Back To CourseEnglish 101: English Literature
15 chapters | 138 lessons | 10 flashcard sets
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Ellie holds a B.A. with Honors in English from Stanford University. She is pursuing a Ph.D. in English Literature at Princeton University.
Unlike many of Shakespeare's plays that are about kings, King Lear's actually not a history play. It's based on the story of King Leir. (See what Shakespeare did there? He just changed the spelling and made it his own.) King Leir was sort of a legendary king of the Britons.
'I am Arthur, King of the Britons!'
'You're clapping two coconuts together!'
'No I'm not!'
'Where'd you get coconuts in England?'
King Leir was probably not real. He was originally documented by the same guy who kind of popularized Arthurian myths. But that's the kind of world that we're dealing with in King Lear. We're kind of in pre-Roman Britain, right - so like, Celtic stuff, druids. It's a pretty cool time period - a lot more interesting than one of these boring medieval history plays (in my personal opinion).
But if you're expecting something kind of along the lines of the Arthur legends, you might be disappointed because King Lear is really old. In fact, that's kind of the whole point of the play - he's too old to rule and he wants to abdicate. King Lear is kind of a rite of passage - the role - is sort of a rite of passage for famous, grown-old actors, like Ian McKellen (Gandalf in Lord of the Rings), Geoffrey Rush - they both played him on stage. Anthony Hopkins was going to do it in a movie with Keira Knightley which, thankfully, got axed. But that's the kind of actor that likes to play Lear - someone who's kind of old and distinguished. And it's a really challenging part, and it's seen as a sort of culmination of a successful acting career, to play Lear.
You can bet your bottom dollar that I will be acting out some crazy old man Lear even though this will not be the culmination of a successful acting career for me!
So who else is involved in this shindig? What happens? Why do I mention 'daughters' in the title? Clearly maybe Lear's got daughters - he does. So, characters. There's King Lear - he's the titular old man and king, obviously. We've got Goneril, who's daughter number one - she is married to the Duke of Albany. We've got Regan, who is daughter number two - she is married to the Duke of Cornwall. We've got Cordelia, who is daughter number three, and she's the youngest. She's not married... yet. That's kind of a plot point. We've got the Earl of Gloucester and the Earl of Kent, and we've also got a Fool. It's not like a fool-fool - it's really in the sense of a court jester, kind of witty commoners who make fun of their leaders by being really smart, and this one happens to be Lear's nephew.
So kind of kicking off the action in Act I... I mentioned before, the main problem of the play is basically that Lear is old and tired, and he wants to retire from kinging. Kinging's hard and he doesn't really want to do it anymore.
What he decides he's going to do is divide up his kingdom among his three daughters. But since he can't just do it evenly, apparently (I don't really understand why not), he decides he's going to give the biggest piece of the kingdom to the daughter that loves him the most. This is clearly against the advice of all parenting books and also incredibly narcissistic. It would be vaguely better if it were just the one that he liked the best. But no, it's the one that likes him the most. So it's still all about him. Anyway.
But he doesn't know off the top of his head which daughter loves him most, so he tries to get them to all come and convince him of this. And so Goneril makes her sort of pledge and she says:
'Sir, I love you more than words can wield the matter;
Dearer than eye-sight, space, and liberty;
Beyond what can be valued, rich or rare;'
And yadda yadda yadda, she goes on. Regan kind of tries and she says:
Myself an enemy to all other joys,
Which the most precious square of sense possesses;
And find I am alone felicitate
In your dear highness' love.'
Goneril and Regan are really sucking it up. They're just, you know, 'I am not worthy.' Goneril's saying she loves him more than all kinds of important things, like eye-sight and stuff like that. Regan says she's never actually happy unless she's loving her father.
So now it's Cordelia's turn to kind of top this, but she's not nearly as good with words or flattery as her sisters, so she just decides she's going to be honest and frank about stuff. And she says:
'Unhappy that I am, I cannot heave
My heart into my mouth: I love your majesty
According to my bond; nor more nor less.'
