Study Guide

King Lear Quotes

  • Language and Communication

    Act 1, Scene 1
    Cordelia

    CORDELIA, aside
    What shall Cordelia speak? Love, and be silent. (1.1.68)

    Cordelia doesn't know how to respond to Lear's love test, especially since her sisters are full of empty flattery. Here, she decides she won't even try to give voice to her love for her father.

    CORDELIA, aside
    And yet not so, since I am sure my love's
    More ponderous than my tongue. (1.1.86-87)

    After Goneril and Regan bicker about who loves Lear the "most," Cordelia decides that her "love's more ponderous than [her] tongue." In other words, while Goneril and Regan talk as though their love is something quantifiable, Cordelia determines that her love for Lear cannot be measured with words.

    Earl of Kent

    KENT
    Thy youngest daughter does not love thee least,
    Nor are those empty-hearted whose low sound
    Reverb no hollowness.
    KING LEAR
    Kent, on thy life, no more.
    KENT
    My life I never held but as a pawn
    To wage against thy enemies; nor fear to lose
       it,
    Thy safety being the motive.
    KING LEAR
    Out of my sight! (1.1.171-179)

    Kent is the only one who stands up to Lear after the king disowns Cordelia for refusing to flatter Lear. When Kent points out that Cordelia (not Goneril and Regan) loves Lear the most, he's told to shut his mouth, or else. But Kent won't be silenced—he's worried about Lear's safety so he speaks what's on his mind. His reward for being so blunt? Lear banishes him, of course.

    Regan

    REGAN
    I am made of the self-same metal that my sister,
    And prize me at her worth. In my true heart
    I find she names my very deed of love;
    Only she comes too short, that I profess
    Myself an enemy to all other joys
    Which the most precious square of sense
       possesses,
    And find I am alone felicitate
    In your dear Highness' love. (1.1.76-84)

    Here, Regan claims Goneril's profession of love for Lear falls "too short." Hmm. We seem to be detecting a pattern here. Both Goneril and Regan seem pretty determined to measure their so-called love for Lear, as if love is something quantifiable. We wonder how Cordelia will respond to all this. Keep reading…

    King Lear

    KING LEAR
    […] what can you say to draw
    A third more opulent than your sisters'? Speak.
    CORDELIA
    Nothing, my lord.
    KING LEAR
    Nothing?
    CORDELIA
    Nothing.
    KING LEAR
    Nothing will come of nothing. Speak again.
    CORDELIA
    Unhappy that I am, I cannot heave
    My heart into my mouth. I love your Majesty
    According to my bond, nor more nor less.
    KING LEAR
    How, how, Cordelia! Mend your speech a little,
    Lest it may mar your fortunes. (1.1.94-104)

    Although Cordelia is clearly Lear's most loving daughter, she refuses to participate in Lear's love test. Instead of professing her love and obedience like her two-faced sisters, Cordelia insists that she "cannot heave [her] heart into [her] mouth." In other words, Cordelia insists that her love for Lear is literally unspeakable. Brain Snack: Shakespeare seems to make a similar point in Sonnet 18, which is all about whether or not the poet can find words to convey how he truly feels about his beloved.

    LEAR
    Tell me, my
       daughters—
    Since now we will divest us both of rule,
    Interest of territory, cares of state—
    Which of you shall we say doth love us most?
    That we our largest bounty may extend
    Where nature doth with merit challenge. Goneril,
    Our eldest born, speak first. (1.1.52-59)

    Now this is weird. According to an earlier conversation between Gloucester and Kent, King Lear has already decided how he'll divide his kingdom among his daughters. So, what's the point of Lear staging a love test to determine which woman will get the "largest bounty" (piece of land)? 

    We might say there is no point—King Lear just wants his daughters to flatter him. Here, we see Lear isn't really interested in knowing who truly loves him most, he wants his daughters to express their feelings for him in a very public way.

    Goneril

    GONERIL
    Sir, I love you more than words can wield the
       matter,
    Dearer than eyesight, space, and liberty,
    Beyond what can be valued, rich or rare,
    No less than life, with grace, health, beauty, honor;
    As much as child e'er loved, or father found;
    A love that makes breath poor, and speech unable.
    Beyond all manner of so much I love you. (1.1.60-67)

    Goneril sure does lay it on thick, doesn't she? Even though she says her love for her father leaves her breathless and "unable" to speak, she still manages to find a bunch of empty, meaningless words to flatter him with.

    Act 1, Scene 2
    Edmund

    EDMUND
    […] if this letter speed
    And my invention thrive, Edmund the base
    Shall top th' legitimate. I grow, I prosper. (1.2.20-22)

    Notice any parallels between Edmund and Lear's wicked daughters, Goneril and Regan? Each character uses deceptive words to fool their fathers. When Edmund forges a letter in order to frame his brother and fool his father, it becomes pretty clear that language simply can't be trusted. FYI—Shakespeare uses a forged letter in his play, Twelfth Night, to make a similar point.

    Act 1, Scene 4
    King Lear

    LEAR
    Who is it that can tell me who I am?
    FOOL
    Lear's shadow. (1.4.236-237)

    When Lear asks "who is it can tell me who I am?" it is his Fool who responds in an interesting and provocative way. The Fool's answer ("Lear's shadow") can be read in a couple of ways. On the one hand, it could mean the person who can tell Lear who he "is" is Lear's Fool (who is thought of as Lear's "shadow" because he follows or shadows Lear around the countryside).

    Alternatively, we can read the line thus: Lear is nothing but a shadow, which suggests that Lear is merely a shadow of his former self now that he's given away all his land. In other words, the Fool is saying that Lear, (whose status has changed since retirement) is nothing without his former power and title. This is pretty ballsy, don't you think?

    However we decide to read this passage, one thing is certain—Lear's Fool is one of the few people who ever tell it like it is.

