Monday, September 15, 2014

King Lear - synopsis and discussion

While King Lear is thought to be one of Shakespeare’s more difficult works, the play is accessible to advanced high school
students and certainly to most college students. The topics of (1) natural, (2) unnatural, (3) self-knowledge, (4) public
perception, (5) written words, and (6) spoken words are accessible to both levels of student. Whether we can express our
opinions or not, each of us has a basic belief about each of those topics. Sometimes the feeling is innate and inexpressible.
Shakespeare questions this feeling and shows his Elizabethan audience what can happen if accepted belief is challenged. He
turns events on their ear and plays out a tragedy that speaks as eloquently today as it did more than three centuries ago.
Naturally, accepted beliefs came from Elizabethan philosophy; however, many of those beliefs persist in our culture. The
much studied Plato, Aristotle, and Cicero express a particular view concerning appearances: a person’s countenance and
station of birth are relative to the inner person—the more noble the birth, the more noble the soul; the more fair the
countenance, the more fair the soul. Shakespeare’s world was no less interested with a person’s appearance and the flattery
by which one would ply another. This yet is true, and often we define ourselves by our appearance or by what others say
about us. In King Lear, appearances, station, and how what others think influences our actions are examined through
relationships found in family and service: father and child; nobleman and servant (Bradley, p. 226). Even though we
believe that what we look like and what we say are reflections of who we are, Shakespeare, in King Lear, shows that
appearances and words are ever deceiving and are not clear indications of the soul or the mind. Even though Goneril and
Regan are of noble birth, they hardly show noble souls; and although Lear can hardly be considered to have a fair
countenance, he does develop a most fair and loving soul.
In a world dependent on words for communication, each of us comes to value the spoken and written word. Students of
all ages can readily identify with a child who “says what his parents want to hear.” Older, non-traditional students
understand the need to hear a child’s expression of love. Communication between the generations is complicated by our
perception of the elderly. At what age is one “old?” When should a person retire? Older students identify with the desires
of children to be successful and supplant the older generation in the power structure; the young express an impatience to
be in charge and free from the ideas of the “older” generations. Yet, in their desires and expressions, they do not “appear”
as dutiful or respectful children. A related issue the play explores is the granting of the power of an office to a younger
generation without releasing the largess that attends that office. Can one retire from the position of CEO and retain the
respect and authority given to a CEO? Elizabethans, three centuries ago, struggled with the same type of questions. In
King Lear, Shakespeare offers a world where the natural and unnatural are intertwined, appearances and self-perception
are confused, and words—written and spoken—are deceptive.
ACT I, SCENE I. [PP. 39-51]
King Lear ‘s palace, Britain. The Earl of Gloucester and the Earl of Kent discuss how Gloucester loves his two sons equally:
Edmund (the elder), gotten illegitimately; and Edgar (of questionable parentage), gotten before Gloucester married
Edgar’s mother. Although he loves both sons, Edgar is his heir. Their brief discussion frames the next, larger portion of
the scene. Upon his entrance, King Lear announces that he will divest himself of the burdens of rule by dividing his
kingdom among his three daughters: Goneril, Regan, and Cordelia. To measure which daughter deserves the bounteous
“dower,” he calls upon them to speak of their love for him. Goneril and Regan speak well and are rewarded equally.
Cordelia, believing the evidence of her love is greater than her words, speaks “nothing.” Lear disinherits Cordelia for her
untender feelings and divides the remaining third—as well as his power—between Albany and Cornwall, the husbands
of Goneril and Regan, respectively. When Kent tries to dissuade Lear from the rash decision, he is exiled from court. Even
though Cordelia is dowerless, France accepts her hand in marriage for her “unprized precious” virtue.
ACT I, SCENE II. [PP. 51-58]
The Earl of Gloucester’s castle. Edmund introduces his plot to overthrow the claim of his legitimate brother Edgar by
giving a forged letter to Gloucester that implicates Edgar in a scheme of patricide.
A Teacher’s Guide to the Signet Classic Edition of William Shakespeare’s King Lear 2ACT I, SCENE III. [PP. 58-59]
The Duke of Albany’s palace. Goneril is irritated with Lear’s rude, demanding behavior in her home. She instructs
Oswald, her steward, to tell her servants to be less serviceable and colder to Lear and his knights. Goneril wishes to force
Lear into a confrontation so that she may address his offensive behavior.
ACT I, SCENE IV. [PP.60-73]
A hall in the Duke of Albany’s palace. Kent returns disguised to serve his king faithfully. Within the scene, the Fool
imparts wisdom (ln. 121-130) [p. 64] to Lear and in short tells Lear that he was a fool to give away his titles and land,
placing himself in the care of his daughters (an unnatural position that the child should “parent” the father). Goneril
enters, demanding that Lear lose half of his retinue (50 men) if he is to stay with her. Lear roars at her ingratitude and
then assails Albany when he enters, even though Albany is innocent of his wife’s decisions. Lear resolves to live with his
more “natural” daughter, Regan, and he leaves with his men. Over Albany’s objections to not be so rash or harsh, Goneril
calls upon Oswald to carry a letter to Regan informing her of what has transpired with Lear and asking her to stand with
her sister against their father.
ACT I, SCENE V. [PP. 73-75]
The Duke of Albany’s palace. Lear sends the disguised Kent to Regan with letters explaining his side of the argument. The
Fool engages Lear in a verbal battle in which the Fool admonishes Lear for his unnatural, unfatherly, unkingly behaviors.
ACT II, SCENE I. [PP. 76-81]
The Earl of Gloucester’s castle. Edmund learns that Regan and the Duke of Cornwall will be at the castle that night, thus
setting in motion his new plan to usurp his father’s title. Edgar enters. Edmund feigns knowledge of a plot against his
brother and urges Edgar to flee. Edmund cuts himself and pretends upon his father’s entrance that Edgar has attacked
him because Edmund would not aid him in the patricide. Regan and Cornwell enter. Regan informs Gloucester that she
has received letters from both her sister and her father and asks Gloucester to advise her.
