King Lear | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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King Lear | Discussion Questions 31 - 40


How are the themes of order and family relations related in King Lear?

The play revolves around family relations: how children should treat their fathers, how siblings should behave toward one another, and how fathers should behave toward their children. Cordelia is loyal to Lear, while Regan and Goneril scheme against him. But because he mistakenly equates their professions of love with loyalty, he banishes Cornelia and divides the kingdom between Regan and Goneril. Edmund and Edgar are brothers and should love one another, but Edmund produces a letter for Gloucester detailing how Edgar plans to betray him. These family relations are intertwined with the theme of order, particularly the consequences of disrupting social norms. Lear's decision to relinquish his position and depend on his children's love is unwise, but Regan and Goneril's greed make the decision a national disaster. The Fool comments on this disruption of order many times. For example, in Act 1, Scene 4, his first appearance in the play, the Fool answers Lear's question, "Dost thou call me fool?" by saying, "All thy other titles thou hast given away."

How are women portrayed in King Lear?

There are only three women in the play: Goneril, Regan, and Cordelia. They are portrayed in a way that would be considered sexist by modern standards. The elder two sisters are dishonest, treacherous to their king and father, and unfaithful to their husbands. When they act on their sexual passions, they turn on each other. When they act on their desire for power, they disrupt the kingdom. Shakespeare shows that their ambition is unnatural. In Act 4, Scene 2, Albany says of Goneril, "She that herself will sliver and disbranch/From her material sap perforce must wither/And come to deadly use," meaning that her female nature is withering and turning poisonous. Cordelia is the only positive model of femininity. She is modest, loyal, submissive, and largely sexless. In fact, she is too modest; her reluctance to speak up for herself in the "love test" sets the plot in motion. The three characters, however, are not relegated to these roles solely because they are women but because they are a king's children. If they were men, King Lear would have had a clear choice: his oldest son would have inherited the kingdom intact. Instead, there is no clear choice for his successor, which compels him to divide the kingdom.

Does King Lear depict love as something that lasts?

In King Lear, all love that has a component of sex or passion fades or goes bad. Goneril and Regan are both married, but their affection for their husbands fades. Gloucester makes it clear in Act 1, Scene 1 that he was very attracted to Edmund's mother, but there's no sign of her in the play. When Goneril and Regan fall in love with Edmund, and seem passionate about him, their passion leads directly to their deaths. However, love between family members can last, as can the loyalty of servants to masters. Edgar loves his father despite being exiled, and Cordelia loves her father despite losing her dowry and her portion of the kingdom. Kent describes his extraordinary loyalty to the king as love in Act 1, Scene 4: "So may it come thy master, whom thou lov'st/Shall find thee full of labors."

In King Lear, how does the structure of the play come full circle?

Both of the play's plots are carried to completion in Act 5, Scene 3. Edmund rebelled against his father and brother, and he now pays the price through death. Lear divided his kingdom and sent his youngest daughter away, but Cordelia and Lear are now reunited and so is the kingdom. In Act 1, Scene 1, before Lear divided his kingdom, his family was unified. He then divides his kingdom and in doing so divides his family. Symbolically, the family is unified again at the end of the play, if only in death. Edmund also learns at the ultimate cost (his life) that he was wrong and is not a better man than his brother, Edgar.

In King Lear, what is the effect of having Regan and Goneril die offstage in Act 5, Scene 3?

Like the other deaths in Act 5, Scene 3, those of Regan and Goneril help resolve some of the active plot issues. They must die in order to sustain the audience's hope that Lear and Cordelia's story might have a satisfying conclusion and to keep attention focused on Lear. Having Regan and Goneril die out of view of the audience also minimizes their deaths. While the sisters' betrayal of their father has caused an upheaval throughout the land, they are not at the center of events after Albany gains the upper hand over Edmund. Having them die out of sight of the audience underscores that reality.

How does the blind Gloucester's supposed jump off the cliffs of Dover in Act 4, Scene 6 deepen characterizations in King Lear?

The suicide attempt demonstrates to the audience just how pathetic Gloucester is. A blind and betrayed old man in the depths of despair, he must depend on a poor beggar to help him kill himself. When Gloucester jumps and doesn't die, he expresses a renewed resolve to live, saying, "Henceforth I'll bear/Affliction till it do cry out itself/'Enough, enough!' and die." Edgar's actions in trying to protect his father further establish him as one of the good characters. He shows loyalty to his father with no motive other than love.

What is the function of the brief scenes in Act 4, Scenes 3, 4, and 5 in King Lear?

Shakespeare achieves several purposes by having three brief scenes in a row in Act 4. Scenes 3, 4, and 5 each focus on different groups of characters. In Act 4, Scene 3, Kent and a gentleman discuss the progress of the war with France and provide the information that Cordelia is in England. The next scene shows Cordelia's self-control as she faces her father's insanity and the approach of rebel British troops. In Act 4, Scene 5, a conversation between Regan and Goneril's steward, Oswald, provides the information that Albany's forces have arrived and that Edmund seeks his father in order to kill him. The scenes give the audience a chance to catch up with each group of characters as Shakespeare provides the exposition needed to move the plot forward. In addition, by focusing on different groups of characters, the three scenes illustrate how widespread the disruption of social order has become and how important the outcome of the upcoming battle will be.

In King Lear, how does Act 5, Scene 1 show that Regan does not deserve to rule?

Regan's actions throughout King Lear demonstrate what a bad leader she would be, but Act 5, Scene 1 drives this point home. Here Regan says, "I had rather lose the battle than that sister/Should loosen him and me." Her declaration, motivated by jealousy and passion, is hardly a sentiment worthy of a good ruler. It shows that Regan's priorities are confused and that she has a callous disregard for those who serve her, as she is willing to lose a battle and sacrifice many lives in order to keep her lover.

In King Lear, how does Act 5, Scene 2 advance the plot on multiple levels?

Act 5, Scene 2 provides information, increases tension, and foreshadows future events. First, the Alarum mentioned in the stage directions indicates the long-awaited battle is finally under way. Second, when Cordelia and Lear cross the stage without speaking, as indicated in the stage directions, the audience sees how intense the battle has become; with so much to say to each other, the characters don't even have a chance to talk. Finally, the exchange between Edgar and Gloucester shows that though Edgar has prevented his father from killing himself, Gloucester is still in despair and ready to die. This foreshadows the events of Act 5, Scene 3.

According to King Lear, is deception always bad?

Deception is everywhere in King Lear, but its ethical value depends on the motivation of the character who is practicing deceit. Self-interested deception is always wrong. When Regan and Goneril lie about how much they love their father in Act 1, Scene 1, they do so out of self-interest. The same is true of Edmund in Act 1, Scene 2, when he produces a forged letter saying that his brother is plotting to betray their father, Gloucester. However, deception with good intention is laudable. Kent disguises himself so he can stay near Lear and care for him, and Edgar disguises himself as Poor Tom to evade capture and also that he can be of service to Lear and to his father. These are the characters to whom Albany entrusts the kingdom at the end of the play.

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