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Context: Elizabeth 1

Strong, single woman

Illegitimate in the eyes of Catholics

Reigned for nearly 60 years

Created peace

Flourishing of the arts

Never married

Wouldn't name her heir, creating much speculation

James 6th of Scotland was heir


Key things to remember:



Language Analysis


Critics: How does Kastan view King Lear in terms of a 'Shakespearean tragedy'?

Kastan sees Shakespeare's tragedy as intense treatments of age-old questions about whether the cause of suffering lie in human weakness, divine retribution, or arbitrary fate.


Critics: Nutall - The Pleasures of Tragedy

Nutall considers the tension between pleasure and pain in tragic drama


Critics: Bradley - The Shakespearean tragic hero

Bradley argues that Shakespearean tragedy necessarily centres on a character of high rank and exceptional qualities who undergoes a reversal of fortune that leads to his own death and to a more general calamity


Critics: Mack - Tragedy and Madness

Mack notes how frequently Shakespearean tragic heroes suffer madness or are associated with it

Mack argues that art and madness both allow freedom of speech, but that their insights may be dismissed as merely fiction or nonsense


Critics: Rutter - Language and Female Power in King Lear

Rutter argues that the play explores deep anxieties about female power in relation to language, hence the comparison of women's tongues to the eels mentioned by the Fool in Act 2, Scene 4: they would not stay down to the paste to be eaten alive. Lear's daughters will similarly not be silenced.

Meanwhile, Lear himself is made to seem womanish by his tears and cursing. Rutter suggests that, at the time, these were associated with woman, who wept or cursed because they had no real power.


Critics: Kermode - Ways of speaking in King Lear

In Kermode's view this play, so full of pain and injustice, wrestles with human suffering and evil on a universal, apocalyptic scale. Its use of language form an integral part of the way it explores good and evil.

The power of Cordelia's 'nothing', when she refuses to join her flattering sisters, needs to be seen in the context of the play in which language strains to find words to express the pain of being.


Critics: O'Toole - The Morality of King Lear

O'Toole describes how King Lear upsets any comfortable moral assumptions on the part of the audience. In order to show this he focusses on the ending of the play, which seems to undermine the lessons that the play has set out to teach.


List of Characters: The Royal House of Britain

Lear - King of Britain

Gonerill - His eldest daughter

Reagan - His second daughter

Cordelia - His youngest daughter

The Duke of Albany - Married to Gonerill

The Duke of Cornwall - Married to Reagan


List of Characters: The Gloucester Family

The Earl of Gloucester

Edgar - His eldest son and heir

Edmond - His illegitimate son


Other characters in the play:


The Earl of Kent - later disguised

The King of France

The Duke of Burgundy

Oswald - Gonerills steward


Themes in King Lear:

Manipulative characters








What is 'Kastan's' Critical Essay?

'Shakespearean tragedy'


What is 'Nutall's' Critical Essay?

'The Pleasures of Tragedy'


What is 'Bradley's' Critical Essay?

'The Shakespearean Tragic Hero'


What is 'Mack's' Critical Essay?

'Tragedy and Madness'


What is 'Rutter's' Critical Essay?

'Language and Female Power in King Lear'


What is 'Kermode's' Critical Essay?

'Ways of speaking in King Lear'


What is 'O'Toole's' Critical Essay?

'The Morality of King Lear'


Characters - Lear:

- Tyrannical Patriarch
- His traits are meant to alienate the audience at the start of the play
- Naivety – valuing allusion of power over substance
- Too arrogant to take advice
- Quick tempered
- Attempts to divide power from responsibility
- Preoccupied with appearance – wants to remain titled as ‘King’


Characters - Gonerill:

- Seems to be the dominant sister at the start of the play, provoking the first confrontation with Lear (Act 1, Scene 4)
- Goneril is unfeminine, denying Albany’s authority ‘the laws are mine, not thine’, arrogantly asserting her power
- Lusts after Edmund in a predatory, unfeminine way


Characters - Reagan:

- Shakespeare develops Reagan into being a sexual sadist capable of assisting the blinding of Gloucester
- Sadism is displayed early on when she encourages Cornwall to inflict further punishment on Kent (Act 1, Scene 2)
- Equally unfeminine when she does a man’s work running the servant (Act 3, Scene 7)
- Vindictive assertiveness would be particularly shocking a Jacobean audience
- Renaissance models of women required them to be quite and submissive, they are agents of chaos and misrule (emphasised by the animal imagery and the abhorrence of the female sexuality throughout)


Characters - Cordelia:

- Extremely pious, modelling sensible virtue and best understood symbolically
- Paragon of femininity compared with her sisters
- Perhaps a female version of King Arthur, the legend who would return to save Britain in its darkest hour
- Her beauty is presented in religious terms
- Refusal to take part in the love test can be seen as an act of integrity (wishing to alert Lear of his poor judgment) or defiance (along with her returning acceptance of France)
- ‘Nothing’ is honest and worthy in comparison to Goneril and Reagan who speak with elevated language
- In preparation of her return, Kent stresses her feminine beauty, directly contrasting Goneril and Reagan
- Act 4, Scene 7: she is solicitous and respectful towards Lear
- Her death can be interpreted as either an expression of Shakespeare’s tragic version, an example of man’s inhumanity to man, or the final horrific consequence of Lear folly


King Lear: Structure – What happens in Act 1, Scene 1?

The Love Test