Shakespeare's King Lear: My Three Daughters

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  • 2:33 Act I
  • 6:49 Act II
  • 9:00 Act III
  • 12:19 Act IV
  • 13:44 Act V
  • 16:30 Themes
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Ellie Green

Ellie holds a B.A. with Honors in English from Stanford University. She is pursuing a Ph.D. in English Literature at Princeton University.

In this video, we'll discuss the importance of blindness, both literal and metaphorical, in Shakespeare's King Lear. We'll give an overview of the plot, characters, and explore the familial relationships central to the famous tragedy.

King Lear

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!

Characters

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.

Characters in King Lear
King Lear characters

Act I

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:

'I profess

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.'

Act II

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.

Act III

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.

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