Professor Colin Gardner

    This article is based on a talk presented by to a school audience.

    All Shakespeare’s play are remarkable, but many would regard King Lear is perhaps the most remarkable of them all. An amazing amount of value – narrative and dramatic power, human knowledge and insight, sheer poetry – is packed into this play, which on the Elizabethan stage would have taken about three hours to perform.

    The play has two plots or stories, though these two plots become more and more intertwined as the play proceeds.  And the two plots are similar in various ways, and each serves to echo the other and to reinforce the point of the other story. The main plot tells us of King Lear, who in a fit of anger banishes his good daughter Cordelia and his friend the Duke of Kent, and then is cruelly treated by his evil daughters Goneril and Regan. The second plot (or sub-plot) tells us of the Duke of Gloucester, who together with his son Edgar is deceived and cruelly treated by his illegitimate son Edmund. Shockingly badly treated though they have been, Kent in disguise manages to help Lear, and Edgar in disguise manages to help his father Gloucester.

    Set out in those terms, the play is clearly skilfully constructed and organised, but as one encounters the play – reads it and fully imagines it –one realises that there is nothing neat and certainly nothing predictable about it all. In fact, besides being very dramatic, the play is very complex.

    I am going to ask myself a number of questions:

    1. We know that Cordelia is good, but is she really right to challenge her father in the way she does in the opening scene?
    2. Lear is rash to banish Cordelia and Kent. Could we say that he gets what he deserves? And what of Gloucester?
    3. What do we make of the Fool?
    4. Why does Edgar behave as he does as he acts out the part of poor Tom?
    5. How should we respond to and interpret Lear’s madness? What sort of wisdom does he acquire? And what of Gloucester?
    6. What do we make of the play’s ending?


    1.   We know that Cordelia is good, but is she really right to challenge her father in the way she does in the opening scene?

    Cordelia simply finds that she is appalled by the insincere statements made by her sisters. She has no desire to indulge in that kind of flattery, and she knows instinctively that her father is being vain and self-indulgent to demand these statements of love. After all, you show your love of your father by the way you act, by what you are – and Lear, in his more sensible moments, has been aware of this because he clearly has a special affection for Cordelia. Cordelia’s honesty and integrity simply don’t allow her to play her father’s foolish game. Besides, she has two potential suitors waiting for her, and she is perfectly sensible and reasonable to say: ‘Sure I shall never marry like my sisters, / To love my father all.’


    2.   Lear is rash to banish Cordelia and Kent. Could we say that he gets what he deserves? And what of Gloucester?

    It’s clear, then, that Lear behaves badly in the opening scene. He is old; he has been king for a long time; he seems to have grown used to people looking up to him and flattering him and obeying his wishes. He has a terrible temper tantrum, and this leads him to reject his favourite daughter and to banish Kent, who clearly honours the king and likes him. Should we conclude then that the moral of the play (if the play can be said to have a simple moral) is that if you do something wild and rash you may well suffer for it for the rest of your life, and that you have only yourself to blame? I think the play does suggest this up to a point – after all, there is no doubt that Lear does in a sense ‘ask for it’ – but no, that is not the main point of the play, not at all. King Lear is a tragedy, and one has only got the real meaning of the play when one recognises that tragedy involves suffering that is undeserved and ultimately inexplicable. When a person does something wrong and gets duly punished for it: that’s what one might call a morality play, or a crime-does-not-pay story. But a tragedy is when the main character suffers in a way thatcan’t be explained: it is for this reason that tragedies are plays which lead us to ask further questions about life and the universe in which we live. Is the universe just? How do we explain evil? You will probably have noticed that there is a good deal of talk about God and the gods – by Lear, by Gloucester, by Edgar. That’s because the suffering endured by Lear and Gloucester, and by others, leads us to ask questions of this sort.

    Lear himself, at one of those moments where we trust what he says, makes the point that he doesn’t deserve what is happening to him. He says: ‘I am a man / More sinned against than sinning.’ He recognises very well that he has done wrong, but what is happening to him is disproportionate, far greater and more terrible than anything that he could have deserved.

