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Traditional  Approaches to King Lear

A play this old builds up a variety of interpretations; layers of cultural varnishes; reflecting the immediate era's ethos.  For variant interpretations use the side menus, especially Christianity vs Nihilism or Critical approaches.

An Aristotelian approach to the play has usually been the most orthodox, preferred or dominant view.  Aristotle emphasised emotive responses, a beginning middle and end, unity and closure affirming order.  Assuming a naturalist, illusionist performance with identity, empathy, Pathos, arousing pity and fear and leading to Catharsis; a purgation of the soul, Aristotle asserted that Drama allowed the spectator or audience to participate in great events vicariously resulting in a Cathartic cleansing or purging of the soul/spirit.

Aristotle focussed on aesthetics; structure, unity, cause and effect, order and an assumption of a rational universe.  However the hero, due to hubris or an error in judgement (tragic flaw) suffers a reversal from good to bad fortune. The universe is rational and just .  Through the pathos caused, the hero (and the responder vicariously) goes through a process of self-discovery or an identity crisis, where, recognising the reality of their predicament and learning to accept their destiny with equanimity.  In this way suffering can be ennobling.                                                                                            

Unifying Motifs in Lear: 

Motifs are recurring images, ideas or variations on themes that emphasise or reinforce overriding concerns of the composer.  They also help to provide unity to a large scale work.

Lear’s Identity crisis:  

Once Lear abdicates the throne he must redefine himself.  Not only does he face a reluctant disintegration of himself; he must face his mortality.  

What is the identity of a king who has voluntarily and foolishly given away his titles?

Lear’s development towards self-recognition:

Our Initial impression is of a man of unchallengeable authority; regal, absolute, decisive and in control, this gradually disintegrates into an authoritarian, pompous, rash, impulsive, capricious, arbitrary and egotistical – self absorbed crotchety old man.

True need speech  2.4.259 – 280  - some of his past assumptions and illusions begin to break.

O, reason not the need! Our basest beggars

Are in the poorest things superfluous.

Allow not nature more than nature needs,

Man’s life is cheap as beast’s. Thou art a lady:

If only to go warm were gorgeous

Why, nature needs not what thou gorgeous wearest,

Which scarcely keeps thee warm. But, for true need-

You heavens, give me that patience, patience I need!

Pity for the poor wretches Speech:    .3.4.25-35.  no longer so self obsessed

Poor naked wretches, wheresoe’er you are,

That bide the pelting of this pitiless storm,

How shall your houseless heads and unfed sides,

Your looped and windowed raggedness, defend you

From season such as these? O, I have ta’en

Too little care of this!   Take physic, pomp;

Expose thyself to feel what wretches feel,

That thou may’st shake the superflux to them

And show the heavens more just.

Universal Man:

“unaccommodated man is nor more but such a poor, bare, forked animal…”

Perceptions on Justice  4.6. 150 – 175  Justice sides with money.

                                       ”Plate sin with gold,

And the strong lance of justice hurtless breaks;

Arm it in rags, a pygmy’s straw does pierce it.”

His vulnerability:

Gloucester offers to kiss hand – “Let me wipe it first; it smells of mortality”

Overcoming pride:  4.7   and 5.2. 8 – 18  kneels to Cordelia
”I am a very foolish fond old man’

Rejection of vengeance  (or opting out?)  5.3. 7 – 13

Lear wiser in his madness than in his initial state of authority.

Edgar: O, matter and impertinency mixed!  Reason in madness!  4.6. 173

What are the incidents in the play that arouse pity and fear (Pathos) and how would you have them enacted on stage to create catharsis or a purging of the emotions?


Providence – divine retribution – man’s place in the cosmos. 

 Is the universe:

Gloucester believes in  portents, the stars:

“These late eclipses in the sun and moon portend no good to us”  I.2.103

But in despair he resorts to cynicism and at worst to nihilism:

As flies to wanton boys, are we to the gods, they kill us for their sport”  IV.1.35.

Edmund disagrees:  We are free agents, self-sufficient – responsible for our destiny.

“This is excellent foppery of the world, that when we are sick in fortune,…..we make guilty of our disasters the sun, the moon and stars; as if we were villains on necessity; fools by heavenly compulsion….”    I.2.118-120

Albany is one of those who ponders the cause of evil, the root of unnatural conduct: 

“Now the gods that we adore, whereof comes this?” (Lear’s anger)  I.4.287.

Lear also questions the cause of evil:                                                 III.6.77

Let us anatomise Regan. See what breeds about her heart. Is there a cause in nature that makes these hard hearts?”   

Edgar makes some of the most profound observations:

The gods are just and of our pleasant vices

 Make instruments to plaque us.”

The dark and vicious place where thee he got

Cost him his eyesV.3.170

And Edmund replies:

“Tis true. The wheel has come full circle”   V.3 174.

Albany, beginning to comprehend what is happening concludes: 

Humanity must perforce prey on itself   IV. 2. 46 – 50.

                       “This shows you are above,

You justicers, that these our nether crimes

So speedily can venge! “   IV. 3. 78 – 80.


Kent:    It is the stars,  The stars above us, govern our conditions.  IV. 3.32.

(the final word) Albany:

                         “All friends shall taste

The wages of their virtue, and all foes

The cup of their deservings..                                    V.3 276

The Family:

King Lear explores the nature of the family through a number of means.  The word “kind” is short for kindred, and people who violate the bonds of kindred transgress a natural law and are punished.

