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
Identity through relationship and status
At the start of King Lear identity is established by family and social relationships:
- Edmund is Gloucester’s acknowledged ‘whoreson’
- Albany and Cornwall are identified as Lear’s ‘son[s]’
- Goneril and Regan are his ‘daughters’ made of the ‘self metal’
- Kent is Gloucester’s ‘honourable friend’
- Kent identifies his existence as a ‘pawn’ which he is willing to sacrifice in the defence of his monarch.
Lear starts to erode the sense of identity through connection when he begins to treat Cordelia as a commodity, whose ‘price has fallen’, rather than a daughter. She becomes in his eyes of ‘little seeming substance’ once he decides that she will no longer be bolstered by the wealth of inheritance.
His attitude to the newly ‘stranger’d’ Cordelia illustrates Lear’s reliance on status to define identity, rather than understanding that people are shaped by their inner life or heart. As his elder daughters point out, the King ‘hath ever but slenderly known himself’. The rest of the play is about Lear’s journey to understanding what it means to be a person.
As a bastard, Edmund stands outside the conventional network of identity, and proclaims himself to have allegiance to no-one other than himself. By ousting his brother he imposes on Edgar the same necessity to thrive alone as he has endured. Cut off from his previous social identity, Edgar decides that the safest role he can take is ‘the basest and most poorest shape’ as a social ‘nobody’ (‘Edgar I nothing am.’).
Kent too has ‘raz’d his likeness’ having been banished by the King. He has no pretentions to status and when, as Gaius, he seeks to serve Lear, he describes himself simply as ‘A man’ who professes ‘to be no less than I seem’. Kent understands, as Lear does not, the biblical teaching that human worth depends on being ‘a very honest-hearted fellow’, not on social position. That is one of the reasons he so takes against the ‘smiling rogue’ Oswald, as someone merely ‘made’ by ‘a tailor’.
It is ironic that, as someone who treats people according to their status, Lear cannot understand that his diminished power means that he himself will be treated differently. His gradual loss of authority means he becomes to Goneril merely an ‘idle old man’ and to her servants simply ‘My Lady’s father.’ When his daughter turns on him, he asks with heavy irony:
Does any here know me? This is not Lear:
Does Lear walk thus? speak thus? Where are his eyes? ..Who is it that can tell me who I am? (Act 1 Scene 4)
Yet he is bewildered when this has no effect – in the words of the Fool, he has merely become ‘Lear’s shadow.’
As his elder daughters strip him of more and more power, Lear starts pathetically to see himself as simply a ‘a poor old man / As full of grief as age’. But he still believes that he can contend with the elements and bid the wind (Act 3 Scene 1).
The bare essentials
It is only once Lear has faced the extremity of the elements which ‘would not peace at my bidding’ and encountered the abject Poor Tom, that he starts to analyse what it is to be a human being. Confronted with the near-naked outcast, Lear’s enquiry, ‘Is man no more than this? Consider him well.’ echoes the spirit of Psalm 8 which would have been well known to Shakespeare’s contemporary audience:
When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers ..
what is mankind that you are mindful of them,human beings that you care for them? Psalms 8:3-4
In Tom, Lear sees:
the thing itself: unaccommodated man is no more but such a poor, bare, forked animal
With rejected or rejecting daughters, loss of kingdom and retinue, Lear can no longer consider himself a father, king or master of others. As he tries to identify with Tom by stripping off his own clothes, he anticipates his later observation that humans enter the world as crying, naked babies, for whom status is irrelevant. Humans are just ‘natural fool[s] of Fortune’.
Yet it is when Lear has come to this point that his innate majesty starts to be seen again. The blinded Gloucester recognises him as King and later the gentlemen sent by Cordelia assert, ’You are a royal one and we obey you.’ It is perhaps because Lear has come to accept the reality, that he is simply ‘a very foolish fond old man, / Fourscore and upward’ (Act 4 Scene 7) that we can believe again in his nobility. When Cordelia asks, ‘Sir, do you know me?’ Lear is (gradually) able to wake up to the truth of Cordelia’s nature – that she is not ‘untender’ but ‘true’.
Meanwhile, the true identity of others is uncovered. The masked champion who vanquishes usurping Edmund is revealed to be Edgar, now the rightful Earl of Gloucester. Regan’s complicity with Edmund is uncovered and serves to reveal Goneril’s latent desire to get rid of her husband for the sake of her beloved. Kent’s innate loyalty has always been apparent, so it is not a huge surprise when Gaius and Kent are revealed to be one and the same man. Albany at last recognises Edmund, his wife and sister-in-law for the traitors they are.
