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King Lear

Term Definition
King Lear

King Lear is a tragedy written by William Shakespeare. It depicts the gradual descent into madness of the title character (King Lear), after he disposes of his kingdom giving bequests to two of his three daughters.

Background information on King Lear

King Lear is a tragedy written by William Shakespeare that was originally drafted sometime between 1603 and 1606. The play’s namesake disperses his estate between two of his three daughters based entirely on flattery, creating catastrophic consequences and causing King Lear to descend into madness. The story is based on the legendary Leir of Britain, who was a mythological Celtic king who lived before Roman rule. The play has since been widely adapted for both the stage and for motion pictures.

The first known performance of King Lear was on Saint Stephen’s Day in 1606, though it was first attributed to Shakespeare only in 1608. Following the Restoration, King Lear was often revised to have a happy ending, as some audiences disapproved of the dark and dreary tone. However, since the nineteenth century, the original version has been regarded as one of Shakespeare’s most notable achievements. It makes analytical observations about human suffering and the nature of kinship.

The theme of justice

One of the main themes in King Lear is justice. The play is rather brutal and features a lot of cruelty and disaster (a common Shakespearean theme). This raises the question of whether or not there is any justice in the world or if the world is just indifferent to the good of humankind. The character of Gloucester believes it foolish to assume that nature and the universe work in parallel to our human notion of justice when he says:

“As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods;/ The kill us for their sport.”

Conversely, the character of Edgar argues that the gods are just and that in the end, people will get what they deserve. 

Another theme prevalent in King Lear is madness. In the play, insanity goes hand in hand with disorder and unseen insight. The character of the Fool, for example, offers insight to King Lear, but does so with incoherent babbling. When King Lear goes mad, his own state of mind is reflective of the state of his kingdom. Still, when reduced to his bare humanity, Lear is stripped of any pretensions and learns humility. Even when Edgar feigns madness, his time living on the streets hardens him, readying him to defeat Edmund in the end.

Character analysis: King Lear

From the beginning of the play, it is clear that King Lear’s fatal flaw is that he cares for more about appearances than reality. He does not want to uphold his kingly duties and take care of his country, but wants to be praised and treated like a magnanimous monarch. When trying to determine which of his daughters will inherit his estate, he does not ask them who loves him more, he asks who will say that they love him the most. Even though he has a particularly close relationship with his daughter Cordelia, he wants to hear his other two daughter talk about how much they love him anyway, even if it is not a word of it is sincere. 

It can be difficult to say whether or not the character of King Lear grows and develops throughout the story, coming out a kinder, better person in the end. Those that say no cite the fact that he never recovered from his insanity and govern his people better as a king. Nevertheless, he comes to realize that he has not been a good king; he has let his own conceitedness blind him from reality. King Lear is humbled by his revelation and becomes much more compassionate as he discovers the feeling of humility. His has a new appreciation for Cordelia and learns to care for his daughter with the selfless love of a parent.

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Synonyms: king-lear

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