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
The language of King Lear covers a very wide variety of styles and demonstrates Shakespeare’s ability to create exactly the right linguistic texture to suit the context, whether it be:
- a set-piece like the opening love-test
- the evocation of a violent storm
- the intimate reconciliation of a guilty father and a loving child
to mention just a few of the dramatic situations portrayed in the play.
Throughout the play there is a total fusion of dramatic effect and poetic technique.
Shakespeare’s verbal energy
Lear's speech at the beginning of the storm in Act 3 Scene 2 is justifiably famous:
Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! rage! blow!
You cataracts and hurricanoes, spout
Till you have drenched the steeples, drowned the cocks!
You sulphurous and thought-executing fires,
Vaunt-couriers to oak-cleaving thunderbolts,
Singe my white head! And thou, all-shaking thunder,
Smite flat the thick rotundity o'the world!
Crack Nature's moulds, all germens spill at once,
That make ingrateful man!
Action and sound effect
The scene crackles with energy. It is full of noisy verbs, beginning with the explosive 'blow' and continuing with 'crack', 'rage', a repeated 'blow', 'spout', 'drenched', 'drowned', 'singe', 'smite', crack' and 'spill'. The words are not only violent in meaning but the clusters of harsh consonants within concentrated, entirely monosyllabic verbs gives an impression of words bursting open to release the elements which they invoke.
The elements of nature are also endowed with living force. These winds, thunderbolts etc. are personified and are addressed by second-person pronouns 'you' and 'thou'. They are capable not only of 'drenching' but also of drowning. The weathercocks (typically found on church steeples) are suddenly animated: they become real farmyard fowl facing extinction by drowning by the downpours of rain.
The winds are similarly animated in the first line. Commonly depicted on contemporary maps as cherubs with puffed-out cheeks, blowing in the direction of the winds they represent, Lear's winds have become monstrous, endowed with the capacity to blow so hard that they can 'crack' their cheeks with the further violent suggestion of tearing flesh. The word 'oak-cleaving' is also infused with this animating energy, the image suggesting not only that the thunderbolts can strike oak trees but are like axe-wielding giants, splitting great oak trees from top to bottom.
Many of the images in this speech echo a Psalm with which Shakespeare’s contemporary audience would have been familiar. Psalms 29:3-9 includes mighty thunder, flood and lightening, smashed trees, earthquake and writhing oaks.
The movement of the verse also captures Lear's rage and the energy he wishes to harness. Six of the eight monosyllabic words in the first line carry strong stresses, the pauses indicated by the five punctuation marks allowing each idea (and each sound) to make its mark. Shakespeare works against the iambic rhythms of blank verse to suggest strain and stress, with many lines carrying extra syllables whilst others are shorter and more punchy. For example, the phrase 'Crack nature's moulds' has three strong stresses which sound as hammer-blows, suggestive of utter destruction. Lear is calling for no less than the destruction by thunder of all human life on earth once and for all. If a mould is cracked, there is no hope of creating any more objects from it. Continuity is lost forever.
For a speech which begins in such an explosively arresting manner, there is a risk of anti-climax. However, Shakespeare makes his final words the whole purpose of Lear's rage. 'Ingrateful man' does not deserve to survive and the words hang exposed to Lear's anger and to the destructive power of the elements.
The language of ritual
Much of the opening scene sounds as if some pre-prepared ritual were being enacted. The style Shakespeare adopts here is one of concision and precision, with balanced phrases and a formality suggested by the end-stopping of lines (i.e. lines of verse which end with punctuation marks, rather than being allowed to ‘run on’ into the next line). An example of this formal, ritualistic tone can be found in lines like:
The princes, France and Burgundy,
Great rivals in our youngest daughter’s love,
Long in our court have made their amorous sojourn,And here are to be answer’d. (Act 1 Scene 1)
The ritualistic part of the scene concludes with the departure of Cordelia and France from the stage and Shakespeare’s use of rhyme imparts an air of finality to the proceedings, as well as displaying Cordelia’s presence of mind and ability to see through pretence:
Time shall unfold what plighted cunning hides;
Who covers faults, at last shame them derides. (Act 1 Scene 1)
Who covers faults, at last shame them derides. (Act 1 Scene 1)
Verse and prose
About one third of King Lear is in prose. As a general rule Shakespeare employs prose to convey the casualness of everyday speech, whilst verse is used to convey formality, precision and complexity. Verse is often used to suggest ideas that have been carefully formulated, whereas prose often suggests relative spontaneity and informality.
