Study Guide

King Lear Analysis

  • Tone

    Bleak

    'Nuff said.

    King Lear is a dark play, and its tone reflects this. The powerful language of Lear's cursing of his daughters defines the play, and as Lear goes mad, he begins to curse the entire social world and the entire universe, even:

    Rumble thy bellyful! Spit, fire! spout, rain!
    Nor rain, wind, thunder, fire are my daughters.
    I tax not you, you elements, with unkindness.
    I never gave you kingdom, called you children;
    You owe me no subscription. Then let fall
    Your horrible pleasure. Here I stand, your slave,
    A poor, infirm, weak, and despised old man.
    But yet I call you servile ministers,
    That have with two pernicious daughters join
    Your high-engendered battles 'gainst a head
    So old and white as this. O, ho, 'tis foul!
    (3.2.16-26)

    This language of rage mixes with the language of madness, reflected in both Lear's speeches and in Edgar's fake mad ramblings as Poor Tom the insane beggar. Lear's crazy rants against the human abuse of justice and power are so brilliant they lift the tone of his later scenes to pure philosophy.

    The language of nihilism also reverberates through the play, from Cordelia's first refusal to say anything but "nothing," to Lear's final cry of grief that his daughter will never breathe again. "Never, never, never, never, never," Lear cries out, in what some critics call the bleakest line of iambic pentameter ever written.

  • Genre

    Tragedy

    Like Hamlet and Macbeth, King Lear is a tragedy, which is a genre that has some basic rules and conventions. What are these basic rules and conventions, you ask? Let's take a look at our nifty checklist and find out.

    Dramatic work: Check. King Lear is most definitely a play.

    Serious or somber theme: Check. Lear isn't referred to as one of the "bleakest" plays in the English language for nothing. The end of the play especially (when Cordelia dies) is so depressing and hopeless that some scholars have argued that Lear is actually an absurdist play (like Beckett's Endgame or Waiting for Godot), a play which demonstrates that human life and suffering are ultimately meaningless.

    Hero's got a major flaw of character or conflict with some overpowering force: Hmm. Let's see. King Lear exercises a serious lack of good judgment at the play's beginning, which causes his entire world to fall apart, so check. His decision to divvy up his kingdom among his daughters so he can enjoy an early retirement is disastrous and brings about a civil war. 

    Then, when Lear stages a love test to determine who loves him the most, he's under the impression that words have more meaning than they actually do. Lear's also not so good at detecting lies—he actually believes Goneril and Regan when they lie about how much they love him. In other words, Lear's lack of good judgment is sounding like a serious character flaw to us.

    Hero is destined for destruction and downfall: Checkity check check. As we've said, Lear's poor decision making (dividing up the kingdom, taking an early retirement, and banishing Cordelia) has some terrible consequences that bring about Lear's downfall. But, we also want to say that King Lear just can't seem to catch a break—it often seems that no matter what Lear does, his downfall is unavoidable. 

    Lear (and many other characters) come to realize that his misery is inevitable—in the play, the gods (or some other divine being) are either absent or, they just don't care about human suffering. 

    Shakespearean tragedies always end in death... but usually with some promise of continuity: Not all tragedies end in death but all of Shakespeare's tragedies do. 

    At the end of King Lear, Edgar stabs his brother Edmund, Goneril poisons her sister Regan, Gloucester has a heart attack and dies, Cordelia is murdered by Edmund's henchman, and Lear dies of a broken heart. 

    Despite all the human carnage that typifies Shakespearean tragedy, Big Willy Shakespeare usually throws the audience a bone so they don't leave the theater feeling hopelessly depressed. (At the end of Hamlet, for instance, Prince Fortinbras is left with the task of taking over the throne of Denmark and Horatio promises he will live to tell Hamlet's story.) In the case of King Lear, however, it's not entirely clear that there's any hope at all for the future... which we talk about in "What's Up With the Ending?" 

