King Lear Contents
- Shakespeare, William
- 1564 - 1582: William Shakespeare's Stratford Beginnings
- 1582 - 1592: William Shakespeare's Marriage, Parenthood and Early Occupation
- 1592 - 1594: William Shakespeare's Life In London, part 1
- 1594 - 1611: William Shakespeare's Life In London, part 2
- 1594 - 1611: William Shakespeare's Life In London, part 3
- 1611 - 1616: William Shakespeare - Back to Stratford
- Social / political background
- Religious / philosophical background
- The Theatre
- Act I
- Act II
- Act III
- Act IV
- Act V
Order, disintegration and chaos
King Lear charts the downfall of a man, a family and a nation into chaos. Pomp, hierarchy and state are turned topsy-turvy when the King inhabits a hovel, children rule parents, guests attack their host and Lear’s retinue comprises blind, ‘mad’ and mutilated beggars. ‘Good’ characters are defeated by evil ones and justice appears as illusory as Lear’s mad trial in Act 3. And unlike most tragedies, in which a sense of new order and confidence is asserted at the end, in King Lear there is little such assurance that the British realm can be restored to its former glory.
The disintegration is initiated by Lear himself in Act 1 Scene 1, when he seeks to divide ‘In three’ his kingdom and ‘part’ his ‘coronet’. Gloucester sums up the opening events of the play with the negative terms ‘banished’ and ‘parted’. However, there appear to be larger social and cosmic forces at work, as Gloucester reports in Act 1 Scene 2:
Love cools, friendship falls off, brothers divide: in cities, mutinies; in countries, discord; in palaces, treason; and the bond crack’d ’twixt son and father.
A reflection of the times
In Act 1 Scene 2 Gloucester concludes ominously:
We have seen the best of our time: machinations, hollowness, treachery, and all ruinous disorders follow us disquietly to our graves.
Shakespeare’s contemporary audience may well have felt that the earl’s sentiments reflected their own situation. After the stability of Elizabeth I's long reign, the English suddenly had a new, foreign king, who vastly inflated the ranks of the aristocracy as a way of buying favour and acquiring cash.
Alongside the fluctuating power structures as these new faces jostled for influence at court, there was economic uncertainty. This was generated by factors such as the plague epidemics of 1603-4, the decay of the wool industry on which many relied for sustenance and increasing land enclosure which dispossessed peasant labourers. At the turn of the century approximately 30% of the urban population were of ‘no fixed abode’, whilst 30% of the rural population had to resort to begging in lean periods of the year.
Meanwhile there were also religious and social tensions, some of which came to a head in the year of Lear’s production in the Gunpowder Plot.
Mental and physical disintegration
It is made clear from the start that Lear is mentally fragile and ‘full of changes’, his elder daughters referring to his ‘inconstant starts’ and ‘unruly waywardness’. In Act 2 Scene 4, as the ‘mother swells up’, he loses control and explodes in violent anger, calling for ‘Vengeance! Plague! Death! Confusion!’ He is aware of his increasing loss of faculties and is desperate to retain control, yet ends the confrontation with his daughters in tears, issuing hollow threats like a child. Shakespeare uses the ‘unquiet’ weather as a symbolic reflection of the growing ‘tempest’ in Lear’s mind.
The King is accompanied on the heath by the Fool, who dresses his wisdom in doggerel (a means of ensuring safety in a world where truth-telling is punishable), and Poor Tom, who rants about attack by the ‘foul fiend’. The disguised Edgar epitomises the social outcast that an uncaring hierarchy wants to ignore. Covered in ‘filth’ and ‘whipped from tithing to tithing’, he is now a ‘poor bare forked animal’. His nakedness inspires Lear to remove his own remaining trappings of civilisation, as his mind and language wander into disjointed sounds and images. The image of being ‘bound upon a wheel of fire’ weeping tears that ‘burn like lead’ conveys a final descent into the abyss of hell, with which this imagery is associated. See Hell.
Lear makes the first move in unravelling his family by his expulsion of Cordelia from his heart and household. His curse on Goneril as a ‘degenerate bastard’ (Act 1 Scene 4) also overturns the natural cycle of birth, life and death as he dries ‘up in her the organs of increase.’ In their turn, Goneril, Regan and Edmund all violate the established bonds of respect for elders as well as overturning the idea of inheritance succession – Edmund works towards his father’s downfall so as to inherit his revenues before the appropriate time. Regan openly tells her father that he is old and should be ‘rul’d’ by his offspring, making literal the exercise of authority which Lear had no forethought about giving away.
Places of sanctuary are violated. Initially this is again the fault of the King, whose ‘knights grow riotous’ in Goneril’s house. In response, Regan first deserts her own home so as to avoid hosting her father, then ‘shut[s] up [the] doors’ of her host against Lear, overturning every law of hospitality - to a family member, to an elderly person, in the face of inclement weather. In that same house, the owner, Gloucester, is attacked. Edgar is chased from his home and even his hovel is not secure from intrusion. Cordelia is captured and her place of security, the prison cell, is the site of her murder.
Bonds of trust and loyalty break down throughout the whole fabric of society. When the King’s emissary is treated with contempt by a servant, his master condones the affront. A son betrays his father to torture; two wives look beyond their own marriage beds for sexual adventure. Oswald and Edmund serve whoever facilitates their own interests. In Act 3 Scene 2 the Fool uses other images of social disorder, referring to nobles who are servants to artisans and churches being built by the immoral, signs that ‘the realm of Albion’ has ‘Come to great confusion.’ Because of corruption in high places, the system of justice falls apart – who can tell any more ‘which is the justice, which is the thief’.
