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King Lear | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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King Lear | Discussion Questions 41 - 50


What is the nature of the relationship between Kent and Lear in King Lear?

The relationship between Lear and Kent evolves over time. In Act 1, Scene 1, Kent distinguishes himself as the one person who is willing to speak honestly to Lear about his choices. However, Lear exiles him as a result, so the relationship starts as one of unappreciated loyalty. Once Kent disguises himself so he can enter Lear's service, Lear appreciates him more fully. In an example of dramatic irony, Lear doesn't appreciate Kent when he is familiar with him but embraces him once Kent is disguised. As the play goes on, Kent expresses his deep compassion toward Lear. Lear, for his part, comes to recognize how much he needs Kent.

In King Lear, why doesn't Edgar show his face when he comes to challenge his brother, Edmund, as a traitor in Act 5, Scene 3?

Hiding Edgar's identity serves several purposes in the scene. First, it shows that Edgar really is the better man. In Act 1, Scene 2, Edmund says he is as good a man as Edgar. Yet without recognizing his brother in his trial by combat in Act 5, Edmund declares his adversary to be noble. In addition, Edmund's contest with an anonymous knight is one of several aspects of King Lear that gives it a mythical, fairy-tale-like quality. Shakespeare appears to be borrowing from Arthurian legends. As a faceless figure, Edgar is as anonymous as the Green Knight.

In King Lear, why do both Regan and Goneril fall in love with Edmund?

Regan and Goneril's passion for Edmund is one of the aspects of King Lear that is not explicitly explained. The audience must piece together the reasons as follows: In Act 1, Scene 1, Cordelia is being matched in an arranged marriage. Presumably Goneril and Regan had arranged marriages as well. Such situations were common for members of a royal family, but they did not necessarily result in love. This might have left the women open to temptation. Goneril's relationship with her husband, the Duke of Albany, degenerates throughout the play, to the point that she describes him in Act 4, Scene 2 as a coward and less than a man. Both Goneril and Regan are ambitious, and they are bold enough to act in socially unacceptable ways to advance their fortunes. So is Edmund; he and the two sisters are kindred spirits. Finally, Edmund is both persuasive and cunning enough to play the two sisters against each other for his own purposes.

Why does Lear kill the guard who hangs Cordelia in Act 5, Scene 3 of King Lear?

Having Lear kill the guard who hangs Cordelia in Act 5, Scene 3 serves two distinct but important purposes. The first is to show how profoundly Lear loves Cordelia. The second is an example of situational irony. Lear has declared himself so old and feeble that he must step down from his throne. However, he has the physical strength necessary to break free of guards and kill the man hanging Cordelia—despite having his heart broken, having gone mad, and having been trapped in a storm.

Why doesn't anyone listen to the Fool in King Lear?

The first reason no one listens to the Fool is simple: he's a fool. The very role that gives him the freedom to say anything he wants comes at a price. Despite the wisdom of the Fool's words, the other characters don't take him seriously. The second reason is more complex: he makes too much sense. If the other characters listened to the Fool, they'd have to abandon their plans. For example, in Act 1, Scene 4, the Fool tells a wise joke in which a broken egg represents Lear's fracturing of the kingdom; the two worthless eggshells represent the value of the kingdom. The Fool is right; but Lear doesn't want to change course, and so he ignores him.

How does the Duke of Albany disappoint Goneril in King Lear?

The Duke of Albany disappoints his wife, Goneril, in two ways. First, he disappoints her through his political moderation. Throughout King Lear, Albany is moderate in both his conduct and his politics. In Act 1, Scene 1, Albany tries to restrain Lear when he is lashing out at Kent, saying, "Dear sir, forbear." In Act 1, Scene 4, Albany urges patience, and asks for more information. Second, Albany disappoints Goneril as a man. She sees his moderation as being driven by fear, and in Act 4, Scene 2 says she "must change names at home and give the distaff/Into my husband's hands," meaning she must play the male role and he the female.

What conclusion can an audience draw about Cordelia's death in Act 5 of King Lear?

Cordelia's death is completely senseless. One of the most guiltless characters in the play, she is hanged at the order of Edmund, who tries to countermand the order as he is dying. However, the messengers sent by both Edmund and King Lear are too late to save her. The bleak conclusion an audience must draw is that good people die for no reason. Gloucester and Lear, two other "good" characters, die as well, but these men have committed serious errors of reasoning, while Cordelia is blameless. Social order has been restored, but at the cost of justice.

Who is the worst villain in King Lear?

Audiences have several villains to choose from in King Lear. Though Edmund lies to his father and betrays him, he has strong motives. He is a bastard, and his father publicly jokes about his illegitimacy. He also tries to reform at the end. Regan and Goneril are almost like evil witches from a fairy tale by late in the play. However, they know they are not their father's favorites, they are ruled by their passions, and they are almost pitiful in their murderous jealousy. As the worst villain in King Lear, the audience might select the Duke of Cornwall. Unlike the other villainous characters, he is not motivated by old family jealousies, but by simple greed, malice, and savagery, as the audience sees when he gouges out Gloucester's eyes.

Is there a hero in King Lear?

There is definitely a tragic hero: Lear himself. He starts the play as king of Britain, but brings down his own kingdom and dies due to his particular egotism. There are also traditional heroes. Kent takes on a disguise and risks his life to stay near Lear. Cordelia is a saintly figure. However, both characters are overshadowed by Edgar, who starts the play as a somewhat passive and naïve figure. He takes risks, as does Kent, disguising himself as Poor Tom, and stands by the father who betrayed him, as does Cordelia. He then moves from passive to active heroism. He first kills Oswald, when the steward would have killed Gloucester, and then fights and kills his brother, Edmund.

What does it mean when Kent asks Lear about his "servant Caius" in Act 5, Scene 3 of King Lear?

At the end of Act 4, Kent insists on retaining his disguise. At the end of Act 5, he sheds the disguise. Asking about Caius is a way of testing Lear, to see the extent to which his wits have returned: does he know Kent and Caius are the same person? Lear, descending into madness again after the death of Cordelia, does not clearly acknowledge Kent's identity, saying vaguely, "You are welcome hither." He is also too confused to acknowledge Kent's message that Regan and Goneril "desperately are dead." As Albany says of the king, "He knows not what he says."

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