  • What's Up With the Title?

    There's a king and his name is Lear… and half of the other people in the play are related to him. Basically, he's a big deal.

    Brain Snack: If you've ever gone digging around in Shakespeare archives, you may have noticed that there are two printed versions of Lear—the 1608 Quarto, entitled True Chronicle Historie of the life and death of King Lear and his three Daughters and the 1623 Folio, entitled The Tragedy of King Lear

    Many critics believe that the 1608 Quarto is Shakespeare's first version of the play and that the 1623 Folio (which includes some substantial revisions) may have been put together by a group of actors. Some modern editions of the play (like the Norton Shakespeare) offer a "conflated" version, which just means the modern editors have shmooshed both versions of the play together to form one big "conflated" play. (Yep, that makes for one very lengthy read. Lucky for you we break down the "conflated" version of the play in our "Summary.")

  • What's Up With the Ending?

    This is actually a trick question, Shmoopers. The real question is "What's Up With The Endings." Yup, there are two of 'em. Does that mean double the reading, double the fun?

    Luckily for you, not really.

    There are two different versions of the play (three if you count the "conflated" text, which shmooshes the two versions together into one big, long play.) In the First Folio edition (the collected works of Shakespeare published in 1623), Lear dies thinking that Cordelia is dead and Albany gets to speak the final lines of the play. In the First Quarto edition of Lear (printed in 1608), Edgar (not Albany) delivers the final lines and Lear dies believing that Cordelia is alive.

    Here's what you need to know: in all versions of the play, Lear's entire family winds up dead. What? You expected something else? This is a tragedy we're talking about... and all of Shakespeare's tragedies end in death. That said, Shakespeare is usually pretty good about giving the audience some glimmer of hope at the end. But, the thing about King Lear is that Shakespeare refuses to offer any kind of light at the end of the tunnel, which is why Lear is considered to be one of the most depressing tragedies ever written.

    Give Shakespeare a gold medal! Most depressing, wooo!

    With Lear's entire family wiped out, the kingdom needs a ruler but, nobody really seems to want the job. After just about everybody dies, Albany turns to Kent and Edgar and says they must rule what's left of the kingdom together, but Kent insists that he can't, as his "master" has called him on a "journey" (5.3.390, 391). 

    Kent's "master" is King Lear, who is now dead, so we're left to assume that Kent plans to commit suicide. Edgar follows this up by claiming: "we that are young / shall never see so much nor live so long" as the previous generation (5.3.394-395). 

    In other words, the survivors of this tragedy don't seem to have much hope for the future. After the terrible loss of so many, there doesn't seem to be any way to carry on. A sad trombone noise doesn't even begin to cover how bleak this is.

  • Setting

    Ancient, Pre-Christian Britain

    This isn't set in a galaxy far, far away... but it is set a long, long time ago.

    Lear is set in super-ancient, pre-Christian Britain. (But there are some Christian themes in the play. Check out our theme discussion of "Justice" for more on this.) You'll notice a lot of action in castles. All these palace scenes suggest a certain sense of order and elegance, a sense which we soon discover to be false. 

    Things may look courtly and refined, but in fact Lear's retirement leaves a power vacuum—the Earl of Gloucester is unseated by his own son, Regan takes over Gloucester's castle, there's potential civil war, oh yeah, and France is invading.

    The one setting where we do see the reality of this chaos is on the heath, where a homeless King Lear wanders during a violent thunder storm. We talk about the significance of this setting in "Symbols," so be sure to check it out.

  • Tough-o-Meter

    (7) Snow Line

    We're not gonna lie, getting the hang of reading Elizabethan English can be a little rough at first. Once you've got the hang of Big Willy Shakespeare's language, though, reading Lear is a piece of cake. A very, very depressing piece of cake.

