William Shakespeare

  • Literature Notes
  • Play Summary
  • About King Lear
  • Character List
  • Summary and Analysis
  • Act I: Scene 1
  • Act I: Scene 2
  • Act I: Scene 3
  • Act I: Scene 4
  • Act I: Scene 5
  • Act II: Scene 1
  • Act II: Scene 2
  • Act II: Scene 3
  • Act II: Scene 4
  • Act III: Scene 1
  • Act III: Scene 2
  • Act III: Scene 3
  • Act III: Scene 4
  • Act III: Scene 5
  • Act III: Scene 6
  • Act III: Scene 7
  • Act IV: Scene 1
  • Act IV: Scene 2
  • Act IV: Scene 3
  • Act IV: Scene 4
  • Act IV: Scene 5
  • Act IV: Scene 6
  • Act IV: Scene 7
  • Act V: Scene 1
  • Act V: Scene 2
  • Act V: Scene 3
  • Character Analysis
  • Earl of Gloucester
  • Earl of Kent / Caius
  • Edgar / Poor Tom
  • Duke of Albany
  • Duke of Cornwall
  • King of France
  • Duke of Burgundy
  • Character Map
  • William Shakespeare Biography
  • Critical Essays
  • Major Themes
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  • Divine Justice
  • Parent-Child Relationships : The Neglect of Natural Law
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Summary and Analysis Act I: Scene 1

The scene opens in King Lear's palace. A conversation between Kent, Gloucester, and Gloucester's son Edmund introduces the play's primary plot: The king is planning to divide his kingdom among his three daughters. The audience also learns that Gloucester has two sons. The older, Edgar, is his legitimate heir, and the younger, Edmund, is illegitimate; however, Gloucester loves both sons equally. This information provides the subplot.

King Lear enters to a fanfare of trumpets, followed by his two sons-in-law — Albany and Cornwall — and his three daughters — Goneril, Regan, and Cordelia. Lear announces that he has divided his kingdom into three shares to be given to his daughters as determined by their declarations of love for him. Goneril, as the eldest, speaks first. She tells her father that her love for him is boundless. Regan, as the middle child, speaks next. Her love, she says, is even greater than Goneril's.

Finally, it is Cordelia's turn to express the depth of her love for her royal father. But when queried by Lear, Cordelia replies that she loves him as a daughter should love a father, no more and no less. She reminds her father that she also will owe devotion to a husband when she marries, and therefore cannot honestly tender all her love toward her father. Lear sees Cordelia's reply as rejection; in turn, he disowns Cordelia, saying that she will now be "a stranger to my heart and me" (I.1.114). King Lear then divides his kingdom between Goneril and Regan, giving each an equal share.

Kent interferes by asking Lear to reconsider his rash action. Lear is not swayed, and in anger, he banishes Kent for defending Cordelia and for confronting the king.

At Kent's departure, the King of France and Duke of Burgundy enter, both of whom are suitors for Cordelia's hand in marriage. They are told that Cordelia will not receive a dowry or inheritance from her father. The Duke withdraws his suit, because a wife without a dowry is of no use to him. In contrast, the King of France claims that Cordelia is a prize, even without her share of Lear's kingdom, and announces his intent to marry Cordelia.

Cordelia bids her sisters farewell, and leaves with the King of France. When Goneril and Regan are left alone, the two sisters reveal their plan to discredit the king.

The play opens with a scene that introduces most of the primary characters and establishes both the main plot and a subplot. This first scene also is important because it provides the audience with an introduction to the character of Kent before he is banished and before he reappears disguised as Caius in Scene 4.

In the opening conversation, Gloucester speaks of Edmund's illegitimate birth in what can be described aptly as Elizabethan locker-room talk. Although Gloucester loves his illegitimate son Edmund and his legitimate son Edgar equally, Elizabethan society does not regard the two men as equals. Edmund realizes that his chances of a prosperous future are limited because he was born second to Gloucester from an unholy union. Edmund will not receive an equal inheritance under laws of primogeniture, which name the eldest son heir to his father's possessions. Gloucester relates to Kent that Edmund has been away seeking his fortune, but now he has returned — perhaps believing that he can find his fortune at home.

Initially, Lear appears to be a strong ruler, a monarch who has decided to divide his kingdom. Lear's choice will provide one clear benefit: Albany and Cornwall will be in charge of the outlying areas of his kingdom, which have not been easily governed. Lear plans to place Cordelia, with himself as her guest, in the center section. Lear recognizes that he is growing older and explains his decision to divide his kingdom by saying:

'tis our fast intent To shake all cares and business from our age, Conferring them on younger strengths, while we

Unburden'd crawl toward death. (I.1.37-40)

But the one benefit derived from this division creates many problems. By delegating his royal authority to his daughters, Lear creates chaos within his family and his kingdom not unlike the civil distress experienced by Shakespeare's audience. At the time Shakespeare penned King Lear , the English had survived years of civil war and division. Thus, Shakespeare's Elizabethan audience would have been horrified at Lear's decision to divide his kingdom. The audience also would have questioned Shakespeare's inclusion of the French suitor, especially since Lear intends for Cordelia and her new husband to oversee the choice center section of his kingdom.

The fear that a foreign king might weaken England (and a Catholic monarch made it worse) would have made Lear's actions seem even more irresponsible to the audience. But Lear is doing more than creating political and social chaos; he is also giving his daughters complete responsibility for his happiness, and he will blame them later when he is not happy.

Moreover, the test that Lear devises to measure his daughters' love is a huge mistake. Lear is depicted as a wise ruler — he has, after all, held the country together successfully for many years. Yet he lacks the common sense or the ability to detect his older daughters' falseness. This flaw in Lear leads the audience to think him either mad or stupid.

The love test is derived from Shakespeare's source and so it is included. Shakespeare's primary source is an anonymous play, The True Chronicle History of King Leir , in which the love test is used to trick Cordelia into marriage. Consequently, the test of love is only a device to further the plot, which Shakespeare plucked from his source. It is important to remember that King Lear is not historically based, although sources state that the story was based on events occurring at about 800 B.C. King Lear should more accurately be regarded as a sort of fairy tale. In many ways, Goneril and Regan are similar to Cinderella's evil older sisters.

Goneril and Regan's expressions of love are so extreme that they are questionable as rational responses to Lear's test. Cordelia's reply is honest, but Lear cannot recognize honesty amid the flattery, which he craves. Of course, Lear is not being honest either when he asks Cordelia, "what can you say to draw / A third more opulent than your sisters?" (I.1.84-85). Lear plans to reward Cordelia's expected exaltation with a larger portion of his kingdom than that allotted to her sisters. The shares should be equal, but Lear clearly loves Cordelia more. Cordelia's reply, "Nothing," is a word that will reappear throughout the play — with disastrous connotations. "Nothing" is a key word that is repeated several times in the play, thus emphasizing the word's importance. Cordelia's uttering of "nothing" is echoed at the end of the play when she is dead, and "nothing" remains of her. But it is also important to remember that Lear really understands "nothing" about his daughters, just as Gloucester knows "nothing" about his sons. When Gloucester sees "nothing," he is finally able to see the truth, and when Lear emerges from the "nothingness" of his mental decline, it is to finally know that Cordelia has always loved him.

Cordelia loves Lear according to the bonds of a blood relationship, as paternity demands. Her response is in keeping with Elizabethan social norms, which expect a daughter to love her father because that is the law of nature. According to nature, man is part of a hierarchy, from God to king to father to child. The love between each of these parties is reciprocal, and Cordelia's love for her father is what she owes him.

Cordelia tempers her love test reply with reason — a simple, unembellished statement of the honor due a father from his daughter. Lear irrationally responds by denying Cordelia all affection and paternal care.

Kent's interference on Cordelia's behalf leads to another outburst from Lear. Like Cordelia, Kent is honest with the king, providing a voice of reason. Kent sees Lear making a mistake and tells him so. The depth of Lear's anger toward Kent suggests excessive pride — Lear cannot be wrong. Cordelia's answer injures Lear's pride; he needs her excessive protestations of love to justify giving her the choicer parcel of land. Lear's intense anger toward Kent also suggests the fragility of the king's emotional state.

Cordelia's two suitors provide more drama in this initial scene. The Duke of Burgundy cannot love Cordelia without her dowry, but the King of France points out that she is a prize as great as any dowry and correctly recognizes that Burgundy is guilty of selfish self-interest. France's reply to Cordelia reveals that he is, indeed, worthy of Cordelia's love:

Fairest Cordelia, that art most rich, being poor, Most choice, forsaken, and most lov'd, despis'd! Thee and thy virtues here I seize upon, Be it lawful I take up what's cast away. (I.1.249-252)

The final section of this scene reveals that Cordelia knows that her sisters are liars, and so informs the audience of their dishonesty. Goneril replies that Cordelia deserves to be banished. This heated exchange foreshadows the feud that develops over the course of the next acts. Additional foreshadowing is supplied by Goneril and Regan's promise that if Lear becomes too much of a nuisance, they will have to deal with him accordingly. The first scene ends with Regan acknowledging that Lear isn't just weak because of old age, but that he has never really known himself — or his daughters. Regan's complaint reveals much about the relationship that Lear has with his daughters. His obvious preference for Cordelia has come at the expense of losing touch with his older daughters. Lear cannot recognize Goneril and Regan's deceit because he does not know them well enough to recognize when they are being dishonest. Lear's privileging of Cordelia prevents him from forming the kind of relationship with his older daughters that might have resulted in genuine love.

Scene 1 establishes a plot and subplot that will focus on a set of fathers and their relationships with their children. The audience will be privy to the conflict between father and child, and to fathers easily fooled by their children. Each father demonstrates poor judgment by rejecting a good child and trusting a dishonest child(ren). The actions that follow illustrate just how correct Regan's words will prove to be. It will soon be obvious how little Lear knows and understands his daughters as Goneril and Regan move to restrict both the size of his retinue and his power.

moiety 1 a half; either of two equal, or more or less equal, parts. 2 an indefinite share or part.

braz'd 1 made of, or coated with, brass or a brasslike substance. 2 made hard like brass.

proper fine; good; handsome.

wide-skirted vast; extensive.

felicitate made happy.

propinquity nearness of relationship; kinship.

make from to stay away from; avoid.

recreant failing to keep faith; disloyal; traitorous; apostate.

unpriz'd precious to be unimportant to one person, but appreciated or valued highly by another.

long-engrafted firmly established.

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'King Lear' Act 1: Summary of the Opening Scene

An In-Depth Look at 'King Lear' Act One, Scene One

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We take a close look at the opening on Shakespeare's "King Lear." This summary of Act One, Scene One is designed to be a study guide to help you understand, follow, and appreciate Shakespeare ’s tragedy.

Setting the Scene

The Earl of Kent, Duke of Gloucester, and his illegitimate son, Edmund, enter the King’s Court. The men discuss the division of the King’s estate—they consider which of Lear’s sons-in-law will be favored: The Duke of Albany or the Duke of Cornwall . Gloucester introduces his illegitimate son, Edmund. We also learn that he has a second son, Edgar, who is legitimate but who he loves equally.

King Lear enters with the Dukes of Cornwall and Albany, Goneril, Regan, Cordelia, and attendants. He asks Gloucester to get the King of France and the Duke of Burgundy, who both have expressed an interest in marrying Lear’s favorite daughter, Cordelia.

Lear then sets out his plan in a long speech:

"Meantime we shall express our darker purpose.— Give me the map there. Know that we have divided In three our kingdom, and ’tis our fast intent To shake all cares and business from our age, Conferring them on younger strengths, [while we Unburdened crawl toward death. Our son of Cornwall And you, our no less loving son of Albany, We have this hour a constant will to publish Our daughters’ several dowers, that future strife may be prevented now.] The two great princes, France and Burgundy, Great rivals in our youngest daughter’s love, Long in our court have made their amorous sojourn And here are to be answered. Tell me, my daughters— [Since now we will divest us both of rule, Interest of territory, cares of state—] Which of you shall we say doth love us most, That we our largest bounty may extend Where nature doth with merit challenge. Goneril, Our eldest born, speak first."

