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King Lear
William Shakespeare




...the theme of King Lear may be stated in psychological as well as biological terms. So put, it is the destructive, the ultimately suicidal character of unregulated passion, its power to carry human nature back to chaos....

The predestined end of unmastered passion is the suicide of the species. That is the gospel according to King Lear. The play is in no small measure an actual representation of that process. The murder- suicide of Regan-Goneril is an example. But it is more than a picture of chaos and impending doom. What is the remedy for chaos? it asks. What can avert the doom? The characters who have mastered their passions give us a glimpse of the answer to those questions.

Harold C. Goddard, The Meaning of Shakespeare, 1951


The initial act of the hero is his only act; the remainder is passion. An old and weary king, hungry for rest, banishes the one daughter who would give it to him and plunges at once into the long, loud night of his catastrophe. An early recognition of his error does not save him. The poet does not wish to save him, for his instinct is to develop a catastrophe as none has been developed before or since.

Mark Van Doren, Shakespeare, 1939

Lear's progress- dramatic and spiritual- lies through a dissipation of egoism; submission to the cruelty of an indifferent Nature, less cruel to him than are his own kin; to ultimate loss of himself in madness.

Harley Granville-Barker, Preface to Shakespeare, 1946


The secondary plot fills out a story which would by itself have been somewhat thin, and it provides a most effective contrast between its personages and those of the main plot, the tragic strength and stature being heightened by comparison with the slighter build of the former.

A. C. Bradley, Shakespearean Tragedy, 1983

...the subplot simplifies the central action, translating its concerns into familiar (and therefore easily apprehensible) verbal and visual patterns. The subplot is easier to grasp because its characters tend to account for their sufferings in traditional moral language; it also pictorializes the main action, supplying interpreted visual emblems for some of the play's important themes.

Bridget Gellert Lyons, "The subplot simplification in King Lear," from Some Facets of King Lear, Essays in Prismatic Criticism, edited by Rosalie L. Colie and F. T. Flahiff, 1974


The third act of King Lear, which covers the storm and its counterpart in human behavior, is a marvellous example of poetic elaboration for dramatic ends. At the center of it, at once the main protagonist and symbol of the spiritual state of a humanity exposed to fundamental disorder, wrenched out of its "fixed place" in the "frame of nature," stands the figure of an aged king. The intimate dovetailing of personal conflict with external convulsions has often been noted, and is indeed an essential part of the conception. The storm which has broken out in Lear's mind, the result of his treatment at the hands of his children, is admirably fused with the description of the warring elements mainly entrusted to his lips; the external storm, while exercising upon his aged physique the intolerable strain under which it finally breaks, is itself a projection of his inner state, being fused with it as a single poetic reality.

D. A. Traversi, An Approach to Shakespeare, 1969


The play is not, as some of our grandfathers believed, pessimistic and pagan: it is rather an attempt to provide an answer to the undermining of traditional ideas by the new philosophy that called all in doubt. Shakespeare goes back to a pre-Christian world and builds up from the nature of man himself, and not from revealed religion, those same moral and religious ideals that were being undermined. In a world of lust, cruelty and greed, with extremes of wealth and poverty, man reduced to his essentials needs not wealth, nor power, nor even physical freedom, but rather patience, stoical fortitude, and love; needs perhaps, above all, mutual forgiveness, the exchange of charity, and those sacrifices on which the gods, if there are any gods, throw incense....

Kenneth Muir, 1972

To me, the clairvoyance of King Lear is hardly distinguishable from religious insight. It is not only our profoundest tragedy; it is also our profoundest expression of an essentially Christian comment on man's world and his society, using the terms and benefitting by the formulations of Christian tradition.

John Danby, Shakespeare's Doctrine of Nature, A Study of King Lear, 1964


Men's behavior matters. But women's behavior is of the essence. Cordelia "redeems nature from the general curse/which 'twain' have brought her to" (my italics ['twain']). The twain are, of course, Goneril and Regan. Cordelia redeems nature; Goneril and Regan are responsible for its "curse." In the rhetoric of the play, no male is condemned as Goneril is condemned. A woman who refuses to uphold the inlaw [benevolent] feminine principle completely topples the natural order and plunges the world into chaos.

Marilyn French, Shakespeare's Division of Experience, 1983


There is, indeed, in King Lear, a kind of irony which is not, to any important extent, to be found in any other play: the irony which lies in the contradiction between the rightness of what is said and the wrongness of its being said by that particular character, or in that particular situation, or in that particular manner.