ACT II, SCENE II. [PP. 81-88]
Before Gloucester’s castle. Kent and Oswald enter; they trade insults and blows and are parted by Edmund, Regan,
Gloucester, and Cornwall. Cornwall suggests that Kent should be placed in stocks while Gloucester advises against
punishment since it would displease the king. Regan decides to favor her sister rather than her father and issues the orders
to have him punished.
A wood. Edgar realizes that he will have no place of refuge as the “traitor son” of Gloucester; therefore, he resolves to
disguise himself as a madman. “Edgar” will become “nothing.”
ACT II, SCENE IV. [PP. 90-102]
Before Gloucester’s castle with Kent in the stocks. Enter Lear and the Fool to find Kent in the stocks. Lear is angered by
Gloucester when he says that Regan and Cornwall will not see the king. Regan and Cornwall finally enter, releasing Kent
from his stocks. Lear asks Regan to admit him and his retinue to her home. Regan tells him to return to Goneril, to
apologize for his behaviors, and to ask her forgiveness. Goneril enters; the sisters side together against their father. In a
fury, Lear exits with the Fool and Kent into a raging storm.
ACT III, SCENE I. [PP. 103-105]
A heath. Still storms. Kent informs a Gentleman loyal to the king that there is a division between Cornwall and Albany
and that France sends an invasion force to England.
A Teacher’s Guide to the Signet Classic Edition of William Shakespeare’s King Lear 3ACT III, SCENE II. [PP. 105-109]
Another part of the heath. Still storms. Lear rants to the wind about the unnaturalness of daughters turning against a
father. The Fool rhymes that Lear has caused all the trouble himself. Kent persuades Lear to take shelter in a hovel.
ACT III, SCENE III. [PP. 109-110]
Gloucester’s castle. Gloucester confides the rift between Cornwall and Albany to Edmund, informs him of the impending
French force, and advises him that they must side with Lear. Edmund plots to tell all to Cornwall, hoping to depose
Gloucester and gain the title for himself.
ACT III, SCENE IV. [PP. 111-118]
The heath before a hovel. Lear, Kent and the Fool meet Edgar disguised as “Poor Tom,” a madman and beggar. Lear’s madness
and despondency at his situation deepens. Gloucester finds the king and tells him of Goneril’s and Regan’s commands—
to lock Lear out from shelter in hopes that he will die in the storm. All go into the hovel for protection from the storm.
ACT III, SCENE V. [PP. 119-120]
Gloucester’s castle. Edmund reveals Gloucester’s letters describing support of Lear and the French power to Cornwall.
Cornwall grants the Earldom to Edmund who is now referred to as Gloucester by the parties against Lear.
ACT III, SCENE VI. [PP. 120-125]
A chamber in a farmhouse adjoining the castle. Gloucester leaves to find better lodgings than the farmhouse. Lear holds a
mock trial of the absent Goneril and Regan with Edgar as the Magistrate, the Fool as his partner, and Kent as one commissioned
to dispel justice. Lear eventually sleeps. Gloucester returns with news of a plot to kill the king outright. He, Kent, and the
Fool take up Lear in his sleep and begin a journey to Dover where they shall meet the French power and Cordelia.
ACT III, SCENE VII. [PP. 125-130]
Gloucester’s castle. Cornwall sends servants after the elder Gloucester and sends Goneril and Edmund after the fleeing
king. The elder Gloucester is captured, brought before Cornwall, and interrogated. At Regan’s goading, Cornwall attempts
to pluck out the eyes of Gloucester as punishment. A servant tries to stop Cornwall but is run through in the back by
Regan. Cornwall is hurt in the fray yet is able to finish the blinding of Gloucester. Afterward Gloucester is thrust out at
the castle gate to “smell his way to Dover.”
ACT IV, SCENE I. [PP. 131-134]
The heath. Gloucester is led onto the heath by an old man, where they are met by Edgar (still disguised as Poor Tom). At
Gloucester’s urgings, Edgar agrees to lead him to a high cliff at Dover.
ACT IV, SCENE II. [PP. 135-139]
Before the Duke of Albany’s palace. Oswald reports to Goneril and Edmund that Albany has changed his mind about his
wife’s ambitions and the plight of the King, expressing displeasure in her actions. Goneril promises herself to Edmund
should Albany not survive the coming battle. Edmund exits and Albany enters. A messenger enters, informs the two that
Cornwall is dead from the wound he received, and gives Goneril a letter from her sister. Albany is dismayed that Edmund
does not wish to avenge his father’s blinding. With further information of Edmund’s perfidy, Albany appears to become
more resolute against his wife.
ACT IV, SCENE III. [PP.140-142]
The French camp near Dover. A gentleman informs Kent that the King of France has returned home but has left the
A Teacher’s Guide to the Signet Classic Edition of William Shakespeare’s King Lear 4Marshal; that Cordelia was moved to tears when she read Kent’s letters; and that shame prevents Lear (who is now in
Dover) from seeing Cordelia.
ACT IV, SCENE IV. [PP. 142-143]
A tent in the French camp at Dover. Cordelia sends a soldier to find her father to bring him under her doctor’s care. A
messenger tells her that the British Army is advancing toward Dover.
ACT IV, SCENE V. [PP. 144-145]
Gloucester’s castle. Oswald notifies Regan that Albany’s army is on the march. Since Gloucester’s condition would rouse
public outrage against the sisters’ reign, thus giving strength to the cause of Cordelia and the French, Regan advises
Oswald to post a reward for anyone who kills blinded Gloucester. She bids him remind her already-wedded sister Goneril
that Edmund is better suited for her widowed hand.