Dividing the Kingdom

Lear explains that he will divide his kingdom into three, and he will divest the largest part of his kingdom on the daughter who professes her love most fervently. Lear believes his favorite daughter Cordelia will be most eloquent in professing her love for him and, therefore, will inherit the largest part of his kingdom.

Goneril says that she loves her father more than "eyesight, space, and liberty." Regan says she loves him more than Goneril and that she is "alone felicitate in your dear Highness’ love."

Cordelia, however, refuses to take part in the love test, saying "Nothing." She believes her sisters are simply saying what they need to say in order to get what they want. Instead of following suit, she states: "I am sure my love’s more ponderous than my tongue."

The Ramifications of Cordelia's Refusal

Lear’s pride has been knocked as his favorite daughter refuses to participate in his test. He becomes angry with Cordelia and denies her dowry. Kent tries to make Lear see sense and defends Cordelia’s actions as a true manifestation of her love, but Lear angrily banishes Kent in response.

France and Burgundy enter. Lear offers his daughter to Burgundy but explains that her worth has diminished and there is no longer a dowry.

Burgundy refuses to marry Cordelia without a dowry, but France wants to marry her anyway, proving his true love for her and establishing her as a noble character by appreciating her for her virtues alone. He says:

"Fairest Cordelia, that art most rich being poor; Most choice, forsaken; and most loved, despised, Thee and thy virtues here I seize upon."

Lear then banishes his daughter to France.

Meanwhile, Goneril and Regan become nervous in witnessing their father’s treatment of his "favorite" daughter. They think his age is making him unpredictable and that they may face his wrath if they do not do something about it. They resolve to consider their options.

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Henry Irving as King Lear, 1892.

Major Themes in the Play “King Lear” by William Shakespeare Essay

Appearance versus reality, irresponsibility, authority and order, works cited.

The theme of madness is the most powerful aspect of this tragedy. King Lear is portrayed as being insane throughout the play and his condition deteriorates towards the end (Archer, Turley, and Thomas 521). Two of his daughters recognize their father’s mental state and perhaps take advantage of the insanity to acquire power at the expense of their younger sister (Edmiston and McKibben 97). However, the two daughters attribute their father’s mental challenge to his old age. The insanity influences most of the King’s decisions as he banishes his loyal daughter and divides power between the two disloyal children (Woodford 77). The decision to disown and curse his daughter, viz. Cordelia, is uninformed, as it cannot be expected from a mentality sound individual.

Some scholars argue that both Kent and Cordelia are aware of the King’s condition right from the beginning, which explains why they remain loyal to him even as he mistreats them (Archer, Turley, and Thomas 523). The madness is connected to the trouble that befalls the King later in his helpless state as he faces all sorts of mistreatments from the two daughters whom he gives the mandate to run the kingdom. Due to his insanity, he fails to make an informed decision regarding giving away power to the self-centered daughters.

This theme stands out throughout the play as everything works against the readers’ expectations (Edmiston and McKibben 96). In the opening scenes of the play, King Lear relies on his older daughters’ faked sycophancy, and thus he rewards them with his kingdom. In addition, against the audience’s expectations, he sends away Cordelia, who is the only loyal daughter. In addition, he banishes Kent, who is one of his closest confidantes, on grounds of disloyalty. However, his two older daughters, whom he entrusts with his kingdom, are disloyal to him (Moore 181). The two daughters, whom he entrusts the kingdom, later betray him by mistreating and neglecting him in his old age.

Edmond conspires to discredit Edgar, his brother in-law, to his father (Ioppolo 139). Based on the conspiracy, his father sends Edgar away and shifts his trust on Edmond. However, Edmond is a traitor and he is only driven by jealousy to have his brother evicted so that he can gain power in the kingdom (Archer, Turley, and Thomas 529). As opposed to the expectations of his father, Edmond later causes trouble in the kingdom. The loyal characters in the play are expected to hold the best positions in the kingdom; however, they are portrayed as the poorest, while the disloyal persons hold powerful positions. Therefore, disloyalty wins over loyalty in this kingdom.

The theme of blindness stand out clearly in King Lear in relation to the physical blindness of Gloucester, who has his eye plucked off by Cornwall and Regan due to being loyal to the King (Urkowitz 136). The physical blindness is symbolic of mental blindness in decisions made by the main characters in the play. Such blindness is especially evidenced by the shortsighted decisions made by both King Lear and Gloucester in the play. The two are blind while selecting their favorite children to reward. For example, the King expels the honest child from his palace and gives leadership to the two irresponsible daughters (Edmiston and McKibben 92).

Blindness is also evidenced by the neglect concerning one’s responsibilities. For example, Gloucester is a philanderer and his behavior leads to the birth of an illegitimate child, viz. Edmund (Woodford 167). Edmund later becomes a threat to the kingdom to the extent of attempting to attain illegitimately. On his part, King Lear is blind in addressing the needs of the people that he serves as the King. He ignores the needs of the less fortunate instead of assisting them, as expected of a servant leader.

The play portrays both King Lear and Gloucester as irresponsible persons who lack the virtue of mercy (Archer, Turley, and Thomas 522). The King, in his capacity as the head of the throne, is expected to address the problems of the poor and less fortunate groups in society. Conversely, he ignores such issues. In the play, the King does not address the key issues affecting the needy. The King is self-centered and he does not exercise the servant style of leadership as expected of him. This self-centered nature of the King leads to the failure of his throne later on (Moore 182).

The irresponsible character of the King is also seen in his decision to delegate his roles and responsibilities to his irresponsible daughters, who are equally self-centered. Similarly, they do not care about the needs of the public (Edmiston and McKibben 89). In addition, the King has the responsibility of taking care of his youngest daughter. In addition, he has the responsibility of treating his daughters as equals (Woodford 113). However, due to his irresponsible character, he forces Cordelia out of his house and forgets about her. As a parent, one is supposed to take care of his/her children regardless of whether they are loyal or disloyal. However, the King is oblivious of his duties as a parent and a role model to his followers.

Just as the King has the responsibility of taking care of his daughter, Cordelia equally owes her father the duty of taking good care of him in his weak mental state (Moore 175). However, she neglects this role. On the other hand, Gloucester has the responsibility of taking care of his wife on top of remaining faithful (Archer, Turley, and Thomas 536). Husbands are expected to remain faithful to their wives. On the contrary, Gloucester’s philandering ways lead to the birth of a love child. This child later on causes problems in the kingdom by trying to rise to power illegitimately. In addition, Gloucester overlooks his responsibilities as a father by expelling one of his sons on grounds of disloyalty and dishonesty (Archer, Turley, and Thomas 521).

The theme of power is evident at the beginning of the play where King Lear is portrayed as powerful and authoritative (Ioppolo 173). The aspect of power is seen in how he conducts his business without consulting his close allies. For example, he conducts the dramatic ceremony to divide power between his two daughters in the watch of Gloucester, Kent, and others. These individuals should question the King’s decision, but they opt to remain silent and watch as the events unfold (Urkowitz 112).

Power in this tragedy is not only exercised at the national level, but also at the family level. Without consulting anyone, the King expels his youngest daughter on grounds of being disloyal to his kingship. Divine power is also evident in the play as the King seeks providential help especially after the two daughters mistreat him later in his helpless state (Edmiston and McKibben 87). The King is heard ordering divine powers to come down and take his part after having a serious quarrel with the daughters.

Finally, the theme of old age stands out towards the end of the play. Due to old age, King Lear has to give up leadership to his daughters by claiming that he does not want to go to the grave burdened (Moore 169). King Lear has the sense that old age forces one to surrender some responsibilities as a way of preparing for death. Goneril and Regan recognize their father’s old age. They argue that his madness is mainly due to his age. Seemingly, the play suggests that old age deserves respect as Lear calls upon the gods to look at his old age and intervene in overcoming his tribulations (Archer, Turley, and Thomas 518).

However, the two daughters do not respect the fact that their father is old, and thus he deserves respect. On the contrary, they insult, ridicule, and neglect him. In addition, they do not take instructions from him, which leads to the fall of the kingdom. Madness and old age stand out as the most critical factors that influence the King’s decisions (Edmiston and McKibben 87). The two factors cause the King to make uninformed decisions leading to the downfall of the kingdom soon after his retirement. The old age contributes to the severity of the King’s mental illness.

Archer, Jayne, Richard Turley, and Howard Thomas. “The Autumn King: Remembering the Land in King Lear.” Shakespeare Quarterly 63.4 (2012): 518-543. Print.

Edmiston, Brian, and Amy McKibben. “Shakespeare, rehearsal approaches, and dramatic inquiry: Literacy education for life.” English in Education 45.1 (2011): 86-101. Print.

Ioppolo, Grace. A Routledge Literary Sourcebook on William Shakespeare’s King Lear , New York: Psychology Press, 2003. Print.

Moore, Peter. “The Nature of King Lear.” English Studies 87.2 (2006): 169-190. Print.

Urkowitz, Steven. Shakespeare’s Revision of King Lear , Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2014. Print.

Woodford, Donna. Understanding King Lear: A student casebook to issues, sources, and historical documents . Santa Barbara: Greenwood Publishing, 2004. Print.

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IvyPanda. (2020, July 6). Major Themes in the Play "King Lear" by William Shakespeare. https://ivypanda.com/essays/major-themes-in-the-play-king-lear-by-william-shakespeare/

"Major Themes in the Play "King Lear" by William Shakespeare." IvyPanda , 6 July 2020, ivypanda.com/essays/major-themes-in-the-play-king-lear-by-william-shakespeare/.

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IvyPanda . 2020. "Major Themes in the Play "King Lear" by William Shakespeare." July 6, 2020. https://ivypanda.com/essays/major-themes-in-the-play-king-lear-by-william-shakespeare/.

1. IvyPanda . "Major Themes in the Play "King Lear" by William Shakespeare." July 6, 2020. https://ivypanda.com/essays/major-themes-in-the-play-king-lear-by-william-shakespeare/.


IvyPanda . "Major Themes in the Play "King Lear" by William Shakespeare." July 6, 2020. https://ivypanda.com/essays/major-themes-in-the-play-king-lear-by-william-shakespeare/.

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The problem of artistic consummation, being the problem of magnitude in the highest degree, is imperiled by its own scope, but fortunately there is a part of King Lear that by assent is its most tragic region, the region where suffering takes on such dimension that even Shakespeare could find no better word than “madness” to contain it. Furthermore, since the madness of Lear is almost entirely Shakespeare’s invention 2 and is crucial in the transformation of the many stories of King Lear into the only Tragedie of King Lear , it brings us face to face with both the tragic art and the tragic artist. Now, to speak of a consummate poetic accomplishment is to imply that the kind of criticism which views all a writer’s problems as unique has overlooked a part of the whole of truth. For, to speak of an artistic attainment as possessing magnitude in the highest degree is to imply the existence of attainments somewhat analogous and in this and that common respect somewhat inferior; it implies either this or the existence of a critic who has some a priori conception of a poem more wonderful than any yet written, in which case the critic should change to a more wonderful profession and contribute its culminating splendor. For us at least, it is certainly easier and wiser to say that every writer in each particular act of composing faces problems that have various levels of universality, and, if this were not so, we could not recognize any uniqueness in his achievement; the chances are we could not even recognize what he had written. In only certain senses, then, does Shakespeare forever elude us and refuse to “abide our question,” for, if there are general problems confronting every writer, we should be able to ask questions that Shakespeare of all men made no attempt to elude.

At a high level of universality, to write anything well, whether it be intellectual or imaginative, is to assume at least two obligations: to be intelligible and to be interesting . Intelligibility, too, has its levels of obligation, on the lowest of individual statements, and even on this level the obligation is never easy to fulfill and perhaps even to genius could be a nightmare if what the genius sought to represent was “madness.” Only to a limited degree, however, can individual statements be intelligible—and in many instances and for a variety of reasons the individual statements are meant to be obscure, as in “mad” speeches. Since full intelligibility depends upon the relations of individual statement to individual statement, the concept of intelligibility, fully expanded, includes order and completeness ; for a fully intelligible exposition or poem having relations has parts, and all the parts ought to be there and add up to a whole. The second major obligation, that of being “interesting,” includes unexpectedness and suspense , for expository as well as imaginative writing should not be merely what the reader expected it would be—or why should it be written or read?—and the unexpected should not be immediately and totally announced (in other words, expository and imaginative writing should have suspense), for, if the whole is immediately known, why should the writer or reader proceed farther?

