In some ways, Lear is considered the most sophisticated work by Shakespeare, displacing Hamlet according to R.O. Foakes, as the play most mimetic of our century. In terms of theme, style and language and the ability to dramatize universal themes with a perspective reminiscent of Greek tragedy, Lear offers a supreme catharsis. Set in pre-Christian times, the play--through the agony of Lear and the biting comedy of the Fool--asks questions fundamental to existence:

ASSIGNMENT: Locate and read the following essays which are of fundamental importance to LEAR:

Knight, G.W. "The Lear Universe" in The Wheel of Fire,

Frye, N. "Lear" in On Shakespeare,

Bloom, H. Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human

Questions for Discussion--Consult:

Shepard, O. Shakespeare Questions: An Outline for the Study of the Leading Plays. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1916.

General Questions: [I have added additional questions and commentary.]

  1. Enumerate the actions of the play, showing their relationships. Why do they run parallel, and what contrasts do they present?
  2. How can the personages in the play be divided according to character? What are the leading characteristics of each group, and who oscillates?
  3. Are the oscillations natural or artificial?
  4. What is peculiar about the structure of the play? Based on your conclusions, what emotions does the play evoke; admiration, admiration mingled with dislike, love and fear, love and admiration intensified by our sense of the hero's fatal weakness, or great pity and an overpowering sense of the inevitable, inscrutable Fate? Check here for more on this issue.
  5. How successful was Shakespeare in basing this play on a "sordid family quarrel"?
  6. Show that Shakespeare does not wish us to sympathize exclusively with the various sides in this struggle, but wants to make us see that the struggle is due to a universal law of nature that overrides human hearts. Make out as good a case as you can for the so-called "bad" characters in the play, and an indictment of the so-called "good" ones. What for example, can you say about Cordelia?
  7. Do we pity Lear? What would Aristotle say?
  8. Discuss the role of the characters who bring Lear out of the cave: The Fool, Kent, Poor Tom. Don't forget Erasmus. [Asides: What are the Fool's last words in the play? How does the Fool relate to Cordelia?]
  9. What are the differences between Goneril and Regan? Compare them in terms of motives, with that of Edmund. Do women who commit evil in Shakespeare (Lady Macbeth) evoke more horror than the men? Why?
  10. Contrast the two "evil" sisters with Cordelia? How alike? How different?
  11. Why can't this play be done well on stage?
  12. Bradley says that the theme of Lear is the redemption of a selfish old man through love and suffering. Bloom takes the opposite view. What is your opinion?
  13. Look at the ending of play carefully. What are the various opinions as to its meaning?
  14. Check the plays' philosophical orientation from Aristotle to Kierkegaard?
  15. What motifs operate in the play? Why?
  16. Comment on the nature of insanity in the play as a motif and dramatic device. How necessary is it? Is there ever a recovery?
  17. In what sense does the play deal extensively with justice--Check out Aristotle.

Questions specific to each Act:

Act One:

  1. Is Edmund evil due to his birth or the environment? Base your answer on the whole play, especially noting what happens in V.
  2. Evaluate Cordelia's response to Lear. Is she her father's daughter? Is she full of "stupid pride in her bluntness, who has not yet learned that the truth may be so baldly spoken as to make the effect of it a lie?
  3. Is Edmund's first soliloquy sincere?
  4. Is the play independent of time and place? What role does religion play ?
  5. What is your feeling toward Lear and his family at the end of Act One?

Act Two:

  1. How is Edmund tactically? Remind you of anyone? Is there any reason to admire Edmund as he purses his goals?
  2. How stupid is the older generation? Does their stupidiy strain dramatic credibility?
  3. Gloucester straight away suspects Edgar. Why?
  4. Explain the details of the Kent / Oswald quarrel--what should be noticed? Did Shakespeare make a mistake?
  5. Faults of manner are usually less easily forgiven tha moral baseness. Apply this to the characters in Act II.
  6. How does macrocosmic imagery function in this act?

