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King Lear Study Guide

King Lear is a Shakespearean tragedy. As such, a reader is forced to grapple with both difficult questions and, by the play's end, a high body count.

King Lear is particularly troublesome because we're not quite sure whether to hold Lear accountable for his actions. Is he senile, grossly self-unaware, or both? His decision to divide his kingdom into thirds through a verbal display of affections and the ease with which he casts aside his "favorite" daughter show us early on that all is not well in Lear's kingdom.

By the play's end, both the fathers who had painfully misjudged the affections of their children (Lear and Gloucester) see (ironically) their deadly errors in judgment. Alas, such self-knowledge comes too late. If only Lear and Gloucester had known they were in a tragedy.
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Themes and Facts

  • Along with Hamlet, King Lear is considered one of Shakespeare's greatest plays.
  • There are two major texts of King Lear. Most scholars consider the earlier play to be the most authoritative.
  • An Elizabethean audience would have been mortified at the thought of a King abdicating his throne before the appropriate time.
  • Observe carefully Shakespeare's usage of the word nothing and its many variants.
  • Consider the following binary oppositions as themes in the work: appearance vs. reality; madness vs. sanity; nature vs. society; sight vs. blindness

Study Questions

  • What could possibly explain Lear's decision to divide his kingdom based on mere nominative declarations of affection?
  • In addition to the story of Lear and his daughters, there is the parallel story of Gloucester and his sons. Why is Gloucester so easily deceived?
  • What is Edmund's motivation for his evil acts? Do you find any evidence to justify his claims?
  • What is the significance of the storm scene? How does it relate to Lear? To his kingdom?
  • What do you make of the Fool? What function does he serve in Lear's court? In the play?
  • Make note of the various levels of deception (i.e. appearance vs. reality) in the play.
  • Does anyone in King Lear "get what they deserve"? What is Shakespeare's view of divine justice in the play?

King Lear begins with a foolish decision and ends with a fool's tears. Is Lear mad? Senile? Insecure? The true tragedy of King Lear resists easy definition, only accentuating the play's searing pathos.