BookRags Literature Study Guide Lear by Edward Bond Copyright Information

Ghost See Gravedigger's Boy Gravedigger's Boy

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See Gravedigger's Boy

Gravedigger's Boy

The Gravedigger's Boy plays a strong part in teaching Lear about compassion When he first meets Lear, the Gravedigger's Boy is living in a pastoral setting with his pregnant wife, Cordelia. The simplicity of his life and his kindness bring about the beginning of Lear's change. After the Gravedigger's Boy is murdered by soldiers, he later appears to Lear In his prison cell, now as a Ghost. As the Ghost, he continues to teach Lear as he tries to help him, but the Ghost himself is in a state of continuing deterioration. He is slowly dying and is afraid. Lear, calling the Ghost his boy, becomes his protector, but is unable to save the Ghost from his decline. Meanwhile, the Ghost continues in his protective attitude toward Lear. The two learn to help and teach each other and to show one another true kindness and compassion. Finally, however, the Ghost is mauled to death by maddened pigs, and Lear feels the pain of his second death.

Gravedigger's Boy's Wife

See Cordelia


John lives with Thomas, Susan, and Lear at the Gravedigger's Boy's house. He is more critical of Lear and eventually leaves for the city, asking Susan to leave Thomas and come with him She stays with Thomas and Lear


The Judge, who is clearly under the control of Bodice and Fontanelle, presides at Lear's trial and concludes that Lear is mad.


Lear is the play's title character. The action revolves largely around his growth as an individual. When he first appears on stage, it is as a cruel king bent on building a wall around his kingdom, supposedly to protect his people. His actions, however, soon show his indifference to their lives, as he kills a workman who has accidentally killed another and thus delayed the completion of the wall. When Lear is deposed by his daughters, Bodice and Fontanelle,

he begins to suffer and to change through that suffering. When the rebellion first begins, Lear denies that he even has daughters, but he eventually takes responsibility for his part in building their characters. His relationship with the Gravedigger's Boy, and subsequently with the Gravedigger's Boy's Ghost, also changes him as he begins to see the possibility of true kindness. Much of Lear's change, in fact, comes because of his relationships with other people. As he sees the world through their eyes, he develops compassion and is finally willing to give his own life because of the good It might do others. His final act, an attempt to dig up his own wall, shows the extent of his transformation. It is this transformation that is the center of the play.


The Officer comes to the Gravedigger's Boy's house while Lear is living there With Thomas, Susan, and John. He accuses Lear of harboring deserters and takes the Small Man away to be executed.

Old Councilor

The Old Councilor is loyal to whatever regime is in power. He begins as a minister of Lear's, supports Bodice and Fontanelle when they are in power, and eventually works for Cordelia.


Four Prisoners appear with Lear in a prison convoy. One of them is also the Prison Doctor who performs the autopsy on Fontanelle and later blinds Lear.

Small Man

The Small Man is a deserter pursued by soldiers. He asks Lear, Thomas, Susan, and John to hide him. Lear tries to protect him, but he is eventually found by the soldiers and taken away to be executed.


Fourteen soldiers have speaking parts in the play, and others appear on stage. These soldiers are a frequent presence throughout the play and are usually seen ill the act of killing or torturing people. They are in the service of the various corrupt regimes.


Susan is Thomas's wife and lives at the Gravedigger's Boy's house with Thomas, John, and Lear Like Thomas, she is concerned that Lear's compassion for others will endanger the household, but it is she who leads Lear to his wall so that he can commit his defiant final act.


Thomas, his wife Susan, and John live with Lear at the Gravedigger's Boy's house after Lear has been blinded and released from prison. Thomas is compassionate, but unlike Lear, he is reluctant to endanger the household by helping those pursued by Cordelia's army. He is also concerned that Lear's public speaking will bring trouble. Yet he says he wants to fight for the good of the people. Susan and John want him to leave Lear, but he refuses.


Warrington is loyal to Lear. He is captured and brutally tortured under the direction of Lear's daughters when they first rebel against their father. The daughters decide not to kill Warrington and for a time he lives in the woods and is referred to as "the wild man" by the Gravedigger's Boy and his wife. He drowns in their well.

Wild Man

See Warrington


The three workmen appear in the first scene, where they are seen building Lear's wall. Their only value to Lear is m their ability to work on the wall. When one is accidentally killed, Lear's only concern is for the resulting delay m building the wall.

