King Lear and the book of Job

 Many scholars have pointed to the biblical book of Job (pronounced ‘Jobe’) as one of Shakespeare’s possible sources for King Lear. Both are about suffering and both present forms of ‘patience’, that is, the ability to accept or tolerate suffering and the capacity to learn from it.

The story of Job

The book of Job, image available through Creative CommonsJob is described in the Bible as ‘an upright man’ from the land of Uz. His steadfast refusal to abandon God whilst faced by many serious misfortunes seems to represent the problem of human suffering.
Job’s afflictions come upon him as the result of a debate between God and Satan as to whether Job’s faith is strong enough to withstand adversity. Satan is allowed to put Job to the test, but not to kill him. Initially Job’s livestock is stolen and destroyed and his servants all killed. Then his children die in a hurricane which razes their house to the ground. Finally Job himself is covered in boils from head to foot. Only after much soul-searching, and weathering the advice of some unhelpful friends (Job's comforters), is Job restored to health and prosperity in recompense for his patience and loyalty to God.


The character of Job would have been familiar to Shakespeare’s original audience not only from the Bible story but also from church paintings, in which he was commonly represented as being an old man, generally naked apart from a loin cloth. When Lear casts off his clothes in the storm, it is likely that many people watching would have been reminded of Job.

How the stories compare


  • Both stories begin with a ‘love-test’, in which the love of a faithful subject is tested in order to prove their loyalty. In the Bible God allows Job to be tested in order to demonstrate the strength of his faith. In King Lear the King tests his daughters in order to demonstrate the strength of their affection
  • Both Lear and Job are reduced from high status and prosperity to the lowest condition of man. They lose everything: their homes, their possessions, their family
  • Stripped of everything, both men are vulnerable to forces they cannot control
  • Both characters feel abandoned, Job by God and Lear by ‘the gods’
  • As their suffering increases so too does their power to express their sense of loss and abandonment in words
  • Having lost everything, both men are reduced to their central confidence that eventually they will be able to make sense of what has happened to them.


  • Both Job and King Lear are about suffering and the way in which this leads to greater insight into the human condition
  • Just as Lear’s punishments can be seen as seriously disproportionate to his errors of judgement, so Job does not ‘deserve’ the misfortunes which Satan inflicts on him
  • As their suffering increases, both men grow in wisdom and humility
  • Both stories raise profound questions about what it is to be human and about the relationship between humans and the divine
  • Both Job and Lear question the justice of their afflictions.


The words of Job find many echoes in the events of King Lear
  • Regan and Cornwall’s treatment of the King and Edgar reflects Job’s complaint about unscrupulous people:
      They thrust the needy from the path 
  and force all the poor of the land into hiding. (Job 24:4)     
  • In the storm, Lear’s act of stripping off his clothes and Poor Tom’s lack of warmth, echo Job’s awareness that nakedness is the essential state of humanity: 
      Job  … said: ‘Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked I will depart.’                               Job 1:20-21     
and his pity for the poor: 
      Lacking clothes, they spend the night naked; they have nothing to cover themselves in the cold.         (Job 24:7)    
  • Similarly Lear’s exposure to the ‘pelting rain’ and the cave-like hovel in which Poor Tom hides, recall Job’s description of the destitute:
      They are drenched by mountain rains and hug the rocks for lack of shelter.                                               (Job 24:8)    

Contrasting fates

One major difference between the two stories is that Job is eventually rewarded with long life and renewed prosperity, whilst Lear dies. Job has learned the lesson that life’s highest purpose is to love God. Lear dies with no such certainty.
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