of the value of persons, transcends both life and death. Yet Lear, imperfect in love and knowledge at the end of the play, has not fully grasped this--and no wonder, since he is a weak and dying old man. But we are not meant to share his agony; that is the dramatic paradox of the final scene.
Lear's "Never, never, never, never, never" brings home to us the absoluteness of love's transcendence even while it expresses Lear's desolation. Lear sees and suffers the absurdity of Cordelia's death. And we perceive that to be Cordelia (and for Cordelia to be) is in some indefinable way a supreme and transcendent good. Lear experiences this truth--it is inseparable from his agony. And in that final image of Lear with his beloved dead in his arms, we are enabled to see the worst cruelty the world can inflict and the love which transcends that cruelty. To put it differently: Cordelia's death signifies at once the world's absurdity and the ultimate inconsequence of death. Cordelia cannot ever not be. That is why Cordelia's death is the play's only possible ending.
Elias Schwartz, The Mortal Worm: Shakespeare's Master Theme (Port Washington, N.Y.: Kinnikat Press, 1977), pp. 66-7.