Critical Approaches King Lear

Critical Approaches to Lear #

The way we interpret a piece of literature depends on the perspective we come from. Largely it is determined by the constructs or social, religious and cultural conditioning that have influenced our way of seeing the world and our way of thinking. To assume all people will interpret a text the same as we do is presumptuous, self-indulgent and parochial.

Traditional methods can also be called orthodox or dominant views while alternative ones can be variant, divergent, dissident, resistant or subversive views. There are no prescribed ideologies you need to consider, merely alternative ones. No approach has a monopoly on truth or absolute correctness.

What the syllabus actually says:

There is no mention of the ‘isms’ in the syllabus. They are not mandated.

Module B states:

This module requires students to explore and evaluate a specific text and its reception in a range of contexts. It develops students’ understanding of questions of textual integrity.

It demands close study of the text and also requires that students ‘research others’ perspectives of the text and test these against their own understanding and interpretations’. In doing so, they need to ‘evaluate the ways in which the set work has been read, received and valued in historical and other contexts [and]… extrapolate from this study …to explore questions of textual integrity and significance.

The emphasis is on a critical reading, ie evaluating various readings ‘against their own and others’. The end point of the study is that students question the integrity of the text asking: how can a text be read differently in different times and by different people? What is it about the context of reception that influences meaning? These questions assist students in addressing Outcomes 1, 2A, 12 and 12A.

Critical Approaches Lear

I. The Traditionalist Approach #

Until the 1930’s Literature was considered merely to illustrate the past, biography was more important than the work of art.

Textual – Linguistic – the meaning of words in their historical context. The vernacular writings of Chaucer or Shakespeare were analysed.

1. Historical – Biographical - Literary work seen as a reflection of the author’s life and time; Piers Plowman illustrates life in 14^(th) C. Dickens – 18^(th) C., John Updike – late 20^(th) C. America. Issues are viewed in the light of their contexts.
The creative artist responds to the tensions or conflicts of his era.

2. Moral and Philosophical - Function of Literature to teach morality, to enlighten. It must have redeeming social value and demonstrate that good must conquer evil.


  1. Overlooks structural techniques of the author.
  2. Classical works become universal - transcending time or place
  3. Literature seen to replace the church in moral edification

Little room left for the reader’s response.

William Hazlitt warned “ All we can say of Lear must fall far short of the subject, or even what we ourselves conceive of it” Hazlitt considered it the best of Shakespeare’s plays “it is the one in which he was the most earnest.”

Leo Tolstoy criticises the play for improbable plotlines and weak characters.

A.C. Bradley is mainly concerned with character; their motives, inward struggles and the tragic heroes’ “fatal flaw”. Lear’s “flaw” is his desire to abdicate his power yet retain all the pomp and pageantry of it. Bradley’s view is positive in that evil is overcome and replaced by order, unity and goodness.

G. Wilson Knight follows the Aristotelian line that tragedy is concerned with reversal of fortune where the protagonist endures suffering, achieves self- knowledge, spiritual enlightenment, is purged, demonstrating the triumph of the human spirit through redemption.

Knight has insights in the role of the fool; as the court jester. Knight makes five observations:

  1. often comedy (sardonic wit) or satire is the only way to get around people’s self defenses.

  2. Heavy tragedy also requires comic relief

  3. the fool attempts to assuage Lear’s pain with the healing release of laughter.

  4. The fool also represents the impartial critic – a mouthpiece of sanity in a dialectic – one who speaks the truth of common sense.

  5. As well the fool acts as a choric figure, commenting on the action in order to clarify it.

After Act III the fool is no longer needed as Lear, stripped of everything, has hit rock bottom, loses his vested interest in society and begins to laugh at himself. His conversations with Gloucester reveal the quick wit of a court jester.

Northrope Frye is concerned with recurring features of language such as puns on “natural” and “nothing”.