    Act 2, Scene 2
    Earl of Kent

    KENT
    Sir, 'tis my occupation to be plain:
    I have seen better faces in my time
    Than stands on any shoulder that I see
    Before me now at this instant. (2.2.96-99)

    Ooh, burn! After Kent strikes Oswald (because he doesn't like Oswald's face), he explains to Cornwall that it's just his personality to be blunt ("plain"), which is why he's being honest with Cornwall now when he says that he doesn't like the looks of Cornwall's face either. (What? Who says Shakespeare can't indulge himself by writing a little trash talk into his scenes?) 

    For Kent, being completely honest and speaking the truth is a matter of pride, even if his big mouth gets him into trouble. So, even if we fault Kent for being so ridiculously loyal to King Lear, we've got to give him props for being so truthful.

  • Power

    Act 1, Scene 1
    King Lear

    LEAR
    Our son of
       Cornwall,
    And you, our no less loving son of Albany,
    We have this hour a constant will to publish
    Our daughters' several dowers, that future strife
    May be prevented now.
    The two great princes, France and Burgundy,
    Great rivals in our youngest daughter's love,
    Long in our court have made their amorous sojourn,
    And here are to be answered. Tell me, my
       daughters—
    Since now we will divest us both of rule,
    Interest of territory, cares of state—
    Which of you shall we say doth love us most,
    That we our largest bounty may extend
    Where nature doth with merit challenge. Goneril,
    Our eldest born, speak first. (1.1.43-59)

    Because Lear has no sons to inherit his crown after he dies, Lear believes that dividing up his kingdom now (among his daughters and sons-in-law), he will prevent any "future strife" that might result if he dies without an heir. Although Lear says he's going to divide the kingdom into three equal parts, here, he stages a kind of love test (based on who says they love Lear the most) to determine who will get the largest portion of his kingdom. (Check out "Language and Communication" if you want to know more about the nature of this "love test.")

    LEAR
    […] and 'tis our fast intent
    To shake all cares and business from our age,
    Conferring them on younger strengths, while we
    Unburdened crawl toward death. (1.1.40-43)

    When Lear announces his decision to divvy up his kingdom among his daughters, he says he's transferring the burdens of kingship and responsibility to "younger strengths" (his daughters and sons-in-law) while Lear, an aging king, "crawl[s] toward death." In this passage, Lear conjures an image of a feeble old man who cannot walk upright and must "crawl" like an infant, which suggests that King Lear's retirement (and old age in general) are infantilizing—leaving one as weak and vulnerable as an infant. Lear's decision to give up his crown to "younger strengths" seems like a pretty poor choice, don't you think?

    LEAR
    With my two daughters' dowers digest this third.
    Let pride, which she calls plainness, marry her.
    I do invest you jointly with my power,
    Preeminence, and all the large effects
    That troop with majesty. Ourself, by monthly course,
    With reservation of an hundred knights
    By you to be sustained, shall our abode
    Make with you by due turns. Only we still retain
    The name, and all the additions to a king.
    The sway, revenue, execution of the rest,
    Belovèd sons, be yours, which to confirm,
    This coronet part between you. (1.1.144-155)

    Hmm. If King Lear is so intent on retirement, why in the world does he need one "hundred knights" to follow him around? It seems that Lear wants to retain a lot of power and authority but doesn't want all the hassles and responsibility of being an active ruler.

    LEAR
    Meantime we shall express our darker purpose.—
    Give me the map there.                      He is handed a map.
                                         Know that we have divided
    In three our kingdom, (1.1.37-40)

    Here, King Lear says he wants to divide his kingdom into three parts. But, anyone who's seen the play Henry IV Part 1 and remembers the rebels' plans to divide Britain into three territories knows that this is a big no-no.

    History Snack: Although the play is set in ancient Britain, Lear's division of the kingdom would have had some contemporary resonance. Around the time the play was written, King James I of England (a.k.a. King James VI of Scotland) attempted to unite England and Scotland under his rule when he was crowned King of England in 1603 so, the very idea of the division of Britain would have been troubling to Shakespeare's contemporaries.

    Act 1, Scene 4
    Goneril

    GONERIL
    This man hath had good counsel. A hundred
       knights!
    'Tis politic and safe to let him keep
    At point a hundred knights! Yes, that, on every
       dream,
    Each buzz, each fancy, each complaint, dislike,
    He may enguard his dotage with their powers
    And hold our lives in mercy.—Oswald, I say! (1.4.340-347)

    When Goneril first confronts her father about the noisy and riotous knights he keeps with him, she claims the knights disrupt her household by treating her palace like a tavern or a brothel. Yet, here, when Lear is absent, Goneril admits to her husband (Albany) that she doesn't like Lear's knights because they protect him, providing Lear with way too much power. 

    Goneril insists that by stripping Lear of all his power, her life and political position are much safer. Whereas Lear sees Goneril's objection to his knights as a matter of family disloyalty, Goneril sees it as a political and military matter.

    King Lear

    LEAR
    I'll tell thee. To Goneril. Life and death! I am
       ashamed
    That thou hast power to shake my manhood thus,
    That these hot tears, which break from me perforce,
    Should make thee worth them. Blasts and fogs upon
       thee!
    Th' untented woundings of a father's curse
    Pierce every sense about thee! (1.4.311-318)

    When Goneril reduces Lear's retinue of knights (so, reducing any power Lear had left after he divided his kingdom), Lear responds as though Goneril has emasculated him—he says his "manhood" has been shaken. For Lear, power and masculinity go hand and hand.

    LEAR
    Doth any here know me? This is not Lear.
    Doth Lear walk thus, speak thus? Where are his
       eyes?
    Either his notion weakens, his discernings
    Are lethargied—Ha! Waking? 'Tis not so.
    Who is it that can tell me who I am?
    FOOL
    Lear's shadow. (1.4.231-237)

    King Lear can hardly believe his daughter's insolence after she insults him by complaining about his posse of a hundred rowdy knights. (Having enjoyed the power and authority of kingship for so long, Lear isn't used to being treated shabbily by his subjects or his children.) Here, an incredulous Lear asks, "Who is it that can tell me who I am?" This question suggests that Lear doesn't quite know how to define himself now that he's lost all the power that comes with active kingship. In other words, Lear's retirement results in a kind of identity crisis.

