The Spicy Lotus

May 9, 2007

King Lear, William Shakespeare

Filed under: Classic,English,Shakespeare — pha9 @ 3:36 am

King Lear is a play by William Shakespeare, considered one of his greatest tragedies, based on the legend of King Lear of Britain. The part of Lear has been played by many great actors, but although Lear is an old man, the part is rarely taken on by older actors in stage versions because it is so strenuous both physically and emotionally.

There are two distinct versions of the play: The True Chronicle of the History of the Life and Death of King Lear and His Three Daughters, which appeared in quarto in 1608, and The Tragedy of King Lear, which appeared in the First Folio in 1623, a more theatrical version. The two texts are commonly printed in a conflated version, although many modern editors have argued that each version has its individual integrity.

After the Restoration the play was often modified by theatre practitioners who disliked its nihilistic flavour, but since World War II it has come to be regarded as one of Shakespeare’s supreme achievements. The tragedy is particularly noted for its probing observations on the nature of human suffering and kinship on a cosmic scale.



  1. OK. I’m just gonna mention things that have caught my attention as I’ve been reading the first three Acts.

    The first thing I thought about as I was reading, is “who will be dead by the end of the story?” I’ve read three other Shakespeare tragedies, and they always end up with a pile of corpses in the end. Another interesting question is, “who will survive?” because there’s always some kind of “observer” to the action who survives and comments on the misfortune.

    One of the things that caught my attention in the first Act is the very first scene, in which Lear wants to hear how much his daughters love him before he gives them a huge chunk of his estate. Of course, Regan and Goneril lie their asses off in order to get the money for themselves and their husbands, but Cordelia, who really does love her father, is put in a moral quandry. If she professes her love for Lear the way the other sisters do, then she is no different from them (at least in word). And it seems to me that if her feelings are different, then her words should be as well, because if she professes her love the way the sisters did, then that degrades the value of her assertion. So, in order not to taint her own virtue and avoid being categorized with her asshole sisters, she actually lies. She must lie to be honest (to herself). Her statement in telling her father that she loves him “according to [her] bond, no more no less” is a more a declaration that says “I am not like them (sisters)”. This is really interesting to me for some reason.

    A similar instance of this is with Kent, who, when Lear kind of disowns Cordelia, speaks up in order to tell Lear that he has made a mistake. The King warns Kent to shut up, but Kent feels a duty to speak truth to power, as his duty is stronger than his sense of patronage. He is willing to sacrifice his title in order to be honest. And, of course, that is what happens.

    So, with both Cordelia and Kent, there’s the theme of honesty and suffering for it. Both are punished for their honesty and virtue, in their own ways. And Lear, who soon realizes that he’s made a huge mistake in condemning both, pays for it psychologically, especially when Goneril and Regan start to show their true natures. The only one who doesn’t suffer for his honesty is the Fool.

    There’s also the issue of fathers being deceived by their children, as is the case for Lear and Gloucester. But I’ll save this for later.

    A nice metaphor in here is how the storm enters at the end of Act 2. Shakespeare makes the storm an important part of the story. It is mentioned in the text as well as being an aesthetic of scenery (for lack of a better term). While I was reading, I was thinking, “with good art, everything happens for a reason. Why is this storm so present?” I did a small analysis, asking myself, “what is a storm?” “Nature,” I decided. Nature… human nature. So just as Lear is suffering from the nature of Regan and Goneril, he is also assaulted by literal nature when he gets caught in the storm. Nice touch, I think. Also, Lear tries to keep himself from crying during this part. Tears, rain…

    More to come.

    Comment by pha9 — August 30, 2007 @ 4:18 am | Reply

  2. I have no idea who will die at this point and I wish you hadn’t brought it up. Now I’m thinking about it! You’ll have to give me a spoiler alert in the future.

    Maybe you identify with the hypocrisy that Cordelia faces when she is forced to lie. We both seem to be a lot less tolerant of hypocrisy than other people. I also think you are also tapping into your feeling of being treated unfairly and having others or maybe American society in general being overly concerned with money. In this case, it seems that Regan and Goneril would trade away their own father for a piece of his kingdom.

    I’d like to talk about the storm in the broader context of good art, but unfortunately Lear and the Fool are still in it for me. I’m just getting into the third act so I’ll leave it for later.

    I think the Fool is interesting because he is allowed to speak freely to Lear, his job is to entertain, and also because he gives real advice throughout the story. I like reading his lines because he may be doing one or all of these things at once. Take this excerpt from the storm scene.

    He that has a house to put’s head in has a good headpiece.
    The codpiece that will house
    Before the head has any,
    The head and he shall louse
    So beggars marry many
    The man that makes his toe
    What he his heart should make
    Shall of a corn cry woe
    And turn his sleep to wake
    For there was never yet fair woman but she made mouths in a glass.

    Here’s my thought process on this one:
    A man who uses his genitals before he finds a roof over his head is bound for trouble, i.e. std’s. The man who values his toe over his heart, possibly the toe representing Goneril and Regan, and his heart representing Cordelia, will develop pain, here in the form of a corn. Mouth’s in a glass means making faces in a mirror according to my footnotes. All beautiful women look at themselves in the mirror? But, what does that mean and how does it fit with everything else? More importantly, is the fool trying to give Lear some kind of veiled advice by telling him he made a mistake by giving away his kingdom to the two ungrateful daughters, is he just trying to get Lear to go inside, or is he comforting Lear by giving him a ridiculous song?

    Comment by pha9 — August 30, 2007 @ 4:22 am | Reply

  3. I found the use of the word “thou” interesting as I have started reading. The language employed in King Lear is early modern English. At that time, before the first dictionaries were published, English spelling and grammar were not yet standardized. The introduction of the printing press and spread of education would do that later.

    In old English, “thou” meant one person, while “ye” meant more than one. Later, the words evolved and “ye” became a way to address superiors while “thou” was relegated to addressing inferiors. There is a connection between the plural and the polite, as kings and aristocrats were addressed in the plural. In French, this became the pronouns tu and vous. There are similar distinctions in Chinese, Spanish, etc. However, the two words have melded into the all purpose “you” in our language. Maybe because we reject nobility?

    The important thing to remember is that “thou” was meant to be informal and by extension used for familiar or inferior people. The problem is that religious texts adopted the word thou to give the books a sense of tradition and formality which is precisely the opposite of its original meaning. Sometimes thou is used to address God. Darth Vader did the same thing when he said “What is thy bidding master?” to the Emperor. (Thy is the possessive form of thou.).

    Comment by pha9 — August 30, 2007 @ 4:44 am | Reply

  4. The fool disappears from the play right before Cordelia comes back. Some people say that they may have been the same actor/actress in the play. Weird.

    Comment by pha9 — August 31, 2007 @ 2:14 am | Reply

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