King Lear Notes Themes in general



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King Lear Notes
Themes in general:
Madness:

  • Shakespeare felt that a suffering of mental disturbance could transform a characters’ view on themselves – madness being a catalyst of beneficial change. Thus, his tragedies offered a more sombre perspective on the effects of madness, but its outcome is of clearer perceptions.




  • Madness is most evident in Lear – his mind tormented and unsettled by his experience.

    • Natural human madness – tempests in nature mirror the pandemonium that Lear endures.

    • Abdication of his power and division of his kingdom would be seen as political mad in Shakespeare’s context.




  • Lear’s madness is that of a selfish, autocratic old man whose will is thwarted. His moral blindness, misjudgements and lack of understanding of himself and others leads to his breakdown.

Oh Fool, I shall go mad”
Lear's development takes him from blindness and arrogance, through madness and suffering, to insight and acceptance. Shakespeare seems to be suggesting the ironical notion that to acquire a balanced perspective in a mad world, one must go mad and be stripped of all royal pretensions. But through Lear's madness, he is able to live like Poor Tom, a beggar, and witness the true hardship of the poverty-stricken. So it is only through madness that

Lear gains insight into his society.


Lear’s decent into madness:

  1. Bizarre love test → banishes Kent and disowns Cordelia

  2. Insanity is undermined by obsession with filial ingratitude from his daughters. Lear rants impotently about revenge to Regan and Gonerill’s alliance as they isolate their father and his band of Knights.

  3. Rages in the storm calling for destruction.

He rips of his clothes “Off you landings” and begins to hallucinate devilish spirits.

Most obvious change in heart “Seek their ease” ← shows that he has become receptive of others suffering.



  1. Language combines sexual loathing with hallucinations about hell and domination “And when I have stoln’ upo these son in laws / then kill, kill, kill, kill, kill, kill

  2. The cruel murder of Cordelia threatens Lear’s wits once more “howl, howl, howl”.

Lear’s decent into madness helps him to a true understanding of the love which Cordelia has for him. Lear is healed by Cordelia’s unconditional love → intensifying his agony and grief at her death → threatening Lear’s sanity again.



Justice – subversion of monarchical power that leads to the political and psychological demise of the protagonist


  • The subversion of monarchial power regards upsetting the values instilled in the Elizabethan context.




  • Hierarchy, in its basic sense, is highly valued in Elizabethan society - there's political, gendered and familial hierarchy.




  • The context of Shakespeare was firmly rooted in political and social conditions of Elizabethan and Jacobean England – where there was a divine right in the kingdom. Clearly, the play indicates that the Elizabethan society values the monarchy → seen in Kent, since he continues to return to the Lear world even though he knows Lear has made a terrible error.




  • But when Lear chooses to abdicate the throne, he is destabilising the society because he is subverting the political hierarchy - not acting in accordance with the societal expectations. With this subversion comes consequence - he is punished for not fulfilling his duty as king and monarch → The divine right of justice entails that he be punished for his behavioural deviation.




  • However, Lear - despite all efforts to undertake penance, he receives the ultimate punishment - not only death of his most loved one, but himself. To Shakespeare’s contemporaries, King Lear was a play about how NOT to rule a kingdom.


Family relationships – subversion of hierarchy within family dictated by power and property
First scene: Lear has torn his family apart with the bizarre “love test”

  • reflects his inability to understand and value family

  • His absurd and insensitive command produces glib and exaggerated statements from Gonerill and Regan. Lear is angered and humiliated by Cordelia’s refusal to participate because she loves him “according to bond/ no more no less”

In the second scene Edmund reveals the plot against his brother, which will ultimately destroy his family → parallel plot.


Lear divides the kingdom between Gonerill and Regan → making him vulnerable. Only respect and love will protect him once he has give up his power, which is why Cordelia and Kent fear that they do not love him or respect Lear enough for him to be safe with them. (Children taking over the family hierarchy as they control the kingdom i.e. power and property)
In the Elizabethan context the family was an economic unit, allowing generations to build on the success of the previous one through inheritance of property and power.

It is inheritance that generates great resentment in some children → in that the children must wait the death of their parents before acquiring the family wealth.


The fracturing bonds between father and children mirror the terrible storm in nature, and the breakdown of the society itself.
Marxist perspective, the daughters represent an emerging philosophy based on individual ambition. Although the daughters are a part of the aristocracy, they fit in the Marxist philosophy for the land is no longer innate; rather, it is ascribed from market exchange in the barter for expressions of love

Which of you shall we say doth love us most?’

