Tag Archives: King Lear

Loyalty in Lear: notes and jottings

Following a discussion this morning, I have some bullet points to provoke discussion as the exams approach.

  • The theme of loyalty requires some identification of the message that Shakespeare might have been trying to get across rather than a list of loyal and disloyal characters or moments.  Context is useful here when one considers the quantity of shifts in loyalty required of the populace in the 16 and 17th centuries, from the fall of Richard 2 onwards and all documented by Shakespeare.  In recent time the loyalty of all to their God was challenged whether by Marian or Elisabethan puritanism and all would have been used to identifying these two strands of personal loyalty.
  • The play can be said to work on family/royal and cosmic levels.You might wish to explore the different levels with regards to loyalty.
  • Most “loyal” characters come to a bad end and there seems to be little to distinguish the loyal from the disloyal in terms of outcome.  Why might this be?  Does it link to the idea of speaking what one ought to say?  If loyalty is forced upon the subject, then their feelings and freedoms are denied by the very act of loyalty which is required.
  • Considering Act 1, the ambivalence is clear.  Which of the sisters is the most loyal?  I would argue certainly not “good” Cordelia who lets her King and father down at a public display of loyalty.  She is not lying,unlike her sisters, but this is a flagrant act of disloyalty in public at both family and royal levels.  Her subsequent banishment will allow her to reveal her deep loyalty in the inverted world which follows, yet she returns at the head of an army, loyal to Lear, which is in turn defeated.  It seems there is scant reward for loyalty.
  • Gloucester’s loyalty to Lear is similarly destructive.  His allegiance should have shifted once the abdication had taken place.  It did not transfer to Cornwall and his doom is sealed.  Again,.misplaced loyalty is punished.
  • The sisters show little loyalty to their father after Act 1.1, being left on stage in that scene to discuss how best to respond to the perceived threat of Lear/father.  Yet they also suffer within this framework.  Disloyal to their husbands, they pursue Edmund and die in a poison-fest of their own creation.
  • Edmund: why should he be loyal to anyone other than himself? Banished by his father  for 9 years and due to removed again, Edmund shows loyalty only to himself and is the mater of his own success and downfall.  His loyalty towards the new regime is amply rewarded, though based on a totally amoral world view.  His death in the duel seems like divine retribution, yet what code has he broken?  he is loyal to the rightful King once Lear has abdicated and owes no filial allegiance to his father.
  • This leaves Kent and Edgar as examples of loyalty.  Both show unbroken loyalty to their “master/father” and both suffer for it.  Yet both have the chance of survival.  Edgar may well become the ruler of the kingdom, but Kent chooses suicide and the continuation of loyalty beyond the grave.  What message is there here?  Should one be prepared to die rather than to change one’s allegiance?

Maybe the point is that in the utterly fractured 17th Century with a Kingdom riven with religious intolerance and now ruled by a foreign King to whom the English Lords must swear allegiance and who might be considering the division of the Kingdom himself, Shakespeare is musing on the purpose and significance of loyalty.  Only Kent seems genuinely loyal to the end.  Edgar’s final words might be used to suggest that “what we feel” could usher in an era devoid of blind loyalty and acceptance of the status quo.  It is clear that in this world, loyalty confers no favours over and above the disloyal.  A King, therefore, cannot expect and obtain loyalty simply because of his position-  the subjects get nothing from this.  Also if a King breaks the bond of loyalty to his subjects, he can expect no loyalty in return.

It’s all a little strange!


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Escape the family: Lear discussion yr 13

Another y13 lesson posted to assist those absent on interview/open day….

This is a discussion of the idea that there is “NO ESCAPE FROM THE FAMILY”.

lear family

lear family planning

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Yr 13 lecture/discussion: Fool as guide…

Linked to this post on the Fool:


This lecture/discussion was delivered on Tuesday 22nd March.  I post it to support Fred and Jack who missed the lesson – interviews and open days!

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THE FOOL: as much a guide for the audience as for Lear?

This post looks at a question from the 2015 OCR  level paper on King Lear.  The PowerPoint below formed part of a give back and is an invitation for discussion, not a route map to an A*!

fool as guide

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Goneril. A misunderstood woman. #IWD2016

Poor Goneril.

Is there a more misunderstood character in Literature?  (probably, but indulge me).

