King Lear (Shakespeare's Play)
Granada TV (starring Olivier)
Ran (Kurosawa's adaptation of King Lear)

A Study Guide for King Lear


1.  BIBLIOGRAPHY of works on King Lear that might prove useful.

     Possibly the best introduction to King Lear is reading A.C. Bradley's lecture, collected in his Shakespearian Tragedy. 

     For another excellent general reading of the play see D. A. Traversi's An Approach to Shakespeare, 3rd edition (Garden City: Doubleday, 1969), II, 141-69. 

     For a general discussion of Lear, Job, and several other important tragic characters, see R. B. Sewall, The Vision of Tragedy (New Haven: Yale U. Press, 1959). 

     For King Lear as a study of a morally absurd universe, see H. Skulsky, "King Lear and the meaning of Chaos," Shakespeare Quarterly 17 (1966): 3-17; a vigorous statement of the absurdist interpretation of King Lear is Jan Kott's chapter "King Lear or Endgame" in Shakespeare our Contemporary, translated B. Taborski (1964; reprinted Garden City, New York: Doubleday, l966), 127-69 (see pp. 158-59 for some excellent comments on King Lear and Job).

     The primary discussion of wise foolishness in King Lear is "The Fool in King Lear" Chapter in E. Welsford, The Fool . . . (1935; Garden City: Doubleday, 1961)—collected in F. Kermode, Four Centuries of Shakespearian Criticism (New York: Avon, 1965), 501-13; R. Heilman independently reached similar conclusions in This Great Stage . . . (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State Press, 1948)—a good book generally on Lr. 

     For the theological background on "wise men" and "fools" see C. S. French, "Shakespeare's 'Folly': King Lear," Shakespeare Quarterly, 10 (1959): 523-29. 

     For a highly controversial Christian approach to Shakespeare's work, see R.W. Battenhouse, Shakespearean Tragedy: Its Art and Its Christian Premises (Bloomington: Indiana U. Press, 1969); for the existence of a "God who rewards and punishes: as the "minimal essential of Elizabethan religion," see Battenhouse's Marlowe's Tamburlaine . . . (1941; Nashville: Vanderbilt, 1966), 42; for opposition to a Christian reading of King Lear, see R. M. Frye, Shakespeare and Christian Doctrine (Princeton: Princeton U. Press, 1963), 119 and 139; for the availability of Elizabethans and Jacobeans of anti-Christian views of the universe, see E. A. Strathamann, Sir Walter Ralegh: A Study of Elizabethan Skepticism (New York: Columbia University, 1951), 93-94; for a few cogent comments on the exclusion of Christian references from King Lear see A. Harbage's introduction to the play in the Pelican edition. 

     For the idea of a drama defining an abstract term of moral philosophy, see W. Arrowsmith, "The Criticism of Greek Tragedy," TDR, 2 (1959)—collected in Tragedy: Vision & Form, edited by R. W. Corrigan (San Francisco: Chandler, 1965), 317-42; for King Lear as a contest between two different definitions of "Nature" see J. F. Danby, Shakespeare's Doctrine of Nature, (London: Farber, 1949), especially 15-16, 19-21, 26, 38, 43-44, and 196; for a cogent criticism of Danby's two "Natures" as simplistic, see M. Rosenberg's theatrical study, The Masks of King Lear (Berkeley: U. of CA P, 1972), especially around 76; Heilman handles the nature business in Stage, 115-16, 125-27, and 143.

     For G. W. Knight on religion and naturalism in King Lear see The Wheel of Fire (1949; London: Methuen, 1954), especially 187-88. 

     For Machiavelli and King Lear see R. Ornstein, The Moral Vision of Jacobbean Tragedy (Madison: U. of Wisconsin P, l960), 261—his whole chapter is good, actually: 260-76.

     For Edmund as a "new man" and harbinger of the "new age of scientific inquiry and industrial development" see Danby, 46 and 48; for a discussion of knowledge and self-knowledge in King Lear, see P. A. Jorgensen, Lear's Self Discovery (Berkeley: U of CA P, 1967). 

     For a discussion of the senses in King Lear (feeling, seeing, hearing, tasting, smelling) see Heilman's Stage, 185-90, 222, 226, 238;

     For a fairly sympathetic treatment of Goneril and Regan see E. A. Block, "King Lear: A Study in Balanced and Shifting Sympathies," Shakespeare Quarterly, 10 (1959): 499-512; for this idea quite far, see the adaptation to rural America, told from the abused daughters' points of view: Jane Smiley, A Thousand Acres (New York: Knopf, 1991), frequently rpt. and made into the film A Thousand Acres, dir. Jocelyn Moorhouse (USA: Touchstone et al., 1997). 

     For the love-contest in 1.1 as a trial, prefiguring other trials in the play, see D. C. Hockey, "The Trial Pattern in King Lear", Shakespeare Quarterly, 10 (1959): 389-95. 

     To explain the significance of "nothing" in Lear see S. Burckhardt, ". . . The quality of Nothing," MinnR, 2 (1961): 33-55 and S. K. Homan, Jr., review of King Lear and the Gods, JEGP, 66 (1967): 138-39. 

     For Cordelia's possibly rebuking Lear on the folly of trying to quantify love, see I. M. Morris, "Cordelia and Lear," Shakespeare Quarterly, 8 (1957): 142-43, 154-55. 

     For the baby's howl and love in King Lear, see L. C. Knights, Some Shakespearean Themes (London: Chatto & Windus, 1959), 113-18. 

     For an (overly) optimistic reading of the last scene of King Lear see R. Matthews, "Edmund's Redemption in King Lear," Shakespeare Quarterly, 26 (1975): 25-29. 

     For an intriguing marxist analysis, see Paul Delany, "King Lear and the Decline of Feudalism," PMLA 92 (May 1977): 429-40—rpt. Materialist Shakespeare, ed. Ivo Kamps (London: Verso, 1995). 

     For further readings into the 1970s, see Rosenberg's full bibliography in Masks of King Lear.  For more recent studies, see Shakespeare's Late Tragedies: A Collection of Critical Essays, ed. Susanne L. Wofford in the New Century Views series from Prentice Hall, esp. the first three essays. 

2.  The world of King Lear is pagan, and even the pagan gods might be dead there.  Still, it is necessary for you to have some Christian background, especially on "wisdom" and folly.  I quote the primary text, from First Corinthians (Geneva version [Shakespeare's favorite]; I quote the first few verses straight and modernize * the rest):

For the preaching of the crosse is to them that perish foolishnes: but vnto vs, which are saued, it is the power of God.  For it is written, I wil destroye the wisdome of the wise, and wil cast away the vnderstanding of the prudent [Isaiah 29.14].  Where is the wise man?  where is the Scribe?  where is the disrupter of this worlde?  hathe not God made the disdane of this worlde foolishnes?  For seing the world by wisdome knew not God in the wisdome of God, it pleased God by the foolishnes of preaching to saue them that believe: * Seeing also that the Jews require a sign, and the Grecians seek after wisdom.  But we preach Christ crucified: unto the Jews even a stumbling block, and unto the Grecians, foolishness.  But unto them that are called, both of the Jews and the Grecians, we preach Christ, and the power of GOD, and the wisdom of God.  For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger then men.  For brethren, you see your calling, how that not many wise men after the flesh, not many mighty, not many [of] noble [birth] are called [i.e., to be Christians].  But God hath chosen the weak things of the world to confound the wise, and God hath chosen the weak things of the world to confound the mighty things.***  Let no man deceive himself: if any among you seem to be wise in this world, let him be a fool, that he may be wise.  For the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God; for it is written, "He catcheth the wise in their own craftiness" [Job 5.13]. (l Corinthians 1.18-27, 3.18-19)


3.  Consider the possibility that Lr attempts to define "wisdom" in a world in which the old value systems are crumbling—a world in which Divine Justice may be just a pleasant myth.  Begin the play with a general and tentative working definition of "wisdom."  Since the dictionary will be of very little help, I will suggest this definition: "Wisdom": "Some quality in an individual's nature that allows that person to fulfill or perfect that nature (and human nature generally) in the real world."  In a Christian universe, promising heaven and threatening hell, "Behold, the fear of the Lord, that is wisdom; / and to depart from evil is understanding" (Job 28.28, RSV).  If the gods are dead, and the fittest (by definition) survive, perhaps wisdom is the philosophy of "Gimme": "Hurray for me, and p*ss on you all!"


4.  I have a handout with selections from Machiavelli's The Prince.  Read it and consider whether Goneril and Regan (and Cornwall) are wise—i.e., proficient—Machiavellian politicians.  In terms of Machiavellian Realpolitik, is it wise for them to persecute Lear?


