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King Lear | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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King Lear | Discussion Questions 1 - 10


How do loyalty and disloyalty affect the fates of the major characters in King Lear?

Loyalty is portrayed in such a way that family relationships and friendships either remain in place or split apart after Lear divides his kingdom. While Shakespeare shows loyalty to be a virtue, it does not guarantee success or even survival. However, the characters who are disloyal seal their own destruction. Cordelia, Kent, and the Fool remain loyal to the king; for Cordelia and the Fool, loyalty results in their tragic, senseless deaths. Only Kent, who disguises himself and risks death to stay near his king, survives, but he suggests he will soon follow the call of his master and die himself. Regan and Goneril's betrayal of their father results in war, violence, and multiple deaths. When they ultimately betray each other through jealousy, both characters die. Edmund's lack of loyalty to his brother and father results in his death during the trial by combat with his brother. Edgar, loyal to his father even when he is in disguise, survives and is offered the joint rule of the kingdom. Yet his last line, like Kent's, suggests that he too might not live long.

How is the concept of monarchy explored in King Lear?

Monarchy in King Lear is powerful but fragile. It takes only a few bad decisions on the part of the aging King Lear to throw all of Britain into disarray. His first error is to divide his kingdom; his next is to deny Cordelia her share because she responded to him honestly. His next mistake after that is to remain passive when "power to flattery bows." As Kent remarks, Lear allows Regan and Goneril to deceive him because he is blinded by their flattery. He also foolishly expects his daughters to continue to obey him because he is their father. As the play shows, foolishness undermines monarchy. Only a wise king can rule well.

What made the issue of a divided kingdom timely when Shakespeare wrote King Lear?

Shakespeare wrote for the company called the King's Men, which performed for James I. James was concerned about the rights of an absolute monarch and wrote theoretical works on the topic. In addition, he had been king of Scotland before assuming the crown of England, and he wanted to unite the two countries. Although the concept of union failed, Shakespeare clearly wanted to show his support for the king by portraying the division of a kingdom as dangerous. The division leads to anarchy and disorder in the play, creating gaps in the social order that allow the wicked to flourish. It also leads to invasion by a foreign power, France.

How does King Lear explore the concept of love in relation to honesty?

King Lear uses the actions of its main characters, particularly the king's three daughters and Kent, to show that love and honesty are entwined. In Act 1, Scene 1, when the three daughters are asked how much they love their father, Goneril and Regan respond with flattering and dishonest statements that please Lear's ego. By contrast, Cordelia speaks honestly, saying that she loves him only as much as she should (as a daughter loves a father). Though Lear strips Cordelia of her dowry and banishes her, she continues to love and honor him, while her sisters betray their father. Likewise, Kent can't or won't speak flattery to the king. Yet he is willing to risk banishment to tell Lear the truth and loves the king selflessly. In the last scene of the play, he suggests that his life is no longer worth living after his "master" dies.

What is the attitude toward sex in King Lear?

King Lear shows that sex is a fun but dangerous manifestation of passion. Sex as fun is discussed in the play's opening lines. When Kent and Gloucester talk in Act 1, Scene 1, Gloucester makes a point of saying how much he enjoyed fathering Edmund, declaring there was "good sport at his making." However, the dangers of sex are underscored throughout the play. Edmund's resentment at being a bastard fuels his betrayal of his brother and father. Edmund has affairs with both Regan and Goneril, which leads to jealousy and the deaths of both women—Regan's at her sister's hands and Goneril's by suicide.

What is the significance of the conversation between Kent and Gloucester in Act 1, Scene 1 of King Lear?

The conversation between Gloucester and Kent provides key information for the audience. Lear has been making changes in how his kingdom is structured and which noblemen he favors. The conversation between Kent and Gloucester shows the kingdom is already in a state of anxious upheaval even before Lear's big announcement. In addition, the casualness with which Gloucester treats his son Edmund's illegitimate status is telling. He's completely unprepared for Edmund's bitterness, and fundamentally doesn't understand his role in what will happen, much as Lear doesn't foresee how his daughters will react to his decision to split the kingdom among them.

What purpose does the character Curan serve in King Lear?

Curan, a servant of Gloucester, appears in only one scene of King Lear: Act 2, Scene 1. In the scene, he does just one thing: he shares news and gossip with Edmund. Using a new character to share the gossip about tension between Albany and Cornwall is another way to show how agitated the kingdom is becoming; even characters outside the immediate royal/noble families are noticing the tension among the nobility. By having Curan appear only once , Shakespeare underscores the upheaval by suggesting that people are disappearing or fleeing the court. There's a restlessness in Britain that speaks of social disorder.

How can the world of King Lear be seen as pagan, rather than Christian?

A number of characters throughout the play, including Kent, Edmund, Gloucester, and the king of France, refer to "the gods" rather than to the Christian God. For example, in Act 1, Scene 1, Kent says to Cordelia, "The gods to their dear shelter take thee." Edmund refers to signs in the heavens and to how the people explain their characters in terms of astrological influences (Act 1, Scene 2). Furthermore, when Lear finds Kent in the stocks in Act 2, Scene 4, he swears by Jupiter, a Roman god, and Kent answers by swearing by Juno, a Roman goddess. The existence of capricious gods who do not provide justice to the good and loyal characters suits the play's theme of the tragic, often violent consequences of disrupting order. Gloucester captures this idea in Act 4, Scene 1, when he cries, "As flies to wanton boys are we to th' gods; / They kill us for their sport.

How does Gloucester help lay the ground for his son Edmund's betrayal in King Lear?

The Earl of Gloucester helps set in motion his son Edmund's betrayal by fathering him out of wedlock. In Act 1, Scene 1, Gloucester says Edgar is not just legal, he's also older, which means Gloucester was probably cheating on his wife when he fathered Edmund. Gloucester displays a casual attitude toward Edmund's illegitimacy, mocking Edmund in Act 1, Scene 1, for his illegitimate status. In addition, Gloucester contributes to Edmund's betrayal of him by immediately believing the purported letter from Edgar that Edmund "finds" in Act 1, Scene 2. The letter suggests that Edgar is plotting the death of their father, even though Edgar has always been loyal to Gloucester.

Do the knights in King Lear do anything to merit Goneril and Regan's complaints about them?

The audience doesn't ever really know if the knights do anything wrong, as Shakespeare never shows the knights onstage as a body. Therefore, the audience must reach its own conclusions. Shakespeare does show individual knights or gentlemen in Lear's service. There is very little drama to them; they serve Lear loyally and simply. All reports of the knights' bad or "riotous" actions come through several unreliable witnesses, most often Oswald, Regan, or Goneril. Because these characters have been shown to lie for their own purposes, especially Regan and Goneril, it seems likely that while the knights might have offended these women, the offense did not necessarily involve inappropriate behavior.

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