King Lear by William Shakespeare

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The inference is that Caius Martius Coriolanus is a man who puts himself above nature, as if he were beyond humanity: ‘This Martius is grown from man to dragon...He wants nothing of a god but eternity, and a heaven to throne in’ ( Coriolanus , V.iv).

123-4 ‘I loved her most, and thought to set my rest/On her kind nursery’ – revealing Lear originally intended to stay wholly in the care of Cordelia. Given the treatment he receives from Regan and Goneril, he was quite right to plan this (cf. his favouring of Albany over Cornwall).

129 ‘Let pride, which she calls plainness, marry her’ – heavily ironic, given Lear’s obvious pride and susceptibility to flattery. These words are echoed later by Cornwall’s treatment of the plain-speaking Kent. In fact, Kent, in his role as the blunt Caius, will subtly school Lear in the dangers of flattery and insincere language.

135-6 ‘Only we shall retain/The name, and all th’addition to a king’ – he desires the status and the respect without the responsibility of power. Some readers see an extension of Lear’s selfishness in the way that he breaks the bond between king and country by refusing to govern. Once he ceases to rule – and this bond is broken – there is no reason for former subjects, like Oswald for instance, to obey him. The idea of Lear as a fool is also reinforced here: he doesn’t seem to realise that people only respect and admire him because he is so powerful. Once his power is gone, that respect will inevitably cease, but Lear’s pride is so overpowering that he thinks that everyone will treat him as he feels he deserves to be treated: he and his royalty cannot, in his mind, be divorced. The reality will be very different.

146 ‘When Lear is mad. What wouldst thou do old man?’ – There comes a point when a man’s foolishness (lack of grip on reality) becomes so extreme that it becomes possible to talk of madness. Kent is probably using hyperbole here, but his words foreshadow Lear’s later lunacy. He voices the pent up feelings of the audience: that Lear is behaving like an idiot; that he enjoys playing God, and that he is just a frail old man.

160-1 ‘Now, by Apollo, King/Thou swear’st thy gods in vain’ – quite true, because Lear has offended the divine order by his actions.

164 ‘the foul disease’ – The body politic is unwell, as so often in Shakespeare’s tragedies.

168 ‘break our vow’ – ironic, as Lear has broken something much more fundamental than his word. To never break a vow is egotistical, since vows are a law one makes for oneself. Both vows and oaths are regarded as un-Christian (James 5:11-13).

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William Shakespeare