ACT IV, SCENE VI. [PP. 146-158]
Fields near Dover. Edgar as Poor Tom pretends to take his father to a cliff edge where Gloucester “falls.” This is done so
Edgar may return to his father as a solicitous stranger and so Gloucester may believe himself “reborn” without the “fiend”
that has possessed him, thereby achieving a catharsis of his troubled soul. Lear enters in wild dress, a “natural” man. After
some discussion, the King begins the last step of his catharsis when Gloucester “recognizes” him as the King. When a
gentleman from Cordelia finds Lear, he runs, unwilling to face “capture.” Oswald enters with the intent to kill Gloucester;
Edgar intervenes and kills Oswald in a fight. Edgar reads Goneril’s letter and decides to give the letter to Albany.
ACT IV, SCENE VII. [PP. 158-162]
A tent in the French camp. Lear has been dressed again in royal robes and wakes to speak with Cordelia. He asks her
forgiveness. A gentleman reveals to Kent that Edmund leads Cornwall’s troops.
ACT V, SCENE I. [PP. 163-166]
The British camp near Dover. Edmund sends a gentleman to find what is Albany’s “mind” and purpose. Regan questions
Edmund about his intent with Goneril. Albany enters with his wife and soldiers. In an aside, Goneril confesses that she
does not want to lose Edmund to her sister. Albany enjoins Edmund to use Regan’s forces with his against the French. A
disguised Edgar enters and delivers to Albany Goneril’s letter that was intended for Edmund. Before leaving, Edgar
instructs Albany to issue a challenge against Edmund’s claim for Gloucester’s title and land, revealing that someone
(actually Edgar himself) will answer the call, proving Edmund’s perfidy. In a soliloquy, Edmund vows to side with either
sister who shows the most power and affords him the best opportunities for advancement.
ACT V, SCENE II. [PP. 166-167]
A field between the two camps. The French lose the battle, and Cordelia and Lear are taken captive.
ACT V, SCENE III. [PP. 167-181]
The British camp near Dover. Edmund imprisons Lear and Cordelia. After they are taken off, Edmund instructs a Captain
to hang Cordelia but to make it appear to be a suicide. Albany, Goneril, and Regan enter. Albany treats Edmund
subserviently. Regan and Goneril argue, resulting in Regan offering herself to Edmund. Albany starts to intercede, and
Regan encourages Edmund to battle for her. Albany challenges Edmund’s claims to nobility and accuses him of traitorous
behaviors. A herald issues a general challenge from Edmund to anyone of nobility in the army to disparage his claims.
Edgar responds as planned; they fight, and Edmund falls. Albany charges Edmund with treachery, presenting Goneril’s
letter to him. Goneril leaves, and to save his soul, Edmund confesses all he has done. A gentleman enters with a bloody
knife and reports that Goneril has poisoned Regan and then killed herself. Before he dies, Edmund reveals his orders to
the Captain to hang Cordelia. A gentleman is sent to prevent the murder, but he is too late. Lear enters, carrying dead
A Teacher’s Guide to the Signet Classic Edition of William Shakespeare’s King Lear 5Cordelia in his arms. Lear believes that he sees Cordelia breathe, after which he dies. There is some question—and
considerable discussion—about Lear’s emotional state when he dies: joyous in perceiving Cordelia’s life or grief-stricken
in realizing Cordelia’s death? Edgar and Kent are enjoined by Albany to take up the crown together. Kent refuses because
of his age, and Edgar feels obligated to obey duty.
True to Shakespearean tradition, King Lear borrows its tragic elements from several types of tragedies that were popular
during the Elizabethan Renaissance. Even though King Lear is classified as a chronicle play (a type of drama which draws
its English historical materials from the sixteenth-century chronicles—such as Holinshed’s), Shakespeare uses elements of
Senecan tragedy sometimes called Classical tragedy, and the morality play.
As a tragedy, King Lear portrays a protagonist whose fortunes are conditioned by his hamartia. As defined by Aristotle,
the protagonist of a tragedy should be a person “who is not eminently good or just, yet whose fortune is brought about
by some error or frailty.” This error is not necessarily a flaw in character; hamartia can be an unwitting misstep in definite
action or the failure to perform a definite action. Lear’s hamartia is the capricious division of his powers and kingdom
before his death—more particularly, the disavowal of Cordelia because she will speak “nothing.”
To enhance this chronicle with a tragedy of character, Shakespeare incorporates a few Senecan elements: (1) the use of stock
characters—a faithful male servant (Kent); (2) the employment of sensational themes drawn from Greek mythology, involving
much use of “blood and lust;” and (3) stichomythia—dialogue that is conducted by two characters speaking in alternate
lines (though strict regularity is not maintained). To balance the stock characters, Shakespeare also used characters that
were consistently good or evil in their intent, echoing the pattern of a morality play. Edmund, Regan, and Goneril
embody avarice, envy, anger, lust, and pride; while Edgar and Cordelia embody faithfulness and unconditional love.
Other elements which became unique to Elizabethan tragedy make King Lear a psychologically horrific viewing: most
horrors are executed off stage to be reported by a messenger, yet Shakespeare keeps the blinding of Gloucester in full view
of the audience, pandering to popular tastes. In all, the Senecan influence on English tragedy is seen most in drama as a
field for the study of human emotion.
Note: Further study of Shakespearean tragedy is found in A. C. Bradley’s seminal work, reprinted in the Signet Classic
edition of King Lear, pp. 225-242.
Geoffrey of Monmouth, in his Historia Regum Britanniae, written around 1137, was the first known writer to recount
an integrated story of Lear and his daughters, though the figure of Lyr or Ler dates from ancient British mythology. In
the sixteenth century the chronicler Raphael Holinshed adopted the story from Geoffrey and inserted it into his The
Chronicles of England, Scotlande and Irelande, as did Edmund Spenser in The Faerie Queene and John Higgins in A Mirror
for Magistrates, all of which have been suggested as probable sources for King Lear .