  • Writing Style

    Verse in Iambic Pentameter and Prose

    King Lear, like Shakespeare's other plays, is written in a combination of verse (poetry) and prose (how we talk every day). (Note: The play Richard II is the one exception to this rule—it's the only Shakespeare play written entirely in verse.)

    Verse

    Reading King Lear often feels like reading a very lengthy poem... and that's because Shakespeare's characters often speak in verse. Also, it's incredibly beautiful and difficult.

    But we digress!

    What kind of verse do they speak? Well, the nobles typically speak in unrhymed "iambic pentameter" (also called "blank verse"). Don't let the fancy names intimidate you—it's pretty simple once you get the hang of it. Let's start with a definition of iambic pentameter:

    An "iamb" is an unaccented syllable followed by an accented one. "Penta" means "five," and "meter" refers to a regular rhythmic pattern. So "iambic pentameter" is a kind of rhythmic pattern that consist of five iambs per line. It's the most common rhythm in English poetry and sounds like five heartbeats: ba-DUM, ba-DUM, ba-DUM, ba-DUM, ba-DUM.

    Let's try it out on this line from King Lear:

    since NOW we WILL diVEST us BOTH of RULE (1.1.54)

    Every second syllable is accented, so this is classic iambic pentameter. When the lines have no rhyme scheme, we call it "Unrhymed Iambic Pentameter," which is also known as "Blank Verse."

    Blank verse, as we've said, is typically reserved for the nobility and other important characters since it's kind of a formal way to speak. In the first half of the play, King Lear speaks almost entirely in blank verse, which is befitting of his social station as Mr. King.

    Prose

    Not everyone in the play speaks in blank verse, which we've established is an elegant, high-class way of talking. In Shakespeare's play's, characters lower on the social scale don't talk in a special poetic rhythm; they just talk.

    In King Lear, it's worth noting that that prose speech is often a sign of madness. When Lear goes insane, he often rants in prose and then switches back to eloquent blank verse, which alerts the audience to the fact that Lear is losing his mind. 

    Rumble thy bellyful! Spit, fire! Spout, rain!
    Nor rain, wind, thunder, fire are my daughters.
    I tax not you, you elements, with unkindness.
    I never gave you kingdom, called you children;
    You owe me no subscription. Then let fall
    Your horrible pleasure. Here I stand, your slave,
    A poor, infirm, weak, and despised old man.
    But yet I call you servile ministers,
    That have with two pernicious daughters join
    Your high-engendered battles 'gainst a head
    So old and white as this. O, ho, 'tis foul!
    (3.2.16-26)

    Yup. That sounds pretty nuts to us.

    (Psst. You might want to compare Lear's prose rants to what happens to Ophelia in Hamlet. When Ophelia goes mad, she speaks prose and also communicates through song.)

  • Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory

    Vision and Blindness

    We're just going to put this out there right now: any play/novel/story of some sort that features a character getting blinded is also probably saying something about metaphorical blindness. In King Lear, there's a whole lot of talk about literal vision and metaphorical blindness, especially when it comes to fathers "seeing" their children for who they really are.

    When Lear mistakenly believes that Cordelia is disloyal and orders her "out of [his] sight," his pal, Kent, gives him the following advice: "See better, Lear" (1.1.158). In other words, Kent implies that Lear is "blind" to the fact Cordelia is the "good" daughter while Goneril and Regan are a couple of evil spawn. We can take this a step further by saying that the root of all Lear's problems is his lack of good judgment – he foolishly divides his kingdom, stages a silly love test to determine which daughter cares for him the most, etc.

    Gloucester is equally "blind" when it comes to telling the difference between his "good" son (that would be Edgar) and his bad offspring (that would be Edmund) – Gloucester can't tell that Edmund has manipulated him into believing Edgar wants him dead. Later, Gloucester doesn't even recognize his son Edgar, who has disguised himself as "Poor Tom" the beggar. You can guess where Shakespeare is headed, right? Eventually, Gloucester's eyeballs are plucked out, making his literal blindness symbolic of his inability to "see" the truth about his children.

