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King Lear | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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King Lear | Discussion Questions 11 - 20


In King Lear, how does the Earl of Kent show the value and dangers of loyalty?

Kent performs several actions that demonstrate his loyalty. The first and most profound act is choosing to disguise himself so he can stay near Lear to protect him, even after his king has banished him. He risks his life out of loyalty. In addition, Kent challenges Oswald in Act 2, Scene 2, after Oswald mistreats King Lear. Kent's loyalty is rewarded in that he is one of the few major characters to survive at the end of the play. However, Kent also shows that untampered loyalty that leads to outbursts of passion is dangerous. The audience can see this in Kent's encounter with Oswald and its aftermath. Kent is so upset about how Lear has been treated that he cannot restrain himself. He first insults Oswald (at great length, so the man can't miss it), and then attacks him. Provoked by his master's mistreatment, Kent's loyalty results in punishment when Cornwall puts him in the stocks.

What is the role of sibling rivalry in the stories of the downfalls of King Lear and Gloucester?

Sibling rivalry has a prominent role in the downfall of both men. King Lear's downward trajectory begins after he divides his kingdom among his two daughters. He creates this crisis by creating the test of the daughters' love and then portioning out the parts of the kingdom after only Goneril and Regan have spoken, rather than waiting till all have spoken. Given Goneril's and Regan's greedy, disloyal natures—to which the king is blind—he invites the tragedies that result. Gloucester similarly creates rivalry between his sons by mocking Edmund's illegitimate birth, which provokes Edmund's intense jealousy of his legitimate half brother, Edgar. "Well then," says Edmund, "Legitimate Edgar, I must have your land." Like Lear, Gloucester's blindness to the rivalry he has created leads to his fall from power and eventual death.

How does the character of Oswald in King Lear show that there can be loyalty without honor?

Oswald, Goneril's steward, is disrespectful to King Lear in Act 1, Scene 4, walking away from the king without answering his question. However, he is only carrying out orders given to him by Goneril in the previous scene, in which she orders him to "put on what weary negligence" he pleases. Oswald remains loyal to the evil Goneril throughout the play. In Act 4, Scene 2, he warns her that the Duke of Albany is allying himself with the French army and against Edmund, and in Act 4, Scene 5, he refuses to let Regan read Goneril's letter to Edmund. Finally, in Act 4, Scene 6, Oswald gives the letter he is carrying for Edmund to Edgar—his own murderer—to deliver, maintaining his misplaced loyalty to the end.

In Act 2, Scene 4 of King Lear, how does Lear's reaction to the sight of Kent in the stocks suggest his dilemma as a ruler who has stepped down?

Seeing Kent in the stocks upsets Lear for several reasons. Kent is Lear's servant, and an attack on one of the king's servants is an attack on the king's person. His anger intensifies when he is told that it is his own daughters who are responsible for Kent's punishment. They are disrespecting him as king and father. Although Regan and Goneril do come out to speak to him, neither will allow him to stay with her as long as he has his knights with him. They mock him, calling him an old man, and Lear is forced to face his age and his waning power. He can't step down from being king and still retain the rights and privileges of a king.

Why is Act 3, Scene 1 of King Lear so short?

Act 3, Scene 1 essentially exists to provide exposition. The previous scene had introduced an approaching storm; this scene confirms it has arrived and Lear is out in it. In addition, this scene shares crucial information about Albany, Cornwall, Cordelia, and the king of France, and it is as long as it needs to be to advance the plot. Finally, the brevity of the scene allows for a break in the drama. Act 2, Scene 4 is long and filled with intense emotion. Including a short scene here allows the tension to ease for a moment before picking up in Act 3, Scene 2, when the audience actually sees Lear out in the storm.

How do Edmund's and Edgar's leadership qualities compare and contrast in King Lear?

Edgar shows himself throughout the play to be loyal, good-hearted, and well-intentioned. By the end of the play, he has demonstrated several leadership qualities, including a dedication to duty and a passion to restore order in the kingdom. He believes in justice, and his honesty and integrity are in sharp contrast to the villainy of his brother. He is also a good warrior, able to fight and beat his brother, Edmund, in Act 5, Scene 3. However, at the start of the play, he is quite naïve. He accepts his brother's schemes at face value and is slow to recognize Edmund's treachery. By contrast, Edmund is focused, inventive, and bold. Once his mind is set on displacing Edgar in their father's affection (and line of succession), he acts on it swiftly and repeatedly. He is creative and verbally skilled. However, Edmund would make a poor leader because he rejects the function of social order. Fueled by rage over his illegitimate status, he acts as if legitimacy means nothing. In addition, he isn't as smart as he thinks he is. He joins forces with both Goneril and Regan, even though both are married and both have shown themselves to talk about love more than they feel it.

In Act 1, Scene 4 of King Lear, how does the Fool use insults to try to warn King Lear about the consequences of dividing his kingdom?

In his first entrance in the play, the Fool repeatedly insults the king's intelligence. He tells the king that if he had two daughters and "gave them all [his] living," he would keep his coxcombs, or fool's hat, for himself. In other words, he is calling the king a fool for having divided his kingdom. He continues the metaphor by telling the king he is a "bitter fool" for giving away "all [his] other titles." He insults the king again by saying that when he cut his crown in half and gave away both parts, he showed "little wit in [his] bald crown." Kent is able to see the truth of the Fool's words, but Lear is oblivious, even though Goneril then enters and goads her father into leaving his own household.

In Act 3, Scene 6 of King Lear, what does it mean that the maddened Lear first "tries" his daughters for crimes and then calls for them to be dissected?

The audience might first think that Lear's playacting a trial in Act 3, Scene 6 is a sign of his madness. It is, but it is more than that. Lear sees his daughters' actions as so wrong as to be criminal. When he follows the trial with a call for Regan and Goneril to be dissected, Lear is saying that whatever is wrong with them goes beyond law. His daughters are so wrong that it takes what a modern audience would call science to figure them out. He wants to cut them open to see the biological roots of their evil. Of course, Lear is expressing enormous anger with these words, as dissection would mean killing them.

What is the significance of Cornwall's servant attacking him while he's blinding Gloucester in Act 3, Scene 7 of King Lear?

The attack on Cornwall by the servant, who is called only "First Servant," is deeply meaningful. Throughout England and Europe in Shakespeare's time, there was a sharp and well-established hierarchy among the social classes. A servant owed his lord allegiance and obedience and was obliged to fight to the death for him. The servant's attack on Cornwall is a sign that morality and compassion are not entirely dead, as the servant risks his position—and loses his life—in defense of Gloucester. The servant's noble act against his lord also shows just how disrupted Britain's social order has become.

In Act 3, Scene 6 of King Lear, what is the significance of Edgar's complaints about devils and fiends?

Edgar's complaints that devils and fiends are tormenting him are meant to show that he is insane. His complaint, however, creates a bond with King Lear. Seeing a fellow sufferer, the king invites Edgar to be a "learned justice" as he stages the mock trial of Goneril and Regan, his own "foul fiends." Edgar continues to play the fool at first, but as he hears the king's bitter indictment of his daughters, he is so deeply moved that he can hardly keep up his disguise. The scene conveys the theme that the guise of madness is a vehicle for speaking the truth.

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