King Lear by William Shakespeare

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1 ‘affected’ – (= ‘liked’). A hint already that the kingdom’s fate depends on the arbitrary likes and dislikes of the king. In fact, Lear has overcome his own personal preferences in order to ensure a peaceful succession: ‘equalities are so weighed...’ It is significant that Lear’s heart warms more to Albany than Cornwall, as the former will seek to protect him, whereas the latter betrays him.

11 ‘I am braz’d to’t’ – It was common for noblemen not to acknowledge illegitimate offspring; Gloucester has shown charity to Edmund in doing so and supporting him. He claims to love him – Edgar is ‘no dearer in my account’ – and yet he calls him ‘knave’ and ‘whoreson’. This could be banter or cruelty.

32 ‘out nine years, and away he shall again’ – Does Edmund want to go abroad (like Hamlet and Laertes) or is he being compelled?

36 ‘darker purpose’ – more secret, but possibly foreshadowing disaster.

39 ‘To shake all cares and business from our age’ – which could be seen as either selfish or sensible.

41 ‘crawl toward death’ – a note of self pity, perhaps, but see Introduction.

44-5 ‘that future strife/May be prevented’ – a laudable aim (cf. ll 5-6), but one unlikely to be fulfilled.

51-3 ‘Which of you shall we say doth love us most,/That we our largest bounty may extend/Where nature doth with merit challenge?’ – A key moment of the play, and lines with a complex message to the audience. As well as a ‘natural’ bond to his daughters (which means that they will inherit his kingdom rather than anyone else), Lear wants to reward ‘merit,’ revealed by the extent of his daughters’ love for their father. This is, apparently, their sole duty in life: to love him. It is as if he thinks he is God, who rewards us according to our merits, chief of which is the first commandment – to love God! What is certain is that these words reveal an entirely selfish character who demands embarrassing public displays of affection. The audience also see Lear as someone who has lost touch with reality: it is so obvious that far from revealing what they merit through filial love, the daughters are very likely to lie! As a parent, he shows himself to be a fool and to enjoy playing God.

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William Shakespeare