But the accomplished writer gives his selected material more than shape—he gives it proper size . For a piece of writing to have its proper size is an excellent thing, or otherwise it would be lacking in intelligibility or interest or both. Thus, if Lear’s anger had been transformed into madness in a single scene, all the odds are that such a transformation would seem beyond belief, and it is just as certain that the play would have died in the memory of men for want of suspense. On the other hand, the madness of Lear could have been drawn at such length that the spectator, like Kent, could not continue to view the suffering or, worse still, until the spectator began to suspect an author was manipulating suffering for suspense—and in either case the spectator would feel that he had seen too much. Moreover, the size of any literary particle is not a matter of quantity only. Every art has ways of making a thing seem bigger or smaller than the space it occupies, as Cordelia is more wonderful by far than the number of lines she utters and is even tragically present when she is tragically absent, and as Lear becomes more gigantic when he can utter only a few lines or broken lines or none at all.

We have come close to the special realm of imaginative or poetic writing, with its special obligations, two of which we shall refer to as vividness and probability . As poetic writing is the representing or “making” of human experience, so the poet is the writer who possesses the powers and devices that transfer “life” from flesh to words. These possessions of a poet are not merely a knowledge of “life”; Machiavelli knew much about successful and unsuccessful rulers and wrote The Prince , and analysts know much about madness and come no closer to King Lear than case reports. Shakespeare “made” many rulers, successful and otherwise, and one he “made” mad. In so far, then, as a poem possesses “life,” it has vividness . A poem, however, makes not “life” only but a “world.” Hence any of its parts, when related to the others, must seem probable . Not any living being may enter Lear , and the few who may are severely limited in freedom of thought, speech, and action. What may happen in a poem must be compatible with the general conditions of “existence” as postulated by the poem; and what actually does happen and the order in which it happens must appear as adequately caused by the constitution of the individual characters and by the circumstances in which they are placed. The same legendary figure may enter two worlds and in the early Elizabethan play may spell his name “Leir” and survive his misfortunes, but, having ventured upon the thick rotundity of Shakespeare’s world, he cannot be saved, and certainly not by the alteration of any neoclassical poet.

In certain ultimate senses the world that is each poem is bound together so that it binds the hearts of those who look upon it, of whom the poet is one. To look upon a poem, then, as distinct from looking upon much of the succession of life, is to be moved, and moved by emotions that, on the whole, attract us to it and are psychologically compatible. All of us, therefore, seem to be asking for less than we expect when we ask that poems have emotional unity ; but this is so commonly the language of the request that we shall assume it means what we expect it does—that the emotions aroused by any good poem should be psychologically compatible and also of a kind out of which attachments are formed. We may ask for many other things from poems—biographical information, or political or theological wisdom—but, in making any of these further requests, we should recognize that we are asking for what only certain good poems give, and then generally not so well as something else. What is here taken as ultimate in poetry is what is true of all good poems: they give a high order of distinctive pleasures, and it may be said summarily of high and distinctive pleasures that no man seems in danger of exceeding his allotment.

In a way a poet is untroubled about all this—about writing or writing poetry, for these are abstractions that cannot be engaged in, and he is trying to find the first or next word, and after “thick rotundity” he listens to “of” and is troubled, and then hears “o’ ” and so moves on to other troubles, leaving behind him “the thick rotundity o’ th’ world.” In a way, then, even in a long life a poet never writes poetry—just a few poems; and in this sense a poet’s problems do not begin until he closes in upon a piece of paper with something less abstract in mind than writing or writing poetry. He may wish, as many lyric poets have wished, to write a drama or a novel, but the story is so distinct from the lyric that few poets, despite a tendency of poets to be expansive in their ambitions, have been eminent in both poetic arts. Shelley and Keats had a maximum of aspiration but hardly a minimum of gift for plot and character, and even Browning, with his surpassing delineation of men and women in dramatic monologue, could not make anything happen in a drama. Coming closer to the paper on which King Lear was written, we also know that to have the characters tell their own story on a stage raises problems very distinct from those required for putting the story between the covers of a novel. It may seem that the distinction between manners of presenting a story is largely classificatory; yet stories are so locked artistically to those selected to tell them that great novels seldom remain great when they are strutted upon the stage, and vice versa. Particular manners of presentation are particular artistic problems, and particular artistic gifts are needed to solve these problems, and, if not, who are those who are both great novelists and great dramatists? And, more particular still, who among dramatists wrote both great comedies and great tragedies, although tragedy is only drama that moves certain emotions in us? Yet these two dramatic arts are so distinctive that Shakespeare is the single answer to the question of what dramatist eminently possessed both the tragic power and the power of moving to laughter. Even more specialized, personal, and unique are the problems to be focused on in this study—what confronted Shakespeare and Lear, who stood outside when a storm arose and a daughter ordered a door shut. Mind you, before this particular moment Lear had been a successful king and Shakespeare had written great tragedies, but neither had ventured far into madness.

This was a lonely moment in art; yet the moment that is the poet’s moment is not his alone, and his problems that seem highly unique would not even occur if he were not concerned, however secretly and for whatever reasons, in loading each particular vein with what can generally be recognized as ore. It is true that he would have no poetic problems at all if each particular moment of art did not have to enter the general world of art, for unattended self-expression is another occupation, altogether lonely.

We propose to follow Lear and Shakespeare across the heath to the fields of Dover on what for both was a unique experience, and then to be even more particular, considering the individual scenes leading to this meeting of Lear and Gloucester when in opposite senses neither could see. And, for smaller particulars, we shall consider an incident from one of these scenes, a speech from this incident, and, finally, a single word. In this declension of particulars, our problems will be some of those that were Shakespeare’s because he was attending Lear and at the same time was on his way toward a consummation in the art of tragic writing.

At the end of Act II night has come, an external storm threatens, and an external door is shut; in Act IV, scene 6, Lear, “fantastically dressed with weeds,” meets Gloucester and Edgar upon the tranquil fields of Dover, the tempest now a tempest of the mind and at its worst. To view this large expanse of suffering as a single dramatic unit is also to see that, in the form of organic life called a poem, “parts” are “parts” and in certain senses “wholes.” By the end of Act II the major external causes of Lear’s madness have occurred; by Act IV, scene 6, they have brought Lear to “the sulphurous pit” and unrestrained madness, from which, even in the next scene, he is somewhat “restored.” For a variety of reasons we shall state the unity of this dramatic episode in terms of a change that it brings about in Lear’s thoughts and beliefs concerning man, the universe, and the gods, a change in thought that is both a cause and a projection of his madness.

Prior to this episode (and presumably always before it), Lear believed in a universe controlled by divine authority, harmoniously ordered and subordinated in its parts, a harmony reflected in the affairs of men by the presence of political and legal institutions, and social and family bonds. Men were the most divinely empowered of divine creations, and the special power of kings was a sign of their special divinity. At the end of this episode (Act IV, scene 6), the world that Lear tells Gloucester he should be able to see even without eyes is one in which man is leveled to a beast and then raised to the most fearful of his kind: the source of man’s power, as with the beast’s, is sex and self, but above the girdle which the gods inherit is the special gift of reason; only it is a kind of sadistic ingenuity by which man sanctifies his own sins—the universally inevitable sins of sex and self—by declaring them anathema for others (“Thou rascal beadle, hold thy bloody hand! / Why dost thou lash that whore? Strip thine own back”). Therefore, as king, Lear dismisses the phantom of the adulterer arraigned before him, because, all offending, “none does offend, none—I say none!”

The moment we imagine Shakespeare’s pen in our hand and Act III unwritten, we begin to sense the immensity of the problem that arises merely from the first general requirement of all good writing, intelligibility. For the problem is to make clear that the mind of Lear progressively loses its clarity and comes at last to a moment everyone will recognize as “the worst” and be willing to take as “madness.” Analogically, what is needed are recognizable circles of the inferno descending to the pit and ways of knowing when the pit has been reached. To present a character becoming more and more disintegrated emotionally, therefore, is fundamental but not enough, since emotions under pressure lack outline and precision, with the result that the best of lyric poets know their task is to find “objective correlatives” for what otherwise would remain in prison or confusion. In the next section, dealing with the scenes leading to Lear’s madness, we shall see how Shakespeare uses actions, which are more discernible than emotions, to mark the descent into the pit; here we are concerned with the fact that Shakespeare added “thought” to action and emotion, and “thought” in many ways is more precise than either of the other two. In solving this problem of intelligibility, then, Shakespeare was “abundant,” utilizing the maximum of means, and one way we have of knowing at what circle Lear is stationed for the moment is to learn what Lear for the moment believes is the nature of men, beasts, and gods.

When intelligibility was first discussed, it was expanded to include the concepts of “order” and “completeness.” Order, being a matter involving all the parts, is a matter for later consideration, but we may already observe that the change in Lear’s thought during this large episode is a complete change. Lear does not have merely different thoughts about the nature of the universe and of those who crawl upon it; the beliefs he has about the universe at the end of Act II are philosophically opposite to those he expresses upon the fields of Dover, and a complete change is one that goes as far as it can. Thus, because the change in Lear’s thought is so bitterly complete, we recognize the pit when Lear has reached it. Shakespeare also took care that we should know where Lear started. Lear’s last speech in Act II is the first one he gives in which thought of a general nature is directly expressed; it is appropriate to his character and the accumulated situation that at this moment he should say man is not man without some gorgeous possessions not needed to keep his body warm, and the speech is also a location point before the heath by means of which we can more easily see what a falling-off there was.

Ultimately, however, it is only of secondary importance that Lear’s thoughts clarify our understanding; they lack the power of poetry if they are not moving. Let us begin less intensely, and therefore with the second requirement of all good writing, to be interesting, for, if we are not interested, we surely will not go farther and be moved. Until his last speech in Act II, Lear’s thoughts have all been particular and have been concentrated upon the indivdual natures of his daughters and their husbands. This is appropriate to the circumstances and Lear’s character, which is driven rather than given to philosophical speculation; yet, partly as a result, Lear is a character, even by the end of Act II, with whom we have only slight bonds of identification; he is an old man over eighty years, who, so late as this, is in the process of discovering that two of his daughters are nonhuman and that the one who could say “nothing” was alone worthy of all his love. In contrast to Hamlet and Othello , King Lear is a tragedy in the course of which the protagonist becomes worthy of being a tragic hero, and one dimension that Lear takes on is the power of thought. Moreover, his thoughts upon the heath and upon the fields of Dover are of universal significance and therefore “interest” us, for the question of whether the universe is something like what Lear hoped it was or very close to what he feared it was, is still, tragically, the current question.

Earlier we said that material of general, human interest could be handled by an artist in such a way as to take on an added interest—the interest of the unexpected or surprising. It is surprising in life or in literature for a serious man to reverse his philosophical beliefs about the common human problems, but Lear’s change in thought is dramatically as well as philosophically unexpected, for the beliefs that have become the protagonist’s by Act IV, scene 6, are his antagonists’—Goneril’s, Regan’s, and Edmund’s—who also hold that sex and self are the sole laws of life. Lear has indeed “veered around to the opposite”; it is as if the tortured came to have the same opinion of the rack as the inquisitors.

There is, finally, the contribution that this change makes to the special emotional effects produced by tragedy. Now the tragic writer is also upon the rack, pulled always two different ways, for the deep emotions he stirs he also alleviates. A certain alleviation of fear and pity is necessary to make the emotional effect of tragedy one that we are consumed rather than repelled by; and proper tragic alleviation excludes any supposed consolation that might come from the avoidance of disastrous consequences after we have been asked to suffer emotions such as are aroused by clear premonition of disaster.

