A moral ensemble story

The dominance of the protagonist

King Lear is different from the other great tragedies in as much as the stage is not so completely dominated by one (or two) central characters in the way that happens in the other tragedies:
  • Hamlet alone speaks 1495 lines of a possible 4024 (i.e. 37% of the entire text)
  • Between them Macbeth and Lady Macbeth speak 984 lines out of 2477, which is 40% of the drama
  • Othello and Iago are the most dominant, speaking 1985 lines (56%) of their play’s total of 3560.
Lear, on the other hand, speaks a fairly modest 758 lines out of a 3499 total, giving him just 22%. Edgar (395), Kent (368), Edmund (315) and Gloucester (342) speak a total of 1421 lines, giving them 41% altogether. Goneril and Regan also have fairly substantial parts (392 lines between them).

Family relationships

The sharing out of lines gives King Lear a very distinctive texture, helping to illustrate the importance of the Gloucester subplot, the play’s focus on family relationships, the development of a wide range of thematic ideas – as well as on the character and development of Lear himself.

A simple morality tale?

In Act 1 Scene 1 it seems at first as if the play will be a sort of morality tale about an old king who makes serious errors of judgement, suffers as a result and then sees the error of his ways, being reunited with his wronged youngest daughter as a reward for his enlightenment. However, the play is a tragedy; although the play was later rewritten to accommodate a happy ending, this is not what Shakespeare wrote. The play is complex and will not admit easy answers or any simple moral outcomes.

Types and characters

Some of the characters do seem to have morality tale attributes:
  • In Act 1 Lear seems to stand for selfishness and wilfulness
  • Kent seems to be the epitome of loyalty
  • Cornwall stands for cruelty
  • Edmund represents ruthless ambition. 
However, as always in Shakespeare, the playwright is much more interested in real human beings rather than with making characters into embodiments of concepts:
  • Cordelia may stand for truth against the pragmatic and insincere flattery of her sisters, but she is also uncompromising, unwilling to play her aged father’s game by his rules
  • Lear may show appalling misjudgement and egocentricity but he still inspires unconditional loyalty in Kent. 

Such examples should warn us not to leap to over-simplification when we consider Shakespeare’s characterisation in King Lear.

Scan and go

Scan on your mobile for direct link.