5.  Is Edmund a proficient Machiavellian?  Does he see the world as managed by the gods for the benefit of the pious and good?  What is his vision of Nature?  Is it our nature, red in tooth and claw?  Is it the traditional patriarchal hierarchy: a great chain of being with a place for everyone and everyone having the duty to remain in his or her place?  (See below, comments on 1.2.23-129, for the possible consequences of people not staying in their "degree"; see also the selections from the sermon on "Good Order and Obedience . . . " at the end of the handout "On Approaching Drama . . .").  Consider the possibility that Shakespeare made Edmund inconsistent: this devout cynic fights that duel at the end of the play.


6.  In the Sermon on the Mount, Christ says that God "maketh his sun to arise on the evil and the good, and sendeth rain on the just and unjust" (Matthew 5.45, Geneva).  In this play does the rain fall on the good and the evil alike?  Are the evil smart enough to be inside when it's raining out?  Is this the gentle rain of Judea?


7.  Note the world-views of the various characters and their statements on the play's themes.  Is the Nature believed in by the older characters the same as Edmund's?  (Do the views of the older characters change as the play progresses?)  Do the old characters call upon the gods for assistance?  Do they receive it?  Note Albany's lines on the gods; he's pious, but dumb.  Edgar is also pious, but he may lack charity.  Does Cordelia talk about the gods?


8.  Look for significant repeated words and phrases.  Some important ones are references to wisdom, folly, and the senses; "nature, "duty", "bond," nothing," "everything," "all."  On the senses: It's possible that one sees the quickest way to worldly profit; smells evil, rottenness, and mortality; and feels pain and compassion.  Note also the animal imagery.


9.  King Lear has a pre-Christian setting; everyone in the cast is a pagan.  If we accept a hard-nosed Christian view, Cordelia may be as damned as Edmund.  What are the possibilities for ethical action in such a world? What would it profit a man or woman to be good?  If the gods are dead or indifferent or ineffective or amoral or evil, then who's to set absolute standards for human conduct?  Even if people could invent some sort of ethics, what sort of sanctions would there be for any conduct?


l0.  Would Edmund have been Gloucester's heir even if he'd been legitimate?  (You should assume that primogeniture—look it up—was in effect in ancient Britain.)  Why is Edmund at court and not Edgar?


ll.  Is there a minor theme of apathy in the play?  How many people speak up for Cordelia?  How many servants try to save Gloucester?


12.  Note Lear's changing relationship with the Fool as the play proceeds.  Lear may be about the education of the old King, with his relationship with the Fool (one of his teachers) as sort of a gauge of Lear's progress.  Does Lear learn to see the world "feelingly"?  Does he learn something about political power and political authority?  Does he learn about justice—divine and human?  Does he learn about love and faith and true loyalty and good service?


13.  Does Lear have a tragic flaw?  Does he make a tragic mistake?  Note well: Aristotle said that we associate with a tragic hero hamartia, which translates as "flaw" or "mistake."  Aristotle's context (the section of the Poetics on plot) suggests that he meant mistake.  Far more important, Aristotle never saw King Lear or any other Renaissance tragedy.  "Moral": Don't assume that tragic heroes must have a flaw; sometimes they're destroyed by their virtues.  What leads Lear to his destruction?  Was that destruction necessary for his education?


14.  Three ideas from outside the play that might be important to King Lear.

     a.  In Shakespeare's early comedy, The Merchant of Venice, the winning casket has the inscription, "Who chooseth me must give and hazard all he hath."  This idea of giving and hazarding all seems to be very important for Shakespeare's definition of love.

     b.  In Shakespeare's earlier tragedy, Othello, we learn that a woman's "honor is an essence that's not seen" (4.1.16); and I have suggested that this idea refers back to St. Paul's " . . . faith is the ground of things which are hoped for and the evidence of things which are not seen" (Hebrews 11.1, Geneva Version; I have modernized the spelling and punctuation).  Is Lear's initial problem putting too much "faith" in what his senses tell him are Goneril's and Regan's loves for him—and too little faith in Cordelia's love?

     c.  St. Paul on love (1 Corinthians 13.1-13; Geneva, modernized):

Though I speak with the tongues of men and angels and have not love, I am a sounding brass or a tinkling cymbal.  And though I had the gift of prophecy and knew all secrets and all knowledge;yea, if I had all faith so that I could move mountains, and had not love, I were nothing.  And though I feed the poor with all my goods and though I give my body that I be burned, and have not love, it profiteth me nothing.  Love suffereth long; it is bountiful; love envieth not; love does not boast itself; it is not puffed up.  It disdaineth not; it seeketh not her own things; it is not provoked to anger; it thinketh not evil.  It rejoiceth not in iniquity, but rejoiceth in the truth.  It suffereth all things; it believeth all things; it hopeth all things; it endureth all things.  Love does not fall away, though that prophecyings be abolished, or the tongues cease, or knowledge vanish away.  For we know in part, and we prophecy in part.  But when that which is perfect is come, then that which is in part shall be abolished.  When I was a child, I spoke as a child; I thought as a child.  But when I became a man, I put away childish things.  For now we see through a glass darkly; but then we shall see face to face.  Now I know in part; then I shall know as I am known.  And now abideth faith, hope, and love, even these three.  But the chiefest of these is love.


15.  Questions, Comments, Suggestions on Major Scenes and Speeches:



     1-34: The Kingdom seems to be divided already.  Kent seems to accept Edmund; Gloucester seems to like Edmund—but speaks flippantly and with some contempt about Edmund and Edmund's mother.  Note that Gloucester has an older, legitimate son, but says he loves both.  How should we interpret "He [Edmund] hath been out nine years, and away he shall again"?  Does Gloucester send his bastard away to be rid of him?  Has Gloucester sent the beloved Edmund off for schooling, training, travel—the education that befits a gentleman (the bastard of a Great Man in the kingdom)?


     35-139: Lear has been played as just about senile here, even here at his first entrance.  Is this correct?  Would it be correct if Lear really were going to base the division of the kingdom on a "love contest"?  Does Lear base the division on the love contest?  (How should the map be marked?)  Is the love contest a mere ceremony—a ritual, like marriage, where the responses are set, and any variation is a bit shocking?

     Note Cordelia's first "public" word: nothing.  Does she become nothing by the end of this scene?  Does Lear become "nothing" here?  Must Lear become "nothing" to learn?  If "nothingness" is crucial to education, is Cordelia wise throughout the play?

     Is Cordelia mocking Lear's attempts at quantifying love by claiming to love him "According to my bond, no more nor less"?  Does she love him "more" than that?  (If that's all that she loves him, why does she return to Britain later, after Lear has renounced the bond?)  How strong is the father-daughter bond in Cordelia's eyes?  (Note that she promises him about all that a wife promises a husband: love, honor, obedience.)

     Lear intends to give away his "sway," lands, and "revenue" but keep l00 knights and "The name, and all th' addition to a king."  Is Lear a king if all his power is just l00 knights?  How many troops can the name of king put into the field?


     l40-end: Is Kent "bonded" to Lear as a loyal servant?  If Kent is so loyal, why is he so unmannerly?  Note the insult implied in Kent's use—at a formal court ceremony, no less—of the familiar "thou": "What wouldst thou do, old man?"; " . . . I'll tell thee thou dost evil."  Is Kent a good servant here?  Is he a wise servant?

     Compare and contrast the views on love and marriage of France and Burgundy.  Are we to ask questions like, "What in the world will the French Estates think of their king's marrying a dowerless woman?"?  (Do we ask what King and Queen Charming will think of Prince Charming's wanting to marry a commoner like Cinderella on the basis of a few dances and shoe size?)

     Note well the fairy-tale atmosphere here: Three daughters, the older two hypocritical and the youngest good; a French king who marries for love; a whole bunch of rime; a love contest.

     Note the final dialog between Goneril and Regan.  These two will become major villains in the play.  But Shakespeare's villains sometimes see quite clearly—especially into the weaknesses of others.  Do they seem to know Lear better than Lear knows himself?  If so, it may be appropriate that they become "mothers" and schoolmistresses to Lear.  They may have much to teach him.



     1-22: As good Jeffersonians, we believe that primogeniture (and the entire system of aristocratic privilege) is, indeed, "the plague of custom, and . . . / The curiosity of nations . . . ."  But what of other moral laws—are they, too, mere customs, taboos which enlightened folk can ignore?  In this soliloquy, does Edmund talk much about being a younger brother?  Does he seem to be crushed by the awful fact of his illegitimacy?

     23-129: Note that Edmund's "Nothing, my lord" is identical to Cordelia's line.  What could this "nothing" motif mean?  (It might be helpful to know that "Nothing will come of nothing" was a cliché among pagan philosophers—a cliché that denied the Christian interpretation of the opening lines of Genesis.  In Christian doctrine, everything came out of nothing.)