By the time that we and Edgar are confronted with the “side-piercing sight ” upon the field of Dover, the grounds are many for fearing that Lear and all that is admirable are condemned by some hopelessly formidable perversity of power ultimately beyond challenge. Othello’s fate was his own—at least many of us could have escaped it; but Lear’s tragedy comes to a point where it threatens what we should wish to be with inevitable inclusion. As a very minimum, we know suffering such as the sufferer can account for only by believing the worst that can be thought of everything, including himself. The minimum, therefore, has some kind of maximum of fear and pity—we are almost certain that such suffering will leave him without the power to better his fortune and without the mental resources needed to gain a clear picture of what is the truth, if this is not it. And, indeed, in the end Lear is deprived of Othello’s modicum of consolation—that of seeing the situation as it was—for he is not even permitted to believe that he and Cordelia can be God’s spies (pitiful, imprisoned spectators of a conspiratorial universe), since in the same scene the role of a nonparticipant in the universe proves to be nonexistent, Cordelia is murdered, and the mind and body of Lear are asked to suffer no further vexation.

We perhaps do not think sufficiently of the other task of the poet who makes intense emotions—the task of constantly taking away something from them lest they become intolerable or change to some other emotions not intended or desirable, just as the unrestrained grief of Laertes at the grave of Ophelia produced contempt and indignation and not compassion in the heart of Hamlet. Our fear and pity for Lear are both magnified and mitigated. These terrifying thoughts are held by him when he is mad, and their validity is further denied by all those in the play who are intelligent, loving, and somewhat disengaged—their complete validity is called into question by even the existence of people such as Kent, Edgar, and Albany. In addition, the action is arranged from beginning to end (that is, from the beginning of Act III to Act IV,scene 6) in such ways that fear does not become horror, or pity some kind of excruciating anguish. In the first scene in Act III, before we see Lear on the heath we are given subdued assurance that friends are organizing to rescue him and the kingdom. This scene can be criticized for its execution, because it is a scene merely of talk between Kent and a Gentleman, whose talk is obviously directed to us as much as to themselves, but the intention to save us from horror is right. Moreover, throughout the scenes leading to Lear’s madness there are continuing preparations to remove him to Cordelia, and, oppositely, the intervening actions of the antagonists do not make their complete success probable, for Cornwall is killed, Albany becomes disillusioned, and jealousy turns Goneril and Regan upon themselves. And, finally, although scene 6 is constructed to magnify our fear and pity by confronting us with both Gloucester and Lear and their combined anguish, it is also designed to alleviate our suffering and serves as a superlative example of the paradoxical task of the tragic artist. The thoughts to be expressed by Lear upon the fields were Gloucester’s as he approached the cliffs of Dover (“As flies to wanton boys are we to th’ gods. / They kill us for their sport”), but Gloucester has been purged of these thoughts just prior to Lear’s expression of them, and, since Lear and Gloucester have been made parallel in so many ways, one might assume that Shakespeare had constructed this scene to assure the beholder that the beliefs he is about to hear from Lear are not the final beliefs of either. We must recognize, however, that a certain number of critics read King Lear in such a way that Gloucester’s lines are taken as a condensation of Gloucester’s and Lear’s and Shakespeare’s ultimate “philosophy,” although this seems to me to be an interpretation of another book, possibly one written by Hardy. Surely, though, by the end of the scene, if our feelings and the creator do not deceive us, the world is such as to make a man a man of salt—but for purposes more magnificent than the laying of autumn’s dust.

So far our view of King Lear has been both panoramic and confined. In looking upon the large expanse of lines from the end of Act II to Act IV, scene 6, we have confined ourselves to the reversal in Lear’s thoughts and feelings that occurs therein and makes it a single, though large, tragic episode. Lear and Shakespeare had conceptions of the tragic that mark them as men who saw “feelingly,” but, as a dramatist, Shakespeare had his own set of dismaying problems—the dramatic problems of objectifying tragic thoughts and feelings into commensurate actions and then of dividing and arranging these actions into parts which would be themselves little tragedies and yet stations on the way to some more ultimate suffering. In making these problems ours, we become more particular and yet, in certain ways, closer to the general qualities of great writing which, in order to have a name, must also have a local habitation.

Many a tragic drama has itself met a tragic ending for lack of drama, and the odds increase that this will be the case when the tragedy in some central way involves internal changes, changes in thoughts and states of mind. Byron, too, wished to depict a soul in torment, and he produced Manfred , but, despite the subtitle, “A Dramatic Poem,” it is largely a series of soliloquies addressed to the Alps in inclement weather. Drama is movement, and, in the four scenes depicting the increasing tempest in Lear’s mind, the stage is also in flux—the actors on it move naturally and interestingly, and other characters enter mysteriously and leave on secret missions. Moreover, these actions are designed not merely to keep the stage from becoming static while everything else is dynamic; they are in a higher sense dramatic actions, actions involving an agon, “objective correlatives” to the conflict in Lear’s mind. Lear challenges the storm; he arraigns his daughters before a justice so perverted that it is represented by the Fool and Edgar disguised as a madman; he imagines impotently that he is raising an avenging army and is distracted by a mouse; and he assumes he is judging a culprit guilty of adultery and finds no sin because he finds the sin universal. Such are the inventions of a dramatic poet, and by them he makes the passage of Lear’s tortured soul intelligible, probable, and tragically moving. Scholars are still in search of the exact meaning of certain speeches in each of Shakespeare’s great tragedies—and we should like to assume that those who saw these plays for the first time did not have perfect understanding of all of the lines—but so great was Shakespeare’s power to conceive of action from which thought and feeling can be readily inferred that all of us know Lear, Hamlet, and Macbeth more intimately than we know many men whose remarks we understand perfectly.

Yet a master of tragic drama would also sense that, in scenes depicting a great change in thought and state of mind, action should be kept to a certain minimum, lest too much outer clangor obscure the inner vibrations and tragedy pass over into melodrama. He would sense, too, that language suggesting madness, if sufficiently understood, would put tremendous demands upon our powers of concentration. Three scenes lead to the madness of Lear and are alternated with three leading to the blinding of Gloucester. Unlike the “internal” Lear scenes, the other three are action cut to the bone; and unlike the clogged language of Lear, the Fool, and Poor Tom, the speech of the conspiracy is lean, bare, and cruel. Removing us momentarily from Lear, these scenes relieve both our understandings and our feelings, but tragic “relief” quickly becomes tragic illusion, when the master-touch is upon it. We turn our eyes away from an old man seeking in suffering to discover the final cause of suffering, only to have it dawn on us that we have turned to a horrible replica of the action that was the immediate cause of this suffering, another old man tortured by his offspring and by Lear’s as well. Suffering, then, as it works out its lonely and final course upon the heath, is combined with action such as initiated it. Moreover, in another way the two tragedies are one—Gloucester’s attempts to rescue Lear from his suffering are the immediate cause of bringing on his own. Thus the interplay of these two tragedies gives to both more than either singly possesses of intelligibility, suspense, probability, and tragic concern.

But, although Gloucester’s tragedy is also Lear’s, our concentration is upon those scenes in which Lear goes mad and which collectively make intelligible the scene upon the fields of Dover, where his madness is complete. It is not enough, therefore, that action in these scenes is kept at a certain minimum and within this guarded minimum is maximal, or that the action also is dramatic, involving conflict. It has also to be action everywhere suggesting “madness,” and, secondly, it has to be arranged in such a way as to lead Lear to “madness.” Let us consider first the materials and then the order out of which such disorder is made.

Certainly, Shakespeare’s choice was right in introducing no totally new material in these scenes that center in the depth of Lear’s mind; they are made out of materials already in the play—Lear’s Fool, Edgar who previously had decided to disguise himself as a madman, and the storm. Distraction that is great and is not the general confusion of a battle but centered and ultimately internal is rightly made out of a certain minimum of material that can be assimilated and out of material already somewhat assimilated. Moreover, such a reduction of material not only helps our understanding at a moment in literature when it stands most in need of help; actually, art attains the maximum of unexpectedness out of restricted sources (as a good mystery story limits the number of possible murderers) and out of material already introduced and about which we have expectations (as the best mystery stories are not solved by material that has been kept from us by the detective and the writer until the end). While on the heath, Lear might have been attacked by a gang of robbers and, in culminating suffering, have thought this some symbolic act, signifying that all men are beasts of prey; surely, it is much more surprising that it is the legitimate son of Gloucester, counterpart of Cordelia, who makes him think this.

Out of a proper economy of material, then, a maximum of madness is made, and everyone who has read King Lear has sensed that the heath scenes are composed of complex variations upon the theme of madness—a noble man going mad, accompanied by a character professionally not “normal,” meeting a character whose life depends upon his appearing mad, amid a storm such as makes everyone believe that the universe and even the gods are not stable. We add that Kent, too, is present in these scenes and that a point constantly calm is useful in the art of making madness.

The musical analogy of a theme with variations must be used only up to a certain point and then dropped lest it stop us, as it has stopped some others, from going farther and seeing that these scenes are a part of a great poem and that in this part a noble man goes mad, which is something more than orchestration, although orchestration has its purposes. Ultimately, we are confronted with a poetical event; and the storm, the Fool, and Poor Tom are not only variations on madness but happenings on the way which collectively constitute the event. That is, the setting and two characters, all previously somewhat external to Lear, successively become objects of his thought, and then become himself transubstantiated. The storm becomes the tempest in his mind; the Fool becomes all wretches who can feel, of whom Lear is one, although before he had not recognized any such wide identity; and then a worse wretch appears, seemingly mad, protected against the universe by a blanket, scarred by his own wounds, and concentrating upon his own vermin. He is “the thing itself,” a “forked animal,” with whom Lear identifies his own substance by tearing off his clothes, which are now misleading. We know Lear, then, by Lear’s other substances, which are dramatically visible.

There is another substance present with Lear, for the madness that comes upon him is more terrible than the madness that translates everything into the ego; in the mind of Lear, when his madness is complete, all substances—the universe, man, and Lear himself—have been translated into the substance of his daughters, and perhaps something like this is what is technically meant by a “fixation.” Although actually never appearing, Lear’s daughters are the central characters in the inverted and internal pilgrim’s progress that occurs upon the heath, and ultimately we know the stage of Lear’s progress by his daughters’ presence. In the first appearance of Lear upon the heath (Act III, scene 2) the daughters are already identified with the storm and the underlying powers of the universe, and Lear dares to defy them and to confront the universe, even though he now sees what he began to see at the end of Act II, that the ultimate powers may be not moral but in alliance with his daughters. Either possibility, however, he can face with defiance: in his first great speech to the storm, he calls upon it, as he had called upon the universe before, to act as a moral agent to exterminate even the molds of ingratitude; his second speech is one of moral out rage (“O! O! ’tis foul!”) against universal forces that may have joined “two pernicious daughters” in a conspiracy against his head. In the beginning of his next scene (scene 4), he has still the power of defiance, but it is only the storm as a storm that he can confront; he knows that he no longer dares to think of his daughters, for “that way madness lies.” Almost at that moment Poor Tom emerges from the hovel, and with him in Lear’s mind another substance (“Hast thou given all to thy two daughters, and art thou come to this?”). The shattering of the resolution not to think on this substance leads Lear down the predicted way, and first to a complete identification with a mad beggar; then his mind, rapidly disintegrating, leaves equality behind and, in deferential hallucination, transforms the mad beggar into a philosopher of whom he asks the ancient philosophical question, “What is the cause of thunder?” At the end of this scene, then, Lear’s thoughts return to the storm, but it is no longer a storm that he might possibly endure. By many signs Lear’s final scene in Act III is the final scene on Lear’s way to madness. Poor Tom places Lear’s mind in the underworld with his opening speech : “Frateretto calls me, and tells me Nero is an angler in the lake of darkness. Pray, innocent, and beware the foul fiend.” With this speech, Lear’s thoughts literally enter the pit, and here he finds the forbidden women. What he knew at the opening of the earlier scene that he must avoid now becomes his total occupation, and the mind now revels in what the mind once knew it could not endure. Elaborately and in elation Lear arraigns his daughters upon the shores of the lake of darkness, 3 and, just before drawing the curtain, he asks the final philosophical question, “Is there any cause in nature that makes these hard hearts?”