However, the principal direct source for Shakespeare’s play appears to be The True Chronicle History of King Leir, despite
the differences between the two. Whereas Shakespeare’s drama ends on a tragic note, the old chronicle presents a happy
ending in which Cordella’s forces are victorious against the armies of Gonerill and Ragan, and Leir is restored to his
throne, where he reigns for a few years and dies peacefully. Lear’s madness was also not a part of the chronicle story, nor
was the tragic subplot of Gloucester and his sons, a story Shakespeare adapted from Philip Sidney’s “The Tale of the Blind
King of Paphlagonia,” published in his The Countess of Pembroke’s Arcadia.
Two other important sources for King Lear were John Florio’s translation of Montaigne’s Essays and Samuel Harsentt’s A
Declaration of Egregious Popishe Impostures. Critics have pointed out that over one hundred words Shakespeare never used
before he wrote King Lear can be found in Florio’s translation, and that Montaigne’s most famous essay, “Apology for
Raymond Sebonde,” contains references to the major themes presented in Shakespeare’s play. Harsnett’s Declaration, many
commentators have acknowledged, provided Shakespeare with the name of the fiends Tom O’Bedlam mentions in Act
IV, Scene i, [pp. 133-134] as well as other features of the three storm scenes. Finally, the true contemporary story of Sir
Brian Annesley, who was unjustly treated by two of his daughters in a competency trial and defended by a third
(remarkably named Cordell), has also been suggested as a possible source. (From Shakespearean Criticism, vol. 2, p. 88).
Note: Further study of the sources of King Lear is found in the Signet Classic edition, pp. 190-211.
A Teacher’s Guide to the Signet Classic Edition of William Shakespeare’s King Lear 6SHAKESPEARE’S LANGUAGE
In the high school classroom, students tend to perceive Shakespearean language as “Old English.” This perception allows for
a short lesson that teaches the history and development of the language. Students can research each period (Old English,
449-1100; Middle English, 1100-1500; and Modern English, 1500-present) and present their findings to the class,
providing examples of words that were added to the language. Advanced students can select dialects from each period (Old
English—Northumbrian, Mercian, West Saxon, and Kentish; Middle English—Northern, West Midland, East Midland,
Southern, and Kentish) and explain the linguistic development of the dialect as influenced by invading civilizations.
Once students learn that Shakespeare is considered “modern” and appreciate to some extent the manner in which the
English language developed, they can more readily accept the dynamic use of English that was unique to Shakespeare’s
works. Equally amazing is that Shakespeare added several thousand words to the language as well as added new meanings
to known words. This alone keeps Shakespeare’s works from being considered stagnant. The dynamic aspect of language
is well-documented by the editor’s use of glossing for more difficult translations in the play. The glosses can be another
example to students of the mutability of language. As an exercise, students can brainstorm words that are currently in use
that did not have the same meaning for their parents’ generation.
Shakespearean English can be difficult to understand, but the emotions tied to the words (love, hate, jealousy, sorrow) are
readily understood by students of all abilities. Allow students opportunities to discuss and teach the meaning of the
language and, thereby, the meaning of the play. The following are a few suggestions to engage students.
*King Lear is replete with metaphors involving animals. Usually the animal is a reference to a behavior. Students should
be familiar with this device as own their language carries similar metaphors—“Sly as a Fox,” “Busy as a Bee,”.... Students
can search through the play for metaphors that decode behavior. Discussions can involve why Shakespeare chose that
particular animal rather than another, leading to a more abstract concept of writing effective poetry. After these
discussions, a natural activity would be for students to write animal metaphors of their own.
“that she may feel/How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is/To have a thankless
child.” (Lear, I, iv, 294-96) [p. 70]
“When she shall hear this of thee, with her nails/She’ll flay thy wolvish visage.”
(Lear, I, iv, 314-315) [p. 71]
“Such smiling rogues as these,/Like rats, oft bite the holy cords atwain/Which are
too intrince t’unloose; smooth every passion/That in the natures of their lords
rebel,/Being oil to fire, snow to the colder moods;/Renege, affirm, and turn their
halcyon beaks/With every gale and vary of their masters,/Knowing naught, like
dogs, but following.” (Kent, II, ii, 75-82) [p. 84]
“O Regan, she hath tied/Sharp-toothed unkindness, like a vulture, here.”
(Lear, II, iv, 133-34) [p. 95]
“She hath abated me of half my train,/Looked black upon me, struck me with her
tongue,/Most serpentlike, upon the very heart.” (Lear, II.iv.158-160) [p. 96]
“Because I would not see thy cruel nails/Pluck out his poor old eyes; nor thy fierce
sister/In his anointed flesh rash boarish fangs.” (Gloucester, III.vii.57-59) [p. 128]
“I’ th’ last night’s storm I such a fellow saw,/Which made me think a man a worm.”
(Gloucester, IV, i, 32-33) [p. 132]
“Tigers, not daughters, what have you performed?” (Albany, IV.ii.40) [p. 137]
“They flattered me like a dog, and told me I had white hairs in my beard ere the
black ones were there.” (Lear, IV, vi, 97-99) [p. 150]
“Edmund, I arrest thee/On capital treason; and in thy attaint/This gilded serpent.”
(Albany, V, iii, 83-85) [p. 171]
• Unlocking Shakespeare’s Language: Help for the Teacher and Student (NCTE, 1989) is an excellent guide/workbook to
help students understand Shakespeare’s language. It contains explanations and planned activities engaging students
in close study of his language.
A Teacher’s Guide to the Signet Classic Edition of William Shakespeare’s King Lear 7Since actors perform the play’s language, students can paraphrase the monologues and soliloquies and then act them out
for their classmates. More able students may find it challenging to act the original work, giving meaning to the language
through intonation and movement.
Before reading the play, students would benefit to know the basic story of King Lear, just as did Shakespeare’s audience.