    As Lear rages in the storm, and when his mind finally snaps, he is constantly asking this question: How can his two daughters be like this? How can we explain the evil that seems to animate them? How can we account for the harsh realities that bear down upon human life? When Lear asks Poor Tom (whom at that stage he is regarding as a learned philosopher) – when he asks ‘What is the cause of thunder?’ the question perhaps sounds stupid but it is in fact a serious question. He is not looking for a scientific answer, of the kind that scientists could give nowadays, but he is wondering what it is in the nature of the universe which produces the violence within lightning and thunder – and of course in the scenes on the heath in the dreadful storm the wild forces of nature seem to collaborate with the wild cruelty of Goneril and Regan and Cornwall and Edmund.

    I say Lear asks these questions about suffering and evil and violence and justice, but of course Shakespeare is using Lear and the whole play to ask these questions for himself. An artist like Shakespeare uses his play as a way of probing, as a way of trying to come to terms with some of the most difficult questions and problems posed by human existence. That, we can be pretty sure, is largely why Shakespeare wrote this play. He was of course a professional dramatist, and he needed to produce plays for his company to act, and he loved the stories that he found and remoulded for his own purposes, and he created characters with exuberance and obvious pleasure. But at the same time his plays are all about the meaning of human existence. That is why they are so powerful and have lasted so well. That is why you in 2011 are studying this play which was written more than 400 years ago. I have said that Shakespeare used Lear and the whole play as a way of tackling profound and important questions and problems for himself. But of course it was also, and just as much, for his audience, and for us, for we are his audience now, after all these years.

    You are a young audience. You have all had many life experiences, some of you far more than others of course, but still at your age most of you haven’t got round to asking all the questions that one might ask about human life and about human beings. Some of the questions and problems that this play asks are ones that may well not have occurred to you before. But it’s well worth following Shakespeare’s lead, his train of thought and the emotions that he evokes. As you get older (and I have the right to say this, as I am quite old!) – as you get older you will realise more and more the value of the things that a play like this one offers.

    One could say much more of course.But so much for Lear. What of Gloucester? He is a somewhat weaker, somewhat more passive character than Lear; Shakespeare couldn’t allow the main character in the sub-plot to dominate the main character in the main plot. But Gloucester is also represented as having sinned: in his case it is partly by having a child out of wedlock. He is also, like Lear, guilty of judging his children badly: he is deceived by the evil Edmund into turning against his good son Edgar. But with him it is equally clear that the suffering that he undergoes is disproportionate; and he like Lear wonders painfully about the nature of the universe and the gods. Lear’s suffering is largely inward, though he does have to endure the storm. Gloucester’s is inward too, but it is also extremely physical: he has his eyes gouged out.


    3.    What do we make of the Fool?

    Well, as you have probably been told, the Fool used to be a feature of many royal courts and noble households. The fool or court jester hung around in order to entertain people, to lighten the atmosphere, but he was also allowed to criticise the monarch – though he had to be careful not to go too far in what he said.

    The Fool in this play certainly makes jokes and speaks in riddles, as jesters often did, and he is sharply critical of the King in his rash decision to hand his kingdom over to his daughters, whom the Fool knows to be deceptive and likely to be very cruel. The Fool’s remarks often seem cynical: for example, he laughs at Kent for following Lear when it’s clear that Lear is in for a rough time (to say the least). But beneath his witty and cynical surface, the Fool is a person with a strong affection for Lear, for all his faults, and he also has strong and sound moral values.

    But why, one might ask, does he keep up his battery of satirical jokes? Why does he pursue and criticise Lear so relentlessly? We as the audience may well be puzzled by this as the play proceeds, but after a while it becomes obvious that the Fool feels that Lear must be made to face up to reality and must be made to recognise what a thoroughly bad decision he has made. In this desire to help Lear and not to flatter him the Fool is similar to Cordelia and to Kent.

    As Lear comes to realise what he has done, and as he becomes enraged and maddened by the behaviour of his daughters, the Fool’s jokes and often peculiar sayings form an odd accompaniment to Lear’s growing intensity. Together the two of them, their two voices, produce a strange and memorable music.


    4.    Why does Edgar behave as he does as he acts out the part of poor Tom?

    And then of course, in the storm scene, another very strange voice is added to the music – that of Poor Tom. Many of the things that he says are even more weird than what we hear from the Fool. There is something phantasmagoric, something dreamlike and nightmarish, about the scene, with the storm beating down, and Lear, as he goes into his spell of madness, being surrounded by two  odd characters who both seem mad too.