Act 1 Scene 1 opens with a covert prose conversation between Gloucester and Kent and it ends in prose too, creating a personal frame around the stateliness of the verse. The earthy bawdiness of the opening conversation (e.g. ‘There was good sport at his making, and the whoreson must be acknowledged’) contrasts with the public grandeur of the ceremony which follows. The same scene ends with the coldly calculating comments of Goneril and Regan. Their speech is stripped back to self-serving essentials (e.g. ‘We must do something, and i’the heat.’) which contrasts sharply with the extravagance of their earlier protestations of love for their father.
- English Standard Version
- King James Version
1Ascribe to the Lord, O heavenly beings, ascribe to the Lord glory and strength. 2Ascribe to the Lord the glory due his name; worship the Lord in the splendor of holiness. 3The voice of the Lord is over the waters; the God of glory thunders, the Lord, over many waters. 4The voice of the Lord is powerful; the voice of the Lord is full of majesty. 5The voice of the Lord breaks the cedars; the Lord breaks the cedars of Lebanon. 6He makes Lebanon to skip like a calf, and Sirion like a young wild ox. 7The voice of the Lord flashes forth flames of fire. 8The voice of the Lord shakes the wilderness; the Lord shakes the wilderness of Kadesh. 9The voice of the Lord makes the deer give birth and strips the forests bare, and in his temple all cry, Glory! 10The Lord sits enthroned over the flood; the Lord sits enthroned as king forever. 11May the Lord give strength to his people! May the Lord bless his people with peace!
1Give unto the LORD, O ye mighty, give unto the LORD glory and strength. 2Give unto the LORD the glory due unto his name; worship the LORD in the beauty of holiness. 3The voice of the LORD is upon the waters: the God of glory thundereth: the LORD is upon many waters. 4The voice of the LORD is powerful; the voice of the LORD is full of majesty. 5The voice of the LORD breaketh the cedars; yea, the LORD breaketh the cedars of Lebanon. 6He maketh them also to skip like a calf; Lebanon and Sirion like a young unicorn. 7The voice of the LORD divideth the flames of fire. 8The voice of the LORD shaketh the wilderness; the LORD shaketh the wilderness of Kadesh. 9The voice of the LORD maketh the hinds to calve, and discovereth the forests: and in his temple doth every one speak of his glory. 10The LORD sitteth upon the flood; yea, the LORD sitteth King for ever. 11The LORD will give strength unto his people; the LORD will bless his people with peace.
a grammatical part of speech which indicates an action or experience
A letter of the alphabet or sound which is not a vowel.
Literally, using words of one syllable; using few, short, words as if reluctant to speak.
Represented or imagined as a person.
Second person personal pronoun is 'you' - the same word is used for singular and plural forms.
a word which stands in place of a noun, to avoid repetition; for example, 'he', 'she', 'us'
1. Term for a worshipping community of Christians. 2. The building in which Christians traditionally meet for worship. 3. The worldwide community of Christian believers.
In all languages, some syllables are pronounced with more of an emphasis than others. In poetry of many languages, this becomes a significant means of patterning. The pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables within a line of verse is called its
A term used of speech rhythms in blank verse; an iambic rhythm is an unstressed, or weak, beat followed by a stressed, or strong, beat. It is a rising metre.
Unrhymed verse, in lines of ten syllables with an underlying stressed / unstressed rhythm.
a line of verse where the sense ends at the end of the line
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