It is later, properly much later, when we see Lear again, since by then he has found in madness an answer to the questions that led him there. Then, looming upon his mind, is a universe the basic substance of which is female:

Down from the waist they are Centaurs, Though women all above. But to the girdle do the gods inherit, Beneath is all the fiend’s [Act IV, scene 6, II. 126-29]. 4

In the opening of this section we promised to say something about these scenes as being tragic wholes as well as parts of a fearful and pitiful event, and already a good deal has been said indirectly about their separate natures. But their natures are not only separate; they are tragic, each one arousing and then to a degree purging the emotions of fear and pity. In the first of these scenes, our immediate fear and pity for Lear as we see him trying to outface the elements are intensified by his second address to the storm in which he realizes that the universe may be allied with his daughters “‘gainst a head / So old and white as this!” But, shortly, Kent enters, and that makes things somewhat better; then Lear has an insight into the nature of his own sins, and although his sins are pitifully small by comparison, still self-awareness of sin is a good no matter the degree or the consequences—and it is a good to Lear, purging his feelings so that at the end of this little tragedy he turns to the Fool in new tenderness and in a new role, for the first time considering someone else’s feelings before his own (“How dost, my boy? Art cold? / I am cold myself”). And such, in a general way, is the emotional movement of the other two scenes in which Lear appears in Act III—they begin with Lear alarmingly agitated; the agitation mounts (with the appearance of Poor Tom or with the prospect of arraigning his daughters in hell); but in the enactment of the enormous moment he (and we) get some kind of emotional release for which undoubtedly there is some clinical term, not, however, known to me or to the Elizabethans or to most people who have felt that at the end of each of these scenes both they and Lear have been given mercifully an instant not untouched with serenity on the progress to chaos. “Draw the curtains. So, so, so.”

There are many tragedies of considerable magnitude the effects of which, however, are almost solely macrocosmic. The greatest of tragic writers built his macrocosms out of tragedy upon tragedy upon tragedy.

The third time that we shall consider Lear upon the heath will be the last, for the full art of tragedy has three dimensions, like anything with depth. The tragedy with depth is compounded out of a profound conception of what is tragic and out of action tragically bent, with characters commensurate to the concept and the act—and, finally, it is composed out of writing. The maximal statement of an art always makes it easier to see how many lesser artists there are and why; and thus the author of The American Tragedy could not write—a failing not uncommon among authors—and the author of Manfred , although a very great writer in many ways, was so concentrated upon his personal difficulties that he could form no clear and large conception of the tragic, and his tragic action is almost no action at all.

In addition to the remaining problem of writing, one of the general criteria introduced early in this essay has not yet been dealt with directly—vividness, or the powers and devices that make a literary moment “come to life.” For a consideration of both, we need units smaller even than scenes, and so we turn to what may be regarded as a small “incident” in one of the scenes and, finally, to a speech from this incident and a single word from the speech. It is easy to understand why the moments of a drama usually singled out for discussion are those that are obviously important and splendid with a kind of splendor that gives them an existence separate from their dramatic context, like passages of Longinian sublimity; but this study is so committed to the tragic drama that it will forego the sublime—although few dramas offer more examples of it and concentrate, instead, upon an incident and a speech, the importance and splendor of which appear largely as one sees a tragic drama unfold about them.

On a technical level, this incident is a unit because it is a piece of dramatic business—in these lines, Shakespeare is engaged in the business of introducing a character:

KENT: Good my lord, enter here. LEAR: Prithee go in thyself; seek thine own ease. This tempest will not give me leave to ponder On things would hurt me more. But I’ll go in. [ To the Fool ] In, boy; go first.—You houseless poverty— Nay, get thee in. I’ll pray, and then I’ll sleep. Exit [ Fool ] Poor naked wretches, wheresoe’er you are, That bide the pelting of this pitiless storm, How shall your houseless heads and unfed sides, Your loop’d and window’d raggedness, defend you From seasons such as these? O, I have ta’en Too little care of this! Take physic, pomp; Expose thyself to feel what wretches feel, That thou mayst shake the superflux to them And show the heavens more just. EDG.:[ within ] Fathom and half, fathom and half! Poor Tom! Enter Fool [ from the hovel ] FOOL: Come not in here, nuncle, here’s a spirit. Help me, help me! KENT: Give me thy hand. Who’s there? FOOL: A spirit, a spirit! He says his name’s poor Tom. KENT:What art thou that dost grumble there i’ th’ straw? Come forth. Enter Edgar [ disguised as a madman ] EDG.: Away! the foul fiend follows me! Through the sharp hawthorn blows the cold wind. Humh! go to thy cold bed, and warm thee. LEAR: Hast thou given all to thy two daughters, and art thou come to this? EDG.: Who gives anything to poor Tom? whom the foul fiend hath led through fire and through flame, through ford and whirlpool, o’er bog and quagmire; that hath laid knives under his pillow and halters in his pew, set ratsbane by his porridge, made him proud of heart, to ride on a bay trotting horse over four-inch’d bridges, to curse his own shadow for a traitor. Bless thy five wits! Tom’s acold. O, do de, do de, do de. Bless thee from whirlwinds, star-blasting, and taking! Do poor Tom some charity, whom the foul fiend vexes. There could I have him now—and there—and there again and there! [ Storm still (Act III, scene 4, ll. 22-64)].

Now, the business of introducing a character can be transacted quickly in brackets—[ Enter Edgar, disguised as a madman ]—and when the character is some straggler in the play or not so much a character as some expository information, like a messenger, then the introduction properly can be cursory. But in the drama of Lear’s madness, Poor Tom becomes “the thing itself,” and the mere size of his introduction is a preparation for his importance. And artistic size, as we said earlier, has qualitative as well as quantitative aspects.

From the time Poor Tom first speaks until the end of this passage, his name is given five times, and it is given the first time he speaks. Yet a complete introduction does more than fasten on a name, especially if the person is distinctive and we should be warned about him. Three times before Poor Tom appears, he is said to be a “spirit,” and after he appears he says three times that “the foul fiend” is pursuing him, so that, leaving out for the moment his confirmatory actions and speeches, we surely ought to be forewarned by his introduction that he is “mad.” It is not always needful to be so elaborate and repetitive, even when introducing a character of importance, but when, in addition, the moment of introduction is tense emotionally and the character is abnormal, we are grateful, even in life, to have the name repeated. Or, if confirmation is sought from literature, we may turn to the opening of the first scene of Hamlet and note how many times in the excitement the names of Bernardo, Marcellus, and Horatio are called back and forth and how often the ghost is referred to before he appears. This introduction, then, has one of the qualities of all good writing, intelligibility, and in circumstances not favorable to understanding.

Moreover, this is an introduction achieving a maximum of unexpectedness and suspense, effects desirable in themselves as well as qualitative signs that the character being introduced is dramatically important. The king is about to escape from the storm into the hovel, but, before doing so, he turns to the heavens with a prayer in behalf of all “poor naked wretches.” Nor from above but from within the hovel a supernatural voice cries out, “Fathom and half!” If a lesser pen had turned Poor Tom loose upon the stage at this moment with no further identification, we would have been dismayed, and, furthermore, the suspense latent in the unexpected would not have been realized. When he does come forth, we have identified and awaited him, but unexpectedly and in consternation Lear identifies him—identifies him as himself. Then, surely, it is unexpected that the alter Lear goes into the singsong of a mad beggar whining for a handout.

As merely unexpected, the entry of Poor Tom is a diversion and serves a purpose: that of momentarily affording us much needed relief. The art of tragic relief is itself worth a study, although all its highest manifestations are governed by two conjoined principles—the moment of relief should be psychologically needed, but the moment of relief should be a momentary illusion which as it is dispelled, only deepens the tragedy. Mere unexpectedness thus becomes consummate unexpectedness, with what seems to be a turning from tragedy an entry into darker recesses; and the entry of Poor Tom, viewed first as a piece of technical business, is the appearance of greater tragedy. Lear’s prayer, among its many dramatic reasons for being, is preparation for the appearance of something worse. The audience, after it becomes confident in its author quietly assumes that, when something big is said and something big immediately follows, there is a connection between the two, although not too obvious as Shakespeare himself said earlier in King Lear , the entry should not be so pat as “the catastrophe of the old comedy” (Act I, scene 2, 11. 145-47). The prayer comes out of suffering which has identified Lear with the Fool and with a whole class whose feelings before were unknown to Lear, “poor naked wretches, wheresoe’er you are.” And “wheresoe’er” might unexpectedly be within the hovel at hand, which was to be a refuge from suffering, and the wretch who emerges, poorer and more naked than the Fool, might be fraught with greater suffering. “Fathom and half, fathom and half!” he has called from within, and this is certainly a mysterious cry and, in the circumstances, not a rational utterance, but it is also a sounding of depth. Of the two tragic emotions, it is fear that is aroused by this cry, and it is fear that sends the Fool running out of the hovel, and it is at least in alarm, a diminutive of fear, that Kent commands the “spirit” to come forth. Then Lear’s tragic complement appears, and almost in the next moment the pity aroused by the sight of unprotected madness is transposed to the object about which all pity should be centered in a tragedy—the tragic protagonist, who in startled compassion asks the new thing if the two of them are not identical in substance. Poor Tom’s answer to the tragic question on the surface and at first seems no answer at all, but what nevertheless might be expected of a mad beggar, a routine whine for alms, a routine that one of the most ancient professions has invariably divided into two parts—first a self-commiserating account of the beggar’s own suffering and then a prayer that the possible giver be spared any such suffering, the prayer being, as it were, anticipatory repayment which, by implication, can be taken back and changed to a curse. Surely, the art of panhandling here comes to life, and literary moments that come to life have been called “vivid.” But it is Shakespeare’s art, referred to by so many as “abundant,” to make two moments come to life in one, and, from a mad beggar’s routine emerges an answer to Lear’s question and hence a moment filled with tragedy and latent with tragedy to come. As Poor Tom’s account of himself proceeds, it becomes apparent, although not to Edgar, that he is describing Lear and his own father. At first the multiple identification is scarcely noticeable, since it depends only upon similarity in immediate and outer circumstances—others besides Poor Tom are led through fire and flood. Then the similarity becomes both more inclusive and deeper as tragic flaws and tragic courses of action become parallel—Lear and Gloucester, in pride of heart, are also trotting over four-inched bridges and coursing their own shadows for traitors. And, since the prayer for the possible almsgivers that immediately follows (“Bless thy five wits! … Bless thee from whirlwinds, star-blasting, and taking!”) approaches the tragic ultimate in vain request, perhaps enough has been said about the introduction of “such a fellow” as was to make both his father and Lear think “a man a worm.”

Given the confines of this paper, the speech to be considered must be short, for the focus finally is upon the smallest unit of drama, a speech, and the smallest unit of speech, a single word. Moreover, given our other commitments, the speech should also be in essence dramatic and tragic. Let us take, then, the speech in which Lear first recognizes his identity with unprotected nakedness scarred with self-inflicted wounds:

Hast thou given all to thy two daughters, and art thou come to this? 5

This is not one of those speeches, somewhat detachable as sententious utterances or lyric poems from which are collected The Beauties of Shakespeare ; yet upon the heath it is one of the great moments. It is tragic drama contracted to its essences—fear and pity. The question is asked in consternation and commiseration; and it arouses in us, who are more aware of implications than Lear, fear and pity in some ways more enormous than his.