    The Fool's response is equally interesting. We can read the Fool's answer ("Lear's shadow") in a couple of ways. On the one hand, it could mean that the Fool, who is thought of as Lear's shadow (he follows or shadows Lear around the countryside) is the person who can tell Lear who he is. The Fool, after all, is the only person who ever tells it like it is and he knows Lear pretty well. Alternatively, we can read the line thus: Lear is nothing but a shadow, which suggests that Lear is merely a shadow of his former self. In other words, the Fool is saying that Lear (whose status has changed since retirement) is nothing without his former power and title.

    The Fool

    FOOL
    […] e'er since thou mad'st thy
    daughters thy mothers. For when thou gav'st them
    the rod, and put'st down thine own breeches, (1.4.176-178)

    Lear's Fool (Lear's personal comedian) seems pretty smart when he points out that Lear's daughters became more like his "mother" when Lear gave up his power and his kingdom to them. The Fool notes that Lear might as well have pulled down his "breeches" (pants) and given his daughters a "rod" to spank him with. By basically giving his kingdom to his daughters, Lear has not only given up his adult authority, he has deprived himself of all power. We talk about this in "Family" too, so check it out if you want to think about how Lear's poor political choices resonate in his family relationships.

    Act 2, Scene 2
    Earl of Kent

    KENT
    Sir, I am too old to learn.
    Call not your stocks for me. I serve the king,
    On whose employment I was sent to you.
    You shall do small respect, show too bold
       malice
    Against the grace and person of my master,
    Stocking his messenger. (2.2.138-144)

    Because Kent is Lear's servant, when Cornwall locks Kent in the stocks, he's being incredibly disrespectful toward King Lear. As Gloucester later points out, "the king must take it ill, / That he, so slightly valued in his messenger [Kent], / Should have him thus restrained" (2.2.143-145.1).

    Act 2, Scene 4
    Regan

    REGAN
    O sir, you are old.
    Nature in you stands on the very verge
    Of her confine. You should be ruled and led
    By some discretion, that discerns your state
    Better than you yourself. Therefore, I pray you
    That to our sister you do make return.
    Say you have wronged her. (2.4.164-170)

    When Regan points out that Lear is "old" and that his life ("nature") is on the verge of "her confine" (Lear doesn't have much longer to live), she implies that Lear's old age makes him unfit to rule a kingdom. Lear would be better off, says Goneril, if he let someone else take care of him. Is Goneril right—is Lear too old and infirm to govern even himself? Or, is her assessment unfair? For more about the implications of Regan's remarks about Lear's age, check out our discussion of "Old Men and Babies" in "Symbols."

    Act 3, Scene 1
    Earl of Kent

    KENT
    […] There is division,
    Although as yet the face of it be covered
    With mutual cunning, 'twixt Albany and Cornwall,
    Who have—as who have not, that their great stars
    Throned and set high?
    […]
    But true it is, from France there comes a power
    Into this scattered kingdom, who already,
    Wise in our negligence, have secret feet
    In some of our best ports and are at point
    To show their open banner. (3.1.23-27; 34-38)

    Although Lear had hoped that division of his kingdom would prevent strife and result in unity, Lear's decision has clearly resulted in conflict and disorder. Here, Kent reveals that civil war is brewing between Albany and Cornwall and France is preparing to invade.

  • Loyalty

    Act 1, Scene 1
    Earl of Kent

    Reserve thy state,
    And in thy best consideration check
    This hideous rashness. Answer my life my
       judgment,
    Thy youngest daughter does not love thee least,
    Nor are those empty-hearted whose low sound
    Reverb no hollowness. (1.1.167-173)

    After Lear foolishly disowns Cordelia, Kent stands up and urges the king to "reverse" his decision to ban his only loving and loyal daughter. Even Kent can see that Goneril and Regan will betray their father—they're "empty-hearted" and their flattering words mean nothing.

    Cordelia

    CORDELIA
    Good my lord,
    You have begot me, bred me, loved me.
    I return those duties back as are right fit:
    Obey you, love you, and most honor you.
    Why have my sisters husbands if they say
    They love you all? Haply, when I shall wed,
    That lord whose hand must take my plight shall
       carry
    Half my love with him, half my care and duty.
    Sure, I shall never marry like my sisters,
    To love my father all. (1.1.105-115)

    We discuss this passage in "Family" but it's worth talking about here as well. When Lear demands his daughters profess their love to him, Goneril and Regan lay it on pretty thick—professing they love Lear "the most." Here, Cordelia points out that Goneril and Regan are being disloyal to their husbands because, as married women, Goneril and Regan owe much of their love and "duties" to their spouses.

    Cordelia says she will "obey," "love" and "honour" her father (hmmm… sounds a bit like a wedding ceremony, don't you think?), but she's going to reserve "half" of her "love" and "duty" for her future husband. Cordelia's honesty sends Lear into a rage and he disowns her. (He also takes away the dowry he promised.) Why?

    Act 1, Scene 2
    Edmund

    EDMUND
    […] Edmund the base
    Shall top th' legitimate. I grow, I prosper. (1.2.21-22)

    Because Edmund feels he's been shafted by society and his father (for being an illegitimate and second-born son), he justifies his disloyalty and scheming against his family. Edmund feels entitled to "grow" and "prosper" at the expense of his father and half-brother. For him, there is no such thing as family loyalty or duty.