Selections from Holinshed’s The Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland, Sidney’s Arcadia, and the True Chronicle
History of King Leir are in the Signet Classic edition (pp. 193-211). Shakespeare’s audience would have been familiar with
these versions of the story. Average students may benefit from viewing a film version of the play (1969, directed by Peter
Brook, starring Paul Scofield and Irene Worth, b/w, 134 min.); however, the director’s interpretation of the play may
influence students’ perceptions of character, plot, and theme. Another option would be to read a story version of the play.
Charles and Mary Lamb authored Tales from Shakespeare, available in a Signet Classic paperback, a book that retells
Shakespeare’s major plays into short stories.
Students should be more comfortable discussing difficult themes found in the play by writing about them in response
journals. Take every opportunity to help students make connections between the play and the journals and invite students
to relate their own experiences to that of the characters. Such comparisons between personal and fictional accounts make
the play more accessible to students. The following topics can be used for journal writing and/or small group discussion:
1. Most people identify themselves by what they do—athlete, scholar, entrepreneur, accountant, doctor, waiter, etc. Does
your vocation—a regular occupation, especially one for which a person is particularly suited or qualified—define you? Is
that who you are? How do you decide who you are?
2. During your life you have either heard (or have said), “My parents/teachers just don’t understand.” What does this really
mean? Explain how this type of “generation gap” affects or has affected you.
3. One of the more recent concerns of our nation is how to accommodate a growing senior citizen population, yet as individuals
we tend to ignore the concerns of the elderly until we are counted among them. We seem to be overwhelmingly interested
in being and staying young. When the time comes, how will you take care of the senior citizens in your family? What are
your concerns about growing older?
4. Part of the fun of acting is dressing up and for a time being someone other than yourself. You experience the same type
of fun if you dress up at Halloween, go to a costume party, or maybe even attend a prom or other formal occasion.
However, clothes do not necessarily change who you are. How may appearances be deceiving?
5. In a nation that demands that promises be in writing before they are honored, the spoken word and its meaning is
devalued. How are spoken words deceptive? Describe a time when you have been deceived—or you have deceived
someone—by spoken words.
6. In the check-out line at your local grocery you are assaulted by tabloid headlines blaring alien dogs, four-feet tall walking
frogs, and a host of other oddities. You give these little credence, but most of us are influenced by advertising claims. How
deceptive is the written word? How do you protect yourself from such deceptions? Describe a time that you have been
deceived by written words.
7. “Honor your father and your mother that your days may be long upon the land” (Exodus 20:12). Most have heard this
Old Testament commandment, but what does it mean? How do you honor your parents? How important is it?
8. Find an article in a newspaper or a magazine that details an injustice. Respond to that injustice. How should the injustice
be righted?
9. Think back to when you did something wrong and another person was hurt, emotionally or physically, by your error. Did
you confess your error? Why or why not?
A Teacher’s Guide to the Signet Classic Edition of William Shakespeare’s King Lear 8WHILE READING
All Ability Levels: Shakespeare’s work is best appreciated when it is performed. The meaning of the words becomes clearer
when heard. Emotional intent is more easily divined when other students listen to what is said. Reading out loud,
performing the play, listening to an audiocassette, or watching a film version provides a rich context to reiterate word
choice and to introduce denotation and connotation.
Lower Ability Levels: Critical thinking questions ask a student to use insight and make connections between the plot of the
play, the inference of the words, and what she or he knows of the world. Because this activity may be difficult for some students,
utilize mixed ability groups to discuss the questions. Utilizing cooperative learning by assigning one or two questions per
group and then having students teach the class should encourage them to extend themselves beyond obvious answers.
Higher Ability Levels: Students may use the questions as a study guide before they make a closer analysis of the play with
the teacher and their peers.
1. Why does Lear favor Goneril’s and Regan’s professions of love over Cordelia’s? (I, i)
2. How is this favoritism related to the exiling of Kent? (varied opinions)
3. Why does Edmund wish to overthrow Edgar’s claim to his father’s title? (I, ii)
4. In what manner has Lear offended Goneril and her household? (I, iii)
5. How is she justified in her anger? (varied opinions)
6. According to the Fool’s arguments, how has Lear “deserved” this poor treatment from Goneril? (I, iv)
1. How does Edmund make himself appear to be the better son in Gloucester’s eyes? (II, i)
2. Why should the reader not be surprised at Regan’s decision to side with her sister rather than her father? (II, ii)
3. List and discuss Edgar’s reasons for playing the part of Poor Tom. (II, iii)
4. How do Goneril and Regan assert power over their father, thus driving him into a raging storm? (II, iv)
1. How does the information that France sends troops impact the political strife that is beginning in England? (III, i—varied opinions)
2. In what manner has Lear caused all the strife that occurs between himself and his daughters? (III, ii)
3. In what sense are the Fool’s assertions true? (III, ii)
4. In what sense are the Fool’s assertions false? (III, ii)
5. In what sense is it ironic that Gloucester confides his good intentions in his illegitimate son, Edmund? (III, iii)
6. Compare the madness of Lear to the madness of Poor Tom (Edgar). (III, iv)
7. How is Edmund rewarded for his treachery? (III, v)
A Teacher’s Guide to the Signet Classic Edition of William Shakespeare’s King Lear 98. What are the judgments of mankind issued against Goneril and Regan in Lear’s court? (III, vi)
9. How is the blindness of Gloucester symbolic to the blindness of Lear? (III, vii —varied opinions)
1. Why would Gloucester prefer to be led by the madman (Edgar) rather than by a faithful retainer? (IV, i)
2. How does Goneril compound her sins against her family? (IV, ii)
3. How does Albany perceive his wife? (IV, ii)
4. Why is it natural that Lear would not wish to see his daughter Cordelia? (IV, iii)
5. How does Regan compound her sins against her family? (IV, v)
6. How does Edgar begin the process of righting the unnatural events that have occurred? (IV, vi)
7. How does Cordelia react to her father’s words? (IV, vii)
1. How is the division between Goneril and Regan furthered? (V, i)
2. Why does it seem that Edmund has more power than any other character? (V, iii)
3. In what manner and under what authority does Albany reclaim any power that Edmund may have? (V, iii)
4. Under what circumstance may Edgar answer Edmund’s challenge? (V, iii)
5. How does Edmund justify or reconcile himself with his fall from grace? (V, iii)
6. What one act would provide possible redemption for Edmund, and why is Edmund compelled to perform that act? (V, iii)
7. How is the power of the realm realigned at the end of the play, and why do we not have a feeling of completion or
satisfaction from this realignment? (V, iii)
All Ability Levels: A reading response journal helps evaluate a student’s understanding, analyze a character, or discuss a difficult
or interesting aspect of the play. A reading response journal may be required in which the student writes personal responses,
observations, questions, feelings, and even digressions about the reading. Uses of a reading journal are limitless; however, minimum
requirements and the method of evaluation should be discussed with students before given as an on-going assignment.