Act Three:

  1. Do a very careful analysis of the storm scenes. What one line best reflects their meaning for Lear.
  2. Look at Lear's speeches in the storm scene very carefully. Check the motifs with lines of the Fool. Each of Shakespeare's characters have a unique poetic style. What is Lear's?
  3. Do you find pathos in the storm scenes? Relate to the ideas of justice discussed earlier. Do you find evidence in the storm scenes that Lear begins to change? How?
  4. In Macbeth, compare the dialogue Lady Macbeth and Macbeth have after the crime with Lear, Tom and the Fool. What is Shakespeare doing?
  5. Study the lines of the Fool carefully.--How is he interacting with Lear, and what are the responses? Is their dialogue?--Note the Fool's prophecy.
  6. What is the purpose of scene iii?
  7. In scene iv, Lear's lines have been called the "...sublimest things in Shakespeare..." Why?
  8. What makes Lear fully mad in iv. Cite the remote and immediate causes.
  9. Insanity in the Renaissance was often considered comedic. Is this the intention here?
  10. The "unaccommodated man" speech of Lear is one of the most important in the play. Why?
  11. The theme of vi is justice--explain the kinds of justice at work here. Note too that III,vi,14-51: the mock trial episode: "the foul...let her 'scape" is omitted from the F. Why?
  12. Check out Harnsett and his "Declaration." What might Shakespeare be doing? Muir has notes and an article.
  13. Note Edgar's lines at the end of vi.
  14. There is an event in Act III considered the most horrid in Shakespeare. Explain it.

Act Four:

  1. What do we learn of Edgar as the act opens?
  2. What metaphysical statements are made in this act?
  3. Show is this act how the experiences of Gloucester parallel those of Lear.
  4. What happens to Albany in this scene? Does the answer remind you of another play?
  5. Characterize Goneril in this scene.
  6. Does Albany carry out the revenge at the end of ii?
  7. What role does Cordelia have in this act?
  8. The cliff scene with Gloucester has been critiqued as coming dangerously close to farce. Is it? Remember to read the article given in class on the scene's meaning: "Justifying the Unjustifiable: The Dover Cliff Scene in King Lear" by Winfried Schleiner. (Note the descriptive language in the scene.)
  9. Why is animal imagery so important in this act?
  10. Comment on the Lear-Gloucester dialogue--what happens to each as the interact? How aware are they of what each says?
  11. Are the characters sane or mad in this act or is there an "impossible do decipher" mingling of the two?

Act Five:

  1. Act V issues are largely concerned with Lear's state of mind, and the psychological / philosophical implications thereof. Click here for more details.
  2. What happens to the "love" interests of the younger generation. Explain the conduct of Edmund in this scene. Include in this the Lear-Cordelia reunion.
  3. Discover what an "objective correlative" and apply it to the last scene in the play.
  4. Are there any biblical references in the "Lear universe"?
  5. What are the moral premises (if any) that govern the ending?
  6. Some believe in the final scene, Lear shows "majestic power--physical, emotional, and intellectual." Do you agree?
  7. What would Aristotle say about the play's ending?
  8. Recall the Bradley-Bloom differences.
  9. "I killed the slave that was a-hanging thee' has been called "the most intolerably pathetic line in the world's literature." What do you think?--What happens next?
  10. "Pray you...Do you see this?" What is the antecedent of this?
  11. In the LEAR UNIVERSE, is there an afterlife? If so, who will go where? If not, what lessons have been learned on earth and by whom? Have any been learned?
  12. What is the cause of Lear's death?
  13. What must Kent be thinking at the end of the play?
  14. What kind of animal imagery is in this scene?

As you read the play and answer the above questions, consider these issues, and be able to cite the text to support whatever position you defend:

1---the nature of the Lear universe
2---madness and insanity
3---problem of justice: the trial scenes
4---parent-child relationship:Cordelia and Goneril and Regan
5---Fool and madness and insanity
6---poor Tom
7---meaning and levels of nature
8---use of animal imagery and predatory language
9---ending of Lear
10---role of Kent
11---motif of vision in Lear
12---role of fortunes. human responsibility
13---gods and religion in Lear
14---use of predatory language
15---sexual themes and renaissance psychology

As noted above, Frye's chapter offers illuminating insight into Lear, and he does so from a Romantic perspective. His analysis of the motif of nature, therefore, should be very carefully considered as it, together with Renaissance cosmology, forms the basis of an important interpretation:

Review the BRITISH LITERATURE--RENAISSANCE SECTION and study the following based on Frye's analysis:


1. The chain of being in Lear







2. Recalling what we said regarding theme passages in Hamlet should help you identify the one in Lear. The chain of being diagram offers a significant clue to the passage which is in the first scene of the play. See N. Frye On Shakespeare for more details: