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Reference Guide

King Lear - Reference Guides

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King Lear
Act I Introduction • Presentation of the setting, main characters, and
central themes
Act II Development/rising action • Edgar’s flight • Civil unrest
• Disobedience of Goneril and Regan
Act III Climax • Lear loses his mind • Edmund is given his father’s land
Gloucester’s eyes are put out • French army and Cordelia land at
Act IV Denouement/falling action • Presentation of events towards the
ultimate conclusion • Gloucesters attempted suicide • Intrigue
involving Edmund, Goneril, and Regan • Albany emerges as the
Act V Conclusion • Death of all main characters with the exception of
Albany and Edgar
Edmunds betrayal of Gloucester and Edgar parallels the main plot
There is more scheming involved (e.g., Lear readily gave his lands away,
Gloucester must be tricked) • The wickedness of Edmund, Goneril, and
Regan is seen uniformly in their actions
Development • Edgar’s prevention of Gloucesters suicide demonstrates the
belief that the souls of all who take their lives will be damned forever
Attempted suicide would be below the honor of a king • Where Gloucester
fails, Goneril is successful; however, she is summarily punished for her
Attraction between Edmund, Goneril, and Regan shows the attraction
between like-minded individuals • It involves seeking in others for that
which you possess in yourself • Gonerils poisoning of Regan can be seen
as proof of her love for Edmund
• Contrast between blind loyalty (Oswald) and thinking, feeling loyalty
(Kent, the Fool, and Albany)
Cordelias love and loyalty to her father results in their reconciliation
Edgar’s love and loyalty to his father results in reconciliation and prevents
Gloucester’s suicide
• Lear and Gloucester are figures of high authority who are unable to see;
they trust the wrong people
• Goneril, Regan, and Edmund exercise authority over their fathers
• Kent, the Fool, and Edgar are respectful of authority throughout the play
• Gloucester’s lack of insight is his tragic flaw; he is too trusting and naive,
as he sees only the surface of things and people
Gloucester finally sees that he must stand beside his King, but it is too late
(Act III, Scene 3)
• He is blinded (Act III, Scene 7) and thereafter loses heart (“I have no way and
therefore want no eyes; …” [Act IV, Scene 1])
• Lear’s connection with sight stems from refusal to see and is closely tied to
his madness
Involves transition from refusal to dawning awareness and then to an
impassioned struggle for sight
• Symbolized by Edgar, who appears as many characters and chooses when to
reveal himself
• Lear and Gloucester are fooled by appearances and blinded to reality
• Play chronicles the development of true sight, which sees reality
Characters’ own actions work against them
• Display of tragic flaw
Lear’s vanity in asking his daughters to prove the love they bear towards him
(in relation to the love for their husbands)
• Gloucester’s readiness to believe Edmund’s lies about Edgar
Edmund underestimates his brother’s love for their father
• Goneril’s greed and desperation force her over the line of decency
• Regan follows her older sister and pays with her life
King Lear and Old friends • Both are betrayed by their children • Neither has the wisdom to see through duplicitous love • Lear’s insanity leads him to clear perception; Gloucester’s loss of his eyes leads him to clear vision
Gloucester • Both die after having been reunited with their faithful children
Edgar and Edmund Brothers; Edgar is legitimate, Edmund is illegitimate • Clear opposition of good and evil, with good prevailing in the end • As Edmund tries to push his father away, Edgar tries to protect his father from a distance
Kent and The Fool Both try to speak the truth to King Lear; he is deaf to both characters • Kent is part of the action until Lear’s death; the Fool exits the play as soon as his usefulness is exhausted • Although they belong to different classes,
they both show equal honor and loyalty
Goneril and Regan Equal in evil • Neither sister has love for good beings • Both sisters are attracted to Edmund • Neither sister possesses compassion or love • Exclusive thoughts of themselves • Actively feed on the wickedness of the other
• No concrete reference is made to time
• One must assume that some time passes between Lear’s game and
Goneril’s initial bad treatment
• Cordelia has had time to get to France
• Gloucester and Edgar walk from the castle to Dover
• Enough time passes during the play for the French army to land on England’s
• There is also enough time for Goneril and Regan to gather up defensive
• All of the action takes place in England
• Locations include King Lear’s palace, Gloucester’s castle, Duke of Albany’s
palace, the open countryside, French army’s camp near Dover, and the British
army’s camp near Dover
King Lear Once a dignified king; now an old man past his prime • Father to Cordelia, Regan, and Goneril
• Initial flaw involves dividing his lands according to how his daughters express their love
• His madness escalates as the play progresses; it is difficult to know if he is sane • Lucid and
kingly in carrying Cordelias body • Gains true sight after worldly goods are relinquished