For many people, Lear’s family is a dysfunctional one; there is no mother and his avowed favorite is disinherited in a capricious impulsive moment of rage, by a man who must feel omnipotent - the head of the family is also the head of state.

Yet Shakespeare uses the metaphor of family throughout the play to illustrate his concerns.

Albany talks about husbandry, in terms of a family being a family tree:

She that herself will sliver and disbranch

From her material sap, perforce must wither

And come to deadly use.                                       IV. 2.. 34 – 36

Lear rants against filial ingratitude: 

“But yet thou art my flesh, my blood, my daughter,

Or rather a disease that’s in my flesh” II. 4  213 – 214.

                 ‘twas this flesh begot

Those pelican daughters                     III. 4. 74

He questions whether:

It be  you (the Heavens)  that stirs these daughters’ hearts

Against their father”                                       II   .   267 - 8

Cordelia cannot vow devoted unqualified and boundless love for her father but does declare a duteous love:  “Obey you, love you, and most honour you” I.i. 100.  Furthermore she translates her filial love into action and pays the ultimate price in an attempt to rescue her father.


One cannot trust Fortuna; she is fickle, constant only in her inconstancy.  She is referred to derogatively:

The fool:  Fortune, that arrant whore,

               Ne’re turns the key to the poor.    II :4 52.

Kent:  Fortune, good night; smile once more, turn thy wheel.  II.2. 169.

Edgar:                          To be worst,

The lowest and most dejected thing of fortune,

Stands still in Esperance, lives not in fear.

The lamentable change is from the best;

The worst returns to laughter.                       IV. 1. 2 – 6.

Cordelia:                                            I am cast down;

Myself could else outfrown false Fortune’s frown    V.3.5-6

Authority  -  the origins

  During Medieval times Kings were considered demi-gods and assumed to have almost divine absolute power as representatives of God in the natural order of men. By abdicating his authority, Lear destroys the natural harmony of state, family and personal.

Authority is challenged:

And earlier:

Hear Nature hear Dear Goddess hear!

Suspend thy purpose, if thou didst intend

To make this creature fruitful.

Into her womb convey sterility;

Dry up in her the organs of increase;


                             If she must teem

Create her child of spleen, that it may live

and be thwart disnatured torment to her…..”                      I  .iv.230 – 238.

Authority of Good over Evil?

Perhaps the most controversial of the issues raised by the play is whether the play supports a positive, purposeful morally ordered universe or a capricious, indifferent and non deterministic one.

 Those who argue for the cause of good, talk of redemption and regeneration.  They use the analogy of the refining of metals in fire and that it is only through suffering that Lear becomes a better man; signalled by the unwonted care he bestows on the poor naked wretches and his transformed views on justice.

Those who see the play negatively as disintegration or dissolution cite his eventual treatment of Cordelia not as a mature woman, rather as a child, a granddaughter in a nursery rhyme.  The “Sing like birds i’th’ cage” passage is used by both sides to mount their case,  the redemptives to indicate Lear’s lack of vindictiveness while the other side sees it as Lear moving from one stage of delusion to another, his inability to face reality and comprehend people as they are and opting out into a fantasy  rather than engaging in constructive action. To them the ending is a disturbing, shocking and depressing one.

Anarchy and Order: There are serious breaches – anarchy reigns.

Reason and Will

Dogs or curs: 

`My lady's father' my lord's knave! You whoreson dog! You slave, you


Fool:    Truth's a dog must to kennel; he must be whipped out when the Lady

Brach may stand by th'fire and stink.

Kent:   Knowing naught, like dogs, but following.

    A plague upon your epileptic visage!

Kent:    Why, madam, if I were your father's dog

    You should not use me so.

Fool:    Ha, ha, he wears cruel garters! Horses are tied by the heads, dogs and

bears by th'neck, monkeys by th'loins, and men by th'legs:

Edgar:  false of heart, light of ear, bloody of hand; hog in sloth, fox in stealth,

wolf in greediness, dog in madness, lion in prey.

Edgar:    Poor Tom, that eats the swimming frog, the toad, the todpole, the

wall-newt and the water; that in the fury of his heart, when the foul fiend

rages, eats cow-dung for sallets, swallows the old rat and the ditch-dog,

drinks the green mantle of the standing pool; who is whipped from tithing to

tithing, and stock-punished and imprisoned; who hath had three suits to his

back, six shirts to his body,

Lear:    The little dogs and all,

    Tray, Blanch, and Sweetheart, see, they bark at me.


        Mastiff, greyhound, mongrel grim,

        Hound or spaniel, brach or lym,

        Or bobtail tike or trundle-tail,

        Tom will make him weep and wail;

        For, with throwing thus my head,

        Dogs leapt the hatch, and all are fled.

Regan:  How now, you dog!    (to servant refusing to put out Gloucester’s  eyes.)

Kent:   To his dog-hearted daughters. These things sting


Lear:    Ha, Goneril with a white beard! They flattered me like a dog, and told

me I had the white hairs in my beard ere the black ones were there.

Lear:    Thou hast seen a farmer's dog bark at a beggar?

Cordelia:    Mine enemy's dog,

    Though he had bit me, should have stood that night

Edgar:   Rather than die at once! -taught me to shift

    Into a madman's rags, t'assume a semblance

    That very dogs disdained; and in this habit

    Met I my father with his bleeding rings,

Lear:    And my poor fool is hanged! No, no, no life?

    Why should a dog, a horse, a rat, have life,

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