Wounded Rebel Soldier

The Wounded Rebel Soldier was injured fighting m Cordelia's army. She, the Carpenter, and the other rebel soldiers abandon him to die alone.


Parents and Children

In Lear Bond provides a picture of a family that has disintegrated. In the very first scene of the play, Bond portrays hostility between Lear and his daughters. Bodice and Fontanelle reveal to their father that they will marry his enemies, the Duke of North and the Duke of Cornwall, then tear down Lear's wall. Lear responds in kind, telling them he has always known of their maliciousness. When Lear leaves the stage, Bodice and Fontanelle reveal their plans to attack their father's army. Lear and his daughters are literally at war with one another; when presented with Lear's death warrant, Fontanelle eagerly signs it. At his trial Lear seems to reject his children altogether, saying he has no daughters.

Yet in prison, Lear shows a desire for a relationship with his children. Lear asks the Ghost to bring him his daughters who, he now says, will help him. Apparitions of the daughters as young girls appear, and the audience is given the sense of happier, more peaceful times. The daughters are afraid of being in prison, but Lear comforts them. When they say they must leave, Lear begs them to stay. Lear realizes that at some point in the past his daughters were kind, lovable people. Later, when Fontanelle is killed and autopsied, the procedure reveals to Lear that his daughter is flesh and bone and not some evil beast in human guise.

Lear is awed by the beauty and purity of the inside of Fontanelle's body. He sees no maliciousness, no evil, there, just base human matter. He says that if he had known how beautiful Fontanelle was, he would have loved her. "Did I make this-and destroy it?" he asks. It is only at the autopsy that Lear realizes that he is responsible for the evil in his daughters. He has shaped their personalities and behavior. They learned all of their cruelty, greed, and thirst for power from him There is an inherent connection between the children and the parent who nurtured their development, and Lear can no longer see himself as simply the victim of his daughters' evil. Lear and his daughters are inextricably bound together. By the time Lear realizes this, however, it is too late. Both daughters are dead, and he cannot change the past. The disintegrated family cannot be rebuilt. Lear must live with his guilt.

Violence and Power

In his preface to Lear Bond states, "I write about violence as naturally as Jane Austen wrote about manners." For Bond, violence is an integral part of contemporary society; writing about modern culture means writing about violence. Lear begins and ends with violence. In the first scene, Lear shoots a worker who has accidentally caused another worker's death; in the last scene, a soldier shoots and kills Lear. In between, there are numerous acts of brutality. Warrington's tongue is cut out, he is tortured, and knitting needles are shoved into his ears. The innocent Gravedigger's Boy is shot, and Ins wife is raped. Even as a Ghost, the Gravedigger's Boy suffers a second violent death, this time an attack by pigs. Fontanelle is shot and Bodice is gored by soldiers. Numerous minor characters also die violent deaths

Aside from the violence, there are scenes depicting graphic gore. The autopsy of Fontanelle and the blinding of Lear are among the most horrifying scenes in recent literature As traumatic as watching Bond's violent scenes may be for the audience, however, it is important to note that these scenes are not mere titillation or sensationalism; Bond uses the violence in Lear, as well as in his other plays, to highlight the violence of modern society. His interest is not simply in the violence itself, but in the circumstances that provoke such savagery in both reality and fiction.

Most of the violence in Lear is directly related to the desire for power. When the first worker is shot in Act I, the audience immediately realizes a connection between Lear's power and the violence that has repeatedly been used in the formation of his regime. Supposedly horrified by Lear's violence, Bodice and Fontanelle revolt against their father, but once in power, they are every bit as violent as he. One might expect Cordelia, originally one of the oppressed masses, to also govern without violence, but, once in power, she is as ruthless as Lear and his daughters. Although the rulers change, their policies of governing through violence remain the same. The very structure of this society is violent. It is Bond's intention that the audience see the violence of Lear's society as a reflection of its own time. Through recognition of its own savagery, society may change.


Lear begins the playas a violent man, a ruthless king. His rancor is immediately highlighted when he shoots one worker who has accidentally killed another. The crime, in Lear's View, is not in taking an innocent life, but in delaying the building of the wall. Although the king, when he talks of his people in the abstract, speaks of his duty to protect them, as individuals their lives mean nothing to him. As the play progresses-and his circumstances change-Lear begins to perceive things differently. When his daughters' revolution succeeds, he flees to the countryside, where he meets the Gravedigger's Boy, who generously feeds him and gives him sanctuary.

