Ways of thinking about King Lear
There have been many different critical perspectives on King Lear, a play which defies any attempt to reach a final and definitive view. Most critics have used whatever critical techniques seem most appropriate, focusing on the precise meaning of Shakespeare’s language, the resonance of his imagery and the effects produced in performance. Contextual matters have also been very important, reading the drama against its literary, historical, social, philosophical and religious background, leading to a better understanding of Shakespeare’s intentions.
Amongst this wide diversity of approaches are the following:
approach to King Lear
would consider it to be a reflection of the political and economic structures of the society in which it was written. The focus would therefore be on Lear as a feudal lord whose concern for personal power has led either to exploitative relationships with his subjects or simply to neglect. This sort of approach would look particularly at Lear's realisation in Act 3 Scene 4 that he has taken 'too little care' of the 'poor naked wretches' in his kingdom.
Marxist criticism would also consider the way in which political and economic considerations affect relationships and the way in which Lear's sense of personal identity is dependent upon possessions, such as the number of knights he must keep after his abdication.
The feminist approach
approach to the play would look at the way in which male attitudes to women have shaped the depiction of female characters and how they behave in the drama. Society in Shakespeare's day was male-dominated (a patriarchy
). Girls were seen as 'belonging' to their fathers before they became the responsibility/possession of their husbands. Queen Elizabeth was very much an exception in a world which generally denied political and economic power to women.
A feminist view of King Lear would consider Lear's attitudes to his three daughters, focusing on the way his expectations of them are different to a father's expectations of sons. The approach would also be interested in how male attitudes towards women influence the behaviour of Lear's daughters. Have years of repression, for instance, led Goneril and Regan ruthlessly to seize power when their father gives them the opportunity? Are they cruel or are they redressing the balance, asserting themselves in a world otherwise ruled by men?
Feminists would also focus on why Lear should curse Goneril and Regan by wishing infertility upon them, and indeed the play contains many examples of male disgust at female sexuality. There are no mothers in the play and little evidence of ‘nurturing’ female/male bonds (the King of France is off-stage after the first scene of the play).
The psychoanalytic critical approach is heavily influenced by the writings of Sigmund Freud
. The approach focuses on characters' motivation, in particular investigating 'hidden' desires, fears etc. which may be in conflict with explicitly acknowledged feelings. In King Lear
this approach bears fruit when it considers how living with an unreasonably demanding father may affect his children's attitudes and state of mind. It might consider the effect of the absence of a mother in both the Lear story and the Gloucester subplot, as well as the psychological effect of Edmund being born out of wedlock.
The political theories of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engles, which were developed to form the basis for Communist theories.
a movement to promote the rights of women; a feminist works to promote the cause of women
subject to the rule of a patriarch or father
the founder of modern psychoanalysis