This sounds nice, right? But it enrages Lear because even though she was his favorite before, he's like, 'Oh my god, you ungrateful child! You didn't say you love me the most! Disinherited!' And he disinherits her, splits the kingdom between Regan and Goneril - flatterers extraordinaire - and he marries Cordelia off to the King of France (who takes her even though she has no inheritance). She had some other suitor who kind of bounced once he found out about her disinheritance.
So the Earl of Kent - who's an old friend of Lear's - he sees all this go down, and he is not happy about it. He voices his dissent - he's like, 'Why did you do that? That's not very nice to Cordelia.' And Lear banishes him from the kingdom, too! He's like, 'Get out!' He's on a roll in terms of exercising kingly power for the last time. We can kind of tell right off the bat here that Lear's got some serious issues with authority and people violating it - he does not like that.
And already though we can see that this whole plan and everything is starting to fall apart around his ears, Regan and Goneril are secretly plotting to reduce their father's influence now that they've got control of the land.
Lear heads off to Goneril's castle to hang out for a while - kind of like when your grandparents retire and decide to 'visit relatives' (a.k.a. drink all of your bourbon, hog the remote, and then skip town). Anyway, it turns out he's just like that - he's a super obnoxious guest. He's got all these boisterous knights who drink too much and are loud, and Goneril just can't take it (just kind of like my mom at the end of the weekend), and she tries to get him to leave.
And then Kent turns up at the castle, but Kent was supposed to be banished! How is he doing this? He's disguised himself as 'Caius,' a peasant, and he turns up at Goneril's castle. And like in all Shakespeare plays, nobody recognizes the badly-disguised person even though the whole audience can recognize him (because otherwise you wouldn't know who he was). And Lear takes a liking to the disguised Kent and actually accepts him as a servant. So now Kent is back with Lear, but Lear doesn't know who he is.
Goneril basically tells all of her servants - she's upset that Lear's knights are being annoying, she's upset that Lear is being annoying - to stop listening to him, which enrages him all over again. Then she demands he sends away his pesky knights, and he storms out in a huff. He's like, 'I'm done with this! I'm going to go hang out with my grateful daughter.'
He goes to Regan's castle, or he actually goes to the Duke of Gloucester's house, which is where Regan and her husband are hanging out.
The Duke of Gloucester has his own domestic problems. He's got two sons, Edmund and Edgar (it's like Shakespeare's just trying to confuse us). Edgar is legitimate. Edmund is not legitimate. Edmund's upset about this, and he plots to discredit Edgar and then hopefully get the Duke of Gloucester's inheritance. He manages to convince Regan and her husband that Edgar is plotting to kill the Duke of Gloucester to get his wealth - there's problems going on in the Duke of Gloucester's house is the point.
The disguised Kent turns up with Lear, gets himself thrown in the stocks for fighting, and even still nobody recognizes him. But he somehow manages to get a hold of a letter from Cordelia saying that she's trying to figure out a way to deal with the situation even though she's still in France. She knows things are going wrong, and she's going to try to help out in any way that she can.
Edgar takes a cue from Kent and decides to dress up as a beggar because things are not going well and his illegitimate brother has convinced them that Edgar is trying to plot to kill his dad. You should note by this point that part of the reason why this is so confusing is that everything is doubled. We've got two sets of unhappy families - we've got Lear and his three daughters and his problems and the Duke of Gloucester and his two sons and his problems - and we've also got two noblemen now disguised as peasants - we've got Kent and we've got Edgar. Just to sort that out.
So, again, Lear turns up at Gloucester's and starts to complain to Regan about how nasty Goneril is to him, only to predictably find out that Regan is on her side and isn't sympathetic to him. Goneril turns up and they both tell him, 'You know what, dad. You're getting old. We're going to govern the country.' He freaks out and runs out onto the heath (which is sort of like a wild landscape - lots of shrubs) and that's the end of Act II.