Lear witnesses the human ability to forgive when the Boy tells him of the subjects' suffering caused by the building of the wall and yet allows the deposed king to stay. Lear's education in suffering is continued when he sees the Boy killed, Ins wife raped, and their livestock killed. His imprisonment by his daughters also teaches him about pain. In prison, Lear develops feelings of protectiveness toward the Ghost Also in prison, Lear's observation of Fontanelle's autopsy helps him to further see the damage for which he is responsible. At this point, when he is beginning to see, Lear is blinded.

The blind Lear is released and meets the farmer, his wife, and their son; Lear now truly sees their suffering and longs to end it. He begins to live among the people and endangers his own life by offering sanctuary to all who need It and by speaking out against Cordelia's regime. Lear's last act is his attempt to tear down the wall, an attempt that will clearly fail, and he dies in this symbolic act. Violence and evil still reign. Yet, in Lear's transformation and virtuous final act, an example for positive change has been presented.


Epic Theater/Alienation Effect

Twentieth-century playwright Bertold Brecht (The Three-penny Opera) developed the modern concept of the epic theater for use in his political dramas. Unlike conventional drama, epic theater develops from a sequence of many scenes, as in Lear, that often take place over a considerable time period and employ a large number of characters. The continuous movement from scene to scene is meant to keep the audience from becoming too emotionally involved with the characters. This lack of emotional involvement is also developed through Brecht's alienation effect, which occurs when the audience is continuously made aware that it is not watching reality but a play.

In Lear characters periodically speak to the audience rather than to one another. This sort of speech is called an "aside" and contributes to the alienation effect. When Warrington is tortured, the darkly comic comments of Bodice and Fontanelle remind the audience that this is an exaggerated fiction removed from realIty. This is part of the alienation effect as well. The purpose of this method is to force the audience to use its intellect rather than its emotions in considering the themes and action of the play. Brecht believed that focusing on reason, not emotion, would be more effective in conveying the motives of political drama.


An anachronism is an objector idea that is from a time period different from the one in which a work of literature is set; it is something that is clearly out of context with the rest of the work's environment. The modern workers building Lear's wall are an anachronism, as is the futuristic "scientific device" used to blind Lear. Anachronisms can have two major effects. They are sometimes used to make a story more universal-to illustrate that the story is not only about the time in which it is set but that it uses themes and ideas that apply to all tunes. Anachronisms can also contribute to the alienation effect, creating a sense of the surreal that reinforces the unreality of the proceedings. In Lear, Bond's anachronistic technique serves both purposes.


An allusion refers to something outside of the play, usually a literary work. By using allusion, the playwright is able to enrich the audience's experience of the drama. Though a complete story in Itself, Bond's entire play is an allusion to William Shake speare's KingLear. Because the play is about Shakespeare's text, familiarity with King Lear will deepen the audience's understanding of Bond's interpretation. Bodice's knitting in tunes of mayhem is an allusion to Charles Dickens's A Tale of Two Cities, a novel about the French Revolution in which the character Madame Defarge, one of the revolutionaries, knits a list of aristocrats who must die into a scarf.


Bond's play takes place in a year numbered 3100, presumably in ancient Britain, although Bond fills his story with modern devices, indicating that the action may be taking place in some distant future. Read in this manner, Bond could be condemning the phenomenon of history repeating itself. If the play is set in the future, then the events are a recreation of the original Lear legend that took place centuries before.

The action of the play takes place in a multitude of locations, but there are some that reappear within the play. Although the audience does not actually see Lear's wall until the final scene, the play opens near the wall, which becomes a pervasive symbolic presence throughout the play. Frequent references to the wall cause the audience to sense a feeling of enclosure and claustrophobia that is representative of the oppression caused by the different regimes throughout the play. Paradoxically, in the final scene the audience is shown the wall, and thus the possibility of a future on the outside; the inspiration for freedom is deepened by Lear's insistence that the structure, and all that it symbolizes, be destroyed.

