King Lear

King Lear is universal

March 13, 2021 by Essay Writer

King Lear is universal – the tragedy is in a distantly remote and deliberately undefined historical period and location. Has resulted in its survival. The emptiness of the stage at the Globe Theatre allowed Shakespeare to both set his plays in any location and to put them in no particular setting, allowing him to draw the attention of the audience to the essentials of the play. Kind Lear portrays universal themes and situations such as the intolerance of the young towards the old, good versus evil, the vulnerability of old age, and he hidden nature of supernatural beings.


Modern criticism – A modern critic argues that history, rather than fate or the gods, is the cause of tragedy. The origins of tragedy lie in identificable social causes and are capable of being resisted. Image clusters in the play are seen by John F Danby to be expressing the conflict between two sides of nature, benign and divinely ordered and the other governed by self-interest.

They argue that traditional interpretations put a heavy emphasis on character and other abstractions such as the themes, which are misleading. They focus on how social conditions are reflected in characters’ relationships, language and behavior. It also concerns itself with how changing social assumptions at different periods of time have affected interpretations of the play. They see the play exposing the economic and social roots of injustice and inequality and that Lear’s England reflects Shakespeare’s world. Victor Kiernan believes that the tragedies are an indication of or foreshadow Shakespeare’s own experience of life in Elizabethan and Jacobean England. He argues that Shakespeare’s concern was for the poor whose toil and suffering paid for the pleasures of the rich.

Feminists – the play challenges the beliefs and practices that result in the oppression and subordination of women. Evidence: Lear treats his daughters as subordinates who must obey him, misogyny found in lear’s threats and curses, sexual disgust (Lear), women seen as property (banishment of Cordelia). Kathleen McLuskie argues that audience sympathy is manipulated to evoke compassion for lear, depite the hatred he displays towards women.

Romantics – Charles Lamb thought the play unactable – that no actor’s gestures could represent lear’s suffering mind. Lambs conclusion that Lear is essentially impossible to be represented on a stage’ was agreed with by Hazlitt who thought the play ‘too great for the stage’. In his opinion, it was a play to e read and best experienced in the imagination. The romantics of the nineteenth century felt the ending appropriate because after surviving so many sufferings, Lear can only die’. Chambers said that the ending reflects the victory of love and divine justice on earth. Lear is seen as the unwise man who becomes the Christian soul through his sufferings.

Other readers were not happy with the play. Thackery and Leo Tolstoy were completely against the false effects of Lear going mad, his conversation with the fool and all the impossible disguises, failures to see the truth, and the accumulating deaths.

Phychoanalysis – The founder of phychoanalysis Sigmud Freud, explained personality as the result of unconscious and irrational desires, bound by memories, sexuality, fantasy, anxiety and conflict. His theories have had great influence on criticism and stagings of shakespeare’s plays. Psychoanalytic interpreations can be seem in performance when an actor’s behavious or style of speech hints at what lies behind a character’s words. There has been a number of readings by which king lear was interpreted and these include: seeing Lear as an old man and father, as a child with cordelia seen as his mother, as a sacrificial victim, and sibling rivalry.

Some critics combine approaches, for example coppelia kahn’s interpretation is a feminist psychoanalytic theory: claims the tragedy shows ‘the failure of a father’s power to command love in a patriarchal world, and Lear realizes in the end that cordelia is the ‘only loving woman in the world.

Postmodern criticism – abandons any notion of the unity of the play and rejects the assumption that a Shakespeare play possesses clear patterns or themes. Some deny the possibility of finding meaning in language as the words refer to other words and so any interpretation is endlessly delayed. Others focus on small details claiming that they are often overlooked but actually reveal significant truths about the play.

Production and performance

The text has been cut, added to, rewritten and rearranged to present a version felt appropriate to the times. King Lear was not a popular play in the seventeenth century: the theme of fallen royalty was too close to the experience through which England has lived. Goucester’s blinding was seen as too horrid for viewing and Samuel Johnson urged that it be kept offstage. The first recorded performance of the play was for King James I in 1606. The play does not seem to have been popular. Nahum Tate published his own Revised Version, which was the only version staged until well into the nineteenth century. In his version, he ensured that good triumphed over evil: Lear and Gloucester live, cordelia and Edgar fall in love, and the king of France and the fool disappear. In 1823 Edmund kean restored the tragic ending but the play continued to be heavily cut. Read about foreshadowing in King Lear essay

Simpler stagings of the play took place in the twentieth century – productions no longer attempted to create an impression of realism.