    Edgar, remember, had to disguise himself. His angry and deceived father ordered him to be hunted and killed on sight. He couldn’t even leave the country, as people at every port were put on the lookout for him. So he had to take on a convincing disguise, and once disguised he had to play the part effectively. Edgar throws himself into the role, and really seems to become Poor Tom the wandering mad beggar.

    But what he says isn’t mere nonsense: Edgar finds himself talking obliquely about his own situation and about what is going on in the lives of those around him. He pictures himself as being pursued by the Foul Fiend, and of course he is in a situation where he is indeed being pursued by evil forces that he doesn’t really understand. He also sees human life very decidedly in moral terms, in terms of good and evil, and that is what the play as a whole invites us to do.

    In the course of the play Edgar takes on more than one disguise, and with his occasional asides we are aware that he is intensely concerned about everything that happens – just as Kent, also in disguise, is at every point intensely concerned.


    5.   How should we respond to and interpret Lear’s madness? What sort of wisdom does he acquire? And what of Gloucester?

    This is a huge topic, which I am going to have to deal with quite briefly. What we see happening in the first half of the play is Lear’s intense anger and then despair as Goneril and Regan gradually undermine first his royal status and then his dignity as a man and a father, stripping him of his followers and finally allowing him to go out into the storm.  As the Fool says, and as I have said, he has partly brought all this upon himself – as he becomes deeply aware of this – but what happens to him is far vaster and more terrible than anything he could have deserved.

    He soon begins to feel himself going mad. All the things that make up reality for him collapse, and his mind and emotions just cannot cope with it all. Things become blurred and topsy-turvy in his mind. But this collapse of normality within his mind also paradoxically opensup his mind. He becomes aware of things that he had never thought of before. As he moves towards madness he becomes compassionate. Looking at the largely naked Poor Tom he sees things about human beings that he hadn’t considered before. And he comes to recognise that many people live in poverty, and that somehow poverty should be alleviated. I wish I had time to quote and analyse some of his speeches at these moments in the play. He becomes aware of the ways in which rich people can cover up their crimes, while poor people easily get condemned. He is even prepared to understand sinners and pardon their sins. What has happened is that, partly in reaction against the shocking unkindness of Goneril and Regan, Lear has come to recognise the sheer value of goodness.

    All this prepares him for the great moment when he wakes up from a long sleep after his spell of madness and sees Cordelia before him. He feels guilty and kneels before her, but of course she won’t let him do this. She loves and honours him. Fresh clothes have been put on to him while he was asleep. Gentle music is playing. It’s a sublime moment, one in which tragedy is transformed into harmony.  But of course this isn’t the end of the play

    Gloucester, always something of an echo of Lear, goes through a similar process of learning, of understanding. He too becomes compassionate. He says, ‘I stumbled when I saw.’ He is now blind, but he sees many things more clearly than he did before.


    6.    What do we make of the play’s ending?

    I am referring to the very end of the play. For much of the last big scene we see the triumph of justice over injustice, of good over evil. Goneril, Regan and Edmund all die, in miserable circumstances. The firm and decent Albany comes to the fore. Edgar and Kent, both heroic characters, are able to reveal themselves. We seem perhaps to be heading towards a relatively happy ending.

    And then Lear appears, holding the dead Cordelia, and cries out ‘Howl, howl, howl! O you are men of stones!’ The death of Cordelia is a terrible shock to Lear, a shock that kills him. But it is a shock to us too. Why should such a marvellous person be put to death? Clearly the forces of tragedy and evil are still operating. And then Lear dies. His last speeches are full of meaning, but perhaps ambiguous meaning. Does he die in despair or with some sort of hope in him? And how do we see his death? Does it seem to seal the fact that evil has triumphed after all? Or do we feel that the peace and joy that Lear achieved with Cordelia was a real triumph of its own?

    Ever since the play was written people have argued and disagreed about the ending. How do we take it? There is no doubt that the moment is solemn and awe-inspiring: the final words of Kent and Edgar make this clear. It is tragedy indeed, what the poet Yeats called ‘tragedy wrought to its uttermost’.  But does tragedy overwhelm us with despair or does it leave us with a renewed humble sense of the mystery of human life?

    My own view is that, terrible as the ending is, it’s not just a matter of despair. And I remember the constant parallel with Gloucester, whose heart, Edgar tells us, ‘burst smilingly.’

    Categories: Volume 4