All too often she is dumped into the same bracket as her noxious middle sister, Regan.  Middle siblings:  surface charm, surface calm and deep malice.

It’s too easy to create an “ugly sisters” trope and cast the two as a matched pair of malice and intrigue, but on International; Women’s Day 2016, I want to put in a word for Goneril.  This might stimulate debate in class and is not intended to be a highly critical essay – rather a train of thought.

Imagine this:  your father has let it be known that there is to be a division of his property and that he expects some form of public display of affection.  Yours is a family which quantifies abstract concepts like “love” as though recording the number of cakes on a platter.  You are the eldest child.  You will be speaking first.

Your speech at Learfest is quite safe.  You profess love “more than word can wield the matter” which saves you from having to quantify it in words, and then move to a series of straightforward comparisons before ending with the notion it is a love which makes “speech unable” ( your younger sister evidently has the same idea, but is too proud or lacking in social awareness to say so…).

You get through it. You attain 1/3 of the Kingdom (which was always coming to you anyway) and then… and then your sister shafts you:

“only she comes too short”.

WHAT A COW! Your father has already made it clear where his affections lie – “our dearest Regan”, yet she still feels the need to stick the knife in and undermine you in this way. So unfair!  All is not lost, however because your youngest sister behaves to type and refuses to swallow her pride, preferring a ridiculous show of saying “what (she) feels, not what (she) ought to say.  GET IN! At last you will receive some justice for being the eldest – the one who has to take the lead, the one whose mistakes will help the other two avoid those pitfalls. You sit in silence and watch the drama unfold.  And it scares you.

You urgently discuss a plan with your sister.  once again, as you are the eldest, the first blow falls on you – he’s on his way tonight.  You agree that he is unstable but let’s face it, you’re on your own.

So your castle becomes a “home” for an ex-King who will not give up his power, and 100 drunken knights.  Your steward, Oswald, who, let’s face it is hardly a specimen of masculinity to be proud of, no doubt appointed by that “cowish” husband of yours, is humiliated going about his business and you have little or no recourse.  You advise him to ensure that the retinue is uncomfortable in the hope that they will leave, but instead you father begins to employ local itinerant beggars to his table.  In your castle.  Your husband does little – he was a marriage of alliance, not love or respect and you resent the fact that your talents are to be crushed again and again by the actions of weak men.  You hatch a plan – a reasonable plan – to reduce the retinue by half to try to alleviate some of the chronic overcrowding and the excesses of behaviour.

Your father goes ballistic, as if his knights are some form of penile representation – men always need to be reminded of how big they are after all.  His whining little Fool focuses his “wit” in your direction and winds you up.  You make your case and the result?  Possibly the most noxious curse a father has ever lain at his daughters head.  Sterility and self pitying ranting about “a serpent’s tooth”.  Your husband shows you no loyalty and your father rides off to your sister.  You act:  warn her and ask for help.

Once she gets your letter (some postal service in pre-history) she arrives at Gloucester’s castle. armed with her own agenda, as usual.  Her marriage seems more of a meeting of minds, and you resent this somewhere – the eldest had to ensure alliance with Scotland above all else.  Regan and Cornwall got to Gloucester before you.  they take control (again your milky husband seems so useless) and when the family meets again it is to reduce your father’s status to enable his living quarters to be sorted.  Once again, she trumps you.  She is even harsher on him than you.  This is not a team, it’s an ambush and you did not see it coming.  50-25-10-5-1?  You did not see that coming. The result is that your father is locked on the Heath thanks to his stupid stubbornness and refusal to acknowledge himself as any less of a King despite recent events.  You are angry and frustrated at Old Gloucester, but it is your sister and her Husband who assume control and order the gates to be locked.

From this point, how can you be blamed for your actions.  Cursed and abused since childhood, unloved in comparison to your sisters and married off the the wettest man since the Flood, you begin to assert yourself.  true, you suggest that Cornwall “pluck out his eyes” when Gloucester is caught, but this is simply an appropriate punishment for an adulterer and traitor.  You didn’t think that they might actually do it!  Once it has happened, there’s nothing to be done, but the death of your sister’s husband puts you in a spin.  You admire the handsome young bastard who has become Duke of Gloucester.  He seems able to give you all that Albany cannot.  You want him.  For once you want something purely for your own ends.  Something to reverse the humiliation heaped on you by the Patriarchal society in which you are forced to live.  Now she can claim him – and more easily since she is no longer married.