     The letter Gloucester reads expresses Edmund's ideas, not Edgar's.  Note how "bond" has become "bondage."  Note the idea of age governing "not as it hath power, but as it is suffered"—i.e., as it is tolerated and allowed to rule by the young and strong.  Does this letter deny bonds between parents and children?  Does it contain an inconsistency in talking about the possibility of love between brothers?  Does its denial of authority suggest a system in which those with power have some sort of natural right to rule?  Does it assume the sort of Nature that Edmund invoked in his soliloquy?  Does it lay the philosophical groundwork for taking away order and degree?  Would it lead to what Ulyses describes as happening if we "take but degree away"?

          Take but degree away, untune that string,

          and hark what discord follows [. . .] .

                            * * *                     

          Strength should be lord of imbecility,°             [weakness]

          And the rude son should strike his father dead.

          Force should be right; or rather right and wrong,

          Between whose endless jar justice resides,

          Should lose their names, and so should justice too;

          Then everything include itself in power,

          Power into will, will into appetite.

          And appetite, an universal wolf,

          So doubly seconded with will and power,

          Must make perforce an universal prey

          And last eat up himself.  (Troilus and Cressida l.3.109-24)


Note how Gloucester has just blamed Lear for acting "Upon the gad"; Gloucester also is rash and jumps to conclusions.  Gloucester, too, acts against the bonds that he seems to assume are part of nature.  Consider the possibility that Edmund understands Gloucester better than Gloucester understands himself.

     Note how Edmund denies astrological determinism.  Does Edmund here believe in some other sort of determinism—perhaps, that he is what he is (evil, among other things), and that's all there is to it?


     130-end: Is Edgar something of a fool?  Is he behavior foolish only from Edmund's point of view: "foolish honesty"?  What should we make of Edmund's last line, "All with me's meet that I can fashion fit"?  Is he saying that he'll use any means to get his ends?



     1-90: Note Goneril as daughter/mother; note the initial conflict between the servants, Kent and Oswald.  Do Lear's knights seem to be an unruly mob?  Does Lear seem to be senile?  Note well Lear's question "Who am I, sir?"—and Oswald's answer.  Who is Lear, now that he has only the title of king?


     90-264: Note that the Fool calls Lear "fool" and "nothing."  The Fool seems obsessed with Lear's political naivete in giving away his power and still expecting to be treated as a king—by such as Goneril and Regan, anyway.

     Try to find some powerful, active verbs to suggest to an actress how she should pronounce Goneril's various speeches to Lear.  Where does she threaten Lear?  Where should she attempt to shame him.  Does she try to insult and humiliate him here?  [Note well: To use this technique, one breaks up a scene, speeches, and even a line into units; each unit can be described by an active verb for what one character is doing or trying to do to another.)


     265-end: Lear asks his goddess Nature to make Goneril sterile.  Does Nature answer his prayer?  Does this curse come true?  Note the relationship between Goneril and Albany.  Does he seem pious?  Does he seem able to stand up to his wife?  Does she do all the thinking?



     91-97: Note how quick Edmund is in picking up what the political situation is.


2.2: Actually, I think this is the beginning of one very long scene that really doesn't end until Lear goes off to the Heath, and the evil folk (and Gloucester) go into the castle (2.4.304).  Kent is still on stage (in the stocks, presumably asleep) when Edgar makes his speech about becoming Tom of Bedlam.  Picture this.  For the scene the (early) editors call(ed) 2.2: Note Kent's outspokenness, his rashness and his utter antipathy to Oswald.  (Note also Kent's apparent belief in Fortune.) How does the Kent/Oswald conflict determine the way we define "good service?"  In King Lear, are obedience and loyalty always good?



     1-59: Note Lear's unwillingness to believe that Regan and Cornwall would stock his messenger.  Note the disguised Kent's line about having "more man than wit about me"; it's significant for the definitions of  "manhood" and "wisdom."  ("Wit" here means something like "prudence."  Insofar as we approve of Kent's attack on Oswald—and most audiences cheer for Kent—then we've come out, a bit, against prudence.)  Note the Fool's lines about Fortune (an "arrant whore") never opening her door for the poor.  This foreshadows Lear's being locked out of the castle; it also starts up a sexual motif that is important in the play.  (Fortune is a prudent whore; she puts out for money, not for love; she is never faithful to her "lovers.")

     60-83: The "King comes with so small a number" because Lear's knights see which way the political situation is moving, and most are politically prudent enough to desert a loser.

     For the sense imagery in the Fool's prose speech, see #8, above.  Note very well the Fool's song and his juxtaposition of "knaves" and "fools."  The first part of the Fool's song is quite clear: hypocritical knaves serve one "for gain," not for love; when the going gets tough, they will indeed "get going"—they'll desert you.  We have already seen this happening to Lear, and the political trend will continue until Lear is almost totally deserted on the heath.  The Fool asserts, though, that he will remain loyal: a foolish act (politically imprudent) and, hence, decorous in a Fool.  So far, so clear: mostly choric comment on what's happened already and foreshadowing of what will happen.  The Fool goes on, though, to assert a profound paradox; a paradox I believe to be central to the play: "The knave turns fool that runs away . . . ."   If King Lear took place in a Christian universe, there'd be no problem: of course, such knaves are really fools; the price of their short-term "profit" is eternal damnation.  But the universe in King Lear is not Christian, and it is a paradoxical statement of faith for the Fool to assert that hypocritical "prudence" is ultimately foolishness.  Do the Fool's later actions affirm what he says?  Does the rest of the play suggest that, indeed, the Fool/fool is "no knave," and the knaves (prudent hypocrites) are, indeed, fools?


     84-184: Note Lear's assumption of bonds, service, and gratitude (96-98).  Note how Gloucester would like everything to be nice again.  Note how Lear hypothesizes excuses for Cornwall and Regan; it shows that he's trying to learn patience; perhaps he's even picked up a cue from Gloucester and is trying not to make waves.  But Lear's messenger is still stocked; something Gloucester would ignore, but Lear (and the audience) cannot.

     Regan's lines in this section have the great power of 1/2 truths—spoken out of contempt.  Lear is old, and he does need patience; and in Regan's "philosophy," "Age is unnecessary" (as Lear sarcastically asserts) and receives "raiment, bed, and food" only from the charity (in its most materialistic modern sense) of the young and strong.  Lear's talk of "nature, bond of childhood, / Effects of courtesy, dues of gratitude" is totally irrelevant to her, not "to th'purpose."


     185-281: Note how Lear's wicked daughters teach him his weakness, his dependence on them.  They reverse the "love contest" of the opening scene: this time, Lear must do the begging.  The number of knights they allow him has something to do with his self-respect, his identity as a King, their love for him.  They try (with a great deal of success) to strip him of all.  It's quite logical, actually: he gave them all—so what good is he to them now?  If man is but an animal (an animal below the level of a baboon or goose, if recent ethological research is correct), then he doesn't need anything beyond the "raiment, bed, and food" his betters might allow him.  How do you feel about such logic?  In the course of the play, what seems to be the result of using premises like "Given, the human animal is a mere beast, motivated by gut and groin and the will to power?"  (The play may not disprove such premises; they are beyond the realm of art—and logic—to prove or disprove.  [Indeed, art is make-believe and cannot prove or disprove anything.]  Still, does the play cause you to reject such premises?  More, if such premises are all that reason can use, would you join with Lear and yell, "O reason not the need!"?)


     282-end: Note the coldness of the wicked here.  They're going to teach the old man a lesson, make Lear "taste his folly."  Lear will suffer the storm; the wicked, however, are, as the old cliché has it, "wise enough to come in out of the rain."


3.1: None but the Fool is with Lear now.  The prudent have all deserted him; Lear will have with him on the heath only the Fool, Kent, Edgar, and (off and on) Gloucester.  Note well the political talk here, especially the lines about "division *** 'twixt Albany and Cornwall." If the wicked were proficient Machiavellians, Lear wouldn't be out in the storm: one side or the other would be using him to give the appearance of legitimacy to their actions in the up-coming struggle.



     l-66: Lear's curse here is universal, and very horrible.  He calls for the utter destruction of humankind—even for cracking the "moulds" for making us.  Marvin Rosenberg stresses the sexual undertones in Lear's opening speech, especially, the idea of "the cosmic womb . . .: nature's mould, that must be cracked in one mighty thrust so all the semen of posterity may be spilled out.  Nature's orgasm is sulphurous—has a stench" (Masks of Lear, section on 3.2).  (Rosenberg also stresses the imagery of Lear, Edgar, et al., as hunted animals.)  Note also the elements as "servile ministers"—perhaps another version of the theme of good (and evil) service.

     Be sure you get the sexual connotations of the Fool's song: "cod- piece" is slang for "phallus."  As Lear moves toward madness, he may be picking up the sort of bawdiness more usually associated with the Fool of the Court, and not the King.  More important, I think, is the part of the Fool's song about "toe" and "heart."  Should a man make his heart soft or hard?  If a man's toe is soft, his corns will hurt him all the more.  But if a man makes his toe hard, that'll give him a corn—or at least callouses—by definition (Erlich's suggestion; note also what the editor of your text says).