II. A Textual Linguistic Approach: #

Textual – Linguistic – the meaning of words in their historical context. The vernacular writings of Chaucer or Shakespeare were analysed.

Lear’s speeches illustrate that when he is struggling with his inner turmoil, his language becomes more halting and imprecise proving that he is then reflecting his true state.

Lear’s language is a symptom of his distress and the deterioration in his coherency, some of the archaic expressions of Shakespeare, (superfluity) any word coinages, poetic expressions.

At his nadir, Lear’s language becomes extreme; crude, vulgar, ribald…..

His rants, tirades, become abusive, intemperate and vitriolic.

He becomes mad, lunar, distracted, demented (insane – too harsh?) as he suffers from shock after his precipitate loss or dispossession of his power and creature comforts. He become single minded, obsessive, monomaniacal and displays the symptoms of Post traumatic Stress syndromes (disorder). He also becomes delusional.

Dr Christie Carson, Royal Holloway University of London, asserts that:

over time the text of King Lear has changed drastically owing to the work of editors and theatre artists. From the outset King Lear existed in two very different versions, the Quarto of 1608 and the Folio of 1623. While there are many hypotheses about the origins of the Quarto editions all that is certain is that they appeared in Shakespeare’s lifetime - but the playwright seems not to have been involved in their creation. The Folio, on the other hand, created after Shakespeare’s death, was published with the involvement of two members of his company with the expressed purpose of keeping his memory and work alive.

As a result, the Folio is often considered more authoritative.

The extract, Terribly Simple, referring to the advice in the last speech of the play,

Speak what you feel, not what we ought to say”

is based on a textual linguistic analysis. It looks mainly at the how the text and features of language create meaning. As such its main assertions are that the variety of interpretations of King Lear are misguided and those looking for complicated interpretations should simply return to the text and all is clear.

The play’s concluding lines

The final lines of the play in the Quarto are given to Albany, which is appropriate in terms of his seniority within the social structure to the play.

However, in the Folio these lines are given to Edgar, the only person on stage who has not engaged in the battle between the generations until the very last scene. Edgar is presented in the Folio as the leader of the new generation and the representative of a gentler form or leadership.

Albany (Q) Edgar (F)

The weight of this sad time we must obey,
Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.
The oldest have borne most; we that are young
shall never see so much, nor live so long.
[Exeunt with a dead march]

Edgar ending the play introduces hope of a new beginning with a different set of values in place. As Richard Eyre, who directed the play at the National Theatre in 1997, says:

‘there is something wonderful about this terribly simple advice being given to you by a man who has had to grow up in the most violent way. Edgar, a sort of mild, bookish man, becomes a warrior, then sees this holocaust, and the advice he gives you is, open your heart, speak what you feel’.

I suggest, then, that there is strong evidence the changes between the Quarto and the Folio were made as a result of the audience response to the play during Shakespeare’s lifetime. The ending, in particular, is altered to change it from a scene of absolute despair to a scene of possible redemption and rebirth. Hope is reintroduced into the Folio ending of the play, something that makes this tragedy more poignant but also more bearable in its Folio form.

An assessment of Carson’s thesis:

Textual linguistic analysis clearly aligns itself with the Aristotelian traditional view of emotive empathy when the writer states:

The play assaults our feelings……… we need to see it by allowing it to affect us.”

Obviously the writer is challenging what is seen as dissident or alternative views which attempt to interpret King Lear as an alienating or disengaging play. It highlights Edgar’s final speech where he exhorts us to “Speak what you feel, not what we ought to say”.

The article substantiates its main theses by providing lots of compelling evidence indicating Shakespeare’s careful choice of language for each of the characters to illustrate their motivation and intentions. By close textual analysis of the love auction, the writer demonstrates that the voluble, facile and glib professions of both Goneril and Regan are inherently insincere and that the silence of Cordelia indicates her integrity in a difficult situation. The writer illustrates through Lear’s speeches when he is struggling with his inner turmoil that his language becomes more halting and imprecise proving that he is then reflecting his true state.