Shakespeare’s own version, heavily cut, was not seen again until 1845 and for fifty years afterwards stage productions removed huge chunks of Shakespeare’s version.

In Elizabethan times, plays were performed in daylight and so the audience was as visible as the actors. This resulted in a greater degree of intimacy between actor and audience than in the modern theatre.

One of the techniques employed to heighten this closeness was the soliloquy, in which a character speaks truthfully to those in front of and around him. A similar device is the side, in which a character takes the audience ino his confidence, even though the stage may be crammed with other people.

The Elizabethan practice which is most different from modern plays is the casting of male actors in female roles.

The world that shakespeare’s audience inhabited was a hierarchical one. There were two notions of most importance to the elizabethans: the belief that everything has its head, both living and on-living, and that there are four basic elements that make up the universe and are mixed in man. These elements – earth, water, air and fire, cause an individual to have a certain nature. This nature was said to be balanced if the four elements were mixed evenly, but if one or two of the elements predominated then an individuals character was unbalanced.

In 1768 george colman attempted a version closer to shakespeare’s text, cutting the love affair between edgar and cordelia. However, his version was less popular than nahum tate’s.

The play was banned for yeas in the eighteenth century as the real king, george III was mad as it was felt it reflected his condition too closely. After his death the ban was lifted.

A 1993 production by adrian noble emphasised the terror of lear’s descent into madness and was seen as an extremely moving production.


Written in blank verse and prose, although shakespeare does not stick to the rules of blank verse all the time. Rhyme is used to draw attention to thoughts or ideas, an example is the fool’s songs and sayings. Scnes of madness are in prose. Lear speaks in verse because he is king but as he loses track of reality and drifts into his madness he shifts from verse to prose then back again to verse, signifying his mental disturbance. He also uses thrid person early in the plat but switches to first person when he recognises that he is powerless, reflecting his change in status.

Characters use asides and soliloquies to inform the audience about their feelings and intentions. They also have their personal attitudes and styles, reflecting their roles and natures. For example Gonerila and Regan use commands, demonstating their craving for power.

Patterns of images and metaphors add to the audience’s understanding of the play and its characters.

Employment of language for various effects

He comes t emphasise with others and in doing, becomes more patient, which is reflected in the way his langugae loses the violent tone it had previously possessed.

An example of lear’s new frame of mind is his call on the fool to enter the hovel before him: ‘in boy, go first’ (ACT III, Sc iv)

The firce, intolerant and demanding kind that was in the beginning of the play has become humble due to his love for Cordelia and his sufferings.

Shakespeare’s profound talent in the use and manipulation of language helps him in creating strong imagery throughout the play. Reference to savage creatures associating Goeril and Regan are reccuring within King Lear. Goneril is ‘sharp-toothed with a ‘wolfish visage’. Lear curses her as a ‘detested kite’ and tells regan she ‘looked black…most serpent like’. Gloucester states they possess ‘boarish fangs’ while Albany says that they are ‘Tigers not daughters’.

Shakespeare also uses imagery to convey disease and pain. An example is when lear curses his daughters wishing on them ‘all the plagues that in the pendulous air hang’. To him Goneril is ‘a disease that’s in my flesh’, ‘a boil, / A plague-sore’.

The fool constantly uses imagery as a clever method of commenting on what is taking place, such as when he says to Lear ‘the hedge-sparrow fed the cuckoo so long/That its had it head bit off by it young’. This image of Lear as a hedge-sparrow emphasises his vulnerability.

There is imagery concerning the Gods: Lear worries that the heavens stir ‘these daughters’ hearst/against their father’. Other imagery includes Lear’s images of ell when he rages against female sexuality and when he states that ‘burning shame’ keeps him from Cordelia.

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