King Lear by William Shakespeare

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He is also an absolute monarch, as is made clear very quickly by Shakespeare. The first words of the play alert the audience to the fact that everything in this state depends solely upon the king’s will. Apparently, the king had ‘more affected’ Albany than Cornwall: the fact that this has changed, and the division of Britain altered accordingly, is purely represented as a change in Lear’s mind, or rather, heart . His very act in splitting his kingdom into three is presented as purely a matter of his own desire. There is no suggestion of prior discussion, of taking counsel, as there is in the source play, King Leir . The absurdity of Lear’s line to Albany and Cornwall, ‘This coronet part between you’ (I.i.139) seems lost on him: a crown cannot be split in half and retain its function; and Lear’s apparent jest to Albany and Cornwall strikes just as ominous a note as his earlier ‘joke’ about crawling ‘toward death.’ Both comments come true: Lear will, literally, ‘crawl’ upon the ground at times after his downfall; and the kingdom, once divided will not stand, as becomes abundantly clear.

Unlike King Henry, Lear has allowed himself to become isolated from almost everyone else. Unlike Henry, he has forgotten that his ‘burden’ cannot be put aside, at least not with the ease he seems to expect. Whereas Henry makes rational decisions based on discussion and proper consideration, with Lear, at the beginning of the play, everything is a matter of emotion . Albany’s proposed greater share of Britain was because he was ‘affected’ more. Lear has made his very kingdom’s division dependent upon a public display of affection from his daughters. Shakespeare’s audience would have identified Lear’s character type at this point in the play as quickly as onlookers would have seen Hamlet as a typical melancholic. Lear is in his dotage – a common Jacobean expression similar to the modern idea of a second childhood. In one’s dotage, one dotes , just as a child does, wanting this that or the other just as feelings and whims dictate. And if those whims are contradicted, there is no reason, no debate, only blind anger and wrath, which is inevitably directed against those who least deserve it; those, like Cordelia and Kent, who are determined not to pander to falsehood for their own ends.

Lear is a thoroughly objectionable character at the beginning of the play, and there is little to suggest that Shakespeare wants his audience to feel much sympathy for him at least until Act Three. But if not sympathy, there is at least understanding: Lear is old , and he is suffering from exactly the problems that come from the combination of being very old and being a king. The traditional hamartia analysis never adds a great deal to an audience’s understanding of Shakespeare’s main characters, but, if Lear has a tragic flaw, it is perhaps simply his age.

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William Shakespeare