King Lear by William Shakespeare

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Notes on King Lear by William Shakespeare. This set of Tower Notes is 42 pages long and is sold as a fully illustrated PDF file.

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Shakespeare’s King Lear is a work richly laden with themes and symbols, which touches upon many profound questions such as our relationship as human beings with the divine world, and related questions as to the fundamental justice or injustice of the universe. The play is also one about families, and what can happen when relationships between parents and children go wrong. But it can be forgotten that King Lear is also a play about a man. Considering that there are so many studies of Shakespeare’s characterisation of Hamlet or Othello, there are far fewer explorations of Lear. Perhaps a younger man’s dilemmas and struggles are fundamentally more interesting than an old man’s mistakes and physical and mental degeneration. Shakespeare’s creation of the character Lear, however, is, in many ways, as startling an achievement as his creation of Hamlet, and it is possible that concentrating on Lear himself, rather than on a conventional theme such as ‘nature’ in the play, gets closer to the core of what an audience actually experience when they see the drama performed.

To be a king is to be alone. Shakespeare’s histories can be seen as a long apprenticeship preparing him for the writing of his great tragedies, and this insight into kingship is something he was fully aware of as a dramatist. Prince Hal must abandon his friends to become King Henry V. When he wanders the English camp on the night before Agincourt, he is attempting to make contact again with the ordinary soldiers of his realm, to bridge the gap that ‘ceremony’ has created. His soliloquy at this point reflects on the terrible burdens and responsibilities of royalty. He has just been reminded that he will answer, on Judgement Day, for the deaths of those who die in battle on the morrow:

Upon the King! let us our lives, our souls,
Our debts, our careful wives,
Our children, and our sins lay on the King!
We must bear all. (IV.i.230-3)

King Lear comes on stage with the same burden, but it is one he has grown too old to bear. He wishes to be ‘unburthen’d’ so that he may ‘crawl toward death.’ These early speeches of Lear are important, as they are the only ones that give us any insight into the man he once was. From the start, however, the audience can sense that things are not as they should be. There is, for example, the rather laborious self-deprecating humour of ‘crawl toward death.’ Behind this phrase is a powerful man, who feels he can concede any weakness in jest, as he believes fundamentally that there is no weakness . Years as king have taught him this. He is not ordinary like the others on stage: he is a king; he is a ‘dragon’ as he will call himself later in this scene.

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William Shakespeare
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