     Note the ambiguity of the text on just who's "grace" and who's the "codpiece" (40-41).  "Grace" is a term for royalty (a Duke or Duchess is "Your Grace"; rulers are "Your Grace" if, more often, "Your Majesty"); still, "grace" always has theological overtones in Shakespeare.  Is "grace" here the King?  If so, has Lear started to become "a wise man"?  Is the "codpiece" the Fool or Kent or both?  Is a "fool" a codpiece in the sense of "malicious prick"?  Is a "fool" a codpiece in the sense of "poor, dumb schmuck"?

     Does Lear correctly analyse the situation when he declares himself "a man / More sinned against than sinning"?  Is this mere self-pity?


     67-end: "My wits begin to turn" announces a turning point in the play: Lear is going to go mad; Lear is learning compassion.  Note very well that Lear figures out here that the Fool is cold.  The logic of this implies (besides observation) that Lear recognizes that the Fool is a human being.  Lear also seems to care about the Fool's suffering.

     (We can debate what the Fool's "prophecy" means.)


3.3: Note Gloucester's good intentions but basic weakness.  He asks permission of Cornwall, et al., that he "might pity" Lear; he says "we must incline to the King"—a very weak way to say "side with."  He tells Edmund to go talk with Cornwall, "that my charity be not of him perceived."  And he talks of moral issues in the same breath as he notes

that "part of a power" loyal to Lear is "already footed."  This is all very proper and prudent, but it's hardly heroic.  Contrast the rash, knee-jerk loyalty of Kent and the heroic love of Cordelia.  Contrast also the strength in evil that Edmund shows in this scene.



     1-36: Note Lear's resolution to endure and to shun madness.  Somewhere in through here, though, Lear does go mad; an actor must carefully consider just where to place the slide into madness.  (One standard place to have the descent into madness is right after this section, with the entrance of the disguised Edgar.)

     Note very well Lear's line to the Fool, "In, boy; go first."  Consider: earlier, Lear recognized the Fool's humanity and suffering.  (In exactly which order isn't significant.)  Here, Lear tells the Fool to "go first."  This is a very important non sequitur, logically.  Lear can logically deduce that he is a man, and the Fool is a man; he—Lear— is suffering from the elements,though more from his mental torment, so the Fool is probably suffering.  (He certainly looks like he's suffering.)  There is a finite amount of shelter here.  But, to get to "In, boy; go first" Lear must either make a leap of compassion, or add to his logic an unspoken rule like "Do unto others as you would have others do unto you."  If Lear exchanged places with Edmund, Edmund might well note that there's only a limited amount of shelter to go around—and, with equal logic, stab the Fool.  "Do unto others before they do unto you."

     In the Biblical Book of Job, Job generalizes from his own suffering to protest against the unjust suffering of others.  Does Lear make a similar generalization and a similar protest?  Did Lear have to expose himself "to feel what wretches feel" to learn compassion?  Does Lear admit his own errors here?  Does Lear call upon the heavens for justice—or does the only justice he sees possible turn out to be human justice?  (Later, a mad Lear will deny the possibility of even human justice.  It might be well for this to be Lear's last sane speech before the reconciliation with Cordelia.)


     37-end: In interpreting the Fool's "This cold night will turn us all to fools and madmen" consider carefully just who is still loyal to Lear.  In one sense or another, they might all be "fools and madmen."  Note Edgar's speeches as Mad Tom: he paraphrases the Ten Commandments—and ends with "Tom's acold" (as a "philosopher" he will also also conclude with "Tom's acold"); he tells of his life as a sophisticated servingman.  When is Tom more like a beast, in his current state—or when he was a courtly gallant?

          Is man no more than Tom?  Note the ironies: Tom isn't really Tom; he's really Edgar, heir to the Earl of Gloucester.  But Edgar had to disguise himself to keep from being executed for a kind of filial treason.  Would things be much better if man were no more than Edgar?  Note that Edgar/Tom has been allowed no "more than nature needs."  Is his life now "as cheap as beast's"?

     Note very well: Tom as "philosopher, see #12 above.  Note also Tom's "The prince of darkness is a gentleman."  Does this say something about noble birth and gentility without gentleness?  (Shakespeare needed to be no modern rebel to make such a suggestion: a standard topic for debate was "What is true nobility?"  One standard side was that true nobility came from noble thoughts and deeds—not from noble birth.)


3.5: Note throughout the beginning and middle of King Lear Edmund's "honest" villainy.  His hypocrisy is always blatant.  His lies are conscious, with no hint of self-deception.  Note well what "treason" means in the mouths of the wicked.



     1-5: Note Kent's "The gods reward your kindness."  What sort of "reward" does Gloucester immediately receive for his kindness?


     6-end: Note Lear's desire for justice and revenge.  Is revenge—and/or justice—in this world determined by "fools and madmen"?  Does Lear do justice even in this mad trial?  Is this trial of the joint-stool more mad than the following "trial" of Gloucester?

     Note very well Lear's question, "Is there any cause in nature that makes these hard hearts?" (of Regan, et al.).  Might we do better to ask if there is any "cause in nature" that makes good hearts, like those of Cordelia and Kent?  (Why do we always make a mystery of evil?  Maybe people are basically evil, and we should question the cause of good.)

     The Fool's "And I'll go to bed at noon" is his last line in the play.  Does it foreshadow his death?  (Does he die in the play?)



     1-26: Note the wrath of Regan, Goneril, and Cornwall.  Plucking out Gloucester's eyes is suggested by Goneril.  Edmund coldly exits, knowing that Regan and Cornwall are going to do something horrible to his "traitorous father."

     Apparently thirty-five or thirty-six knights remain loyal to Lear.  Does 35-36% good (vs. evil or cowardly) seem about right for the world of King Lear?

     Note well Cornwall's explanation for why he does what he's about to do.  True justice doesn't even concern him, and even "the form of justice" doesn't seem particularly important.  Consider: Cornwall is angry at Gloucester; he has Gloucester in his power.  If he has no inhibitions against the deed, why shouldn't he blind Gloucester? Would a proficient Machiavellian blind Gloucester?  After all, even Cornwall sees that such a deed is bad public relations.  (See 4.5.9-14.)


     27-end: What arguments does Gloucester offer for bonds between himself, Cornwall and Regan?  Do these arguments do any good?  Does Gloucester act bravely before he gets desperate?

     What percentage of servants act to save Gloucester's eyes?  Does the servant that acts think he's giving good service?  Does he act in time to save both Gloucester's eyes?  Does he manage to save either? 

     Gloucester has a low-level recognition in this scene: he at least learns that Edgar was loyal and Edmund the traitor.

     Note very well: Regan's idea that Edmund was "too good to pity" Gloucester.  What does she mean by "good"?  Picture in all its gory detail the blinding.  What do you think of Edmund's "goodness"?  What do you think of the sort of (unconscious) premises that lead to acts such as this?  Has Shakespeare taken such premises and reduced them to the grotesque? 

This is an important point for the real world: the Nazi extermination programs were the logical outcome of Nazi racist theory.  We may not be able to disprove the premises of Cornwall, et al.—but if we abhor their logical consequences, we should reject such premises.

Note the dialog of the remaining servants.  Do they approve of what Cornwall did?  They weren't courageous enough to stop the atrocity, but they'll at least try to ameliorate its results.  Does this say something about latent goodness—and its weakness against vigorous evil?  Is Shakespeare driving home for us the truth of the cliché, "For evil to succeed, it is necessary only for the 'good' to remain silent"?  Is Shakespeare showing us that one of the weaknesses of evil is that it eventually turns the stomachs of even the complacent, the cowardly, the apathetic, and the trimmers?  (All of the above?)



     10-63: Note the nameless Old Man.  He exemplifies the themes of loyal service and simple decency.

     Note very well: Gloucester on man and the gods.  If you want to follow the (stupid) practice of identifying Shakespeare's views with those of one of his characters, then you'd need to show why we shouldn't (or should) choose Gloucester's views here.  Man may be a worm, and "As flies to wanton boys are we to th'gods; / They kill us for their sport."

     Note all the sense imagery; it comes to a temporary resolution in the last part of this scene.


     64-end: Note Gloucester's continuing comments on the heavens and their justice.  Note also Gloucester's version of how one should learn from suffering.  It is quite similar to Lear's, but not on Lear's level.  Especially important, though, is that the wicked man "will not see / Because he does not feel."  (See #7 and #8 above.)


4.2: In this scene we have the development of Albany into a good character (of sorts; he fights against Lear when he opposes the French army).  We see the rising "love" (lust?) between Goneril and Edmund; and we see what loyal service means when it's on the wrong side.