Cordelia’s rebellion

I love your majesty according to bond/ no more nor less’

attempts to reassert aristocratic ideals, where dowries should be of custom, yet Lear’s

Nothing will come for nothing’

further shows the that value is no longer inherent → power derived from property ultimately destroys the family relationship.

The new Marxist market system disregards family bond because ones value comes from external valuation. Hence, Cordelia symbolises the changing nature of the aristocracy in a world created by the new class. Burgandy fails to see Cordelia as a good bargain because she no longer has a dowry,



“I crave no more than hath your highness offered”
Role of women – subversion of gendered expectations


  • In traditional interpretations, the women characters in the play are aligned along a 'good-evil' continuum. Cordelia = good, Regan + Gonerill = evil




  • Although all three daughters play authoritative roles in preparation for battle in the final scenes, it is Albany and Edmund that lead the British army – not Goneril or Regan. Cordelia acts as commander in chief of the French army, but it is power that has been invested with the authority of her husband. In this sense, King Lear is a perpetuation of patriarchal power and sexual inequality → Elizabethan context.




  • One of the final scenes has Lear mentions how Cordelia had a ‘soft voice’, via these scenes the values of the Elizabethan audience are pertinent in the sense that women are being of lower status → Feminists view this as sexist.




  • Regan and Gonerill are seen as evil partly because they become drunk with power and fail to fulfil filial duties. As their confidence grows, they adopt masculine characteristics - boss husbands around, direct orders and in general become less 'feminine'.




  • Gonerill and Regan change their behaviour from the accolades of love in the opening scene,

“Sir, I love you more than word can wield the matter / dearer than eyesight, space and liberty”

to the,


“Aged tyranny”

nearing the end of the play. In a sense, Gonerill and Regan begin to act like men; they do this because the play portrays a patriarchal society, men having power and domination. Thus, when Gonerill and Regan are the instigators, they begin to dominate – being a subversion of gendered order.




  • Thus, the feminist interpretation sees this portrayal of Goneril and Regan as sexist, as Shakespeare must revert to illustrating the two daughters as masculine and ‘unnatural’. Goneril being described as a ‘detested kite’ whose ingratitude is ‘Sharper than a serpent’s tooth’ and her face being ‘wolvish’ qualities and a serpent like ’tongue ‘. Herself being ‘a disease that’s in my (Lear’s) flesh’ – reinforcing the prejudice against women.


Productions & Scenes:
Stuart McDowell – The History of King Lear (Nahum Tate rewrite 1681) 1994
Tate’s version had lost textual integrity because of its divergence from neoclassicist formal prescriptions that were in Shakespeare’s original. Although it did last for 200 years, it was later rejected because it was not dynamic to contemporary audiences changing preferences.
Opening Scene: (Act 1 sc. i)
Techniques:

This production papers over complex acting issues with plot summaries projected onto screens.

Tate’s version allows for audiences to clearly identify antagonist and protagonist because of a more liberal use of asides – allowing audiences to easily follow storyline.

Plot Omissions: No king of France, instead, Cordelia tempts her father to leave her dowerless in order for Burgandy to refuse her – leaving Edgar and Cordelia to fall in love.

Costuming: Silk, lace, frills, sashes, petticoats, tiaras & elbow length gloves – epitome of Romanticist era.

Dialogue: lines are delivered passively and the body language is smooth and flowing. Goneril and Regan’s movements contrast to traditional Shakespearean representations of the two daughters.
Effect of techniques and values presented (in new context) + perspectives:


  • Techniques employed by McDowell have been used to enhance the exaggerated statements made by the two daughters. This is juxtaposed with actions that follow in the play and the audience is made aware of the callousness of Goneril and Regan through the emphasis.

  • Removing the king of France and instigating the love story is complemented with the costuming worn by the Aristocracy envisaged by Tate – heavily reflecting the influence of the Romantic Era.

  • Family relationships and the subversion of hierarchy within family dictated by power and property is a value that is evident in this scene because of the bizarre love test that he puts his children under. However, this does not seem to be as prevalent as other productions since McDowell, like Tate, finds significance in the theme of love and the bond of a family.

  • Contemporarily, feminists may take this interpretation of Lear as being sexist, since it portrays women being submissive to the dominating prowess of male figures in the Romantic context.

Marxist perspective, the daughters represent an emerging philosophy based on individual ambition. Although the daughters are a part of the aristocracy, they fit in the Marxist philosophy for the land is no longer innate; rather, it is ascribed from market exchange in the barter for expressions of love

Which of you shall we say doth love us most?’