Lower Ability Levels: The reading journal may be used after a scene has been discussed to serve as a “post-test” or to
record the student’s thoughts before leaving the classroom and losing the feeling of the moment.
High Ability Levels: The reading journal may be used to replace questions, especially if students are asked to read outside
the classroom.
Lower Ability Levels: Small group discussions may help students understand these complex themes. While most students
will have a unique opinion about a theme, they may have more difficulty understanding the messages embedded in the
language. Allowing students to discuss their opinions in small groups encourages them to explore new perspectives and
the language, prompting the group to find a more precise meaning or importance of a theme. Possibly, assign one theme
to each group, giving each specific objectives. Then the groups may teach the other students in the class about the theme.
A Teacher’s Guide to the Signet Classic Edition of William Shakespeare’s King Lear 10Higher Ability Levels: While small group discussions will help broaden the perspective of all students, academically
motivated students benefit from research. Distribute copies of criticism, allowing a close analysis of the work. Encourage
students to question the critics and formulate their own ideas about the themes in the work. Once students are
comfortable with the material, they may write a short research paper discussing their findings about a theme.
• The natural and the unnatural are found often in Shakespeare’s plays. Within King Lear, Shakespeare twines natural
occurrences (an eclipse) around unnatural politics (I, ii, 112-127) [pp. 55-56], linking them to provide an unusual
context for discussion. Some characters believe (as did some of the Elizabethan audience) that the astronomical events
portended the “unnaturalness” of all that occurs in Lear. However, Edmund—who is central to the subplot—believes
“this is the excellent foppery of the world, that when we are sick in fortune, often the surfeits of our own behavior,
we make guilty of our disasters the sun, the moon, and stars” (I, ii, 128-131) [p. 56]. Shakespeare questions if man
determines his own fortune rather than nature, fate, or destiny. Given the follies sown by Lear and Gloucester and
the destruction that is reaped from the guilty and innocent alike, one would be inclined to agree with Edmund’s first
assessment; yet before his death, Edmund admits that fortune’s wheel has come full circle, depositing him below his
brother where he began his quest for land and legitimacy. Rather than interpreting Shakespeare’s intent for the
students, have them write opinion essays, discuss in small groups, or debate the theme.
• Closely related is the theme of self-knowledge and appearance or reputation as a definition of the character or person.
To be known as honest and moral is as important as to behave honestly and morally. Edgar says as much when he
resigns himself to “be” Poor Tom (II, iii, 1-21 [p. 89] & IV, i, 1-9 [p. 131]). But how we perceive ourselves may not
be how we are perceived by others. Lear believes himself a great and respected King; Goneril, Regan, and the Fool
constantly remind him that he is an old man who has lost his kingdom, his faithful daughter, and his wits through
his own folly. Part of this description is found in the relationships of the characters. Just as our parentage defines in
part who we are, Lear becomes nothing more than Goneril’s father or a shadow of his former self when he relinquishes
his kingdom. Shakespeare is posing questions of public perception and self-knowledge. Do these concepts exist in
harmony, or do they conflict?
• In no other Shakespearean play is more made of nothing. “Nothing” binds a daughter to her father, and “nothing”
is a note that severs a father’s love and in turn makes a son “nothing.” Always one to make something from nothing,
Shakespeare offers an intriguing look at the deconstruction of two men. Lear, in his whimsical desire to hear how he
is esteemed, makes the error of trusting the substance of spoken words. He is not concerned with the truth and thus
mistakes Cordelia’s response for an insult, a non-answer. She will not give him the words he desires because they do
not hold the substance of what she knows to be truth. Until the final scene, Lear asks who and what he is, and he is
told (most bluntly by the Fool) that he is nothing. He no longer has importance to the other characters. However,
Kent, the Fool, and Cordelia make him more than nothing by serving faithfully, speaking bluntly, and loving
unconditionally (respectively).
• Ironically, if Gloucester had trusted in words as did Lear, then his ruin would not have occurred. When Edmund says
the letter (the forgery) he holds is nothing, he is truthful. Yet, Gloucester would not trust the truth of the words. He
must see the fact of the matter and must read the letter to determine if it is nothing. The metaphor of sight and of
recognition is closely tied to the theme played out in this sub-plot. Since Gloucester will only trust in words he sees,
he will continue to be deceived until he loses his sight. He is forced into a world where he must rely on only the
sound and general meaning of a word when he is blinded by Cornwall. Through this deprivation, he regains his sight
or his understanding of truth and is able to recognize Lear as a voice that is the king. For even in his madness, Lear
is more kingly at the end than at the beginning of the play.
Students can use these quotes as the basis for response journal writings and discussions of Shakespeare’s themes.