So, at the end of King Lear, many are identified for who they have truly proved themselves to be – ‘right noble’ or ‘toad-spotted traitor[s]’. But the most plaintive message of the play is seen in the inert Cordelia, who is ‘dead as earth’. This recalls the image from the Book of Common Prayer’s burial service:
‘earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust’
that human life is brief (Psalms 103:14-16) and, once it is over, humans return to the organic elements from which they are composed (Genesis 3:19, see Earth, clay, dust). The overwhelming evidence about identity in King Lear is that humans are simply mortal.
- English Standard Version
- King James Version
1O Lord, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth! You have set your glory above the heavens. 2Out of the mouth of babies and infants, you have established strength because of your foes, to still the enemy and the avenger. 3When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, 4what is man that you are mindful of him, and the son of man that you care for him? 5Yet you have made him a little lower than the heavenly beings and crowned him with glory and honor. 6You have given him dominion over the works of your hands; you have put all things under his feet, 7all sheep and oxen, and also the beasts of the field, 8the birds of the heavens, and the fish of the sea, whatever passes along the paths of the seas. 9O Lord, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth!
1O LORD, our Lord, how excellent is thy name in all the earth! who hast set thy glory above the heavens. 2Out of the mouth of babes and sucklings hast thou ordained strength because of thine enemies, that thou mightest still the enemy and the avenger. 3When I consider thy heavens, the work of thy fingers, the moon and the stars, which thou hast ordained; 4What is man, that thou art mindful of him? and the son of man, that thou visitest him? 5For thou hast made him a little lower than the angels, and hast crowned him with glory and honour. 6Thou madest him to have dominion over the works of thy hands; thou hast put all things under his feet: 7All sheep and oxen, yea, and the beasts of the field; 8The fowl of the air, and the fish of the sea, and whatsoever passeth through the paths of the seas. 9O LORD our Lord, how excellent is thy name in all the earth!
- English Standard Version
- King James Version
1Bless the Lord, O my soul, and all that is within me, bless his holy name! 2Bless the Lord, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits, 3who forgives all your iniquity, who heals all your diseases, 4who redeems your life from the pit, who crowns you with steadfast love and mercy, 5who satisfies you with good so that your youth is renewed like the eagle's. 6The Lord works righteousness and justice for all who are oppressed. 7He made known his ways to Moses, his acts to the people of Israel. 8The Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. 9He will not always chide, nor will he keep his anger forever. 10He does not deal with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities. 11For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him; 12as far as the east is from the west, so far does he remove our transgressions from us. 13As a father shows compassion to his children, so the Lord shows compassion to those who fear him. 14For he knows our frame; he remembers that we are dust. 15As for man, his days are like grass; he flourishes like a flower of the field; 16for the wind passes over it, and it is gone, and its place knows it no more. 17But the steadfast love of the Lord is from everlasting to everlasting on those who fear him, and his righteousness to children's children, 18to those who keep his covenant and remember to do his commandments. 19The Lord has established his throne in the heavens, and his kingdom rules over all. 20Bless the Lord, O you his angels, you mighty ones who do his word, obeying the voice of his word! 21Bless the Lord, all his hosts, his ministers, who do his will! 22Bless the Lord, all his works, in all places of his dominion. Bless the Lord, O my soul!
1Bless the LORD, O my soul: and all that is within me, bless his holy name. 2Bless the LORD, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits: 3Who forgiveth all thine iniquities; who healeth all thy diseases; 4Who redeemeth thy life from destruction; who crowneth thee with lovingkindness and tender mercies; 5Who satisfieth thy mouth with good things; so that thy youth is renewed like the eagle's. 6The LORD executeth righteousness and judgment for all that are oppressed. 7He made known his ways unto Moses, his acts unto the children of Israel. 8The LORD is merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and plenteous in mercy. 9He will not always chide: neither will he keep his anger for ever. 10He hath not dealt with us after our sins; nor rewarded us according to our iniquities. 11For as the heaven is high above the earth, so great is his mercy toward them that fear him. 12As far as the east is from the west, so far hath he removed our transgressions from us. 13Like as a father pitieth his children, so the LORD pitieth them that fear him. 14For he knoweth our frame; he remembereth that we are dust. 15As for man, his days are as grass: as a flower of the field, so he flourisheth. 16For the wind passeth over it, and it is gone; and the place thereof shall know it no more. 17But the mercy of the LORD is from everlasting to everlasting upon them that fear him, and his righteousness unto children's children; 18To such as keep his covenant, and to those that remember his commandments to do them. 19The LORD hath prepared his throne in the heavens; and his kingdom ruleth over all. 20Bless the LORD, ye his angels, that excel in strength, that do his commandments, hearkening unto the voice of his word. 21Bless ye the LORD, all ye his hosts; ye ministers of his, that do his pleasure. 22Bless the LORD, all his works in all places of his dominion: bless the LORD, O my soul.