All this happens against a background of elemental disorder. In Act 3 Scene 2 Kent refers to ‘sheets of fire,’ ‘bursts of horrid thunder,’ ‘groans of roaring wind and rain’ never before experienced. Shakespeare’s contemporary audience would recognise the allusion to the biblical idea of the Creation groaning and frustrated by the effects of sin (Romans 8:19-22). Both sun and moon have recently experienced eclipse, and Lear reflects the upheaval of the natural process when he implores the ‘all shaking thunder’ to:
Strike flat the thick rotundity o’th’world
Crack Nature’s moulds, all germens spill at once
Crack Nature’s moulds, all germens spill at once
With Edgar’s ‘rescue’ of Gloucester and the advent of Cordelia, it could be argued that the chaos is tamed, just as the storm also wears itself out. Certainly Lear is re-clothed and becomes more aware of his situation than he was in the depths of his madness. Furthermore, the forces of the French King arrive, representing law and order, fighting for the restitution of Lear’s throne and powers. The re-introduction of justice and hierarchy is symbolised by the ceremonial surrounding Edgar’s chivalric challenge to Edmund – a challenge which Edgar wins. However, it is too little, too late. The French forces are defeated by those of Goneril and Cornwall, Lear’s mind has deteriorated too much for him to take power again, and Cordelia, the agent of harmony and grace, is murdered.
- English Standard Version
- King James Version
1There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. 2For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death. 3For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, 4in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. 5For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. 6For to set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. 7For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God's law; indeed, it cannot. 8Those who are in the flesh cannot please God. 9You, however, are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. 10But if Christ is in you, although the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness. 11If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you. 12So then, brothers, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh. 13For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. 14For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God. 15For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, Abba! Father! 16The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, 17and if children, then heirs - heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him. 18For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. 19For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. 20For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope 21that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. 22For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. 23And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. 24For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? 25But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience. 26Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words. 27And he who searches hearts knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God. 28And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. 29For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. 30And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified. 31What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? 32He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? 33Who shall bring any charge against God's elect? It is God who justifies. 34Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died - more than that, who was raised - who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us. 35Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? 36As it is written, For your sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered. 37No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. 38For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, 39nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
1There is therefore now no condemnation to them which are in Christ Jesus, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit. 2For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus hath made me free from the law of sin and death. 3For what the law could not do, in that it was weak through the flesh, God sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and for sin, condemned sin in the flesh: 4That the righteousness of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit. 5For they that are after the flesh do mind the things of the flesh; but they that are after the Spirit the things of the Spirit. 6For to be carnally minded is death; but to be spiritually minded is life and peace. 7Because the carnal mind is enmity against God: for it is not subject to the law of God, neither indeed can be. 8So then they that are in the flesh cannot please God. 9But ye are not in the flesh, but in the Spirit, if so be that the Spirit of God dwell in you. Now if any man have not the Spirit of Christ, he is none of his. 10And if Christ be in you, the body is dead because of sin; but the Spirit is life because of righteousness. 11But if the Spirit of him that raised up Jesus from the dead dwell in you, he that raised up Christ from the dead shall also quicken your mortal bodies by his Spirit that dwelleth in you. 12Therefore, brethren, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live after the flesh. 13For if ye live after the flesh, ye shall die: but if ye through the Spirit do mortify the deeds of the body, ye shall live. 14For as many as are led by the Spirit of God, they are the sons of God. 15For ye have not received the spirit of bondage again to fear; but ye have received the Spirit of adoption, whereby we cry, Abba, Father. 16The Spirit itself beareth witness with our spirit, that we are the children of God: 17And if children, then heirs; heirs of God, and joint-heirs with Christ; if so be that we suffer with him, that we may be also glorified together. 18For I reckon that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us. 19For the earnest expectation of the creature waiteth for the manifestation of the sons of God. 20For the creature was made subject to vanity, not willingly, but by reason of him who hath subjected the same in hope, 21Because the creature itself also shall be delivered from the bondage of corruption into the glorious liberty of the children of God. 22For we know that the whole creation groaneth and travaileth in pain together until now. 23And not only they, but ourselves also, which have the firstfruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, waiting for the adoption, to wit, the redemption of our body. 24For we are saved by hope: but hope that is seen is not hope: for what a man seeth, why doth he yet hope for? 25But if we hope for that we see not, then do we with patience wait for it. 26Likewise the Spirit also helpeth our infirmities: for we know not what we should pray for as we ought: but the Spirit itself maketh intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered. 27And he that searcheth the hearts knoweth what is the mind of the Spirit, because he maketh intercession for the saints according to the will of God. 28And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose. 29For whom he did foreknow, he also did predestinate to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brethren. 30Moreover whom he did predestinate, them he also called: and whom he called, them he also justified: and whom he justified, them he also glorified. 31What shall we then say to these things? If God be for us, who can be against us? 32He that spared not his own Son, but delivered him up for us all, how shall he not with him also freely give us all things? 33Who shall lay any thing to the charge of God's elect? It is God that justifieth. 34Who is he that condemneth? It is Christ that died, yea rather, that is risen again, who is even at the right hand of God, who also maketh intercession for us. 35Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? 36As it is written, For thy sake we are killed all the day long; we are accounted as sheep for the slaughter. 37Nay, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him that loved us. 38For I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, 39Nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.
The attempted assassination of James I of England in 1605 by a group of Catholic dissenters in response to increasing persecution
Jesus describes hell as the place where Satan and his demons reside and the realm where unrepentant souls will go after the Last Judgement.
In the Bible, 'creation' can mean both the process by which the universe was made by God and the created order which emerged.
Disobedience to the known will of God. According to Christian theology human beings have displayed a pre-disposition to sin since the Fall of Humankind.
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