“Which of you shall we say doth love us most,/That we our largest bounty may extend/Where nature doth with
merit challenge.” (Lear, I, i, 53-55) [p. 41]
“What shall Cordelia speak? Love, and be silent.” (Cordelia, I, i, 64) [p. 41]
“I am sure my love’s/more ponderous than my tongue.” (Cordelia, I, i, 79-80) [p. 42]
A Teacher’s Guide to the Signet Classic Edition of William Shakespeare’s King Lear 11“I cannot heave/My heart into my mouth. I love your Majesty/According to my bond, no more nor less.”
(Cordelia, I, i, 93-95) [p. 42]
“You have begot me, bred me, loved me. I /Return those duties back as are right fit,/Obey you, love you, and
most honor you.” (Cordelia, I, i, 98-100) [p. 43]
“Love’s not love/When it is mingled with regards that stands/Aloof from th’entire point.” (France, I, i, 240-242)
[p. 48]
“Since that respects of fortune are his love,/I shall not be his wife.” (Cordelia, I, i, 250-251) [p. 49]
“I’ll go with thee./Thy fifty yet doth double five-and-twenty,/And thou are twice her love.” (Lear, II, iv, 257-59)
[p. 100]
“with strained pride/To come betwixt our sentence and our power,/Which nor our nature nor our place can
bear,/Our potency made good, take thy reward.” (Lear, I, i, 171-174) [p. 46]
“therefore beseech you/T’avert your liking a more worthier way/Than on a wretch whom nature is ashamed”
(Lear, I, i, 211-213) [p. 47]
“Sure her offense/Must be of such unnatural degree /That monsters it” (France, I, i, 220-222) [p. 48]
“Is it but this? A tardiness in nature/Which often leaves the history unspoke/That it intends to do.” (France, I,
i, 237-239) [p. 48]
“Thou, Nature, art my goddess; to thy law/My services are bound. ... Who, in the lusty stealth of nature,
take/More composition and fierce quality/Than doth, within a dull, stale, tired bed,/Go to th’creating a whole
tribe of fops/Got ‘tween asleep and wake?” (Edmund, I, ii, 1-2 ... 11-15) [p. 51-52]
“His very opinion in the/letter. Abhorred villain, unnatural, detested, brutish villain” (Gloucester, I, ii, 80-82)
[p. 54]
“Though the wisdom of Nature can reason it thus and thus, yet Nature finds itself scourged by the sequent
effects. Love cools, friendship falls off, brothers divide.” (Gloucester, I, ii, 113-116) [p. 55]
“A credulous father, and a brother noble,/Whose nature is so far from doing harms/That he suspects none; on
whose foolish honesty/My practices ride easy.” (Edmund, I, ii, 192-195) [p. 58]
“Degenerate bastard, I’ll not trouble thee:/Yet have I left a daughter.” (Lear, I, iv, 260-261) [p. 69]
“Which, like an engine, wrenched my frame of nature/From the fixed place; drew from my heart all love,/And
added to the gall.” (Lear, I, iv, 275-227) [p. 70]
“Hear, Nature, ...Suspend thy purpose...Create her child of spleen, that it may live/And be a thwart disnatured
torment to her.” (Lear, I, iv, 282-290) [p. 70]
“Seeing how loathly opposite I stood/To his unnatural purpose” (Edmund, II, i, 51-52) [p. 78]
“and of my land,/Loyal and natural boy, I’ll work the means/To make thee capable.” (Gloucester, II, i, 85-87)
[p. 79
“You cowardly rascal, nature disclaims in thee. A/tailor made thee.” (Kent, II, ii, 55-56) [p. 83]
“We are not ourselves/When nature, being oppressed, commands the mind/To suffer with the body.” (Lear, II,
iv, 105-107) [p. 94]
“O, sir, you are old,/nature in you stands on the very verge/Of his confine.” (Regan, II, iv, 145-147) [p. 96]
“Allow not nature more than nature needs,/Man’s life is cheap as beast’s.” (Lear, II, iv, 265-266) [p. 101]
“making just report/Of how unnatural and bemadding sorrow/the King hath cause to plain.” (Kent, III, i, 37-
39) [p. 104]
A Teacher’s Guide to the Signet Classic Edition of William Shakespeare’s King Lear 12“Death, traitor; nothing could have subdued nature/To such a lowness but his unkind daughters.” (Lear, III, iv,
70-71) [p. 114]
“How, my lord, I may be censured, that nature thus gives way to loyalty, something fears me to think of.”
(Edmund, III, v, 3-5) [p. 119]
“Opresshd nature sleeps.” (Kent, III, vi, 96) [p. 124]
“Edmund, enkindle all the sparks of nature/To quit this horrid act.” (Gloucester, III, vii, 87-88) [p. 129]
“I fear your disposition:/That nature which contemns its origin/Cannot be bordered certain in itself;/She that
herself will sliver and disbranch/From her material sap, perforce must wither/And come to deadly use.” (Albany,
IV, ii., 1-36) [pp. 136-137]
“Nature’s above art in that respect.” (Lear, IV, vi, 86) [p. 149]
“O ruined piece of nature!” (Gloucester, IV, vi, 136) [p. 151]
“I am even/The natural fool of fortune.” (Lear, IV, vi, 192-93) [p. 154]
“Thou has one daughter/Who redeems nature from the general curse/Which twain have brought her to.”
(Gentleman, IV, vi, 208-210) [p. 154]
“I know what you are,/And, like a sister, am most loath to call/Your faults as they are named.” (Cordelia, I, i,
271-273) [pp. 49-50]
“‘Tis the infirmity of his age; yet he hath ever but slenderly known himself.” (Regan, I, i, 295-296) [p. 50]
(Lear) “Dost thou know me, fellow?” (Kent) “No, sir, but you have that in your countenance which I would fain
call master.” (I, iv, 27-29) [p. 61]
“Does any here know me? This is not Lear.” (Lear, I, iv, 232) [p. 68]
(Lear) “Who is it that can tell me who I am?” (Fool) “Lear’s shadow.” (I, iv, 236-37) [p. 68]
“Why, what a monstrous fellow are thou, thus to rail on one that is neither known of thee nor knows thee!”
