In this lesson, our instructor Rebekah Hendershot teaches King Lear. Youll go over the complete background of the play, the setting, and the characters. Rebekah explains each character in detail, including King Lear, Goneril, Regan, Cordelia, the Earl of Kent, the Fool, Oswald and everyone in between. Youll learn each element of the plot from Cordelias disinheritance to the tragic finale. Themes, major passages, and essay topic jumping-off points are also discussed. With Rebekah youll discuss topics such as natures role in the play and the purpose of the Fool. The lesson concludes with a few secrets to make understanding Shakespeare a lot easier.
This lesson will teach you how to read and understand a play by William Shakespeare, one of the greatest playwrights in the history of the English language (and the man who invented quite a lot of it).
These videos are not a substitute for reading Shakespeare, listening to Shakespeare, or watching Shakespeare performed.
Seriously. Don’t be that guy.
Written 1603—1606, later revised
Taken from the legend of Leir of Britain
Shakespeare added the deaths of Cordelia and Lear
Published in 1608, 1619, 1623 (revised, “theatrical” version)
Lear is growing old and wants to “retire” from kingship
Dividing the kingdom
One daughter still unmarried
Lear—Elderly (and slightly foolish) King of Britain
Goneril—Lear’s scheming eldest daughter, married to Duke of Albany
Regan—Lear’s second daughter, married to Duke of Cornwall
Cordelia—Lear’s faithful youngest daughter, who becomes engaged to the King of France
Earl of Kent—Lear’s faithful retainer who disguises himself as the servant Caius
Dukes of Albany and Cornwall—The elder daughters’ husbands
Oswald—Steward of Goneril
Earl of Gloucester—One of Lear’s retainers
Edgar/Poor Tom—Son of Gloucester
Edmund—Illegitimate son of Gloucester, who plots to kill his brother and have his father overthrown
Edgar gives Albany a letter; Regan and Goneril fight over Edmund; Edmund schemes
Battle; Lear and Cordelia captured
Edgar saves Gloucester again
Lear and Cordelia sent away; Edmund lies
Edgar vs. Edmund; Albany reveals Goneril’s treachery
Edgar reveals himself; Goneril and Regan die
Lear weeps over Cordelia; Edmund dies; Lear dies
Kent dying; Edgar ascends
Nature and what is “natural”
Filial piety (and the lack thereof)
Order vs. Chaos
“Unhappy that I am, I cannot heave My heart into my mouth. I love your majesty According to my bond; no more nor less.”
-Act I, Scene 1, 90-92
“Thou, nature, art my goddess; to thy law My services are bound…. … Now, gods, stand up for bastards!”
-Act I, Scene 2, 1-22
“As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods; They kill us for their sport.”
-Act IV, Scene 1, 37-38
“Howl, howl, howl, howl! O, you are men of stones: Had I your tongues and eyes, I’d use them so That heaven’s vault should crack. She’s gone forever! I know when one is dead, and when one lives; She’s dead as earth.”
-Act V, Scene 3, 256-260
How does nature play a role in this play? How do the various characters define what is and is not “natural”? Look in particular at Edmund’s “nature,” a chaotic world in which a bastard can rise to power, and Lear’s “nature”, an orderly one in which children would obey and honor their parents.
Several characters begin as either sympathetic or unsympathetic and then change sides. How do our perceptions of Lear, Albany, Gloucester, and Edmund shift throughout the story?
Compare the relationship between Cordelia and Lear to the relationship between Edgar and Gloucester. Compare Goneril and Regan to Edmund.
What purpose does the Fool serve in the story? Why does he vanish? How does Edgar take on his role, and why does Shakespeare make this shift?
This story begins with the specter of old age—Lear is retiring from kingship because he wants to prepare for death. What role does age play in this story? Consider its effects on Lear, Gloucester, and Kent, and look at real age-related conditions like dementia and Alzheimer’s.
Examine the dissolution of authority in this play as the story devolves toward the battle.
In the original legend, Lear was restored to the throne and Cordelia became queen after him. Why do you think Shakespeare changed the ending? What purpose does it serve?
The Secret of Understanding Shakespeare
Watch it performed (or on film if you can’t get to a theatrical production). All of Shakespeare makes more sense when it’s spoken by actors who have lived his words and know, bone-deep, what he’s talking about. Never underestimate the power of performance. Remember that this is how Shakespeare meant his work to be seen …
Lecture Slides are screen-captured images of important points in the lecture. Students can download and print out these lecture slide images to do practice problems as well as take notes while watching the lecture.
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