     Note well Goneril's ideas on what a real man is.  Like seems to attract like here, and she is drawn to Edmund, a macho Machiavellian.  She has only contempt for a "moral fool" like Albany, a man she accuses of faults that Christians consider virtues.  (Note, though, that Christ advised his disciples to be "wise as serpents and innocent as doves" [Matthew l0.l6]; Albany is too much of a "dove"—and probably lacks the intelligence needed for useful wisdom.  Still, he's smart enough to figure out that Goneril is not a nice lady.  It says something about the nature of evil that, given enough time, even Albany can spot it.) 

     For Albany on divine justice, see above #2, #6, and #9.  Note that Goneril immediately assumes that her newly widowed sister will make a play for Edmund.  (When the wicked characters say "Gloucester" they mean Edmund, who became earl [in Machiavellian fact] when his father committed "treason."  Try to work out the complexities in the questions "Who is the true [natural?] Earl/heir of Gloucester"?  Cf. the question of Lear's kingship.)


4.3: Shakespeare has silently dropped the Fool, to leave the stage clear for Cordelia (and, just possibly, to allow one actor to play both parts).  France, too, must go; but note how arrogantly Shakespeare dismisses him.  Consider the implications of Kent's lines on "the stars" that "govern our conditions"—i.e., on astrology.  Old Gloucester also seems to have believed in astrology.  The younger men, Edgar as well as Edmund, find such a belief rather silly.  Note very well: the gentleman's lines on Cordelia's patience, sorrow, and ability to control her passions in the manner of a queen-warrior.  Cordelia is Lear's daughter, and she inherited much of his strength (as well as some of his stubbornness).  She returns to Britain out of compassion and love—and leading an army.  In Cordelia, at least, goodness is not weak or stupid. 

     .53: Kent refers to the time, "When I am known aright" and will later say that to be acknowledged is reward enough (4.7.4)  Does Lear ever know Kent rightly again?  Can Lear acknowledge Kent (or anyone) fully?  The cqpital "C" Cynics said, "Virtue is its own reward," in good knowledge that virtue is often virtue's only reward.  The hero of John Webster's The Duchess of Malfi puts it, "Were there nor Heaven nor hell, / I would be honest: I have long served virtue, / And ne'er ta'en wages of her" (1.2).  Kent's virtue may also go unrewarded, and still be A Good Thing. 


4.4: Note the idea echo of Jesus' words in Cordelia's "O dear father, / It is thy business that I go about"; this does not make her a Christ-symbol, but it does emphasize the purity of her goodness. 

Cf. one possible meaning of Gentleman's line that Cordelia "redeems nature  from the general curse / Which twain have brought her to (4.6.201-03): Christ, the New Adam, redeemed the nature from the curse brought be the Old Adam and Eve and Original Sin.

Together with her denial of "blown ambition," these lines make it clear that this French invasion is OK.  Getting rid of the French King also helps with this.  Without such touches, some members of the audience might agree with Albany that any French invasion is to be resisted.)


4.5: Note well Regan's beautiful little sketch of Edmund: who'll go "In pity of his [Gloucester's] misery" to murder his own father—and while he's at it, get in a little spying.  Note Oswald's evil loyalty.



     1-79: Gloucester's despair and Edgar's taking yet another role.

Try to figure out why Edgar doesn't reveal himself to his father.  Is he (subconsciously) trying to punish Gloucester?  Is he trying to teach Gloucester some sort of lesson?  See where Edgar fits into the spectrum of "teachers": the Fool, Goneril, Regan, possibly Cordelia.  Note well the disguised Edgar's line, "Thy life's a miracle."  In King Lear, is life itself a miraculous good?


     80-146: Picture Lear "[mad, bedecked with weeds]," as the editorial stage direction correctly notes.  Is Lear a parody of the sacrificial victim, crowned with flowers—or thorns?  Is this grotesque figure "the King himself"?  Is royal authority given by nature (or "by the grace of God"), or is it something one wins with Machiavellian "art"?


     Note that Lear no longer sees himself as "everything"; he has learned that his hand "smells of mortality."  But has he gone too far in "smelling" the rottenness of life?  Is he right about Gloucester's bastard being "kinder to his father than my daughters' / Got 'tween the lawful sheets"?  (Note the pun in "kinder": it means both "more kind"—in Lear's sense and ours—and "acting more according to its kind.")

     Lear, in anger, had called for destruction of "Nature's moulds" (possibly, the "cosmic womb") and the spilling of "all germains."  Lear, in madness, seems more concerned with women's vaginas, which he sees as possessed by the fiend: "There's hell, there's darkness, there is the sulphurous pit […]."  (Cf. "putting the devil in hell" as a way of saying "putting a penis into a vagina.")  Shakespeare may have seen sexual disgust as a common symptom of madness.  Note, though, that Calvinist (and sexist) doctrine takes a very pessimistic view of the possibility of cleanliness in "Man that is born of woman": "Who can bring a clean thing out of filthiness?  There is not one" (Job 14.4; Geneva version—modernized); "Behold, I was born in iniquity, and in sin hath my mother conceived me" (Psalm 51.5, Geneva; also used in the Anglican Book of Common Prayer).  In all of this we may have a biological metaphor for universal, innate depravity: nothing can be any good that came out of that hole.  Note though: Cordelia—a woman, born of woman—is back in Britain.  Lear has descended to his nadir in his vision (and smell) of rottenness; he needs something to sweeten his imagination.  (Also: Edgar is on stage, eminently non-depraved.)


     146-220: Again, the theme of feeling, and the other senses.  Note Lear's parody of "the great image of authority" and his denial of the possibility of any justice.  (Part of him, though, has learned patience—at least enough so that he can recommend it to Gloucester.  Yet, part of Lear still wants revenge.)  Note very well: the "feeling"/"pity" motif.

     Note very well: Lear's use of "fool."  Is part of the problem in Lear's world that it contains too few "fools"?  Has Lear increased in wisdom in seeing himself as "The natural fool of fortune"?  (Is anyone who depends upon fortune—that "arrant whore"—a fool [i.e., stupid]?)

     At the end of this section, note the theme of Kingship.  We may have a paradox here: Lear is his most kingly when he becomes nothing.  (Personally, I tend to see Lear as most kingly on the heath.  The most ancient duty of the king is as intercessor between people and their gods—sometimes as god-king, sometimes as sacrifice, often as both.)


     221-end: Note Oswald as "A serviceable villain."  This is very important for the theme of good service.  Loyalty and obedience are not enough; one must be on the right side.  Loyalty and obedience to evil is evil.  "Morals": (1) Evil must enlist some virtues on its side to be truly effective.  (2) "We were only following orders" is only an explanation; it's not justification or an excuse.  (3) Oswald had nothing to lose by siding with Right; he couldn't be more dead. 

(In their song, "I Am the Walrus" on the Magical Mystery Tour album, the Beatles end a move toward chaos with the death of Oswald, with the line on "A serviceable villain" coming through quite clearly [turn up the left channel].  Why?  Lear has such great speeches on chaos—why quote this minor bit from the play?  Consider the possibility that the Beatles chose well: that the "devil" for our time is a smiling, petty villain like Oswald.)



     1-44: Again, Kent's only desire now is "To be acknowledged."  Does he get even this?  Note the new garments put on Lear, and the music.  These nicely symbolize Lear's regained sanity and the (temporary?) harmony of the reconciliation with Cordelia. 


     45-end: Note the change of tone in Lear from earlier in the play.  Does he see himself primarily as a king or as a man and father?  Note the brevity of Cordelia's answers and her "No cause, no cause."  She still holds the doctrine "Love, and be silent" it seems; if she knows the "cause in nature that makes" good hearts, she's not telling.  Last: does Lear call any more for revenge or justice?


5.1: Regan fears Edmund has taken "my brother's way / To the forfended place."  "Forfended" = "forbidden,' and "brother's" must refer to her brother-in-law, Albany.  "Place" here has sexual overtones: "bed" or "vagina."  (See comments on 5.3.97-179, below.)  It's significant that Goneril would "rather lose the battle" than lose Edmund to Regan.  This shows that she is not a proficient Machiavellian; it also shows the weakness of passionate evil.  Edmund is the true Machiavellian politician; he doesn't allow feelings to interfere with business.


5.2: Note Edgar on "Ripeness is all."  Hamlet has said "The readiness is all," and I'm willing to argue that the gauge of Shakespeare's maturing art is the difference between the mere clarity of "readiness" and the clarity, simplicity, concreteness, and richness of "ripeness."



     1-19: Edmund is on stage, silent, during the dialog between Lear and Cordelia.  That's ominous.  Note Lear's vision of his and Cordelia's happy life in prison.  This is the "catastasis" of the play: a backwater, a quiet moment before the final catastrophe.

     Note very well: Lear no longer cares "Who loses and who wins, who's in, who's out": he's happy so long as he can have Cordelia.  Also note Lear's seeing their imprisonment as a sacrifice upon which "The gods themselves throw incense."  The true sacrifice is coming: the deaths of Cordelia and Lear.  Should we join the (dead?) gods in throwing incense?  Should we assert that this brief quiet moment was—is—in itself Good?