These two qualities of the speech—its shortness and its enormousness—at the outset may be considered as somewhat separate and paradoxical qualities. The speech is short not only in over-all measurement but in the individual words composing it, for all of them, with the exception of “given” and “daughters,” are monosyllables, and all of them are short qualitatively, being ordinary, colorless words. Of conceivable adjectives that could be attached to the daughters who had brought Lear to this place, none could be more simple, neutral, or needless seemingly than the number “two.” What, if anything, can be said of such a complete contraction of language? Well, as a simple beginning, it is easy to understand, and the moment demands understanding. Then, too, just as language, it is unexpected. In forty-odd lines called an “incident,” there are the “superflux” of prayer, the eerie cry of Poor Tom, the scurrying prose of the Fool and Kent, the singsong and shivering rhythms of Poor Tom that rise into an actual line of song—and then this, to be answered by a long beggar’s whine, colorful but seemingly confused, since the speaker, as announced, is from Bedlam. This is a great deal of dramatic dialogue for forty lines, and perhaps might be contrasted to certain modern schools of writers who have found the essence of drama and reality to be iteration and reiteration of monosyllables. But Shakespeare’s contractions are not exhaustions of his language, which was almost limitless in its resources. Ultimately, the kind of verbal contraction here being considered is right because the immediate moment of tragic impact is a contraction—abdominal, in the throat, in the mind impaled upon a point. The vast tragic speeches of Shakespeare are anticipations of impending tragedy or assimilations of the event after its impact, like scar tissue after the wound. Thus every appearance of the ghost in the first act of Hamlet, being awaited, is immediately preceded by a long, imaginatively unbounded speech; but, when the ghost reveals his tragedy, his son, who makes many long speeches, can only exclaim, “O my prophetic soul! / My uncle?” Othello enters Desdemona’s chamber with a culmination of tragic resolutions, and his opening speech (“It is the cause,” etc.) has the magnitude of his fears and his resolutions; but he has no speech, not always even complete sentences, with which to answer the prayers of Desdemona; and her last prayer, that she be allowed to pray, he answers with the ultimate words, “It is too late.” In Shakespeare, as in life, the instances are many that the enormous moment, precisely at its moment, contracts body, mind, and utterance.

From life, however, come only the suggestions for art’s patterns, not art’s final accomplishments. Specifically, life makes it right that Lear’s speech at this moment is not a “speech” ; yet art demands that no moment of such import call forth, as it often does in life, some truly little, inadequate response. It is the task of the artist to give the enormous its proper dimensions, even if, as in this instance, the illusion has to be preserved that only some little thing was said. Our task, therefore, is to look again at these few, short, ordinary words to see how they add up to what our feelings tell us is something very big. Here, as elsewhere, there can be but the suggestion of a complete analysis; and, in respect to words, the accomplished writer lifts this one and this one and this one and listens to both sound and significance.

Rhythmically and metrically, Lear has asked a tremendous question. Its return to iambic rhythm after seven lines of mad cries and scurrying conversation should in itself encourage the actor to add some dimension to its delivery, and metrically it is seven feet, for, although there is a pause after the fourth foot (“two daughers”), it is all inclosed within a question, and the second part (“and art thou come to this?”) mounts above the first. A seven-foot mounting question is a big question. Moreover, the fact that the words, with two exceptions, are monosyllables gives them collectively a pounding effect, especially when they are blocked by so many dentals, only three of the fourteen words being with out d, t, or th, and these (“given all” and “come”) stand out as it were by their phonetic displacement, two of them being the verbs and “all” being probably more important than either. The fourth foot (“two daughters”) has also properly been lengthened, “daughters” being terminal to the first half of the question and being, in addition, the largest word uttered. Rhythm, too, makes this foot speak out, for only a schoolboy would scan it as a foot with a feminine ending (“two daugh ters”), although no one seemingly can be sure how “daughters” was pronounced at this time, anyone ought to be sure that in this place the second syllable of “daughters” gets as much emphasis as the first and the whole foot is as long roughly as this scansion (“two daugh ters ”).

Grammatical mode of utterance brings us closer to significance. Some dimension, some significance, goes out of the speech if it is not a question but a declaration: “Thou gavest all to thy two daughters, and now art come to this.” Gone is some of the immediacy of the moment, too big at its occurrence to be believed and recorded as fact. To a degree, then, fear and pity are made out of grammar, and, if we say that each point so far discussed is a little matter and singly is no great accomplishment, then all we have said is that much of art is composed of little brush strokes and that this is especially true when what is being composed is “the seemingly simple.”

Yet there is one big word within this speech—the one right word, the one word that is not a touching-up of another word which could itself have remained with out the notice of aftertimes. The right word is also in the right place; it is the last word, “this.” Perhaps we are accustomed to thinking of the mot juste as a word giving a definite, irreplaceable image, and certainly the right word should be irreplaceable and in some sense definite; only there are moments so tremendous that their exact size is without any definite boundary. There are moments, moreover, which have a size that is unmentionable, moments which cannot, at least at the instant, be fully faced or exactly spoken of by those who must endure them. Poetry may make a perfection out of what would be an error in exposition, and moments such as these may set at naught the rule of composition teachers that “such,” “it,” and “this” should not be used with out a definite, grammatical antecedent. Likewise, what has been said about “this” has a relevance to “all” in the first part of the question that is for this moment the exact question:

Hast thou given all to thy two daughters, And art thou come to this?

There is always a test that should be made of such matters—can we, after searching, find something at least as good? The test does not always lead to humiliation, and always it should lead to some improvement of ourselves, but the most rigorous test of Shakespeare is Shakespeare himself. Marcellus’ first question to Bernardo, both of whom have twice seen the ghost, is the forced mention of the enormous and unmentionable: “What, has this thing appear’d again to-night?” The ghost of Hamlet’s father, as it is awaited, is “this thing,” “this dreaded sight,” “this apparition,” sometimes “it,” more often “’t,” but never the ghost of Hamlet’s father. In the first soliloquy Hamlet’s thoughts move past the canons of the Everlasting, past the general unprofitable uses of the world, until they come to the loathsome point focal to his whole universe: “ That it should come to this! / But two months dead! Nay, not so much, not two.” So a second time in Shakespeare we have “come to this.” And at the end Hamlet comes to his own tragic moment which he believes cannot be avoided: “If it be now, ’tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be now; if it be not now, yet it will come: the readiness is all.” In themselves, “it,” “to come,” “be,” “will,” and “all” are some of the smallest, least precise and colorful words in our language; but words are so important that from the least of them can be made the uttermost in meaning and emotion—the suffering of man triumphed over by some slight touch of serenity. “Let be.”

1. Wilfrid Perrett, The Story of King Lear from Geoffrey of Monmouth to Shakespeare (Berlin, 1904), pp. 9 ff.

2. “Lear’s madness has no place in the old story; it is Shakespeare’s own invention” (George Lyman Kittredge, The Complete Works of Shakespeare [Boston, 1936], p. 1196). According to Perrett, certain versions of the story contain suggestions of madness (op, cit., pp. 225-26), but the suggestions, as Perrett says, are remote and are limited to phrases (such as “crazed thoughts”) and, moreover, they are probably stereotypes not intended to suggest actual madness, just as we speak only in figurative cliché when we say, “He was mad with rage.”

3. In the Folio Lear’s arraignment of his daughters is omitted (II. 18-59 in Kittredge). The Folio also omits Edgar’s soliloquy concluding the scene. The Folio is far more accurate in editorial detail than the Quarto but is considerably shorter, most scholars surmising that it represcnts a version of the play that had been cut for acting purposes. As dramatic magnifications of states of mind and feelings already embodied in the play, both Lear’s arraignment of his daughters and Edgar’s soliloquy are made of material that is often cut if a cutting has to be made for stage purposes. Certainly, it is not difficult to understand the omission of the soliloquy, but the deletion of the trial upon the edge of hell removes from the scene at tremendous amount of its drama and tragedy.

4. All quotations from Shakespeare, unless otherwise specified, are from Kittredge’s The Complete Works of Shakespeare .

Copyright notice: ©1952 by The University of Chicago. All rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of U.S. copyright law, and it may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that this entire notice, including copyright information, is carried and provided that the University of Chicago Press is notified and no fee is charged for access. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the consent of the University of Chicago Press. Norman Maclean The Norman Maclean Reader Edited and with an Introduction by O. Alan Weltzien ©2008, 284 pages, 190 halftones Cloth $27.50 ISBN: 9780226500263 For information on purchasing the book—from bookstores or here online—please go to the webpage for The Norman Maclean Reader . See also: A website for Norman Maclean Our catalog of fiction titles Other excerpts and online essays from University of Chicago Press titles Sign up for e-mail notification of new books in this and other subjects Read the Chicago Blog

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Here is a more detailed look at what happens in each scene of King Lear, to help you look at the structure of the play and interrogate it. There were multiple different printed versions of King Lear and the differences between them are quite dramatic. Some scenes listed here may be different in the version you are using.

As you look at each act we’ve included some things to notice. These are important character developments, or key questions that an acting company might ask when they first go through the play together at the start of rehearsal. If you work through these as you go, they will help you to make sense of the play as well as starting to look at the text itself. It’s a good idea to have a copy of the play nearby!

Act 1 Scene 1

The play opens with the Earl of Kent and Earl of Gloucester talking about King Lear ’s plans for ‘the division of the kingdom’. Kent meets Gloucester’s illegitimate son Edmund and learns he is a year younger than Edgar , Gloucester’s ‘son by order of law’. The King and all his court arrive and King Lear announces his plan to ‘shake all cares and business from our state, / Conferring them on younger years’ and calls on his three daughters to express their love for him before he rewards them with a share of his kingdom. His two older daughters, Goneril and Regan , offer poetic speeches but his youngest and favourite daughter Cordelia refuses, declaring ‘I love your majesty / According to my bond, no more nor less’. Lear is angry and disowns Cordelia, giving her share of the kingdom to her sisters’ husbands to divide between them. Kent, out of loyalty to both Lear and Cordelia, speaks up to tell Lear he is wrong, but Lear does not listen and banishes Kent from the kingdom.

The King of France and the Duke of Burgundy, rivals to marry Cordelia, are brought in and Lear tells them that she is ‘new adopted to our hate / covered with our curse and strangered with our oath’. Hearing what has happened, Burgundy is no longer interested in marrying her but France declares ‘Thy dowerless daughter, King, thrown to my chance, / Is queen of us, of ours, and our fair France.’ After Lear and his court have left, Cordelia says goodbye to her sisters and leaves for France. Left alone, Goneril and Regan discuss their father’s ‘poor judgement’ and ‘unconstant starts’.

What do we Learn?

  • The Earl of Gloucester has two sons. Edgar is older and legitimate and Edmund is a year younger and is illegitimate.
  • King Lear gives up his political power and lands, with his sons-in-law ruling as regents, but he keeps the title of ‘king’.
  • Lear gives his older daughters Goneril and Regan half his kingdom each to rule with their husbands and surprises everyone by disinheriting and disowning his youngest daughter Cordelia.
  • The Earl of Kent is banished from the kingdom for publicly questioning Lear.

Act 1 Scene 2

Edmund speaks to the audience about his ‘bastardy’, asking ‘Wherefore should I / Stand in the plague of custom’. He resents the fact that he is treated differently to his brother and declares ‘Legitimate Edgar, I must have your land’. He has forged a letter from Edgar that he hopes will make his ‘invention thrive’. Gloucester arrives and believes that Edmund is trying to hide the letter from him. Gloucester insists on reading the letter and finds a plot suggesting that Edmund work with Edgar to get rid of their father and share his wealth. Edmund tells his father ‘It is his hand, my lord, but I hope his heart is not in the contents.’ This helps to convince Gloucester that Edgar is plotting against him and that ‘These late eclipses in the sun and moon portend no good to us’. When Gloucester has gone, Edmund makes fun of his father’s superstition, telling the audience ‘we make guilty of our disasters the sun, the moon, and the stars, as if we were villains by necessity.’

Edgar then arrives and Edmund tells him that their father is very angry with him. Edgar believes ‘Some villain hath done me wrong’. When he is gone, Edmund turns once more to the audience to laugh at his ‘credulous father, and a brother noble, / Whose nature is so far from doing harms / That he suspects none’.

  • Edmund believes he should have the same rights and inheritance as his legitimate and older half-brother Edgar.
  • Gloucester believes Edmund’s story that his older son Edgar is plotting against him.
  • Edgar believes that his father is angry with him and that his brother Edmund is trying to help him.