    Lear's Crown

    Typically, monarchs wear gleaming crowns atop their heads for one reason – because crowns are a visual symbol of power. In King Lear, Shakespeare often associates crowns with a loss of power and the king's deteriorating mindset. Let's think about this for a moment.

    At the beginning of the play, Lear's Fool makes an interesting joke about the king's "crown" after Lear decides to give his kingdom to his evil daughters: "When thou clovest thy / crown i' the middle and gavest away both parts, thou […] hadst little wit in / bald crown […]" (1.4.157-160). In other words, the Fool implies that once Lear divided ("clovest") his power (which was like cutting his "crown" down the middle into two parts) among his two daughters, he exercised poor judgment in his head ("bald crown"). Of course, the Fool is playing on the dual meaning of "crown" (a head or, the thing a king wears on top of his head) in order to demonstrate that Lear's decision to give up his crown and divide his power reflects an unstable mind.

    The idea that there's a relationship between Lear's crown, his lack of power, and his state of mind shows up again later in the play. In Act 4, Scene 6, Lear enters the stage wearing a "crown" of wildflowers atop his head instead of a proper crown made of precious metals and gems. Here, Shakespeare emphasizes Lear's complete and utter loss of power, as Lear has long since divided up his kingdom among his daughters and has been stripped of all his authority. The "crown" of wildflowers also signifies Lear's deteriorated mental state and complete descent into madness – the idea being that what Lear wears on top of his head (wildflowers) is an accurate indication of what's going on inside Lear's head.

    Diseased Bodies

    There sure are a lot of references to sick bodies and body parts in King Lear, wouldn't you say? We're especially interested in the way Lear talks about his evil daughters, Goneril and Regan, as though they are some kind of venereal disease that plagues Lear's body. Check out what Lear says to Regan after she boots him out of her palace:

    We'll no more meet, no more see one another:
    But yet thou art my flesh, my blood, my daughter;
    Or rather a disease that's in my flesh,
    Which I must needs call mine: thou art a boil,
    A plague-sore, an embossed carbuncle,
    In my corrupted blood.
    (2.4.215-220)

    When Lear goes off on Goneril, he insists she's more like a "disease that's in [his] flesh" than a daughter (his "flesh and blood"). Goneril, he says, is "a boil, a plague-sore," a nasty little "carbuncle" and so on. (In other words, Goneril, whose name sounds a lot like "gonorrhea," is kind of like a venereal disease.) OK, Lear's really good at insults this is a pretty elaborate way for Lear to tell Goneril that she makes him sick. But, what else are we to make of all this nasty talk? On the one hand, this passage is in keeping with just about everything else Lear says about women (especially Goneril and Regan) – Lear frequently associates women with sexual promiscuity and pretty much blames all the problems in the world on the ladies, which we talk about in more detail in our theme on "Gender."

    Yet, there's also something else going on here and it's a bit more complex. In Shakespeare's day, the human body was often used as a metaphor for a kingdom. In Shakespeare's Henry IV Part 2, for example, the kingdom of Henry IV (who is literally ill) is imagined as a human body wracked with disease, which turns out to be an appropriate metaphor for a commonwealth that's been plagued by civil rebellion and turmoil. Something similar is at work in King Lear. When Lear imagines that his body is diseased, we can't help but notice that his kingdom is also not doing so well. After all, it's just been hacked up into pieces by Lear and, with Goneril and Regan (and their spouses) now in charge, it's quickly becoming a corrupt place. What's more, civil war (not to mention a war with France) is on the horizon. In King Lear's mind, the corruption of his kingdom is caused by Goneril and Regan so, it's not so surprising that he refers to Goneril (in the passage above) as a "plague-sore."