    Act 1, Scene 4
    Earl of Kent

    KENT
    If but as well I other accents borrow
    That can my speech defuse, my good intent
    May carry through itself to that full issue
    For which I razed my likeness. Now, banished Kent,
    If thou canst serve where thou dost stand
       condemned,
    So may it come thy master, whom thou lov'st,
    Shall find thee full of labors. (1.4.1-8)

    Even after Lear banishes Kent, the man remains loyal by disguising himself as "Caius," in order to serve the king. Some literary critics see Kent as being an emblem of an old school style of service, whereas his counterpart, Oswald, seems to embody a newer model of service—that is, Oswald, like many of the play's young people, is motivated by self-interest rather than loyalty and puts his own needs and desires ahead of his master's.

    Act 3, Scene 3
    Earl of Gloucester

    GLOUCESTER
    Go to; say you nothing. There is division
    betwixt the dukes, and a worse matter than that. I
    have received a letter this night; 'tis dangerous to
    be spoken; I have locked the letter in my closet.
    These injuries the king now bears will be revenged
    home; there's part of a power already footed. We
    must incline to the king. I will look him, and privily
    relieve him. Go you and maintain talk with the
    Duke, that my charity be not of him perceived. If he
    ask for me. I am ill, and gone to bed. If I die for it, as
    no less is threatened me, the king my old master
    must be relieved. (3.3.8-19)

    Gloucester knows that he will get in trouble for helping Lear. So, why does he do it? Is he being loyal to the king or, is he worried about saving his own hide? (He knows that an army has landed in Dover to aid Lear and thinks the king will be "revenged.")

    Act 3, Scene 7
    Duke of Cornwall

    CORNWALL
    See 't shalt thou never.—Fellows, hold the chair.—
    Upon these eyes of thine I'll set my foot.
    GLOUCESTER
    He that will think to live till he be old,
    Give me some help!
                   As Servants hold the chair, Cornwall forces out
                                                      one of Gloucester’s eyes.
     
                                   O cruel! O you gods!
    REGAN
    One side will mock another. Th' other too. (3.7.81-86)

    Cornwall blinds Gloucester for being a "traitor" (that is, loyal to King Lear). Is Gloucester under any obligation to serve Cornwall?

    Act 5, Scene 3
    Cordelia

    CORDELIA, to Lear
    We are not the first
    Who with best meaning have incurred the worst. (5.3.4-5)

    Cordelia seems to recognize that she is one in a long line of people who gets shafted while trying to do the right thing. The kicker is that she doesn't yet know "the worst" consists of her death.

    Duke of Albany

    ALBANY
    […] Edmund, I arrest thee
    On capital treason; and, in thine attaint,
    This gilded serpent.—For your claim, fair
       sister,
    I bar it in the interest of my wife.
    'Tis she is sub-contracted to this lord,
    And I, her husband, contradict your banns.
    If you will marry, make your loves to me.
    My lady is bespoke. (5.3.98-106)

    Gosh. The writers of One Life to Live must have read King Lear because this play is beginning to look and sound a lot like a soap opera. After Albany finds out that his wife has been sleeping with Edmund (and that his sister-in-law, Regan, is trying hook up with Edmund too), he charges Goneril and Edmund with "treason." Because Albany is a ruler, Goneril's infidelity doesn't just make her a disloyal spouse, it makes her a criminal against the state.

    King Lear

    LEAR
    This is a dull sight. Are you not Kent?
    KENT
                                                                The same,
    Your servant Kent. Where is your servant Caius?
    LEAR
    He's a good fellow, I can tell you that.
    He'll strike, and quickly too. He's dead and rotten.
    KENT
    No, my good lord, I am the very man—
    LEAR
    I'll see that straight.
    KENT
    That, from your first of difference and decay
    Have followed your sad steps.
     LEAR
                                                     You are welcome
       hither.
    KENT
    Nor no man else. All's cheerless, dark, and deadly.
    Your eldest daughters have fordone themselves,
    And desperately are dead.
    LEAR
                                              Ay, so I think.
    ALBANY
    He knows not what he says, and vain it is
    That we present us to him. (5.3.340-356)

    Loyalty? It's not rewarded in King Lear. When Kent finally reveals his true identity to Lear, it's too late.

  • Gender

    Act 1, Scene 1
    Earl of Gloucester

    GLOUCESTER
    Sir, this young fellow's mother could [conceive],
    whereupon
    she grew round-wombed, and had indeed,
    sir, a son for her cradle ere she had a husband
    for her bed. Do you smell a fault?
    KENT
    I cannot wish the fault undone, the issue of it
    being so proper. (1.1.13-18)

    This is an awfully strange way to open the play, don't you think? Just a few lines into King Lear, Gloucester begins to crack dirty jokes about the mother of his illegitimate child, Edmund. When he asks Kent if he "smell[s] a fault," he's referring to his son, who is standing right there. Gloucester's use of the term "fault" means a couple of things: 1) a sin—Edmund was conceived out of wedlock and, as we soon see, Edmund also turns out to be wicked ; 2) female genitals-Gloucester's implying that Edmund "smells" like his mother's vagina.

    So, why are we talking about this crude joke? Well, it turns out that, in King Lear, Edmund is frequently associated with the female body. At 5.3 (see passage above), Edgar associates Edmund with the "dark and vicious place" where Edmund was begot. This also echo's a statement Lear makes when he's angry at his daughters – below women's "waist[s]," "there's hell, there's darkness, there's the sulphurous pit (4.6.123-130).

    In other words, the female body is associated "sin" and "hell."

    Act 1, Scene 4
    King Lear

    LEAR
    I'll tell thee. To Goneril. Life and death! I am
       ashamed
    That thou hast power to shake my manhood thus,
    That these hot tears, which break from me perforce,
    Should make thee worth them. Blasts and fogs upon
       thee!
    Th' untented woundings of a father's curse
    Pierce every sense about thee! (1.4.311-318)

    When Goneril reduces Lear's posse of knights (reducing any power Lear had left after he divided his kingdom), Lear accuses Goneril of "shaking [his] manhood." Without the kind of power and authority Lear once enjoyed as active king and family patriarch, he feels as though he's been stripped of his masculinity. Yowch.

    LEAR
    Hear, Nature, hear, dear goddess, hear!
    Suspend thy purpose if thou didst intend
    To make this creature fruitful.
    Into her womb convey sterility.
    Dry up in her the organs of increase,
    And from her derogate body never spring
    A babe to honor her! If she must teem,
    Create her child of spleen, that it may live
    And be a thwart disnatured torment to her.
    Let it stamp wrinkles in her brow of youth,
    With cadent tears fret channels in her cheeks,
    Turn all her mother's pains and benefits
    To laughter and contempt, that she may feel
    How sharper than a serpent's tooth it is
    To have a thankless child!—Away, away! (1.4.289-303)

    This has got to be one of the most bizarre speeches in the play. Here, King Lear is enraged by his daughter's betrayal of him that he curses her with "sterility" (the inability to produce children). If, however, the gods decide she will have children, Lear says he hopes she experiences a painful labor and has a "thankless child" to make her miserable for the rest of her life. Okay, Lear is clearly upset. But why does he lash out at his daughter's fertility like this?

    Goneril

    GONERIL
    No, no, my
       lord,
    This milky gentleness and course of yours,
    Though I condemn not, yet, under pardon,
    You are much more at task for want of wisdom
    Than praised for harmful mildness. (1.4.362-367)

    Goneril implies that her husband, Albany, is too mild-mannered when it comes to dealing with Lear. When she refers to Albany's "milky gentleness," she's basically implying he's a wimp for not being harder on Lear when the retired king challenged Goneril's authority. For Goneril, mildness and lack of killer instinct make one feminine. Of course, Goneril goes on to say she forgives her hubby for being a wimp, but she's really not happy about him being such a dummy (he lacks "wisdom").

    Brain Snack: "Milky gentleness," as Goneril calls it, is associated with a woman's capacity to nurture children (i.e., breastfeed). In Shakespeare's play Macbeth, when Lady Macbeth accuses her husband of being a wimp (Macbeth's not hot about killing King Duncan and his wife isn't happy), Lady Macbeth accuses her husband of being "too full o' the milk of human kindness" (Macbeth, 1.5.1), which you can read all about in our guide to Macbeth.

    Act 1, Scene 5
    King Lear

    FOOL
    […] I can tell why a snail has a
    house.
    KING LEAR
    Why?
    FOOL
    Why, to put 's head in, not to give it away to his
    daughters and leave his horns without a case. (1.5.27-31)

    After King Lear gives his kingdom away to his daughters, the Fool chastises him for giving away all his land and power. (After all, Goneril has just kicked Lear out of her palace and Lear is about to become homeless.) Here, the Fool cracks a joke, comparing Lear to a snail that has given away his shell and has no home.

    What's most interesting to us about this passage, however, is the Fool's suggestion that Lear is a cuckold. A "cuckold" is a common Elizabethan term for a man who has been cheated on by his wife and, in Shakespeare's plays, horns are a pretty common sign that a man has been cuckolded. So, why does the Fool imply that Lear has "horns"? (Lear's wife is dead.) The Fool seems to equate the betrayal by Lear's daughters with like sexual infidelity—it's as though Lear's daughters, Goneril and Regan, are no better than a cheating wife. That's a pretty odd thing to imply, don't you think?

    Act 2, Scene 4
    King Lear

    LEAR
    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 embossèd carbuncle,
    In my corrupted blood. (2.4.253-258)

    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. In this way, Lear associates Goneril's disloyalty with the unfortunate consequences of sexual promiscuity.

    LEAR
    O, how this mother swells up toward my heart!
    Hysterica passio, down, thou climbing sorrow!
    Thy element's below!—Where is this daughter? (2.4.62-64)

    When Lear's daughters betray him, he's outraged and full of grief. Here, he says he suffers from "Hysterica passio," a medical condition that was thought to afflict women. 

    Fun facts: literary critic Coppélia Kahn explains that "From ancient times through the nineteenth century, women suffering variously from choking, feelings of suffocation, partial paralysis, convulsions similar to those of epilepsy, aphasia, numbness, and lethargy were said to be ill of hysteria, caused by a wandering womb." In other words, because Lear is so upset or "hysterical," he compares his excessive emotions to that of an ailing woman. (The implication is that Lear is not acting like a "man" and that women have no control over their feelings.)

    Act 3, Scene 4
    King Lear

    KING LEAR
    Now all the plagues that in the pendulous air
    Hang fated o'er men's faults light on thy daughters!
    KENT
    He hath no daughters, sir.
    KING LEAR
    Death, traitor! Nothing could have subdued nature
    To such a lowness but his unkind daughters. (3.4.73-77)

    When Lear encounters Poor Tom (Edgar disguised as a poor, naked, beggar), he concludes that Poor Tom's terrible state must have been caused by Tom's "daughters." When the Fool points out that "Poor Tom" has no children, Lear insists that there's nothing in the world that could have reduced a man to such a lowly state… except "his unkind daughters." For Lear, it seems that all the problems of the world are caused by women.

    Edgar

    EDGAR
    Let not the creaking of shoes nor the rustling
    of silks betray thy poor heart to woman. Keep thy
    foot out of brothels, thy hand out of plackets, (3.4.101-103)

    Disguised as Poor Tom, Edgar warns Lear not to be seduced or "betray[ed" by women, to stay out of the brothels, and to keep his hands out of "plackets" (slits in the skirts of petticoats). "Foot," by the way, is Edgar's way of punning on the French word "foutre" (f*@k). 

    Edgar's never been betrayed by any women in the play, so what's the deal with this nasty little diatribe against women? Does Edgar hate women as much as King Lear? Or, are we meant to read this passage as the insane ramblings of a (supposed) madman? In other words, is Shakespeare implying that this kind of attitude toward women is crazy?

    Act 4, Scene 6
    King Lear

    LEAR
    Down from the waist they are centaurs,
    Though women all above. But to the girdle do the
    gods inherit; beneath is all the fiends'. There's hell,
    there's darkness, there's the sulphurous pit; burning,
    scalding, stench, consumption! Fie, fie, fie, pah,
    pah! (4.6.140-145)

    Women, Lear claims, seem pretty normal from the "waist" up but, down below there's "hell" and "darkness" like a "sulphurous pit." Lear's sexist description of female anatomy calls to mind the symptoms of a very unpleasant venereal disease—"burning, scalding, stench," and so on. It seems that King Lear associates all women with a very unpleasant STD, especially his daughter, Goneril, whose name, as you may have guessed, sounds a whole lot like "gonorrhea."

    Act 5, Scene 3
    Edgar

    EDGAR
    The gods are just, and of our pleasant vices
    Make instruments to plague us.
    The dark and vicious place where thee he got
    Cost him his eyes. (5.3.204-207)

    Here, Edgar has mortally wounded his evil brother Edmund. As if to explain, Edgar says "the gods are just" because they punish humans for their wrongdoings. This seems to suggest that Edmund deserved what he got (a stab to the guts) and it also suggests that Gloucester, Edmund's father, got what he deserved for having an affair with Edmund's mother. (Gloucester's eyes were plucked out after he was accused of treason and, he fathered a wicked child, Edmund, who betrayed him.)

    What's significant about this passage is the way Edgar refers to the body of Edmund's mother as a "dark and vicious place where" Edmund was begot. It seems to imply that all the bad things in the world (like the wicked Edmund, for example), spring from the loins of women. Gloucester implies something similar at the play's beginning, which we discuss in the following passage (1.1).

  • Family

    Act 1, Scene 1
    Earl of Gloucester

    But I have a son, sir by order of law,
    some year elder than this, who yet is no dearer in
    my account. Though this knave came something
    saucily into the world before he was sent for, yet was
    his mother fair, there was good sport at his making,
    and the whoreson must be acknowledged.—Do you
    know this noble gentleman, Edmund? (1.1.19-25)

    Here, Gloucester reveals that, in addition to his illegitimate son, Edmund, he also has another son "by order of law." ("By order of law" just means Gloucester's other son is legally recognized as a legitimate heir. In other words, this other son isn't a "bastard" like Edmund. Or Jon Snow.)

    What's interesting about this passage is that Gloucester says he doesn't favor his legitimate son over Edmund. Gloucester's legitimate son, he says, "is no dearer in [his] account." We can't help but notice that the play is full of speculation about which children are most beloved by their fathers. Recall from a previous passage (1.1.1-6), Kent and Gloucester wondered which son-in-law King Lear liked best. And we know that Lear favors Cordelia over Goneril and Regan.

    We should also point out that the more general question of "who loves who the most" turn up again when King Lear stages a love test, demanding to know which daughter can say she loves her father more than everyone else. Seems like Shakespeare is raising the following question: Is love (especially family love) quantifiable?

    GLOUCESTER reads
    This policy and reverence of age
    makes the world bitter to the best of our times, keeps

    our fortunes from us till our oldness cannot relish
    them. I begin to find an idle and fond bondage in the
    oppression of aged tyranny, who sways, not 
    as it hath
    power, but as it is suffered. Come to 
    me, that of this I
    may speak more. If our father 
    would sleep till I waked
    him, you should half his 
    revenue forever and
    live the beloved of your 
    brother.                  Edgar.'
    Hum? Conspiracy? 'Sleep till I waked him, you
    should enjoy half his revenue.' My son Edgar! Had
    he a hand to write this? A heart and brain to breed it
    in?—When came this to you? Who brought it? (1.2.49-61)

    When Gloucester reads the fake letter that Edgar supposedly wrote to his brother, Edmund, he seems ready to believe that his son would conspire to kill him. But why? Shakespeare explores how Gloucester's relationships with his two sons dramatize some common issues surrounding primogeniture (the system by which eldest sons inherit their fathers' wealth, titles, lands, power, debt, etc.). 

    The letter proposes that the brothers kill their father so they can share Gloucester's wealth ("revenue"), which gives voice to a common fear that all sons look forward to their fathers' deaths. This kind of anxiety can also be found in other plays like Hamlet and Henry IV Parts 1 and 2.

    Earl of Kent

    KENT
    Is not this your son, my lord?
    GLOUCESTER
    His breeding, sir, hath been at my
    charge. I have so often blushed to acknowledge
    him, that now I am brazed to 't.
    KENT
    I cannot conceive you.
    GLOUCESTER
    Sir, this young fellow's mother could,
    whereupon she grew round-wombed and had indeed,
    sir, a son for her cradle ere she had a husband
    for her bed. Do you smell a fault? (1.1.8-16)

    Hmm. Seems like Shakespeare's trying to tell us there's going to be a whole lot of family drama up in this play. According to Gloucester, his illegitimate son, Edmund, is a bit of an embarrassment—Gloucester claims he has "often blushed to acknowledge" Edmund (because the young man was conceived out of wedlock). When Kent says he doesn't understand Gloucester's meaning, Gloucester puns on the word "conceive" (to understand or to biologically conceive a child) in order to crack a dirty joke about the mother of his illegitimate son. (Edmund, by the way, is standing next to his father the entire time!) It's not so surprising, then, that Edmund turns out to have a grudge against his father.

    KENT
    I thought the king had more affected the Duke
    of Albany than Cornwall. (1.1.1-2)

    The opening lines of Shakespeare's plays often provide clues about the play's most important pressing issues or themes. In King Lear, the play opens as Kent and Gloucester discuss which son-in-law King Lear likes best. Shakespeare might as well hold up a sign that says "This play is going to be all about the dynamics of parent-child relationships!"