Act 1 Scene 3

  • As he announced he would, Lear and his hundred knights are staying with Goneril before moving on to stay with Regan.
  • Goneril is unhappy with her father’s behaviour and instructs her servants not to obey Lear’s orders.

Act 1 Scene 4

The Earl of Kent tells the audience that he has disguised himself in order to return and serve King Lear. He introduces himself to Lear as ‘A very honest-hearted fellow.’ Lear is impressed and tells him ‘Follow me, thou shalt serve me: if I like thee no worse after dinner.’ When Oswald does not behave as Lear expects him to, Kent helps Lear to punish Oswald and Lear thanks him. Lear’s Fool then arrives and offers Kent his coxcomb ‘for taking one’s part that’s out of favour’. Through his word play and songs, the Fool suggests that Lear has been a fool to give his kingdom away, saying ‘thou hast pared thy wit o’both sides and left nothing i’th’middle.’

Goneril enters and complains to Lear about his ‘all licensed fool’ and his ‘insolent retinue’ who do ‘hourly carp and quarrel, breaking forth / In rank and not-to-be endured riots.’ She asks him ‘a little to disquantify your train’. He grows angry and curses her, saying ‘Into her womb convey sterility’, and hopes that if she does have a child it teaches her ‘How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is / To have a thankless child.’ He sets off to stay with Regan, believing she will be ‘kind and comfortable’. When Lear has gone, Goneril calls Oswald and sends him with a letter to Regan.

  • Kent has defied his banishment to return in disguise and serve King Lear.
  • Goneril has insulted her father, telling him that she will not put up with his riotous knights in her household.
  • Lear has cursed his oldest daughter and set off with his followers to stay with Regan.

Act 1 Scene 5

  • Kent has been sent to tell Regan that Lear is on his way.
  • Lear is beginning to question his actions and his sanity.

Things to Notice in Act 1

Take note of how we are introduced to Lear’s family and Gloucester’s family. How do both men treat their children and what do we learn about the events leading up to the play? What has happened to each of their children and why? Make notes on the facts we discover about each character and the inferences you can make about them from suggestions in the text, looking at their actions in these early scenes.

Notice the ways in which Cordelia, Goneril and Regan each react to their father’s demands in Scene 1, looking at the claims they make in their speeches. Are you surprised by the way Goneril then treats her father in Scene 3? Does Lear deserve this treatment and are her demands/reactions unfair? Is there any truth in the claims the Fool makes in Scene 4 when he tells Lear his actions were foolish?

Note the loyalties of the characters around Lear. Both Kent and Cordelia are banished and sent away by Lear at the start of Act 1, even though they are arguably his most loyal followers. How does Kent react to his dismissal and why do you think this is?

Act 1 is important because it introduces us to all the characters - the two families of King Lear and the Earl of Gloucester. How would you describe the relationships in each of these families? What differences can you see between Lear’s three daughters, and between Gloucester’s two sons and which lines best suggest these differences?

Act 2 Scene 1

Edmund learns from a servant that Regan and Cornwall are on their way to Gloucester’s house and that there are rumours of ‘likely wars toward ’twixt the dukes of Cornwall and Albany .’ Edmund hopes Cornwall’s arrival will help his plans. He calls for his brother Edgar who has been in hiding and advises him to ‘fly this place’. He sees their father Gloucester approaching and tells Edgar ‘pardon me / In cunning I must draw my sword upon you’. As Edgar runs off, Edmund gives himself a wound to make his story about Edgar’s treachery more convincing. He then tells his father that Edgar tried to ‘Persuade me to the murder of your lordship’. Gloucester is convinced that Edgar is a ‘murderous caitiff’.

Regan and her husband arrive and sympathise with Gloucester over Edgar’s betrayal. Cornwall tells Edmund ‘For you, Edmund, / Whose virtue and obedience doth this instant / So much commend itself, you shall be ours’. Regan tells Gloucester they are visiting him for ‘needful counsel’ on dealing with the news received from her father and her sister.

  • Edmund has convinced his father, his brother and the Duke of Cornwall that he is trustworthy.
  • Regan and Cornwall have left their own home to stay at Gloucester’s house after receiving the news from Goneril and from Lear about their fall out.

Act 2 Scene 2

Oswald has arrived at Gloucester’s house and meets Kent, still disguised as ‘Caius’. Oswald does not recognise him as a follower of Lear and the two men argue. Kent hurls insults and draws his sword against Oswald for bringing ‘letters against the king’ and taking ‘vanity the puppet’s part against the royalty of her father’.

Regan, Cornwall, Gloucester and Edmund arrive and stop the fight but Kent refuses to back down saying ‘anger hath a privilege’. Cornwall calls for the stocks to punish Kent who appeals to Regan saying ‘Why, madam, if I were your father’s dog / You should not use me so’. Gloucester speaks up that ‘The king his master needs must take it ill’ but Regan and Cornwall are unconcerned. Left alone, Kent shows the audience a letter he has received from Cordelia ‘Who hath most fortunately been informed / Of my obscured course’.

Edgar tells the audience that he plans to disguise himself as a ‘Bedlam beggar’ called ‘Poor Tom’ and run away.

Lear then arrives and wakes up Kent who is still sleeping in the stocks. Lear is shocked at Kent’s treatment, complaining ’tis worse than murder / To do upon respect such violent outrage’. He is further outraged when Gloucester tells him that Regan and Cornwall will not see him. They finally appear and Lear complains to Regan that Goneril ‘hath tied / Sharp-toothed unkindness, like a vulture, here’. Regan tells her father to return to Goneril and ‘Say you have wronged her’. When Goneril herself arrives, Regan takes her hand and together they tell Lear they will look after him in their homes, but not his knights. Goneril asks ‘What need you five-and-twenty, ten, or five, / To follow in a house where twice so many / Have a command to tend you?’ Lear calls his daughters ‘unnatural hags’ and walks away from the castle as a storm is brewing.

  • Lear has followed Regan to Gloucester’s house after leaving Goneril.
  • Lear expects Regan to be sympathetic to his complaints about Goneril.
  • Regan and Goneril are united against allowing their father to continue with the conditions he set up for them to inherit the kingdom.

Things to Notice in Act 2

Notice the importance of letters in this play. Track who sends letters to whom as you work through the play, noting what the letters are about. How important are the letters and the messengers who carry them?

Look closely at Scene 2, where Goneril’s trusted messenger Oswald and Lear’s trusted messenger ‘Caius’ (Kent) come into conflict. What impression do you get of each of these men and what is important to them? Which lines help you to form your impression?

In Act 2, we see the development of the main plot and the sub-plot - Goneril and Regan unite together against their father and Edmund successfully turns his father against his half-brother Edgar. How would you describe the similarities and differences between these two plots? Why do you think Shakespeare might have included both storylines? What connects Gloucester and Lear?

Act 3 Scene 1

  • Lear is alone on the heath in the middle of a storm with only the Fool for company.
  • Kent has told the gentleman that Cordelia is receiving news in France from spies about her sisters and events in Britain.

Act 3 Scene 2

  • Except for the Fool, Lear’s followers all let him walk out into the storm.
  • Kent has persuaded Lear to follow him to shelter.

Act 3 Scene 3

  • Regan and Cornwall have taken over Gloucester’s house and forbidden him from helping Lear.
  • Gloucester has told Edmund he has letters about French troops landing in England and that he will help the king despite the threat to his life.
  • Edmund plans to sabotage any plan Gloucester has to help the king and the French army who are on their way.

Act 3 Scene 4

  • Lear begins to consider how the poor subjects in his kingdom might feel, not having the luxuries of life that he has had.
  • Edgar has taken on the life of a ‘Bedlam beggar’ as he said he would.
  • Lear has agreed to trust Gloucester and go with him to a place of safety.

Act 3 Scene 5

  • Edmund has betrayed his father’s confidence by stealing his letters from France and showing them to Cornwall.
  • Cornwall has declared Gloucester a traitor for conspiring with France and not telling Regan or Goneril of their plans.

Act 3 Scene 6

  • Lear has become exhausted and confused.
  • Kent and Gloucester remain loyal to their king and help him despite the threats to their own lives.
  • Lear’s life is in danger if he does not go immediately to join Cordelia and the French forces at Dover.

Act 3 Scene 7

Regan and Goneril are angry to hear of Gloucester’s betrayal, Regan says ‘Hang him instantly’ and Goneril adds ‘Pluck out his eyes.’ Oswald arrives with news that Lear and ‘Some five- or six-and-thirty of his knights’ have gone toward Dover, where they boast / To have well-arme`d friends.’ Goneril sets off back to her house, accompanied by Edmund, while Cornwall sends servants to bring in ‘the traitor Gloucester’.

Gloucester is brought in and protests ‘Good my friends, consider you are my guests / Do me no foul play, friends’ but he is tied to a chair and interrogated. He tells Regan he has sent Lear to Dover ‘because I would not see thy cruel nails / Pluck out his poor old eyes’. In response, Cornwall gouges out one of Gloucester’s eyes but before he can take out the other eye a servant calls ‘Hold your hand, my lord’. Cornwall fights with the servant and kills him then returns to pluck out Gloucester’s remaining eye, saying ‘Out vile jelly’. Gloucester calls out for Edmund but Regan tells him it was Edmund ‘That made the overture of thy treasons to us’.

Gloucester finally realises he has trusted the wrong son. Cornwall has been hurt in the fight with his servant. Regan orders the remaining servants to ‘Go thrust him out at gates, and let him smell / His way to Dover’ and then helps her bleeding husband.

  • Goneril, accompanied by Edmund, has gone back to her husband Albany to organise their armies against the French invasion.
  • Cornwall, encouraged by Regan, has gouged out both of Gloucester’s eyes as punishment for his treason.
  • One of Cornwall’s servants tried to stop Cornwall hurting Gloucester. Cornwall has killed the servant but is mortally injured himself.

Things to Notice in Act 3

Notice the role of letters, messages, secrets and rumours in this play. Does what the audience knows for sure shift between the beginning and end of Act 3? What about each of the characters? How does this compare to Act 2 and how has it changed?

Notice how news of invading forces from France is built up through this act. Consider how the international conflict between France and Britain might affect an audience’s understanding of the domestic story of Lear’s dysfunctional family.

Notice Lear’s journey into ‘madness’ in this act. Explore his language at the beginning of Act 3 and the end and what this suggests about his mental state.

In Act 3, the main plot and the sub plot link together – the action all moves to Gloucester’s house by the end of the act and Edmund’s betrayal is revealed. Both Lear and Gloucester go through terrible physical and mental pain as they realise they have put their trust in the wrong children. Consider the similarities and differences between their situations and how they respond. Which man do you feel greater sympathy for and why?

Act 4 Scene 1

  • Gloucester has realised that he did not always see clearly when he had his eyes. He now knows he was wrong to mistrust Edgar and shows more compassion for 'Poor Tom' and others like him.
  • Edgar, disguised as 'Poor Tom', has taken on the job of leading the blinded Gloucester to the cliffs of Dover.

Act 4 Scene 2

  • Edmund is on his way back to Regan, who is now a widow.
  • Albany is horrified at how his wife and her sister have treated King Lear and the Earl of Gloucester.

Act 4 Scene 3

  • The King of France has returned home and left Cordelia and his army under the leadership of a general.
  • Cordelia has been told all that has happened to her father since she left.
  • Lear feels very guilty for how he treated Cordelia.
  • The ‘British powers’ are now also marching towards Dover and war is imminent.

Act 4 Scene 4

  • Cordelia has brought an army from France to support her father, against her sisters.
  • Lear is somewhere in Dover, still acting erratically.

Act 4 Scene 5

  • Regan believes it was a mistake to let Gloucester live and thinks Edmund has set out to find and kill his father.
  • Regan hopes to marry Edmund and suspects her sister wants Edmund herself.
  • Oswald is loyal to Goneril and is now carrying messages from both sisters to Edmund.