What to do?  well, there’s no nice way of putting this:  you murder her – poison, a woman’s weapon will do the trick ( and your father thought tears were a woman’s weapon – foolish old man).  And for the first time in your life you take direct action to secure your desires.

You get no reward.  Your father manages to return with Cordelia and even though they are beaten in battle they are the focus of all pity and attention.  Your bastard is shown to be exactly that!  Again you were played for a fool and you fell for it. Some God is really playing with you – such sport!

There is no escape here, your husband is about to rule the kingdom, reducing you for ever to the role of the passive female onlooker.  This is too much.  Even in death you are overlooked by the men:  you are not even named by that imbecile of a servant – “your lady” – ha!  Albany – milky-white Albany then even announces to all that there is no pity to be found for the pair of you.  Even in death you are tainted by your sister.

It’s so unfair!



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Stretching Lear 2

2 more presentations by Year 13, with discussion…

The Malcontent in Jacobean Literature


Warrior Virtues in Lear: Bushido readings


Texts will be uploaded as soon as they arrive!


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Extending Lear: Mothers and The Road…

Two presentations given by Year 13 students Ethan and David. One considers the absent mothers in the play and the other is entitled “What need 1? The mirrored worlds of Lear and The Road”.

This is the first time the boys have presented to their peers in this way and the intention is not to use “exam style” essays but to stretch and explore.  I include the brief discussions of each presentation…  (I should say that The Road is not a set text this year – the reference came from a discussion of the eschatological nature of Lear and the Road…).

Lear Symposium by Ethan Peters, y13 John Lyon School


McCarthy and Lear Symposium  by David Hubbard, yr 13 John Lyon School.


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Cinderedmund and Corderella

-Forgive the bad puns.  my students have been looking at an essay entitled “King Lear can be seen as beginning as a fairy tale, whilst ending as a nightmare”.  I wanted to make some points as stimulus for the writing – not as an essay, but as bullets which might give impetus to deeper thought on the topic.  These are notes, with few line references and no discussion of specific critics – that is your job.  The intention is to stimulate discussion and set students scurrying away to find relevant passages and articles to take the discussion further.