(Oswald, II, ii, 25-27) [p. 82]
“I know, sir, I am no flatterer. He that beguiled you in a plain accent was a plain knave” (Kent, II, ii, 112-113)
[p. 86]
“Sir, I do know you,/And dare upon the warrant of my note/Commend a dear thing to you.” (Kent, III, i, 17-
19) [p. 104]
“I know thee well. A serviceable villain,/As duteous to the vices of thy mistress/As badness would desire.” (Edgar,
IV, vi, 256-258) [p. 157]
(Herald) “What are you?” (Edgar) “Know, my name is lost;/By treason’s tooth bare-gnawn and canker-bit:/Yet I
am noble as the adversary/I come to cope.” (V, iii, 120-124) [p. 172-173]
(Albany) “Know’st thou this paper? (Goneril) “Ask me not what I know.” (V, iii, 162) [p. 174]
“Sir, I love you more than word can wield the matter;/Dearer than eyesight, space and liberty;/Beyond what can
be valued, rich or rare;/No less than life, with grace, health, beauty, honor;/As much as child e’er loved, or father
found;/A love that makes breath poor, and speech unable:/Beyond all manner of so much I love you.” (Goneril,
I, i, 57-63) [p. 41]
“I profess myself an enemy to all other joys/Which the most precious square of sense professes,/And find I am
alone felicitate/In you dear Highness’ love.” (Regan, I, i, 74-78) [p. 42]
A Teacher’s Guide to the Signet Classic Edition of William Shakespeare’s King Lear 13“Thy youngest daughter does not love thee least,/Nor are those empty-hearted whose low sounds/Reverb no
hollowness.” (Kent, I, i, 154-156) [p. 45]
“See better, Lear, and let me still remain/The true blank of thine eye.” (Kent, I, i, 160-161) [p. 45]
“Sith thus thou wilt appear,/Freedom lives hence, and banishment is here.” (Kent, I, i, 182-183) [p. 46]
“I do profess to be no less than I seem, to/serve him truly that will put me in trust, to love/him that is honest,
to converse with him that is/wise and says little, to fear judgment, to fight/when I cannot choose, and to eat no
fish.” (Kent, I, iv, 14-18) [p. 60]
“How far your eyes may pierce I cannot tell” (Albany, I, iv, 352) [p. 73]
“Draw, seem to defend yourself; now quit you well.” (Edmund, II, i, 32) [p. 77]
(Gloucester) “Now, good sir, what are you?” (Edgar) “A most poor man, made tame to fortune’s blows;/Who,
by the art of known and feeling sorrows,/Am pregnant to good pity.” (IV, vi, 223-226) [p. 155]
“Nothing will come of nothing. Speak again.” (Lear, I, i, 92) [p. 42]
“If aught within that little seeming substance,/Or all of it, with our displeasure pieced,/And nothing more, may
fitly like your Grace,/She’s there and she is yours.” (Lear, I, i, 200-203) [p. 47]
“Nothing. I have sworn. I am firm.” (Lear, I, i, 247) [p. 49]
“The quality of nothing hath not such need to hide itself. Let’s see. Come, if it be nothing, I shall not need
spectacles.” (Gloucester, I, ii, 34-36) [pp. 52-53]
“Find out this villain, Edmund; it shall lose thee nothing.” (Gloucester, I, ii, 124-125) [pp. 55-56]
Kent: “This is nothing, Fool.” Fool: “Then ‘tis like the breath of a unfeed lawyer—you gave me nothing for’t.
Can you make no use of nothing, Nuncle?” Lear: “Why, no, boy. Nothing can be made out of nothing.” (I, iv,
131-136) [pp. 64-65]
“I had rather be any kind o’ thing than a Fool, and yet I would not be thee, Nuncle; thou hast pared thy wit o’
both sides and left nothing i’ th’ middle.” (Fool, I, iv, 189-192) [pp. 66-67]
“I am better than thou art now: I am a Fool, thou art nothing.” (Fool, I, iv, 199-200) [p. 67]
“So your face bids me, though you say nothing.” (Fool, I, iv, 201-202) [p. 67]
“Have you nothing said/Upon his party ‘gainst the Duke of Albany?” (Edmund, II, i, 27-28) [p. 77]
“art nothing but the composition of a knave” (Kent, II, ii, 20-21) [p. 82]
“Away, I have nothing to do with thee. (Oswald, II, ii, 35) [p. 83]
“Nothing almost sees miracles/But misery.” (Kent, II, ii, 168-69) [p. 88]
“Poor Turlygod, Poor Tom, That’s something yet: Edgar I nothing am.” (Edgar, II, iii, 20-21) [p. 89]
“tears his white hair,/Which the impetuous blasts, with eyeless rage,/Catch in their fury, and make nothing of”
(Gentleman, III, i, 7-9) [p. 103]
“No, I will be the pattern of all patience,/ I will say nothing.” (Lear, III, ii, 37-38) [p. 107]
“Go to; say you nothing.” (Gloucester, III, iii, 8) [p. 110]
“Couldst thou save nothing?” (Lear, III, iv, 64) [p. 113]
“Death, traitor; nothing could have subdued nature/To such a lowness but his unkind daughters.” (Lear, III, iv,
70-71) [p. 114]
“The wretch that thou has blow unto the worst/Owes nothing to thy blasts.” (Edgar, IV, i, 8-9) [p. 131]
A Teacher’s Guide to the Signet Classic Edition of William Shakespeare’s King Lear 14“Y’are much deceived: in nothing am I changed/But in my garments.” (Edgar, IV, vi, 9-10) [p. 146]
“thou are in nothing less/Than I have here proclaimed thee.” (Albany, V, iii, 95-96) [p. 171]

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