Cordelia’s rebellion

I love your majesty according to bond/ no more nor less’

attempts to reassert aristocratic ideals, where dowries should be of custom, yet Lear’s

Nothing will come for nothing’

further shows the that value is no longer inherent → power derived from property ultimately destroys the family relationship.

The new Marxist market system disregards family bond because ones value comes from external valuation. Hence, Cordelia symbolises the changing nature of the aristocracy in a world created by the new class. Burgandy fails to see Cordelia as a good bargain because she no longer has a dowry,



“I crave no more than hath your highness offered”
Storm Scene: (Act 3 sc. iv)
Techniques:

McDowell deviates a great deal from the original in this scene.



  • Characterisation: Only the extremities of Lear’s state (sanity, madness and redemption) are shown – yet transitory states of mind are taken out. Thus, his madness is emphasised, yet simultaneously incongruous because there is no build up.

  • Audio: there is no actual sound effects in regards to a storm, rather, it is dead silent where only a love verse can be heard playing in the background → typifying the Romantic Era and the audiences inability to deal with tragedy.

  • Lighting: the lights rhythmically flicker on stage to signify that the storm is around; Lear clutches his head → drawing the parallel between the chaos in his mind and the environment surrounding him.

  • Costumes: clothes are ragged and have lost royal symbolism → exemplifying Lear being stripped of all his royal pretensions and his decent into madness.

  • Lear clutches onto Poor Tom, representing his regained understanding of people and regained clarity into the consequences of his own actions.


Effect of techniques and values presented (in new context) + perspectives:

Techniques seemingly aim to emphasise Lear’s madness, and can be correlated to the theme of justice. It is evident that this scene is the repercussion of his foolish actions of dividing the kingdom. This is Lear’s punishment for not fulfilling his duty as the monarch, and thus the divine right of justice entails that he must be punished for this deviation – as delineated by the Elizabethan context.

Modern context: can be interpreted as an absurd tragedy. The silenced storm scene revokes the Aristotelian tragedy as Lear’s madness is not fully demonstrated. May seem absurd to us because the extremities of human cruelty which McDowell glossed over have become everyday realities.

Megan Finlay – CUT Theatre Production (2002)


Opening Scene: (Act 1 sc. i)
Techniques used:

Mixed Media form: Images projected onto the back of the set, which is all white, allowing

Costume: White → stark and bear, exemplifying the cold and disillusioned Lear world.

Music: Modern orchestral music, sense of ceremony and royalty.

Lighting: Floodlights light the background, highlighting all characters. Giving all characters equal weighting, thus all have importance.

Choreography: When Lear demands expressions of love, daughters are lined in front of him, similar to a judge and perpetrators to a crime.

Dialogue:

Lear: royalty and narcissistic tone.

Regan and Gonerill: exaggerated and melodramatise – but toned down relative to

other productions.



Cordelia: uncomfortably and straightforwardly ‘nothing’.
Effect of techniques and values presented (in new context):

  • The speeches of Goneril and Regan are toned down, reasonable and logical.

  • Structure highlights Lear’s mistreatment of his daughters; thus the actions of abandoning him are justified.

  • Values presented demonstrate the influence of context and ideologies of the director following women’s liberation – as dealt with by the feminist perspective.

  • Removal of animal imagery contrasts to Shakespeare’s reversion to illustrating the two daughters as masculine and ‘unnatural’. In the original Goneril was described as a ‘detested kite whose ingratitude is ‘Sharper than a serpent’s tooth’ and her face being ‘wolvish’.


Storm Scene: (Act 3 sc. iv)
Techniques used:

Visual: Electrostatic images presented on the back of the stage - symbolising pandemonium in both nature and Lear’s mind.

Lighting: no light at the beginning of the scene, but as the scene progresses light is amplified, signifying the knowledge he has progressively regathered.

Music: heavy metal music combined with sounds of a fearsome storm brewing and creating havoc. Sets tone and atmosphere.

Choreography: Lear and Kent (because the fool is omitted) are predominantly on the floor in this scene – symbolising their weakness against nature. As the scene progresses, Lear begins to stand and find his feet – indicative of his regain of control and the insight he has gathered after being enlightened from the mayhem on the heath.

Effect of techniques and values presented (in new context):

  • Fool has been omitted → Finlay feels that his lines have outdated and that they are not humorous in the modern context. The obscurity and dullness of his lines are not receptive by modern audiences.

  • Omission of the Fool will allow the narrative to be placed to the forefront, thus emphasising Lear’s descent into madness. Clearly, this emphasises the Aristotelian interpretation whereby Lear, who is over higher social status, suffers a catastrophe and eventually recognises his appalling state of affairs → crux of Aristotelian tragedy.


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