     20-39: Note how easy it is for Edmund to find a murderer.  What will the Captain get for this—promotion to major?  What is the Captain's idea of "man's work"?  Edgar's idea of a soldier's pity?  (Note: The "major" bit above is a joke; captain was a fairly high rank in Shakespeare's day.  The captain would get a feudal-style reward.)


     40-96: Albany sees Edmund as a follower of fortune.  Is that a correct analysis?  To what extent has Edmund depended on luck?  Is it simply ill-luck that he fails?  Note that Goneril poisons Regan (and later stabs herself).  Is the moral here, «Passionate evil is self-destructive»?  Is there any political advantage to poisoning Regan?


     97-179: See #5, above.  Note Edmund's attempt to act the nobleman (within the limitations of his understanding of nobility).  Has he begun to deceive himself?  Does he err in fighting the unnamed opponent?  He admits "In wisdom I should ask thy name," and fights—in part—because his accuser "looks so fair and warlike" and speaks like a gentleman.  Goneril says Edmund has been tricked: "cozened and beguiled."  Consider: An actor playing Edmund will search for a "through-line" for the character's actions—some principle that keeps the character consistent through the play.  Has Edmund changed here?  Does he surprise us a bit later when he tries (too late) to save Lear and Cordelia?  This was the man who asked the gods to "stand up for bastards"; now he'll forgive his opponent, if the opponent is "noble."

     Note very well: Edgar's comments on the gods' justice.  Do you think it just to blind a man for adultery?  If "place" can carry the meaning of "vagina," does "dark and vicious place" suggest a foul imagination?  Does Edgar just have a Puritanical mean streak?  Does Edmund agree with Edgar's analysis of the gods' justice?  Does Edmund change the subject from justice (divine or otherwise) to the mechanical, amoral Wheel of Fortune?  (Fortune controls a wheel like a ferris wheel.  Whether or not to get on—get involved in wordly matters—is a moral question.  Once you're on, though, the consequences are automatic.)


     l80-257: Note that Edgar (at least claims to have) saved Gloucester from despair; Goneril, despairingly, kills herself.  Note that Albany is still dumb: "Great thing of us forgot!"  Most important, note Edmund's "Yet Edmund was beloved" (maybe; lusted after for sure) and "Some good I mean to do, / Despite of mine own nature."  Does Edmund see himself as naturally evil and unable to do much about that fact?  If Goneril's murder of Regan (and subsequent suicide) shows how evil destroys itself, does Edmund here teach an even more profound lesson: that the most advanced forms of evil are ultimately unsatisfying?  That a coldblooded, intellectual criminal like Edmund will eventually desire the good (so far as he can comprehend goodness)?   That everyone wants love?

     Again, note the brutal irony of Albany's "The gods defend her."


     258-end: Do Kent, Edgar, and (most especially) Albany see anything optimistic in the end of the play?  Does Kent ever get recognized (in a significant way)?

In performance, what should Lear do to motivate Edgar's "O, see, see!"?  What should be the tone of Lear's last lines?  Should his heart break "smilingly," thinking Cordelia's alive?  If that's how the lines were presented, would that make the end any less sad?  I.e., Lear would die deceived: Cordelia is dead.  More, it might be depressingly ironic that Lear's self-deception would bring a joy that would kill him.

Who rules Britain at the end of the play?  Note who gets the last lines of King Lear?  In Shakespeare's tragedies and histories such lines were usually reserved for the highest ranking character.  Would we rejoice to see Edgar as the new king of Britain?  Do the characters in the play (who are still alive) much care who is going to rule now?

What should we make of Albany's offering a joint rule to Edgar and Kent?  Is he suggesting that once again the kingdom should be divided?  If this is his suggestion, we might conclude that he's learned very little: the political "inciting action" for King Lear was the division of the kingdom.


FINAL COMMENT: I have argued that the gods in King Lear may be dead or indifferent or evil.  If that is so—or if there is no one God to set rules—there may be no way to talk intelligently of Good and Evil.  If there is no good, caring, just God to set rules, there may be only "the plague of custom" and "the curiosity of nations" for determining conduct.  Yet I have frequently talked about Good and Evil as if they were real categories.  I have even presumed to label actions and characters good and evil.

     I'll admit to philosophical inconsistency here—but I think I've been true to the play.  If this play has philosophers in it, they are Edmund and Edgar.  Kent and Cordelia, the nameless Old Man and First Servant do not debate the metaphysics of Good and Evil.  Within their powers, they see Good and try to do it; they see Evil and try to resist it.  They do not argue morality philosophically; they affirm morality in their actions.

     In this highly intellectual play, affirmations and actions are more important than arguments.  In this most unsentimental of plays, feeling is as important as insight.


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Study Guide for the Olivier King Lear (Granada/FFH)


King Lear. By William Shakespeare. Dir. Michael Elliott. Exec. Prod. David Plowright. With Laurence Olivier. UK: Granada Television, 1983. Films for the Humanities, FFH 772-1 and FFH 772-2 (2 VHS Cassettes).



King Lear: Laurence Olivier

Albany: Robert Lang

Cordelia: Anna Calder-Marshall

Cornwall: Jeremy Kemp

Edgar: David Threlfall

Edmund: Robert Lindsay

The Fool: John Hurt

Gloucester: Leo McKern

Goneril: Dorothy Tutin

Kent: Colin Blakely

Oswald: Geoffrey Bateman

Regan: Diana Rigg

Knight/Gentleman: John Cording



1. If you try to "read along with Lord Larry" and follow the script while watching the tape, you will get very frustrated: there are a number of cuts, shifts, and changes. Part of this may be due to a new theory on the text of Lear; I don't know since I've not had time yet to read the new theory. More likely, though, the minor changes are just slightly messed up lines from faulty memory, and the cuts from a desire to shorten the play for TV production. A few of the cuts I found significant: they were lines I'd marked heavily in my text--e.g., Kent's lines comparing Oswald and other such "smiling rogues" to rats that "oft bite the holy cords atwain / Which are too intrinse t' unloose . . . " (2.2.67-75 [part of a larger cut]) and the Fool's song, "That sir that serves and seeks for gain" (2.4.74-81). Consider the possibility that some of the lines cut were redundant statements of important themes (cf. the cutting of Theseus' "The lunatic, the lover, and the poet" speech in the New York MND). If the lines can go and still give us an understandable performance, should they be cut? If you think some should stay, you might concede that there's something to be said for redundancy. Some lines concerning the politics of the play were also cut. How does that change the play?

2. In the Granada production, Albany comes through as something of a nerd and Edgar at first seems a wimp. Were the actors playing those roles directed "correctly"?

3. At the end of The Beatles' "I Am the Walrus," there is a quotation from Lear--of all things, the death of Oswald. Were the Beatles correct to emphasize this character? Is Oswald the "serviceable villain" for our time?

4. The most praise for a performance in the Granada Lear may've gone to Diana Rigg for Regan. Does she deserve such praise?

5. Listen for a stringed instrument during the death scene and try to identify it. (On my TV sound system, it might've been anything from a violin to a cello.) Was the schmaltzy music a good idea?

Supplement to Study Guide for Olivier King Lear (Granada 1983)






.5-6: Cut "for equalities are so weighed that curiosity in neither can make choice of either's moiety"--i.e. that even careful analysis wouldn't allow one to prefer the portion of Britain given to the other. (Note that the map of Britain in this production isn't marked to indicate who gets what.)

.32 f., Lear's entrance: Add John Cording playing "Lear's Knight," bearing Lear's sword.

.49-50: Cut Lear's "(Since now we will divest us both of rule, / Interest of territory, cares of state)".

.110-119, Lear's banishment (so to speak) of Cordelia: shortened, removing references to Hecate and "The barbarous Scythian".

.168-72, banishment of Kent: Cuts section on Lear's breaking a vow.

.235-40, France to Lear and then Burgundy: Shortened to remove reference to "a tardiness in nature" and "Love's not love / When it is mingled with regards that stand / Aloof from th' entire point."

.278-82: Cut Goneril's line to Cordelia, "You have obedience scanted . . ." and Cordelia's "Time shall unfold what plighted cunning hides . . .".


.22: Edmund pretty well swallows "gods" in "Now, gods, stand up for bastards", making it almost inaudible.

.47-50, Gloucester reading what Edmund says is Edgar's letter: Cut "I begin to find an idle and fond bondage in the oppression of aged tyranny, who says, not as it hath power, but as it is suffered [i.e., tolerated]."

.102-4, 110-11, Gloucester on "These late eclipses": Cut lines on "Though the wisdom of nature can reason it thus and thus . . ." and "Machinations, hollowness, treachery, and all ruinous disorders follow us disquietly to our graves."

.130-147: Cut "And pat he comes . . ." and whole astrology business between Edmund and Edgar.