    History Snack: The kingdom/body metaphor was so popular, in fact, that King James I of England (a.k.a. King James VI of Scotland) used it to describe his duties as king. Here's a sampling of what King James says in The Trew Law of Free Monarchies (1598):

    And the proper office of a king towards his subjects agrees very well with the office of the head towards the body and all members thereof, for from the head, being the seat of judgment, proceeds the care and foresight of guiding, and preventing all evil that may come to the body and any part thereof. The head cares for the body: so does the king for his people. […] in case any of them be affected with infirmity [the head/king] must cut care and provide for their remedy, in case it be curable, and, if otherwise, gar cut them off for fear of infecting of the rest, even so it is betwixt the prince and his people.

    The Storm on the Heath

    In Act 3, Lear rushes from a fight with his daughters into a raging thunderstorm. It's going to be no surprise to you to hear that the combination of thunder and lightning is pretty much what's going on inside Lear's mind, from his fury at his daughters to his impending madness. At one point, Lear admits there's a "tempest in [his] mind" that's not unlike the storm that rages on the heath (3.4.4.). In other words, the literal storm on the heath is a pretty accurate reflection of Lear's psychological state. (If you've seen Lear performed on stage, you know just how dramatic and compelling the sounds of thunder and lightening can be as Lear rages against his wicked daughters.)

    We can also argue that the storm parallels Britain's fall into political chaos. Remember, Lear has divided his kingdom, civil war is brewing, and the King (Lear) is being treated pretty shabbily by his daughters and some of his other subjects. (Psst. As it turns out, Shakespeare happens to be pretty fond of this kind of symbolism. In Macbeth, for example, storms are associated with the rebellion against King Duncan and the political state of turmoil in Scotland.)

    Alternatively, we could say that the powerful storm in which Lear gets caught up is a dramatic demonstration of the fact that all humans, even kings, are completely vulnerable to overpowering forces like nature. If you like this idea, check out our discussion of "Nakedness" below.

    Nothingness

    Shakespeare plays on the word "nothing" and the idea of nothingness or emptiness throughout King Lear.

    Here are a few significant moments from the play: In Act 1, when Lear stages his love test and asks Cordelia "What can you say to draw a third [of the kingdom] more opulent than your sisters?", Cordelia replies, "Nothing." Lear can't believe what he's hearing. "Nothing will come of nothing," he tells her. "Speak again." (In other words, you'll get absolutely nothing from me unless you speak up about how much you love me.) By the way, the phrase "Nothing can come of nothing" is a variation on the famous phrase "ex nihilo nihil fit" – that's Latin for "from nothing, nothing comes," which is an ancient Greek philosophical and scientific expression. It's the opposite of the biblical notion that God created the world (which is a whole lot of something) out of nothing (Genesis 1:1).

    The word "nothing" shows up again in the play when the Fool tells Lear he is nothing without his crown and power: "now thou art an O without a figure. I am better than thou art now; I'm a fool, thou art nothing" (1.4.188-190). According to the Fool, King Lear is a zero and is no better than a "shealed peascod" (an empty peapod). The Fool also calls the retired king "Lear's shadow," which suggests that Lear, without his crown, is merely a shadow of his former self. The idea is that Lear, (whose status has changed since retirement) is nothing without his former power and title. Check out our discussion of the theme of "Power" for more on this.

    Nakedness vs. Clothing

    When Edgar disguises himself as "Poor Tom," he chooses to disguise himself as a naked beggar. Then, in the big storm scene, Lear strips off his kingly robes. Why might he do this, you ask? Lear has seen Poor Tom (naked) and asks, "Is man no more than this?" Then, presumably to find out if man is indeed "no more than this," he strips down to his birthday suit. What's up with that? Well, it seems that Shakespeare is making a point – that all men are vulnerable. In fact, man is nothing more than "a poor bare, forked animal" (3.4.104). Donning rich and opulent clothing (like Goneril and Regan do), then, is merely a futile attempt to disguise man's true, defenseless nature.