Homer too was wary of “The gilded tongue”. Demagogues triumphed by bewitching minds and casting a spell on audiences. Powerful evangelists can draw people up for emotional conversions.

Goebbels and Hitler had powerful mesmeric impacts on the German people, as does Trump.

In modern terms, we are very suspicious of smooth talkers, the silver tongue and garrulous car sales people are the least trusted member of our society.

While the main thrust of the article is valid and laudable, it is a bit too defensive and narrow in its assertions. It oversimplifies a complex work of art. It is true that meaning can be found in textual analysis, and that any interpretation that goes outside the text by adding to it or excising parts not suitable for their interpretation is dishonest; this is not the whole story. Relying on textual analysis alone is not totally reliable.

Human communication is largely non verbal.

The text is merely the blue prints or skeleton of a work of drama and what gives it body, shape or flesh and blood is the performance. Performance relies on sub-text to convey meaning, often sub-consciously. Linguists agree that communication is 93% non-verbal and only 7% verbal. Especially in drama, body language through stance, position, deportment, facial expression, posture and a thousand subtle features convey meaning. Then there are the other factors, such as staging, props, sound effects, lighting costumes that influence how a play derives meaning. These are factors that must be valued and the director’s role is over riding in determining how a play is presented and received by a live pulsating audience.

III. Feminist Criticism- in King Lear #

Feminism became a movement which fought for women’s right for equality politically, economically, socially and intellectually. Most western religions express views that women should be subjugated and submissive to men. For many women this was oppressive restrictive and disempowering.

With early moves for enfranchisement (right to vote) in the late 19^(th) C. through to the 1970’s moves for equal pay, economic freedom, equal sharing of household tasks and the removal of the glass ceilings in business, women have asserted their liberation from the dominance of men. Terminology such as Patriarchy, paternalism, chauvinism, misogyny and maternalism are current.

Feminist production with emphasis on Paternalistic or Patriarchy; Lear shown as paternalistic, chauvinistic, misogynistic domineering and autocratic. Cordelia’s silencing seen as feminine subservience (Saint/virgins vs. sinners/hysterical whores). Much attention is given to the detrimental effects on the family. Daughters have no mother figure to give them a sense of womanhood. Fathers are owed filial gratitude and duty. Female insubordination results in anarchy which leads to Lear’s misogynist outrage. Goneril and Regan’s behaviour is a reflection of their father’s.

Women are depicted as dominant figures rather than marginalised; in Kosky’s production, Albany and Cornwall are eliminated emphasising the roles of Goneril and Regan.

Kathleen McLuskie suggests that women’s lust leads to chaos and corruption while Cordelia’s virtuous and enduring love restores patriarchal authority.

For examples and Quotes see side bar menu: Lear in Performance.

Flaws or limitations in Feminist views

While many positive advances have been made, extreme views on masculinity have created chasms between the two genders. Fragile men’s egos have intimidated and scared many men off and many women now find themselves economically and socially liberated but domestically isolated as men have sought more docile submissive women from other cultures. With a few more generations of conditioning this could sort itself out.

IV. Psycho-analytical Approaches to Lear #

The emphasis is more on character and motivation than on form and structure. It looks at formative influences on the characters to explain their actions such as Lear’s impetuous and imperious early leadership style compared to his complete and utter mental breakdown following the Storm scene.

The roles of the three daughters is viewed from the perspective of their upbringing; the lack of feminine influences, a remote seemingly cold father and a simple realistic desire to take on the duty and responsibilities of running the affairs of state independently and autonomously.

Then let them anatomise Regan. See what breeds about Her heart. Is there any cause in nature that makes
These hard hearts? – 77

The question of true devoted service is contrasted by the loyalty of Kent and Edgar with the fawning and obsequious Oswald or Edmond.

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 favourite is disinherited in a capricious impulsive moment of rage, by a man who must feel omnipotent.

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.