.18-20, Goneril to Oswald: Cut ". . . Old fools are babes again, and must be used / With checks as flatteries, when they are seen abused" (i.e., old men must be restrained, not cajoled, when they don't know their status).


.8: Lear enters the hall on horseback, with a very large and somewhat rowdy group of knights and attendants.

.111-21, Fool's song "Have more than thou showest": Cut.

.121-32, dialog between Lear and Fool on preceding song: Cut, thereby removing Lear's nearly exact repetition of earlier "Nothing can be made out of nothing" and the Fool's rejoinder that nothing is what Lear now gets in rent.


.156-61: Cut Fool's song on "Fools", "wise men", and "wits" (and the line that introduces it).

.199-204, end of Goneril's speech to Lear on his Fool and followers: Cut diplomatically phrased references to potential political necessity of humiliating Lear.

.221-25, Lear to Goneril et al. and Fool's reply: These lines are added from the Quarto text of the play; not using them leaves out Lear's reference to his "marks of sovereignty" and his daughters and the Fool's reply that the daughters will make Lear "an obedient father."

.253-60, Lear to Goneril et al.: Shortened, removing reference to the "small fault" in Cordelia that "wrenched" Lear's "frame of nature / From the fixed place"--i.e., made him act unnaturally in banishing Cordelia.

.320-1, Goneril to Albany: Cut "Let me still take away the harms I fear, / Not fear still to be taken."--I.e., May I always remove potential dangers rather than always to be in fear of them.


.1-3, Lear to disguised Kent: Cut "Acquaint my daughter [Regan] no further with anything you know than comes from her demand out of [=questions arising from reading] the letter."

.45-46: Cut Fool's joke to maidens in audience and replace it with dissolve to shot of Lear and fairly small group on horseback on heath.


.1-16: Cuts dialog between Curan and Edmund and replaces it with Oswald's telling Gloucester that Cornwall and Regan are coming. This removes Curan from the play and removes his lines here on "likely wars toward, 'twixt the Dukes of Cornwall and Albany."

.24-27, Edmund to Edgar: Cuts "i' th' haste" after "now i' th' night" (removing a [possibly useful] redundancy), and cuts Edmund's question, "Have you nothing said / Upon his party 'gainst the Duke of Albany? / Advise yourself" (i.e., "Think about it").

.38-9, Edmund to Gloucester: Cut Edmund's lie about Edgar's "conjuring the mood / To stand auspicious mistress" (a reference combining astrology and belief in Hecate).

.45-55, Edmund to Gloucester: Shortened, thereby removing Edmund's lie that he told Edgar about how "the revenging gods / 'Gainst parricides did all the thunder bend" and about "how manifold and strong a bond / The child was bound to th' father".


.67-82, mostly Kent to Cornwall on Oswald: Cut, removing comparison between "Such smiling rogues" as Oswald and "rats" that often "bite the holy cords atwain / Which are to intrinse t' unloose"--i.e., destroy the natural bonds (philosophically, the bonds of the Great Chain of Being).


Lear enters on hoseback, doubled up with Fool, followed by Knight and very few others.

.46-53: Cut Fool's song on "Fathers that wear rags" and the following line, thereby removing reference to Fortune (seen as Fortuna, "the Bitch Goddess") as "that arrant whore" who'll never favor the poor.

.74-81, Fool to stocked Kent: Cut Fool's song, "That sir which serves and seeks for gain," thereby eliminating the most explicit comment in the play on the Machiavellian "wise man"--a knave--versus the good Fool/fool.

.147-53, dialog between Lear and Regan: Cuts Lear's speech mockingly begging his daughters for "raiment, bed, and food."

.251-3, Lear to Regan, et al.: Cuts "Those wicked creatures yet do look well-favored / When others are more wicked; not being the worst / Stands in some rank of praise." (My marginal note on this line: "Evil World".)

.271-73, Lear to Goneril and Regan: Cuts reference to his tears as "women's weapons" and his call for "noble anger".

3.1: Cut. Lines 30-33 (on a military force arriving in Britain from France) given to Gloucester at 3.3.10. Cut eliminates one loyal Gentleman and reference to a "division" between Albany and Cornwall: i.e., the growing possibility of civil war (which a Machiavellian would assume would be a power-play of one grabbing for the other's half of the Kingdom, possibily in fear that the other will strike first).


.26-35: Cut Fool's song, "The codpiece that will house," eliminating an antithesis of "toe" and "heart" that has something to do with compassion and pain (see your editor's gloss and my comment in the Lear study guide).

.79-95, last speech of scene: Cut Fool's "prophecy". Aside from cutting a speech that's very difficult to understand, the cut removes the last bit of the Fool's direct address to the audience.

3.3: Kent's lines on the French invasion (3.1.30-34) assigned here to Gloucester, substituting for lines including the assertion "we must incline to the King" (a very weak way of saying "side with"). A redundancy is omitted on what we might call "the political over-plot" of the play--one of the redundancies of which Lear is full, obviously intended by Shakespeare.


.65-69, Lear's lines on Poor Tom's daughters: Cut, removing motif words of "nature" and "unkind."

.76-95, Lear and disguised Edgar: Cut, removing summary of Ten Commandments ending "Tom's acold" and Edgar as Tom on "Tom's" past as a corrupt servingman (which implies that sophisticated evil is more beastly than savage evil).

.121-150: Disguised Edgar's speeches shortened.

.141-3, Gloucester on barring his doors: Cut; gate-barring shown after dialog after Lear exits into storm (at end of 2.4).


.5-7, Cornwall and Edmund: Cut, removing Edmund's hypocritical, "How malicious is my fortune that I must repent to be just" in betraying Gloucester.

.19-22, Edmund's aside and a line to Cornwall: Cut, removing an aside (to audience?) and the hypocritical, "I will persever in my course of loyalty, though the conflict be sore between that and my blood"--i.e., the conflict between his "patriotic" betrayal of his father vs. instinctive love of kin.


.18-80: Shortened, possibly lessoning comparison contrast between the mad trial of the jointstool (stool and rooster in this production) and the far worse "trial" of Gloucester by the sane (but evil) Cornwall and Regan (3.7).

.100-13: Lines from Quarto not added. (That Lear is "childed" as Edgar is "fathered" makes explicit the parallel between the two plots.)

End of scene: Fool doesn't exit when others exeunt but remains, in very bad shape (suggesting that he disappears from the play because he's dead).


.9-10, Cornwall to Edmund: Cut advice to Albany to prepare to repell French invasion.

.36-40, Gloucester to Regan: Cut, removing Gloucester's little "I am your host" speech, which adds another broken bond (guest/host).

.59-65, Gloucester to Cornwall and Regan: Cut, removing recounting of Lear on heath (which we've seen).

.86-87, Gloucester calling on Edmund to revenge Gloucester's blinding: Cut, removing reference to the naturalness of filial devotion.

.90, Regan to Gloucester: Cut, removing irony of Edmund's being "too good to pity" Gloucester.

.99-107 (end of scene), dialog between 2nd and 3rd Servant: Cut, removing conventional piety of Servants and their desire to mitigate an evil they lacked the courage to try to stop; "replaced" with Regan's ignoring Cornwall's "Give me your arm"--which is easy to do on TV or the modern stage (where getting Cornwall off isn't a problem) and is a nice bit of business for showing Regan's utter nastiness.


.1-9, 11-12, Edgar in soliloquy: Cut, removing some explicit philosophizing by Edgar.

.64-70: Cut philosophical lines by Gloucester, including reference to "the superfluous and lust-dieted man . . . that will not see / Because he does not feel"--which is important for the motif of (Machiavellian) clear-seeing vs. "foolish" feeling (of compassion).


.6-9, Oswald to Goneril: Cuts "Of Gloucester's treachery / And the loyal service of his son" lines.

.52-59, Goneril to Albany: Cut, removing mostly Quarto matter that condemns as a "moral fool" anyone who'd pity "villains . . . who are punished / Ere they have done their mischief"--a colloquially "machiavellian" idea.

.72, Messenger to Albany: Changes "The other eye of Gloucester" to "The eyes of Gloucester."

.73-78, Messenger to Albany: Cut, removing (re)telling of death of Cornwall, and weirdly making Albany's "That shows you are above, / You justicers" speech possibly refer to the blinding of Gloucester.

.80-81, Albany to Messenger on Gloucester's "other eye": Cut, removing irony of the problem heavenly "justicers" might have helping the good.

.85-86, Goneril aside: Cut, possibly making Goneril sound as if she either likes "tart" flavors or approves of Regan's being with Edmund.

.88-97 (end of scene), Albany and Messenger: Cut, removing Messenger's informing Albany of Edmund's betrayal of Gloucester and Albany's promise to revenge the loss of Gloucester's eyes.

4.3-4.4: Cut.