  • Are the two ideas mutually exclusive?  Certainly most fairy tales begin “once upon a time” and end “happily ever after”, but this might require a very Disneyfied view of Grimm to hold true after the “Gothic” revolution of the late 18th and early 19th Century.  There is also no quantifiable notion of “happily”.   Since most stories follow a pattern of disruption of a status quo leading to an eventual resolution and establishment of a status quo,which need not be the same as the starting point, there is no reason why the limited hope offered by the unity of the Kingdom under one ruler at the end of the play might not suggest hope.  Hope against the odds and assailed with threat, but hope, and hence, happiness of a sort.  Indeed if we follow the Folio and have Edgar assuming the leadership, there is even the idea of the wronged child attaining some sort of moral reward for his suffering and attaining the kingdom.
  •  So where does that leave the dichotomy of the title?  Fairy tales can also be nightmarish, especially tales written after the Gothic explosion.  Whatever Shakespeare wanted to write in 1606, the audience of the 19th Century would have a different set of cultural signposts.  Whilst Cordelia is generally seen as the fairy tale character (which we will see later), Edmund makes a very convincing fairy tale protagonist for a darker age.  Like all good characters he is disowned and disenfranchised and this is made clear in the first lines of the play.  Gloucester shows no affection and boasts of his sexual adventures in procreation.  He also is clear that Edmund -discarded for years  -is shortly to be removed from his presence again.  It is understandable the Edmund should resent this, and just like Cinderella, try to regain/attain what he sees as rightfully his.  Unlike Cinderella he does this himself.  He is clear that “whoremaster man” will seek to evade responsibility for his actions by blaming either astrology or heaven for all that takes place .  There is no “fairy Godmother” in his version of the tale.  Instead he acts for himself and is very successful.  Until the end.  So Edmund might present a new, nightmarish character – dark and self possessed, but interestingly it is this version of the tale which allows most happiness and moral rectitude to emerge from the end of the play.
  • A nightmare which leads to light?  By any perspective the ending of the play is bleak.  If we follow the Corderella direction, there is no hope.  Yes she meets her father again, but he barely recognises her, seems to accept their fate with little reference to her feelings and (I would argue) neither requests nor receives any reconciliation or benediction.  Instead, hr army is defeated (a clear inversion of an expected happy ending) and she is murdered.  But, what if Cinderedmund is the fairy tale character?  yes, it is dark, but after his death, there is a clear restoration of order and Edgar will live happily ever after, in some way.  Edmund gains revenge for his treatment as a bastard by his duping of Edgar and betrayal of the lecherous Gloucester, but the moral order of the 17th Century is not ready for the triumph of the unnatural.  Order is restored and the happy ending exists.
  • When Nahum Tate recomposed Lear with a happy ending and a living Cordelia, we could argue that this obsession with this side of the plot is the first Disneyfication of such a dark tale.  The message is too harsh?  Change the message seems to be the idea here.  Possibly audiences do not want to be forced to face the unrelenting cruelty found in this play – it certainly is rarely a play to “enjoy” in the theatre, rather a deeply uncomfortable confrontation with the Human Condition.  Maybe not a nightmare, but much more than a simple “once upon a time…. happily ever after” event.
  • It is hard to know how the roles in this play were performed at their creation.  Certainly the modern analysis of a role would have had little place in Jacobean Theatre.  I think it entirely plausible that the opening scene may well have been played with more humour than often seen today.  Gloucester is bragging about his sexual prowess at the opening and the manner in which Regan trumps Goneril’s expression of love is a wonderful opportunity for both actors to show their comic timing and to engage with the audience in a fully lit Globe Theatre.  Pure pantomime.  Pure Cinderella.  Until Cordelia speaks her first “Nothing”.  Even at that stage Lear can seem humorous and indulgent.  Once she repeats the negative and denies him his display of flattery there can be no going back.  I read Cordelia as too full of pride to see the danger she is in and also to recognise the danger she is placing everyone in since her father is known to by unstable and prone to rash and violent action.  From this point, it feels as though Fairy Tales are off the menu.  This is a morality play and an acutely perceptive reading of “unaccomodated man” – it is dark, yet it also can be seen as offering hope in some way at the end.  it is not a Fairy Tale in the sense expected in 16/17C but on the other hand, it can be seen as a forerunner of the type of morality espoused by Grimm – tales in which malevolent male figures torment innocent females and in which the Gothic Female will emerge – not the victim, the cruel temptress – Regan, Goneril and Lady Macbeth.  Shaekespeare is not writing Gothic literature and is not writing either Fairy Tales or Nightmares.  The play has elements of both.  Your job as A level students is to respond to the debate and show your awareness of the range of possibility.

Feel free to respond and start a discussion!

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King Lear theme sheets

Year 13, please find your theme sheets for Act 3 here. Feel free to browse and take these as stimuli for discussion or simply as a starting point for quotation gathering…
new doc 10 Act 3 thematic references

new doc 11  Quotations around “hope”

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Shakespeare and the Apocalypse: initial thoughts.

I am interested in trying to engage students in the idea of Shakespeare presenting the Apocalyptic in his later plays and specifically in Lear, being studied in y13.  Eschatology (the study for the end of days in Christian theology) is alive and kicking today, and presumably will be until the horsemen are actually standing in the middle of our cities and the gates of hell are actually thrown open.  Whilst this might never happen, the belief that it will in the 21st century should alert students to the fervour with which. The belief would have been carried in 17th century England.
What could be more significant for those looking for signs than the deteriorating health of their virgin Queen, who was leaving no heir and quite possibly would leave a vacuum for civil war?  Not only this, but plague and disease was continually rampant and there was still no real end to religious persecution  of Catholics, who were facing the destruction of their church.  The excommunication of Henry Viii had already presented him as a figure outside the arms of the church.  His daughter was no better and was also female – anathema.