Act 4 Scene 6

Edgar has led his blinded father to Dover, still pretending to be ‘Poor Tom’ although Gloucester recognises that his guide’s ‘voice is altered’. Despite Gloucester also recognising that ‘the ground is even’, Edgar convinces him that they are at the top of a high cliff from which ‘The fishermen that walk upon the beach /Appear like mice’. Gloucester sends his guide away with ‘another purse’.

When Gloucester falls forward, believing he is throwing himself from the cliff top, Edgar confesses that his plan may ‘may rob / The treasury of life’ and rushes to his father to check if he is still alive. He now pretends to be a passer by on the beach who saw the old man fall and declares ‘Thy life’s a miracle’. Gloucester agrees to ‘bear / Affliction till it do cry out itself /‘Enough, enough’ and die.’

At that moment King Lear joins them, behaving very oddly and ranting about his daughters. Gloucester recognises the king’s voice. Lear comments on Gloucester’s lack of eyes and tells him ‘A man may see how this world goes with no eyes. / Look with thine ears’.

Lear finally admits, ‘I know thee well enough: thy name is Gloucester’ before running off, chased by three gentlemen sent to calm him down and take him to Cordelia. Edgar learns from one of the gentleman that the opposing army are ‘Near and on speedy foot’.

Edgar tells Gloucester he is ‘A most poor man, made tame to fortune’s blows’ and begins to lead him to shelter when Oswald appears, ready to kill Gloucester. Edgar defends Gloucester and kills Oswald who dies believing Edgar is a ‘bold peasant’. He gives Edgar his purse and tells him to ‘bury my body / And give the letters which thou find’st about me / To Edmund, Earl of Gloucester’.

Edgar reads aloud the letter from Goneril to Edmund which asks Edmund to take one of the ‘many opportunities’ he will have to kill Albany so that he can marry Goneril. Edgar disposes of Oswald’s body and then leads his father away.

  • Gloucester wants to die by falling from the cliff top.
  • Edgar hopes to cure his father of his despair by pretending he has been saved from certain death by the will of the gods.
  • Lear is still behaving strangely.
  • Goneril wants her husband dead so that she can marry Edmund.

Act 4 Scene 7

  • Kent has been reunited with Cordelia.
  • Lear is safely in Cordelia’s court and is beginning to recover.

Things to Notice in Act 4

Notice the relationship building between Goneril and Edmund. What qualities does Goneril admire in Edmund compared to her husband Albany?

Notice Edgar’s forgiveness of his father’s actions towards him and his desire to help his father. Why do you think Edgar keeps his identity secret from his father throughout this act? Why do you think Shakespeare includes scene 5/6 where Gloucester believes he has fallen from the cliff top?

In Act 4, the two old men Lear and Gloucester are reunited with the children who most care about them. Review the lines where each talk about their children and consider what these lines suggest about what they have learned on their journeys in this play. How do you think the audience might be feeling by the end of Act 4 and what might they be expecting to happen next?

Act 5 Scene 1

  • Regan and Goneril both love Edmund but suspect that there might also be something going on between Edmund and the other sister.
  • Albany has a letter from Edgar revealing the truth about Edmund.
  • Edmund intends to stop Albany pardoning Lear and Cordelia if the British win the battle.

Act 5 Scene 2

  • The French forces have been defeated.
  • Lear and Cordelia have been taken prisoner.

Act 5 Scene 3

Edmund calls for his officers to lock up Lear and Cordelia. She tells her father ‘We are not the first / Who with best meaning have incurred the worst’ and he tells her they will live together in prison ‘As if we were God’s spies’ hearing ‘poor rogues / Talk of court news’. Edmund secretly sends his captain after them with a note to ensure that they are both put to death, telling the captain ‘to be tender-minded / Does not become a sword.’

Albany enters followed by Regan and Goneril who argue over Edmund’s position. Regan announces her intention to make Edmund her ‘lord and master’. Regan also begins to feel very ill and Goneril admits to the audience she has poisoned her sister.

Albany has Edmund arrested for ‘capital treason’, and calls Goneril a ‘gilded serpent’ for her betrayal in promising to marry Edmund if he kills her husband. A trumpet sounds and Edgar steps forward, in armour which hides his face. Edgar publicly accuses Edmund of being a traitor. Edmund and Edgar fight and Edmund is defeated. Edmund admits ‘What you have charged me with, that have I done, / And more, much more’.

Edgar reveals who he is really is and how he disguised himself as 'Poor Tom' and looked after his blinded father. Edgar describes how he finally told his father everything and ‘asked his blessing’ to fight this duel with Edmund but that ‘’Twixt two extremes of passion, joy and grief’ Gloucester’s heart ‘Burst smilingly’ and he died. Listening to this as he dies, Edmund says ‘This speech of yours hath moved me, / And shall perchance do good’ but they are interrupted by a gentleman who runs on with a bloody knife taken from Goneril’s heart and tells Albany that Goneril died after confessing that ‘her sister / By her is poisoned’.

Kent arrives dressed as himself again. Albany order the bodies to be brought in and Edmund says ‘Yet Edmund was beloved: / The one the other poisoned for my sake / And after slew herself.’ Edmund then confesses that the Captain ‘hath commission from thy wife and me / To hang Cordelia in the prison’ and Albany quickly dispatches men to try and save her.

Lear then enters carrying the dead body of Cordelia, crying ‘Howl, howl, howl’. Kent tries to tell Lear who he is and that his older daughters ‘have fordone themselves, / And desperately are dead’, but Albany tells him that Lear ‘knows not what he says, and vain is it / That we present us to him.’ Lear dies and Kent wonders how ‘he hath endured so long’.

Albany and Edgar are left with a kingdom to rule and to consider how they can ‘Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say’.

  • Goneril poisons Regan to stop her marrying Edmund.
  • Edgar kills Edmund in a duel.
  • Gloucester dies during the final battle, after Edgar reveals who he is and what has happened.
  • Goneril dies from a stab wound to her heart, self-inflicted because she poisoned her own sister.
  • Cordelia hangs on Edmund’s orders, although he tried to reverse the order at the last minute.
  • Lear carries in the body of Cordelia, his dead daughter. He then dies himself.

Things to Notice in Act 5

Notice how few lines Goneril and Regan are given in this last act to help the audience understand their motivations. Why do you think both are so determined to marry Edmund? What do you think of how Shakespeare kills them off and how their fates are shared with the audience?

Notice the language of honour used between Edmund and Edgar. What do their words and actions before and after the duel suggest to you about their characters?

Take note of the final speeches of the play, as the fate of the kingdom is left to Albany, Edgar and Kent. This is where some of the early printed versions of King Lear are quite different. Who do you think takes charge and what is Shakespeare saying about the kingdom and its future?

Act 5 is important because it reveals the fate of the kingdom and the central characters – here we learn of the deaths of all the main characters except for Kent, Albany and Edgar. The story of King Lear was fairly well known to Shakespeare’s audiences, but with a happier ending. Why do you think Shakespeare chooses to kill off Cordelia in this way? What effect does her death have?

king lear opening scene essay

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Jotted Lines

A Collection Of Essays

Important Scenes in King Lear

King Lear is widely acknowledged as one of William Shakespeare’s great tragedies.  This essay will identify and analyze a couple of key scenes from the play which makes a significant contribution to the overall development of plot, its character and the theme.

Act 1 Scene 1

The very first scene from the first act is important for various reasons.  Firstly, it introduces all the central characters in the play and gives an indication as to their dispositions.  Of the three daughters of King Lear, the two elder ones Goneril and Regan play the roles of antagonists along with the ever conspiring illegitimate son of Gloucester, Edmund.  King Lear assembles in his court his heirs-apparent and key members of the nobility as he decides to announce the details of inheritance of his Kingdom.  The ensuring dialogue between King Lear and his three daughters sets the tone for subsequent developments in the plot and also captures the essence of their personalities.  The King decides that whichever daughter expresses a greater love for the old King and father will inherit a larger share of the bountiful land.  In this context, Goneril and Regan speak of their love for their father in poetic terms, their message ridden with hyperbole.  But, the old King is in no state to decipher the veracity of their statements and feels flattered by their praise.  This exchange is important for the plot of the play, as it provides key insights into the thoughts and intentions of King Lear’s daughters.  In later acts and scenes, the true nature of each of the daughters would unravel much to the disappointment and anguish of the old and fragile King.  Though Cordelia’s words were more restrained and devoid of exaggeration, it is she who proves the more worthy of the siblings, as she comes to the King’s rescue and protect, especially when the latter finds himself in dire need of it.  The scene is also significant in respect of its introduction of Edward, the illegitimate son ofGloucester, who would mastermind a conniving scheme to undermine the fortunes of his elder brother Edgar.  Hence, the first scene of the first act is important for the overall development of plot, its character and the theme.

Act 3 Scene 2

The second scene of the third act is not only a key passage for the play but also finds a place in the Shakespearean canon.  Here, King Lear, disillusioned with the treatment meted out to him by his two elder daughters, finds himself without an abode.  Not only is his very life threatened in these circumstances but he is also pushed to the brink of sanity by the immediately preceding events.  It is in this scene that the disgruntled King, being subject to the hardships of a ravaging thunderstorm utters those powerful words of wisdom.  For example, the following lines are memorable for the tragic effect they induce in the audience.

“Rumble thy bellyful! Spit, fire! spout, rain! Nor rain, wind, thunder, fire, are my daughters: I tax not you, you elements, with unkindness; I never gave you kingdom, call’d you children, You owe me no subscription: then let fall Your horrible pleasure: here I stand, your slave, A poor, infirm, weak, and despised old man: But yet I call you servile ministers, That have with two pernicious daughters join’d Your high engender’d battles ‘gainst a head So old and white as this. O! O! ’tis foul!”

Here, King Lear is addressing Mother Nature herself, as he tries to make sense of the chaos and destruction that is both within and without.  It is important to note that the tumult of wind and rain is related to personal betrayal by one’s own children.  The remains of the King’s entourage, including Edgar and the fool, provide suitable backdrop to the scene.  As the King continues to pour out his grief the fool interludes with his wise observations and remarks that adds to the overall dramatic effect.  Although the climax of the plot was to come much later in the play, this scene is the most impressive for its poignant depiction of personal tragedy.  The scene sets the tone for the impending realization and reconciliation with the faithful of the three daughters Cordelia.  The poignancy also emerges from the loyalty shown by the King’s companions, especially Kent, who serves his King incognito.

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King Lear - Entire Play

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King Lear dramatizes the story of an aged king of ancient Britain, whose plan to divide his kingdom among his three daughters ends tragically. When he tests each by asking how much she loves him, the older daughters, Goneril and Regan, flatter him. The youngest, Cordelia, does not, and Lear disowns and banishes her. She marries the king of France. Goneril and Regan turn on Lear, leaving him to wander madly in a furious storm.

Meanwhile, the Earl of Gloucester’s illegitimate son Edmund turns Gloucester against his legitimate son, Edgar. Gloucester, appalled at the daughters’ treatment of Lear, gets news that a French army is coming to help Lear. Edmund betrays Gloucester to Regan and her husband, Cornwall, who puts out Gloucester’s eyes and makes Edmund the Earl of Gloucester.

Cordelia and the French army save Lear, but the army is defeated. Edmund imprisons Cordelia and Lear. Edgar then mortally wounds Edmund in a trial by combat. Dying, Edmund confesses that he has ordered the deaths of Cordelia and Lear. Before they can be rescued, Lear brings in Cordelia’s body and then he himself dies.

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And then he drew a dial from his poke, And looking on it with lack-lustre eye, Says very wisely, "It is ten o'clock: Thus we may see," quoth he, "how the world wags."       — As You Like It , Act II Scene 7

The Tragedy of King Lear

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king lear opening scene essay

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    rain water out o' door. Good nuncle, in, and ask thy daughters. blessing! Here's a night pities nether wise men nor fools. Lear. Rumble thy bellyful! Spit, fire! spout, rain! 1690. Nor rain, wind, thunder, fire are my daughters. I tax not you, you elements, with unkindness.

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