Gloucester Father to Edgar and Edmund • A lesser version of Lear; parallel figure to Lear • Gains clear sight
after his eyes are put out • His attempted suicide shows extent of his despair • Desire for women
resulted in bastard son • Desire for death leads to acceptance of human limits
Cordelia Youngest and most beloved of Lears daughters; sister to Goneril and Regan • Developed more by
what others say about her (as opposed to her presence on stage) • Symbol of virtue and truth
• Repents due to not sharing her feelings • Her refusal to tell her father how much she loves him
results in his anger, division of lands between Goneril and Regan, and his final downfall
Edgar Legitimate son of Gloucester; brother to Edmund • Most versatile character • Appears in many
disguises (e.g., good and trusting son, madman, helpful peasant, honorable knight) • Edgar’s
growing wisdom and experience parallel Lear’s decline • Left in charge of England • Steadfast and
loyal • Never doubts his course
Kent Banished at the beginning of the play for telling the truth • In disguise for most of the play;
most loyal and honorable subject of King Lear • Demonstrates male virtue and moral rectitude
The Fool Only present until Act III, Scene 6 • Serves to guide Lear and he tries to steer him towards sanity
• Strengthens position of Kent and Cordelia • Loyal follower • One of the King’s outlets of affection
Goneril Lear’s eldest daughter; sister of Cordelia and Regan • Married to Duke of Albany • Leader in evil
• She demands Gloucester’s punishment; she conceives of the plot to murder her husband and
marry Edmund • Poisons her sister and then kills herself, forfeiting her soul
Regan Married to Duke of Cornwall; Lear’s daughter, sister of Cordelia and Regan • Always willing to take
part in her older sister’s evil plans • Escalates Lear’s decline into madness (e.g., she locks the
castle gate against him in the midst of a storm) • Dies at the hands of Goneril
Edmund Illegitimate son of Gloucester; evil brother of Edgar • Responsible for close ties between main plot
and parallel plot • Tricks his brother for his inheritance (i.e., parallel to Cain in biblical story of Cain
and Abel) • Partially motivated by his illegitimacy • Tries to redeem himself by telling Albany that he
has ordered the death of Lear and Cordelia
Duke of Albany Gonerils husband • Unable to appreciate the depth of his wife’s evil at the outset of the play
• His sense of justice and right surface as he sees Goneril for what she is • He defends England
against France but wishes no harm to Lear and Cordelia
Duke of Cornwall Regan’s husband • A corrupt man without honor • Married Regan for social rank • Unable to think
for himself (i.e., he does his wife’s bidding) • Responsible for blinding Gloucester • He dies a
dishonorable death at the hands of a servant
Oswald Loyal to Goneril • Responsible for carrying messages between Goneril and Edmund
• Messenger between armies of Goneril and Regan
• A foil is a character who can be compared and contrasted to another character • Used to clarify character traits and issues in the play
• Born 1564; died 1616
• Author, playwright, actor, and poet
• Usually credited with writing 37 plays and 152 sonnets
• Plays are divided into the early plays (e.g., The Taming of the Shrew), the comedies (e.g., Much Ado About Nothing), the histories (e.g., Henry V ), the tragedies
(e.g., King Lear), the problem plays (e.g., Measure for Measure), and the romance plays (e.g., The Winter’s Tale)
• Written around 1605
• Source for main plot is Historia Regum Britonum (1136) by Geoffrey of
Monmouth; involves a story of kings that lived in England before the
incarnation of Christ
• Source for parallel plot is Arcadia by Sir Philip Sidney (1590)
• There are many versions of the tale
• However, only Shakespeares version ends with the death of both Cordelia
and Lear
• Protagonist dies while defeating antagonist
• In revenge tragedy, the protagonist is driven by desire to exact revenge,
which leads to his/her demise
• The tragic hero is dominated by a fatal flaw in character, which leads to
his/her downfall
• The tragic hero is held in high standing, making the downfall more tragic for
the audience
• Without divine, human, and natural laws, nature is ruled by chaos
• Nature tamed by laws and put into order is civilization
Family Acts I and II are dedicated to the overturning of family law
• Lear’s division of his lands before his death subverts tradition
of inheritance; results in the breakup of the family unit
Edmund’s desire to inherit his brother’s share of the wealth
also upsets order and results in family disorder
State At the beginning of Act III, rumors of civil war show crumbling
state law • Demonstrates potential breakup of the country
through a lack of leadership • Sets the stage for return to order
through the leadership of Albany and Edgar
Civilization Destroyed on an individual level when Edgar appears as a
naked beggar (Act III, Scene 4) • When Lear sees him, his full
madness is triggered
Mind Destruction of the mind and logic as an ordering system is
seen in Lear • Climax (Act III, Scene 4) shows a mind unhinged
by thwarting of all other laws
Name Description Name Description
Characters Relationship
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