On her death, the ascension of the elderly James 1/6 did not look like a new beginning.  The average English man now faced up to rule by an enemy obsessed with the study of witchcraft and who had to strive to unite 2 disparate kingdoms.  In 1606 He survived an assassination attempt on a huge scale and saw the country ravaged by the worst plague outbreak to date.  The signs were not good: death by fire and plague seemed to fit the description of the apocalypse – the end of days when God would call all to account and deliver promised salvation for the  worthy and promised destruction in hell for the unworthy.
Conventional rendering of “the Doom” would have been well known to all.  Churches carried paintings of the subject until at least 1559 when Queen Elisabeth repeated an order to whitewash all the church paintings.  Whether or not we believe Shakespeare to be a closet Catholic sympathiser, it is clear that he imagery of a gaping pit of Hell with trumpeting angels and e dead rising naked from their graves to receive God’s justice was a clear part of the consciousness of society in general.  It makes sense that he uses this imagery repeatedly in the four late tragedies: Hamlet, Othello, Lear and Macbeth.  I will be focusing on Lear, and would draw attention to an earlier blog post on equivocation- the practice of half truth telling which would no doubt be part of the practice of avoiding a sticky end.
My intention as ever in my blog is to draw attention to some areas that might be good starting points for further discussion and also to some texts which might warrant deeper and further reading.
Edgar as Poor Tom:  Edgar’s lists of Devils and “crazed” wanderings need not delay a student in terms of quotation gathering, but are relevant and vital to this discussion.  Almost all of the Devils he cites are taken directly from an influential writer: Harsnett.  Harsnett, in his “A declaration of egregious Popish Impostures”, was one of the most prominent writers of the day on the Devils and devilish behaviour amongst the Catholic underground in England.  These Devils and their descriptions also mimic much of the Apocalyptic language of Revelation, in which such creatures are seen pouring from the pit in order to pursue mankind to the deserved end for a sinner.

Students might like to explore the reasons that may lie behind such detailed discussion of these well known “Devils” by a character feigning madness.  In a world in which the Catholic community was facing ever closer scrutiny by the Puritanical forces of the Protestant church, it might be profitable to consider whether Shakespeare is discreetly sending. A message to his followers that such obsession with apparent proofs of religious recidivism in the mouth of a madman might represent the idiocy of the current position and a plea for sanity from James in order to avoid an utter destruction of the Catholic faith.  This idea, which can be extended into an exploration of the presentation of Cordelia and Kent as figures of a subterranean Catholic movement seeking to achieve permission to coexist with the Protestant Puritanism of  Regan, Cornwall and the ” forces of darkness” is worthy of debate.  Students should be looking at the book Shadowplay by Clare Asquith.
We will return to the Apocalypse- the just punishment for the evil and just saving of the good. Here students should find Weittrich’s writing in ….. And also Christophides in Shakesoeare and the Apocalypse.
Lear is a remarkable play because of the subverting of the expected trajectory of a tragedy.  At the end of this play, the dark side is suitably punished, despite some notable equivocation in the part of Edmund, but here is little evidence of redemption.  Bradley, writing in 1904, finds redemption in the death of Cordelia due to Lear’s belief as he dies that she is alive, but as the 20th century developed, many critics reject this idea – athem Stampfer and Belsey.  Indeed it is hard to see much hope in a play in which nihilism is so clearly stated time and again.  Moreover, the idea that the forces for good are actually defeated is hard to take for many.  What s the point of the fight if the wrong side win?  It is this area that led to the happy ending revision of the play in the 18 the century and to critics such as Dr Johnson whole-heartedly endorsing Nahum Tate’s rewriting.  For this discussion though, the ending is interesting because it denies the apocalypse hinted at throughout  by the language of Lear in the storm; of Edmund as Poor Tom or by Kent in Act 1.1 when he refers to Lear’s treatment of Cordelia as her “doom”.