The Gravedigger's Boy's house is also an important location. It is in this more pastoral setting that Lear experiences the possibility of change and the depth of human kindness. It is to this house that the blind Lear returns and establishes a sanctuary for fugitives from the regime. The house represents the chance of happiness and freedom, an Idyll from oppression. Another important location is the prison, where Lear learns of his own responsibility for the suffering of others. Imprisoned with his daughters, he becomes aware that their evIl is a reflection-and creation-of his own capacity for such behavior:


A metaphor is a word or phrase whose literal meaning is subverted to represent something else. The wall, the play's greatest metaphor, is a presence which pervades the play even when It is not seen. It is representative of the oppression and control of various corrupt regimes. Bodice and Fontanelle as well as Cordelia initially see the wall as something that must be dug up. Yet whoever ascends to power realizes that the wall is a means to preserve their authority. At the same time, the people see the wall as the source of their misery. Because of the massive effort put into constructing the wall, their farms are lost and the men sicken and die. The structure is also a metaphor for the "wall" that Lear has figuratively built between himself and his adult daughters, as well as between himself and the emotional needs of his subjects Lear's final attempt to dig up the wall represents his realization that such oppressive structures must be demolished to advance humanity.

The blinding of Lear is also metaphoric. In literature blindness is often associated with greater insight. Tiresias, the mythological Greek prophet, is blind as is the character of Oedipus. Lear 18 blinded just as he begins to realize his own responsibility for the pain of others. In these cases, physical blindness enables greater insight into the human condition. It is also symbolic of an epiphany or great self reflection. As with the legend of Oedipus (who unwittingly killed his father, married his mother, and, upon learning what he had done, blinded himself), Lear's blinding occurs at the moment that he gains full realization of his life's atrocities.
Historical Context

Historical Context

British writers of Bond's generation were profoundly influenced by World War II and its aftermath German leader Adolf Hitler's intense bombing of London, known as the "blitz," brought the horrors of war home to British soil At the end of the war, the discovery of the Nazi concentration camps (in which millions were put to death for their perceived threat to the German regime) revealed a previously unimagined evil. The American use of the atomic bomb at the end of the war led to new fears about the fume of the planet, fears which were exacerbated when Britain tested its first hydrogen bomb in 1954.

For the British people, the violence of war was very real. At the close of the conflict, Britain began to lose its status as a nation. It had once been said that the sun never set on the British empire. Now that same empire was gradually dismantled as former colonies such as India and Africa regained their autonomy. The Suez crisis of 1956, in which Britain tried to gain control of the Suez Canal in Egypt and was subsequently condemned for its military interference, caused great disillusionment with the government. After the United Nations condemned Britain's action, troops were forced to withdraw, and the prime minister resigned. Equally sobering for leftist causes was the Soviet Union's invasion of Hungary in 1956 and its subsequent invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968. Socialism, seen by many as a hope for the future, was revealed to be as aggressive, dictatorial, and violent as any other political system.

The postwar years in England also saw the development of the Welfare State, in which responsibility for the poor would rest largely on the government. In 1946, the National Insurance Act and the National Health Service Act were passed. The National Assistance Act of 1948 was designed to provide government relief for the poor. Many believed that through the government's actions, poverty and unemployment would be abolished, a line of reasoning that was quickly proven false. The belief in the need for government assistance for the poor, however, continued into the late 1960s and early 1970s. In these later years, government policies also became increasingly liberal. Homosexuality, previously illegal, was now considered outside of government jurisdiction. The National Health Service began to fund contraception and abortions for the poor. Women and members of minority groups began to agitate for their rights. The Lord Chamberlain's power to censor the theater was abolished.

In his preface to Lear Bond writes, "We can see that most men are spending their lives doing things for which they are not biologically designed. We are not designed for our production lines, housing blocks, even cars; and these things are not designed for us." Bond's suspicion of technology is a reflection of his times. During this period the idyllic pastoral life depicted at the home of Lear's Gravedigger's Boy was fast disappearing as farms became more industrialized There was also the sense that the Increase in technology, because of the resulting displacement of workers, was a large contributor to the problems of unemployment and, thus, poverty. Medical advances were also under suspicion. When the first heart transplant was performed m England in 1967, some compared that breakthrough to the depiction of biological technology (and the creation of a monster) in Mary Shelley's novel Frankenstein.

The time m which Bond wrote Lear was also a time of violence. In 1968 alone the Soviets invaded Czechoslovakia, Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy were both assassinated, and the Six Day War was fought in Israel. During these years, the war in Vietnam was escalating, and British troops were sent into Northern Ireland to quell unrest over that country's sovereignty Students became deeply involved in politics and there were mass demonstrations. It also became clear, however, that the students could turn violent as well. In 1970, three members of the radical American group "The Weathermen" were killed when the bomb they were building for terrorist purposes exploded. It was this type of destruction, this kind of violence, that is dramatized in Lear, a play in which all governments and all revolutions are shown to be violent and, ultimately, alike in their ruthless cruelty and disregard for human life.

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