    King Lear

    Tell me, my
       daughters—
    [Since now we will divest us both of rule,
    Interest of territory, cares of state—] 
    Which of you shall we say doth love us most,
    That we our largest bounty may extend
    Where nature doth with merit challenge. Goneril,
    Our eldest born, speak first. (1.1.52-59)

    Here, King Lear demands to know which one of his daughters loves him "most" before he announces the division of his kingdom. When Lear asks "which of you shall we say doth love us the most?" he's operating under the assumption that 1) love is quantifiable and 2) that language is capable of expressing his daughters' love. Yeah, both of these assumptions are dead wrong. Check out "Language and Communication" for more on this.

    KING LEAR
    Let it be so. Thy truth, then, be thy dower,
    For by the sacred radiance of the sun,
    The mysteries of Hecate and the night,
    By all the operation of the orbs
    From whom we do exist, and cease to be,
    Here I disclaim all my paternal care,
    Propinquity, and property of blood,
    And as a stranger to my heart and me
    Hold thee, from this, for ever. The barbarous
       Scythian,
    Or he that makes his generation messes
    To gorge his appetite, shall to my bosom
    Be as well neighbored, pitied, and relieved
    As thou my sometime daughter. (1.1.120-133)

    When King Lear disowns Cordelia, who refuses to say she loves her father the most, he "disclaim[s] all [his] paternal care" and insists that Cordelia is no more to Lear than a "barbarous Scythian" or a man that eats his parents and/or his children ("makes his generation messes to gorge his appetite"). In other words, Lear equates Cordelia's so-called betrayal of her father with a kind of barbarous cannibalism.

    According to literary critic Stephen Greenblatt, this is Lear's biggest "folly." Cordelia is the one daughter that actually does love King Lear. Lear's banishment of Cordelia, as we see, sets the play's tragic events in motion.

    KING LEAR
    Peace, Kent!
    Come not between the dragon and his wrath.
    I loved her most, and thought to set my rest
    On her kind nursery. To Cordelia. Hence and avoid
       my sight!—
    So be my grave my peace, as here I give
    Her father's heart from her. (1.1.135-141)

    Now this is interesting. Lear admits that he's angry with Cordelia because he "loved her the most" and was hoping to "set [his] rest on her kind nursery." In other words, Lear was hoping that Cordelia would play mother or nursemaid to him when he retired, which makes Lear more of a child or a baby than a father, don't you think? This is especially apparent when Lear says he's going to spend his retirement "crawl[ing] toward death" (1.1.43). Compare this passage to 1.4. below.

    Cordelia

    CORDELIA
    I love your Majesty
    According to my bond; nor more nor less.
    KING LEAR
    How, how, Cordelia? Mend your speech a little,
    Lest it may mar your fortunes.
    CORDELIA
                                                     Good my lord,
    You have begot me, bred me, loved me.
    I return those duties back as are right fit:
    Obey you, love you, and most honor you.
    Why have my sisters husbands if they say
    They love you all? Haply, when I shall wed,
    That lord whose hand must take my plight shall
       carry
    Half my love with him, half my care and duty.
    Sure, I shall never marry like my sisters,
    To love my father all. (1.1.105-115)

    Cordelia, as we know, refuses to play King Lear's game of "who loves daddy the most." Here, she says that she loves her father "according to [her] bond," which means that she loves him just as much a daughter should love her father, "no more nor less." 

    It turns out that Cordelia is about to be married and insists that she reserves half her love for her future husband and half for her father. She also points out that her sisters, Goneril and Regan, dishonor their husbands when they claim to love their father more than their spouses. Is this the reason Lear flips out and banishes Cordelia, depriving her of a dowry? Is Lear jealous of Cordelia's future husband?

    Act 1, Scene 2
    Edmund

    EDMUND
    […] Wherefore should I
    Stand in the plague of custom, and permit
    The curiosity of nations to deprive me
    For that I am some twelve or fourteen moonshines
    Lag of a brother? why 'bastard'? Wherefore 'base,'
    When my dimensions are as well compact,
    My mind as generous and my shape as true
    As honest madam's issue? Why brand they us
    With 'base,' with 'baseness,' 'bastardy,' 'base,'
       'base,'
    Who, in the lusty stealth of nature, take
    More composition and fierce quality
    Than doth, within a dull, stale, tired bed
    Go to th' creating a whole tribe of fops
    Got 'tween asleep and wake? Well then,
    Legitimate Edgar, I must have your land.
    Our father's love is to the bastard Edmund
    As to th' legitimate. Fine word, 'legitimate,'
    Well, my legitimate, if this letter speed
    And my invention thrive, Edmund the base
    Shall top th' legitimate. I grow, I prosper.
    Now, gods, stand up for bastards! (1.2.2-23)

    In this passage, Shakespeare reveals Edmund's motives for trying to destroy his father, Gloucester, and his brother, Edgar. Edmund has been mistreated and labeled a "base" "bastard" for two reasons: 1) he's an illegitimate child, the product of Gloucester's affair with an unmarried woman; 2) Edmund is not an eldest son (Edgar was born first). 

    In Shakespeare's day, primogeniture (the system by which eldest sons inherit all their fathers' wealth, titles, lands, power, debt, etc.) was the rule. Edmund is not only seen as a lesser being than his older half-brother, Edgar, he also stands to inherit nothing from his father. But, Edmund objects to the way society views him as insignificant and insists that he's just as noble and well-composed as his brother, Edgar. It is here that Edmund resolves to go after Edgar's "land" as he composes a scheme for revenge.

    Act 1, Scene 4
    The Fool

    FOOL
    […] e'er since thou mad'st thy
    daughters thy mothers. For when thou gav'st them
    the rod and put'st down thine own breeches, (1.4.176-178)

    Lear's Fool (Lear's personal comedian) seems pretty smart when he points out that Lear's daughters became more like his "mother" when Lear gave up his power and his kingdom to them. The Fool notes that Lear might as well have pulled down his "breeches" (pants) and given his daughters a "rod" to spank him with.