Apocalypse must punish AND save or else it is not a true apocalypse.  Few are saved here and the elevation of Edgar to the throne (if we follow the folio reading) hardly inspires hope for the future.  indeed one might say that his last words”say what we feel, not what we ought to say” suggest that the whole cycle might start again.  After all, this is precisely what Cordelia did in Act 1 when she chose not to enter into the love-fest that was to divide the kingdom.
Christofides offers the idea the play actually takes place in a post apocalyptic world for consideration.  He likens Lear to McCarthy’s post apocalyptic novel The Road, and suggests that we might need it see in the play evidence that Hell really does exist and that all the characters are already in it.  Citing Gloucester’s speech in 1.2 106-9 in which he describes an England in which “love cools, friendship falls off, brothers divide; in countries, discord; in palaces, treason; and the bond crack’d twixt son and father”. Certainly, taken universally, rather than as musing solely on the recent events at court, this is quite persuasive and might also offer a response tot he question of why Gloucester barely refers to the banishment of Cordelia – simply put, the world has already slipped into its post apocalyptic state and such things are simply symptoms of a much wider malaise in society.  Against this, though, we should note that Lear’s bond with Cordelia is not actually broken and we might see the eventual reconciliation ( if there is one…) as a sign that hell has not taken over and that redemption is still possible.
At the end of the play this exchange takes place : Kent :”is this the promised end?” Edgar:”Or image of that horror?”  Kent has first referred to the Doom in Act 1 and as the King cradles the body of his dead daughter, he wonders if the apocalypse has now been revealed.  Edgar’s reply suggests not- this is merely a vision of Hell, rather than Hell itself.  The apocalypse has not taken place and continues to threaten the audience to this day.  What we see is a representation in the form of an inverted Pieta with Mary replaced by a tired and defeated old man cradling his murdered daughter in his arms.  There are no Devils and demons as in popular images of the day, but instead Edgar might be suggesting that the fall of the “dragon”, an animal featuring in the Apocalyptic writings as emerging from hell where it is an evident compound of the Serpent which tempted Eve, is completed by the senseless death of his daughter – a figure of truth and virtue.  both will die, neither will be saved, but Lear is punished here by suffering the death of his beloved child. Lear will suffer death and remains, I think, unredeemed even when he thinks Cordelia lives.  She doesn’t.  The audience know this and Lear’s exclamation seems to be almost like a futile piece of equivocation as he faces his judgement.  He started this process with his irreligious division of a Kingdom founded by God.  If Cordelia lives he can be redeemed, but in a vision of the apocalypse, why should this take place?  Instead, it is important to see the  Doom, not just for Cordelia but also for the man who caused her suffering.
However, and students should always be looking for a however, what if Cordelia is a figure of redemption? How might we achieve this reading.  The play has a specifically non-Christian setting, practically due to the issues of putting religion onto the stage in the 17th century, and in practice to allow for a non-Christian apocalypse: one with no clear redemption for the “good”.  During this play we encounter characters wishing or suggesting that poison might be a good source of cure for their ills.  This is a splendid oxymoron: that one’s ills can be cured by suicide- a Great Sin. As Christophides asserts, Cordelia’s “nothing” works both as the catalyst for Lear’s madness as well as the instrument for his healing- without it he would never examine his inner soul and explore the nature of “unaccommodated man” and so would never move through madness to true sanity.  Further in 4.7 she begs for him to find “thy medicine on my lips”, again suggesting that she is the instrument of his salvation, from Hell, if not to any form of ascension to heaven- in the pre-Christian world of the play, such a location cannot exist.  Lear goes as far as to say that “if you have poison for me, I will drink it”. Here he clearly accepts that his redemption will hinge on drinking the poison offered by his name daughter specifically to cure him.  Whether this equivocation which allows suicide in order to be redeemed would fit into the 17th century accusations of Harsnett and his like is not certain.  For the student in Y13 it may be enough to note the issue and consider how to use it in a range of potential essays.  It might be simply another moment of inversion in a play riddled with this sort of image- the thing which brings death is the instrument of salvation and one chooses sin in order to attain redemption.

A final point of consideration is the relationship between Apocalypse and prophecy.  All writings on the Apocalypse foretell the destruction/cleansing of the Earth.  With this in mind we should be aware of two speeches in particular:  The Fool on 3.2.80ff and Edgar on 3.6.98ff.  In both cases the voice of the prophet is that of a character at their lowest point and the ideas presented suggest a Kingdom in the utter turmoil already discussed in reference to Gloucester’s statements about the state of the nation in Act 1.  Both speeches come when the King is cast adrift on the Heath and both present a clear warning about the destruction of the Kingdom – both in the play and in real life, one assumes.  Possibly Shakespeare’s target here is the King: a warning not to split his kingdom.  Possibly his warning is a coded message of support for a Catholic underground movement.  Possibly our students will develop other ideas for themselves.


Wittreich: The Apocalypse in King Lear

Christofides: Shakespeare and the Apocalypse

St John of Patmos


O’Toole : Shakespeare is hard but so is life

Shapiro: 1606, The Year of Lear

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