Scene 4.3 is found only in the Quarto text: Kent and a Gentleman on why the King of France isn't in Britain (he forgot some important matter at home) and on Cordelia's reactions in learning what happened to Lear. The scene includes Kent's astrological explanation of why Cordelia could be so different from Goneril and Regan, and Kent's desire to be "known aright."

Scene 4.4 gives us our first view of Cordelia back in Britain; she asserts that she goes about her father's "business" and is motivated not by "blown ambition" but by "love, dear love, and our aged father's right."


.9-14, Regan to Oswald: Cut, removing Regan on its having been bad public relations to let the blinded Gloucester live and the beautiful little cameo sketch of Edmund's going forth "In pity" of Gloucester's "misery, to dispatch / His nighted life"--and get in a little spying on the enemy.

End of scene: Long exit by Oswald, who tears up Regan's "note" to Edmund. (Regan tells Oswald "Therefore I do advise you take this note"--i.e., to note well what she's about to say; the director modernized the meaning of "take this note" and made it into a piece of stage business.)


.28-40, Gloucester's suicide attempt: Gloucester's speeches shortened, including Gloucester's lines about not wanting "To quarrel with" the "great opposeless wills" of the gods.

.79: TV scene ended here; new TV scene of Lear washing and trapping: pleasant scene of woods and flowers, but a little queasy-making when Lear guts a rabbit and eats what I'd guess to be the liver. Lear in flowers, not weeds.

passim: Edgar's asides cut.

.185: Gentleman replaced by "Lear's Knight" from opening scene and scene at Goneril's (suggesting one additional person loyal to Lear throughout?).

.216-18, Edgar and Gloucester: Cuts Gloucester's "what are you" question to Edgar (in yet another disguise) and Edgar's answer,

A Most poor man, made tame to fortune's blows,

Who, by the art of known and feeling sorrows,

Am pregnant to good pity.

.268-79, end of Edgar's long speech, then Gloucester: Cut, removing Edgar's saying he'll bury Oswald and tell Albany of the plot against him--and removing Gloucester's wish to be become insane and lose grief in delusion.


.53-54, Lear to Cordelia: Cuts "I should e'en die with pity / To see another thus"--a line indicating Lear's having learned compassion.

.85-97 (end of scene): Cuts dialog between Gentleman and Kent on death of Cornwall and rumors of Edgar and Kent.


.1-6, Edmund and Regan: Cuts lines on Albany's "alteration / And self-reproving" and that Oswald has probably "miscarried."

.23-31, dialog among Albany, Edmund, Regan, and Goneril: Lines from Quarto not added and some lines from Folio cut; taken together, this removes Albany's assertions of his problems fighting Cordelia, and Goneril's straightforward logic that British dukes must "Combine together 'gainst the enemy" and leave domestic quarrels for later. Also cut is Edmund's highly ironic comment on Albany's speech, "Sir, you speak nobly." Usually, Edmund equates nobility and stupidity, but Edmund is moving toward the noble gesture of fighting Edgar.


.34-37, Captain and Edmund: Cuts Captain's initial agreement to murder Cordelia and Lear (with the following Quarto lines on the same subject retained [38-39]).

.102-4: Herald business cut, lines cut in which Albany tells Edmund that Albany has dismissed Edmund's troops.

.107-17: Herald business cut.

.120-26. Edgar and Albany: Cut, removing Edgar's claim to be as "noble as the adversary / I come to cope."

.127-34, Edgar to Edmund: Cut except for "I protest" (and, I think, "thou art a traitor"); this removes Edgar's conditional granting of Edmund "a noble heart," and also removes the long parenthesis in which Edgar counts up Edmund's advantages.

.139-146, 149-50, Edmund to Edgar in his last disguise: Cut, removing Edmund's admission that "In wisdom I should ask thy name" and his listing of reasons why he'll fight the nameless knight anyway (the guy looks good and talks with some "breeding"--and Edmund disdains wimping out on technicalities).

.152-154, Albany and Goneril after defeat of Edmund: Assigns Albany's "Save him, save him" to Goneril and cuts Goneril's comment that "By th' law of war" Edmund needn't have fought "An unknown opposite." (The cut makes a little strange Goneril's lines on Edmund's being "cozened and beguiled.")

.164, 166-70, Edmund and Edgar: Cuts Edmund's "And more, much more" line and "If thou'rt noble, / I do forgive thee." Cuts Edgar's "Let's exchange charity" and the following sentence. Possibly changes "thy father's son" to "my father's son" (I couldn't hear clearly).

.176-7: Cut's Albany's line to Edgar, "Methought thy gait did prophesy / A royal nobleness"--which may remove a foreshadowing of Edgar's being on top of the political heap at the end of the play and definitely underscores the theme of nobility with Edgar and Edmund.

.200-220, Edmund, Albany, Edgar: Cuts Edmund's speech beginning "This speech of yours hath moved me," Albany's comment on Edgar's woeful tale, and the long section (lines 205-20) from the Quarto.

.230-35, Edgar and Albany: Cut, removing Albany's "This judgment of the heavens . . . Touches us not with pity.

.238-43: Cut, removing Edmund's "Yet Edmund was beloved" lines.

.244-57, Edmund and Albany: Cuts Edmund's lines explaining that despair was to explain the death of Cordelia and Albany's line beginning "The gods defend her!", the cue line for "Enter Lear, with Cordelia in his arms," dead.

.284, Kent: "Your servant Kent; where is your servant Caius?" is changed to "Your servant Kent, who was your servant Caius," clarifying that "Caius" was Kent's alias when, in disguise, he served Lear.

.291-305: Cuts lines on deaths of Goneril, Regan, and Edmund--and Albany on rewarding friends and punishing foes."


(1) The cuts often remove material from the Quarto King Lear (1608), returning the play closer to the text in the First Folio (1623), the "copy text" for Pelican and Riverside. (Note: There's a new book out which suggests that we actually have two King Lears, so sticking to either Quarto or Folio might be a good idea.)

(2) The cuts remove redundancies, some of which Shakespeare definitely wanted. Upside: shorter performance time; downside: maybe we need to hear the points made two or three times to get them.

(3) The cuts make the play less political and philosophical and more "personal," more of the drama of the Lear family than of the Royal House of Britain. Upside: it's a moving domestic drama; downside: the Granada Lear is less severe than the text on Machiavellian politics--and rather less severe with cuts on the gods.

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Study Guide for Akira Kurosawa's Ran




Ran. Dir. Akira Kurosawa. France-Japan: Greenwich Film / Herald Ace, Inc. / Nippon Herald Film, 1985. Serge Silberman, prod. Kurosawa, Hideo Oguni, Masato Ide, script. Based on William Shakespeare's play, King Lear. Ca. 161 min.



Tatsuya Nakadai: Hidetora (Lear-figure, head of the House of Ichimonji)

Akika Terao: Taro (eldest son of Hidetora, given primary rule)

Jinpachi Nezu: Jiro (second son)

Daisuke Ryu: Saburo (Cordelia-figure, youngest son)

Meiko Hearad: Lady Kaede (wife to Taro, blackmailer and lover of Jiro after death of Taro: vengeful daughter-in-law, comparable to Goneril and Regan)

Yoshiko Miyazaki: Lady SuŽ (sister to Tsurumaru, wife to Jiro: a good woman)

Masayuki Yui: Tango (Kent-figure)

Kazuo Kato: Ikoma

Peter (sic: just one name): Kyozmi (Fool?)

Hitoshi Ueki: Lord Fujimaki (somewhat parallel to Gloucester + France)

Isashi Ikawa: KuroganŽ (hatchet-man unto Jiro)



1. Watch the film the first time for just this film: its own story, its beautiful and apalling visuals. Only later try to trace the relations with Shakespeare's King Lear.

2. Note that Lear was emphatically a period piece in Shakespeare's day: Lear was king in legendary (or even mythic) times, placed by Holinshed back in the ancient world when Joash ruled in Judah (ca. 800 BCE)--which would be prehistoric Britain (we might see the writing an map-making in Lear as relatively recent inventions). Kurosawa places his film in feudal Japan, during the period of feuding samurai lords--i.e., about Shakespeare's time (say, late 16th century by the Christian calendar).

3. How does changing "Lear's" daughters to sons make the sexual politics of Ran different from those of Lear--or does it? How does bringing in a samurai revenge motif change the family politics--or does it? (Does Lear suggest that Goneril and Regan are revenging themselves on Lear?)

4. Note the battle sequences. Such battles are to samurai films what a gun fight or plains Indians vs. U.S. Cavalry battle is to westerns. Does Kurosawa make the convention into a virtue in his film?

5. Lear is a religious play, raising great questions about the nature of the gods, of Nature, and, by implication, God and the universe. How does Kurosawa restate those questions for a modern audience watching a film about feudal Japan? Is he easier on the gods in Ran than Shakespeare is on the gods--and God?--in Lear? Do the gods weep at human actions in Ran? If we, watching the film, are in the position of the gods watching humanity--how should we respond to the film's final images?

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