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King Lear | Discussion Questions 21 - 30

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Why are there so many references to dogs in King Lear?

Dogs were a familiar domestic animal in Shakespeare's time, and they work well to illustrate a number of qualities and ideas. Some of those ideas, though, fit particularly well with King Lear's themes. Dogs are known for their loyalty, and much of this play revolves around broken or distorted loyalty. In addition, because dogs know their place (below humans), they work well to illustrate how badly Regan is mistreating Kent in Act 2, Scene 2. Kent cries out, "Why, madam, if I were your father's dog,/You should not use me so." Finally, when Cordelia dies, dogs serve as a touchstone or comparison: Lear wonders aloud why a dog should live when she has died.

What evidence in King Lear shows that Lear was a respected leader before he divided his kingdom?

Lear earned great respect from characters such as Kent, Cordelia, Gloucester, and the Fool. For example, Kent says he never held his life "but as a pawn" to fight the king's enemies, "nor fear to lose it" if he could ensure the king's safety. Cordelia, although exiled, returns to help her father and seeks medical help for his madness. The Fool travels with and entertains Lear even through the storm. Gloucester's loyalty to his king results in the loss of his eyes after helping Lear escape. Despite Lear's flaws, including his inability to judge character, he was a respected ruler before he divided his kingdom.

How do Gloucester and Lear compare and contrast in King Lear?

Gloucester and Lear are similar in several ways. Both are older men who have more than one child; all the children in each family are of the same sex and are rivals for their fathers' affections. Although one child of each man remains loyal, both men come to grief through their children's betrayal and end up wandering across the landscape. Both characters are served in their suffering by loyal, exiled, and disguised characters who risk their lives to serve their lords. Finally, both die tragically in Act 5. The characters are also different in significant ways, beginning with their rank: since Lear is Gloucester's king, the breakdown of his family will have implications for the entire kingdom. In addition, Lear's children are legitimate, while one of Gloucester's sons is a bastard. Edmund's illegitimacy influences the way he betrays his father. Whereas Lear is betrayed slowly and subtly by his daughters, Edmund actively plots to displace his brother, Edgar. Finally, while both men are "blind," Lear's blindness remains figurative, as he fails to see his daughters' treachery, while Gloucester is literally blinded when his eyes are gouged out in Act 3, Scene 7.

How do Gloucester's and Edmund's belief in fate's being determined by the stars compare in Act I, Scene 2 of King Lear.

Although Edmund invokes nature as his "goddess" at the beginning of this scene, his interest in nature is only that it has no regard for the social order that stands in the way of his ambition. His father says the "late eclipses in the sun and moon portend/no good to." Edmund responds to his father's portents by mocking the idea that celestial events are the cause of all evil: "we make guilty of our/disasters the sun, the moon, and the stars," mocking the idea that celestial events are the cause of all evil. The audience surely agrees with Edmund when he concludes, "I should have been that I am"—duplicitous and greedy—had the "maidenliest" (most innocent) star twinkled when he was conceived.

In King Lear, how are Goneril and Regan similar and different?

Goneril and Regan are similar in several key ways. Both are Lear's daughters and are older than Cordelia. They publicly swear their love for their father in Act 1, Scene 1 to receive their share of the kingdom. Both quickly become upset over hosting him and his knights and are willing to allow Lear to wander in the storm. Both then betray their father and, after having affairs with Edmund, die at the end of the play in Act 5, Scene 3. The two sisters differ in that Goneril tends to stay behind the scenes during the ugliest moments of the play. Regan, in contrast, is an active participant. She urges Cornwall on when he's blinding Gloucester. When a servant attacks Cornwall, Regan picks up a sword and kills him. The one time Goneril is really active in her evil is when she poisons Regan and then stabs herself in Act 5, Scene 3.

In King Lear, what is the effect of Goneril and Regan's respective marriages on the events of the play?

Both Regan and Goneril are married to noblemen at the beginning of the play: Goneril to the Duke of Albany and Regan to the Duke of Cornwall. While Lear appears to favor Albany over Cornwall at the beginning of the play, his division of the kingdom puts the two men on equal footing. Goneril's husband, Albany, is mild-tempered, and this seems to restrain her malice somewhat. He eventually realizes Goneril's treachery and sides with Cordelia when France invades. By contrast, Regan's husband, Cornwall, is her match in cruelty. He quickly becomes an active conspirator and violent traitor, and it is he who blinds Gloucester with the cry "Out, vile jelly!"

In King Lear, how are Edgar's and Kent's disguises and their reasons for disguising themselves similar?

Both Kent and Edgar have been banished and will be killed if they are found. They therefore both disguise themselves so they can stay in Britain, out of loyalty to their country and their lords, who need them now more than ever. Both men change their appearance. Edgar disguises himself as Poor Tom, and Kent disguises himself as a peasant, called Caius. Both end up serving their lords while in disguise, demonstrating their loyalty. Edgar, as Poor Tom, prevents his father's suicide attempt, and Kent leads Lear to shelter during the storm in Act 3, Scene 2. Finally, both men take on disguises that lower their social status: Kent as a peasant and Edgar as a beggar.

In King Lear, how are madness and nakedness linked?

When Edgar disguises himself as "Poor Tom," a crazy beggar possessed by demons, he goes about covered only in a blanket. In Act 3, Scene 4, Lear observes this naked madman and asks, "Is man no more than this? ... Thou art the thing itself." Descending into madness himself, Lear recognizes that a naked madman stands for all of humanity. Eager to be similarly "real," Lear tears at his own clothes. Edgar's nakedness reinforces his pretended madness, while Lear, in an example of dramatic irony, views nakedness as a stripping of pretense.

How is the theme of madness and foolishness explored in King Lear through the characters Lear, Edgar, and the Fool?

A combination of his daughters' betrayal of him and his wandering in the storm in Act 3, Scene 2 causes Lear to go mad. Edgar pretends to be mad, as Poor Tom, in order to stay in the kingdom after he is banished. Both men rave about being tormented, but where Edgar complains about imaginary demons and devils, Lear complains about torments that are very real: his daughters and how they have treated him. Many of the most poignant and insightful lines in King Lear are delivered by the Fool. He is Lear's faithful servant, who can speak openly and honestly to the king because his wisdom is couched in rants and jokes. He may be a fool, but he can see clearly what is happening in the kingdom and calls Lear a fool himself for dividing the kingdom.

In King Lear how are aspects of time and distance manipulated to allow the drama to unfold?

Events happen with unnatural swiftness in King Lear. Cordelia is Lear's favorite, whom he loves the most of his three daughters. But after the "love test" in Act 1, Scene 1 goes wrong, he quickly strips her of her dowry. Edgar has been loyal to Gloucester his whole life, and they are on good terms, but one brief discussion with Edmund leads Gloucester to doubt and disown his son. Distance is most visibly unrealistic in the powerful storm in Act 3. Lear is wandering on the heath at night without a light in the pounding rain and whipping wind, but Kent finds him in Scene 2. In Scene 4 they encounter Edgar and then Gloucester. The meetings are implausible considering the conditions of the storm and Gloucester's blindness.

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