    Animals

    The play makes many references to animals, from Lear's comparison of Goneril to a "detested kite" (1.4.259), which is not just a child's toy but also a bird of prey, to Albany's comparison of humanity to sharks (4.2.50.1). What's the point? It seems that humans are no better than animals, at least in King Lear.

    Old Men and Babies

    There sure is a lot of talk in the play about old men being like "babes again" (1.3.20), isn't there? Check out this passage, where Lear announces his decision to transfer the burdens of kingship to the younger generation:

    […] and 'tis our fast intent
    To shake all cares and business from our age;
    Conferring them on younger strengths, while we
    Unburthen'd crawl toward death
    . (1.1.38-41)

    Wanting to retire and "shake all cares and business from our age" is understandable – it seems that King Lear is ready to kick back and enjoy his golden years. [By the way, it's pretty common for monarchs to go around referring to themselves in the plural (we, our, etc.) instead of the singular (me, my, etc.). This is called the "royal we."]

    What's curious about this passage, however, is the way Lear conjures up an image of a feeble old man who, unable to walk upright, "crawl[s]" around on the ground…like a baby. What's up with that? The image suggest that growing old is a lot like being an infant again, which means there are no responsibilities (what Lear wants). Unfortunately, it also means that old age leaves one weak and powerless (not what Lear wants). Lear's not the only one who sees old age in this light – his daughters, Goneril and Regan, are more than happy to treat Lear like a baby and Lear finds that the powerlessness that comes with growing old can be pretty painful and humiliating, especially when his own daughters go around saying things like "O, sir, you are old […] you should be ruled and led / By some discretion, that discerns your state / Better than you yourself" (2.4.141.2-145).

    Shakespeare's point? Getting old sucks.

    The Feather

    After Cordelia is hanged, Lear initially seems to accept his loss. "I know when one is dead," he proclaims. "She's dead as earth" (5.3.258-259). Yet, a few moments later, Lear sees a feather stir upon Cordelia's lips, which leads him to believe that his beloved daughter is breathing and still somehow alive. "This feather stirs," he says, "she lives!"(5.3.263). What's going on here? Why does Lear think Cordelia is still breathing when it's obvious that she is not? How can a man stand over his daughter's dead body and convince himself that she's alive?

    It seems that Lear experiences something pretty common and universal at this moment in the play. When we suffer a traumatic loss, we often hold out hope that a loved one is somehow still alive (this often happens despite concrete evidence to the contrary). Because it's often just too painful to accept, we often tell ourselves "Maybe it's not really true – this must be a terrible mistake." It seems that Cordelia's tragic death is just too painful for her father to accept and he convinces himself that it isn't really true. The feather, then, functions as a symbol of Lear's denial, one of the most common elements of grief.

    Edmund's Letter

    We thought you might come sniffing around here for ideas about Edmund's forged letter. (Psst. We talk about it in "Quotes" on "Language and Communication" so be sure to check it out.)

    • Booker's Seven Basic Plots Analysis

      Anticipation Stage

      Lear looks forward to hanging out with Cordelia 

      King Lear doesn't fit this part exactly. Lear's initial "anticipation" is more like the dream stage. Unfortunately, his dream doesn't get the chance to blossom into idealistic and unrealistic expectations, since it gets squashed before we can go much further.

      The Dream Stage

       Lear and his 100 knights party at Goneril's house.

      Like we said, Lear doesn't fit this perfectly. Usually, the dream stage is the flowering growth of the anticipation stage, and the object of anticipation is one and the same with the object of the dream. Here, however, Lear loses his anticipation and settles for a rather inferior dream.

      Frustration Stage

      First Lear fights with Goneril. Then Regan. Then both of them together. 

      Part of the frustration for Lear is that this situation is so unbelievable. These are his own daughters, not to mention he just gave them his entire kingdom.

      Nightmare Stage

      Lear goes nuts; Gloucester gets his eyes plucked out; civil war is brewing (but not before international war is waged) and people start dying.