Kent (remember - disguised) sends some of Lear's knights, the boisterous knights, to Dover, which is right by France, and hopes they'll be able to get to France, hook up with Cordelia and figure out a way to get out of this whole situation. He runs out after Lear.
He finds Lear and the Fool (who's turned up) and convinces them to take shelter, and Lear is clearly starting to go insane, which is one of the reasons why he's such a fun character to play. This is an example of this ramblings:
'Thou think'st 'tis much that this contentious storm
Invades us to the skin: so 'tis to thee;
But where the greater malady is fix'd,
The lesser is scarce felt. Thou'ldst shun a bear;
But if thy flight lay toward the raging sea,
Thou'ldst meet the bear I' the mouth.'
It's kind of nonsense. In their weird hidey-hole place, they find Edgar feigning madness as a peasant person. He calls himself Tom. Lear is weirdly sympathetic toward him, I guess because he is crazy and Tom's pretending to be crazy.
Back at the castle, Gloucester is feeling uncomfortable with this whole situation. He wants to be loyal to Lear, worried about potential conflict with France, and he goes out onto the heath after Lear. And he tells Edmund, his illegitimate kid who he thinks is on the up-and-up because he's warned him about Edgar's plot, not to tell anybody. Gloucester finds him in the hovel - now it's getting a little crowded with Lear, Kent, Edgar, the Fool, and Gloucester all hanging out in this little hole.
Of course, immediately, Edmund tells everybody that Gloucester went out looking for Lear. He hopes that Gloucester's treachery to Regan and Goneril will result in he, Edmund, inheriting the title right away even though he's illegitimate. So he's really trying to come up in the world. Regan's husband sends him after Gloucester to find evidence of treason.
Lear and everyone move to this abandoned farmhouse. Lear is still going crazy. He hosts a mock trial for his daughters, so he gets people to play his daughters. It's a spectacularly weird and crazy scene. Edgar is pretending to be crazy, so he doesn't make any sense. The Fool is speaking in riddles, so he doesn't make any sense. And Lear is crazy, so he also doesn't make any sense. Nobody makes sense, but everyone's calling for evidence and arraigning people. He says of Goneril: 'she kicked the poor king her father', and then he says of Regan: 'Then let them anatomize Regan; see what breeds about her heart.' He's kind of just going nuts.
Regan, Goneril, and their people catch Gloucester. They're not happy. They decide they're going to put out his eyes. So they gouge out his eyes - now he's blind - this is Gloucester, Edmund and Edgar's father.
He calls out for Edmund, but Regan tells him that Edmund was the one that told them everything, so he's betrayed. And now, rather like Lear (remember all the doubling in this play), he realizes that he banked on the wrong son because he banked on Edmund and Edmund was treacherous.
Edgar leads his blinded father off to Dover. He still hasn't told him that he's Edgar. Goneril goes back home and takes Edmund with her, discovers that her husband actually is not all that supportive of her actions, and kind of wants the French to invade and deal with all of it. And he's horrified that they blinded Gloucester. He's really upset about that.
They get a letter saying that Regan's husband has died. Goneril isn't happy with her husband because her husband's not on her side. Regan is now a widow. And now they both start to fight over who gets to sleep with Edmund, which is a weird twist in this whole thing - it's like a weird love triangle now between Regan, Goneril, and Edmund, the illegitimate son of the Duke of Gloucester. And everyone is massing their armies and sending them to fight the French who are going to land probably around Dover.
Meanwhile in Dover, Kent's talking to a guy who's in the French army, who says that Cordelia's in town, so they try to conspire to get Lear and Cordelia to meet up and talk.
Meanwhile, Gloucester and disguised Edgar arrive. Gloucester tries to throw himself off the white cliffs, fails. Lear's like totally bonkers by this point, and Cordelia sends her men after him to find him. She talks to her father. He's convinced that she hates him, but she doesn't. She says she forgives him and that she's going to work it all out.