- English Standard Version
- King James Version
1Now the serpent was more crafty than any other beast of the field that the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, Did God actually say, You shall not eat of any tree in the garden? 2And the woman said to the serpent, We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden, 3but God said, You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the midst of the garden, neither shall you touch it, lest you die. 4But the serpent said to the woman, You will not surely die. 5For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil. 6So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate, and she also gave some to her husband who was with her, and he ate. 7Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked. And they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves loincloths. 8And they heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden. 9But the Lord God called to the man and said to him, Where are you? 10And he said, I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked, and I hid myself. 11He said, Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten of the tree of which I commanded you not to eat? 12The man said, The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit of the tree, and I ate. 13Then the Lord God said to the woman, What is this that you have done? The woman said, The serpent deceived me, and I ate. 14The Lord God said to the serpent, Because you have done this, cursed are you above all livestock and above all beasts of the field; on your belly you shall go, and dust you shall eat all the days of your life. 15I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel. 16To the woman he said, I will surely multiply your pain in childbearing; in pain you shall bring forth children. Your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you. 17And to Adam he said, Because you have listened to the voice of your wife and have eaten of the tree of which I commanded you, You shall not eat of it, cursed is the ground because of you; in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life; 18thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you; and you shall eat the plants of the field. 19By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread, till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for you are dust, and to dust you shall return. 20The man called his wife's name Eve, because she was the mother of all living. 21And the Lord God made for Adam and for his wife garments of skins and clothed them. 22Then the Lord God said, Behold, the man has become like one of us in knowing good and evil. Now, lest he reach out his hand and take also of the tree of life and eat, and live forever - 23therefore the Lord God sent him out from the garden of Eden to work the ground from which he was taken. 24He drove out the man, and at the east of the garden of Eden he placed the cherubim and a flaming sword that turned every way to guard the way to the tree of life.
1Now the serpent was more subtil than any beast of the field which the LORD God had made. And he said unto the woman, Yea, hath God said, Ye shall not eat of every tree of the garden? 2And the woman said unto the serpent, We may eat of the fruit of the trees of the garden: 3But of the fruit of the tree which is in the midst of the garden, God hath said, Ye shall not eat of it, neither shall ye touch it, lest ye die. 4And the serpent said unto the woman, Ye shall not surely die: 5For God doth know that in the day ye eat thereof, then your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil. 6And when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was pleasant to the eyes, and a tree to be desired to make one wise, she took of the fruit thereof, and did eat, and gave also unto her husband with her; and he did eat. 7And the eyes of them both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together, and made themselves aprons. 8And they heard the voice of the LORD God walking in the garden in the cool of the day: and Adam and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the LORD God amongst the trees of the garden. 9And the LORD God called unto Adam, and said unto him, Where art thou? 10And he said, I heard thy voice in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself. 11And he said, Who told thee that thou wast naked? Hast thou eaten of the tree, whereof I commanded thee that thou shouldest not eat? 12And the man said, The woman whom thou gavest to be with me, she gave me of the tree, and I did eat. 13And the LORD God said unto the woman, What is this that thou hast done? And the woman said, The serpent beguiled me, and I did eat. 14And the LORD God said unto the serpent, Because thou hast done this, thou art cursed above all cattle, and above every beast of the field; upon thy belly shalt thou go, and dust shalt thou eat all the days of thy life: 15And I will put enmity between thee and the woman, and between thy seed and her seed; it shall bruise thy head, and thou shalt bruise his heel. 16Unto the woman he said, I will greatly multiply thy sorrow and thy conception; in sorrow thou shalt bring forth children; and thy desire shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee. 17And unto Adam he said, Because thou hast hearkened unto the voice of thy wife, and hast eaten of the tree, of which I commanded thee, saying, Thou shalt not eat of it: cursed is the ground for thy sake; in sorrow shalt thou eat of it all the days of thy life; 18Thorns also and thistles shall it bring forth to thee; and thou shalt eat the herb of the field; 19In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return. 20And Adam called his wife's name Eve; because she was the mother of all living. 21Unto Adam also and to his wife did the LORD God make coats of skins, and clothed them. 22And the LORD God said, Behold, the man is become as one of us, to know good and evil: and now, lest he put forth his hand, and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live for ever: 23Therefore the LORD God sent him forth from the garden of Eden, to till the ground from whence he was taken. 24So he drove out the man; and he placed at the east of the garden of Eden Cherubims, and a flaming sword which turned every way, to keep the way of the tree of life.
The book of prayers and church services first put together by Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury in the time of King Edward VI (1547-53) for common (ie. general) use in English churches.
The fact that all created beings will inevitably die.
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