      Lear expressed earlier that the last thing he wanted was to go mad. So, that qualifies Lear's current mental illness for the nightmare stage. Don't forget about Gloucester, either, who's in his own blind and torturous nightmare.

      Destruction Stage

      Death, death, and more death.

      In this stage, all of Lear's children die, as well as Cornwall and Edmund, and eventually Lear himself. Also destroyed is Lear's dream to be with Cordelia, the same "anticipation" we started with. It's also the destruction of lives, the Lear monarchy... and from what we can tell from the war and the resulting political situation, the entire nation.

    • Plot Analysis

      Initial Situation

      Split the kingdom; bring on retirement.

      Uh-oh. Anybody who has read Henry IV Part 1 (or lives in seventeenth-century England) knows it's not a good idea for Lear to split up the kingdom so he can enjoy an early retirement. We wonder what will happen next…

      Conflict

      Banishment and general scheming.

      Lear decides to divide his kingdom based on which of his daughters professes the most love for him. The love-game doesn't go so well, and Cordelia ends up disowned. Kent is similarly banished, and Edmund decides to be evil. We have political and personal conflicts here.

      Complication

      Family issues boil over.

      Lear's daughters (Goneril and Regan, that is) aren't exactly hostess material, and Lear is most definitely a lousy guest so, there's some serious domestic drama coming to a head at this point.

      Climax

      Thunder, lightning, and violence.

      Furious at the ingratitude of his children, Lear walks out on both of them and wanders screaming into the thunderstorm. Thunder and lightning are pretty strong indicators of the climax, as is Lear's searing language and emerging insanity. Gloucester also gets his eyes plucked out when he tries to help Lear and Edmund rats him out.

      Suspense

      Armies and hidden identities.

      As Cordelia's French troops march somewhere offstage, tension builds. Also, with everyone wearing disguises and concealing their true identities, it's only a matter of time before the truth is revealed. But until that happens, we can feel the tingly anticipation of waiting for it.

      Denouement

      Cordelia dies.

      Lear and Cordelia lose the battle and are imprisoned. Lear, wiser now than at the beginning of the play, says he doesn't mind—he's learned over the course of the play that power politics don't matter, while a good relationship with his daughter does. But then Cordelia is hanged. Oops.

      Conclusion

      Empty nothingness.

      Heartbroken, Lear dies while cradling his daughter in his arms. Somebody obviously has to take over the kingdom now, but nobody really wants to the job.

    • Allusions

      Major Source Texts

      • Raphael Holinshed, The Historie of England in Chronicles (Volume 1, Book 2), 1577
      • Geoffrey of Monmouth, Historie of the Kings of Britain (Book 2), c. 1135
      • Anonymous, The True Chronicle Historie of King Leir and his three daughters, c. 1605

      Other Literary Allusions

      • John Higgins, Mirrour for Magistrates, 1574
      • Edmund Spenser, Book 2 of The Faerie Queene, 1596
      • Sir Phillip Sidney, The Countess of Pembroke's Arcadia, 1590
      • King James I, The Trew Law of Free Monarchies, 1598
      • "Merlin's Prophesy," a poem falsely attributed to Geoffrey Chaucer in George Puttenham's famous book called The Arte of English Poesie, 1589.
      • Merlin
      • The Bible: The Story of Job—Some people have argued that Lear is a parallel for the story of Job, a biblical guy who had about as many bad things happen to him as Lear. Job suffered through his servants turning against him, his "kinsfolk" forsaking him, a big ol' tempest, the sight of the wicked growing "old and rich," and having to "lodge without garment." Sound like Lear? The interesting part is that Job was consistently told by his "comforters" that he was to blame for his own suffering. In a way, the Fool takes on this role in Lear, reprimanding the King for banishing Cordelia. This reference forces us to ask whether Lear deserves what he gets. What do you think—does he?