King Lear by William Shakespeare

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20-1 ‘Edmund the base/Shall top th’legitimate’ – inaugurates a widespread idea in the play, which probably has two sources behind it. Note, first of all, the pun on ‘base’. He is ‘base’ because he is a bastard, but he also feels at the base of the noble hierarchy: his aim, realised in the course of the play, is to get to the top . Two ideas seem to be at work here: the apocalyptic tradition in Christianity, whereby the low shall be raised high and the high brought low (‘many who are first shall be last’ Mt 19:29-30), and the pagan tradition of the Wheel of Fortune, whereby Edmund is at the bottom and aims to travel up in his fortunes as Edgar (presently at the top) is to travel down.

23 ‘and France in choler parted’ – This is new information for the audience. Lear’s actions have, on top of all his other crimes, damaged the bonds of amity between nations. War with France is already a possibility.

24 ‘And the King gone tonight’ – this implies that the scene has not changed. The stage is representing Lear’s court, not Gloucester’s castle as some commentators suggest.

24-5 ‘Prescrib’d his powers/Confin’d to exhibition?’ – This could be a reference to Lear’s own actions, or possibly Goneril and Regan have already acted ‘i’th’heat’ to keep Lear’s power in proper bounds.

25 ‘All this done/Upon the gad?’ – Gloucester seems to imply that Lear’s whole plan to divide the kingdom was a quick, impetuous decision.

31 ‘Nothing, my lord’ – further play on this key word.

62 ‘You know the character to be your brother’s?’ – Apart from alerting the audience to the fact that Gloucester, like Lear, is a fool, this is a surprising comment in another respect. Possibly, Gloucester cannot read, though this seems unlikely. Perhaps Edgar and Edmund have been educated together abroad. They certainly seem to know each other much better than either of them know their father.

71 ‘I have heard him oft’ – This would be impossible if Edmund had just returned to Edgar and Gloucester in England, and it further implies that Shakespeare naturally thought of them as being educated together in a foreign country, though he never makes this clear.

72 ‘sons at perfect age and fathers declin’d...’ – ironically, this is, apparently, the view of Lear himself, who abdicates his kingdom to younger men.

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William Shakespeare
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