Like many Shakespearean Act V's, we're having a big battle! We're also having a private, intimate battle over Edmund, as Regan and Goneril don't let the other be alone with him (kind of like when you're at the dance and you don't want to go to the bathroom so the guy you're dancing with doesn't go and dance with somebody else). You'd think this would be the last straw for Goneril's husband, but he's actually decided that he hates the French more than he hates his wife, so he's going to still fight against them. Until Edgar turns up with an incriminating letter in which Goneril asks Edmund to kill her husband. So that's not good.
Battle starts. It's going really poorly. Lear and Cordelia are quickly captured. Goneril's husband demands to see them. Edmund lies and doesn't tell him where they are. Goneril's husband then accuses him of treason and challenges him to trial by combat (sort of the medieval equivalent of grade-by-paper-toss - whichever one goes the furthest gets an A). Edgar turns up, and then Edgar and Edmund fight - they do the trial by combat. Edmund's very wounded - he's not totally dead.
In the midst of all this, Regan's mysteriously stumbled off the stage, clearly very sick. And then Goneril runs away when Edmund loses the trial by combat. We learn then that Gloucester's dead (and we start to get that sinking feeling that we do at the end of Shakespeare plays as the body count starts to mount and we just wonder how many of these people will end up dead by the end).
Because then we find out that Goneril has stabbed herself. Not only has Goneril stabbed herself, she also poisoned Regan beforehand (that's why Regan ran offstage sick because she was poisoned). So now Regan's dead, too.
Kent rushes in and is like, 'Where's Lear and Cordelia?' Edmund, who's barely alive, admits that he had Cordelia hanged. And then, right on cue, Lear walks in carrying her body and just sobbing over it, and he kind of dies of sorrow with Cordelia in his arms. And he thinks he might be able to see her breathing - there's this awful speech he gives near the end:
'And my poor fool is hang'd! No, no, no life!
Why should a dog, a horse, a rat, have life,
And thou no breath at all? Thoul't come no more,
Never, never, never, never, never!
Do you see this? Look on her, look, her lips,
Look there, look there!'
But it's not. She's not breathing. She's just dead. And then he dies. And then the play just ends. That's how it ends. It's the most downer of any Shakespeare play, probably. Everyone just dies.
Lear's final speech - its repetitions are so wonderful. 'No, no, no life' and those five 'never's. It's really emphasizing the desperation and the madness in his life. His life has culminated in this horrible bloodbath, really. It was going so well beforehand.
So this play seems like a melodramatic sob-fest. You might wonder why anyone thinks it's good or worthwhile watching or fun at all.
But it's cool because, as I mentioned before, there's this doubling of main plot points. We've got Lear's relationship with his three daughters and we've got Gloucester's relationship with his two sons that are kind of similar. Kent's disguise mirrors Edgar's disguise.
All of these relationships are united together by an idea of blindness, or the inability to see what's in front of your face. And physical blindness when Gloucester gets his eyes gouged out. The play is so tight and so cool because this blindness reverberates on a bunch of different levels.
Lear is metaphorically blind to Cordelia's honesty, and he's deceived by the rhetorical disguises of Regan and Goneril and their flattering of him. And remember that Goneril said her love was better than 'eye-sight,' was on that list of things that she listed out.
Gloucester is metaphorically blind to which of his sons is actually the good son. And then he ends up physically blind and can't see the good son even when he's wandering around with him in Dover.
And the disguised people - Edgar and Kent - they aren't even recognized by the people who know them very well. That's maybe typical Shakespeare, but still in this light, it seems to be significant.
Except for Cordelia who has been able to see all along. She always knows what's right.
Blindness brings down everybody in different ways. So it's not just a sob-fest - it's a sob-fest with a clear and sustained point about how we live and how we shouldn't live and what happens when we make this mistake. And so it sticks in a really cool way. So, that's Lear.
After watching this lesson, you should be able to identify and describe the major characters, themes and plot of Shakespeare's King Lear.
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Back To CourseEnglish 101: English Literature
15 chapters | 138 lessons | 10 flashcard sets