Arthur Small, "Character and Society in Lear," from Shakespeare: The Tragedies, edited by Alfred Harbage, 1964

[King Lear Contents]


We wish to thank the following educators who helped us focus our Book Notes series to meet student needs and critiqued our manuscripts to provide quality materials.

Murray Bromberg, Principal
Wang High School of Queens, Holliswood, New York

Sandra Dunn, English Teacher
Hempstead High School, Hempstead, New York

Lawrence J. Epstein, Associate Professor of English
Suffolk County Community College, Selden, New York

Leonard Gardner, Lecturer, English Department
State University of New York at Stony Brook

Beverly A. Haley, Member, Advisory Committee
National Council of Teachers of English Student Guide Series
Fort Morgan, Colorado

Elaine C. Johnson, English Teacher
Tamalpais Union High School District
Mill Valley, California

Marvin J. LaHood, Professor of English
State University of New York College at Buffalo

Robert Lecker, Associate Professor of English
McGill University, Montreal, Quebec, Canada

David E. Manly, Professor of Educational Studies
State University of New York College at Geneseo

Bruce Miller, Associate Professor of Education
State University of New York at Buffalo

Frank O'Hare, Professor of English
Ohio State University, Columbus, Ohio

Faith Z. Schullstrom, Member of Executive Committee
National Council of Teachers of English
Director of Curriculum and Instruction
Guilderland Central School District, New York

Mattie C. Williams, Director, Bureau of Language Arts
Chicago Public Schools, Chicago, Illinois

[King Lear Contents]



Bradley, A. C. Shakespearean Tragedy. New York: Ballantine Books, 1983, pp. 200-74.

Brooke, Tucker. "King Lear on Stage," in Essays on Shakespeare. New Haven: Archon Books, 1969, pp. 57-70.

Danby, John. Shakespeare's Doctrine of Nature, A Study of King Lear. London: Faber & Faber, 1964.

French, Marilyn. Shakespeare's Division of Experience. New York: Ballantine, 1983.

Goddard, Harold C. The Meaning of Shakespeare, vol. 2. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1951, pp. 136-71.

Granville-Barker, Harley. Prefaces to Shakespeare, vol. 1. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1978, pp. 261-334.

Harbage, Alfred, ed. Shakespeare, The Tragedies. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1964, pp. 113-47.

Knight, G. Wilson. The Wheel of Fire. New York: Meridian Books, 1962, chaps. 8 and 9.

Rackin, Phyllis. Shakespeare's Tragedies. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1978, pp. 86-106.

Rowse, A. L. Shakespeare, A Biography. New York: Harper & Row, 1963.

Traversi, D. A. An Approach to Shakespeare. New York: Doubleday, 1969.

Van Doren, Mark. Shakespeare. New York: Henry Holt, 1939, pp. 238-51.

Webster, Margaret. Shakespeare Without Tears, New York. World Publishing Company, 1955.


Shakespeare wrote 37 plays (38 if you include The Two Noble Kinsmen) over a 20-year period, from about 1590 to 1610. It's difficult to determine the exact dates when many were written, but scholars have made the following intelligent guesses about his plays and poems:


    1588-93 The Comedy of Errors
    1588-94 Love's Labor's Lost
    1590-91 2 Henry VI
    1590-91 3 Henry VI
    1591-92 1 Henry VI
    1592-93 Richard III
    1592-94 Titus Andronicus
    1593-94 The Taming of the Shrew
    1593-95 The Two Gentlemen of Verona
    1594-96 Romeo and Juliet
    1595 Richard II
    1594-96 A Midsummer Night's Dream
    1596-97 King John
    1596-97 The Merchant of Venice
    1597 1 Henry IV
    1597-98 2 Henry IV
    1598-99 Henry V
    1598-1600 Much Ado About Nothing
    1599 Julius Caesar
    1599-1600 As You Like It
    1599-1600 Twelfth Night
    1600-01 Hamlet
    1597-1601 The Merry Wives of Windsor
    1601-02 Troilus and Cressida
    1602-04 All's Well That Ends Well
    1603-04 Othello
    1604 Measure for Measure
    1605-06 King Lear
    1605-06 Macbeth
    1606-07 Antony and Cleopatra
    1605-08 Timon of Athens
    1607-09 Coriolanus
    1608-09 Pericles
    1609-10 Cymbeline
    1610-11 The Winter's Tale
    1611-12 The Tempest
    1612-13 Henry VIII


    1592 Venus and Adonis
    1593-94 The Rape of Lucrece
    1593-1600 Sonnets
    1600-01 The Phoenix and the Turtle

[Shakespeare's Sonnets read by John Gielgud]


ECC [King Lear Contents] []

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