    Speaking of mothers, we also want to point out that, even though there's a lot of talk about moms in this play, there aren't actually any mothers present in King Lear. What's up with that?

    King Lear

    LEAR
    How sharper than a serpent's tooth it is
    To have a thankless child.—Away, away! (1.4.302-303)

    When Goneril boots her father out of her house, Lear complains about the sting of Goneril's rejection. We don't doubt that Lear's emotional pain is real but we do wonder if Goneril isn't right to order her father out of her home. Lear, after all, is a pretty lousy houseguest. He shows up on his daughter's doorstep with a hundred "rowdy knights" who act as though Goneril's pad is bar or a brothel and he, Lear, expects a warm welcome. So, who's right? Goneril or Lear?

    Act 3, Scene 4
    King Lear

    KING LEAR
    Now, all the plagues that in the pendulous air
    Hang fated o'er men's faults light on thy daughters!
    KENT
    He hath no daughters, sir.
    KING LEAR
    Death, traitor! Nothing could have subdued nature
    To such a lowness but his unkind daughters.
    Is it the fashion that discarded fathers
    Should have thus little mercy on their flesh?
    Judicious punishment! 'Twas this flesh begot
    Those pelican daughters. (3.4.73-81)

    After Goneril and Regan betray Lear (who has given them all his land and power), he's quick to condemn all women as he attempts to blame the troubles of the world on "unkind daughters." What's particularly interesting about this passage is the way Lear compares his daughters to "pelicans." In Shakespeare's day, mother pelicans were thought to have wounded their breasts so their young could feed off their blood. (Ew.)

    King Lear's being a bit of a martyr here, as he suggests that he is like a mother pelican who has been sacrificed so his greedy daughters can thrive. Lear is pretty fond of using this kind of imagery—earlier in the play, he compared Cordelia to a man who eats his parents (or children).

    History Snack: In the late sixteenth century (just a short time before Shakespeare wrote King Lear), Queen Elizabeth I (who never had any kids) used the image of the pelican in order to portray herself as a kind of loving and self-sacrificing "mother" to her "children" (the subjects of England).

  • Society and Class

    Act 1, Scene 2
    Edmund

    EDMUND
    Well, then,
    Legitimate Edgar, I must have your land.
    Our father's love is to the bastard Edmund
    As to th' legitimate. Fine word, 'legitimate.'
    Well, my legitimate, if this letter speed
    And my invention thrive, Edmund the base
    Shall top the legitimate. I grow, I prosper.
    Now, gods, stand up for bastards! (1.2.15-22)

    Hmm. A few seconds ago, we were beginning to feel sorry for poor Edmund. After all, it's no fun being labeled an "illegitimate" child. But, by this point in Edmund's soliloquy (a lengthy speech that reveals a character's inner thoughts), Edmund's self-serving speech is starting to sound pretty Darwinian. In other words, Edmund sounds like he ascribes to the idea of "the survival of the fittest," don't you think?

    EDMUND
    Wherefore should I
    Stand in the plague of custom, and permit
    The curiosity of nations to deprive me
    For that I am some twelve or fourteen moonshines
    Lag of a brother? why 'bastard'? Wherefore 'base,'
    When my dimensions are as well compact,
    My mind as generous and my shape as true
    As honest madam's issue? Why brand they us
    With 'base,' with 'baseness,' 'bastardy,' 'base,'
       'base,' (1.2.2-11)

    Edmund is pretty sick and tired of the way society treats younger brothers and illegitimate children (Edmund is both). According to Edmund, he's just as smart and attractive as his older, "legitimate" brother, Edgar. And yet, because of the system of primogeniture, Edgar will inherit everything when his father dies and Edmund will get nothing. (Primogeniture is the system by which eldest sons inherit all their father's land, wealth, and titles.) This is totally unfair – it's not Edmund's fault his dad had an affair or that he was born 12 or 14 months after Edgar.

    If we think about Lear as a play that offers social commentary, what do we think Shakespeare is up to here? Is he trying to make Edmund a sympathetic figure? Is he pointing to the unfairness of primogeniture? Something else? 

    Act 1, Scene 3
    Goneril

    GONERIL
    Put on what weary negligence you please,
    You and your fellows. I'll have it come to question.
    If he dislike it, let him to our sister,
    Whose mind and mine I know in that are one,
    Not to be overruled. Idle old man,
    That still would manage those authorities
    That he hath given away! Now, by my life,
    Old fools are babes again and must be used
    With checks as flatteries, when they are seen
       abused.
    Remember what I have said. (1.3.13-23)

    Here, Goneril talks about her retired father in a pretty condescending way that reveals some serious anger and resentment. She calls Lear an "idle old man" who is foolish enough to think that he still wields any power now that he's retired and has given his daughters all his land. According to Goneril, old men are just like babies—whiny, weak, and powerless.

    Act 1, Scene 4
    King Lear

    KING LEAR
    What art thou?
    KENT
    A very honest-hearted fellow, and as poor as the
    King.
    KING LEAR
    If thou be'st as poor for a subject as he is for a
    king, thou art poor enough. What wouldst thou?
    KENT
    Service.
    KING LEAR
    Who wouldst thou serve?
    KENT
    You.
    KING LEAR
    Dost thou know me, fellow?
    KENT
    No, sir, but you have that in your countenance
    which I would fain call master. (1.4.19-29)

    After Lear banishes his loyal servant Kent, Kent manages to find a way to serve his beloved master. Here, he appears on the heath, disguised as "Caius" in order to join Lear's retinue. But why? Lear's kind of a lousy master, after all. 

    Some literary critics see Kent as upholding an old and dying model of service, where servants put their master's needs above all else. Kent's loyalty, say some, is pitted against Shakespeare's representation of Oswald, a disloyal servant who only ever looks out for himself. So, what do you think? Is the play nostalgic for the days when servants were loyal enough to follow their master's into their graves? Before you decide, you might want to check out the end, where Kent says he's going to follow his (dead) master on a "journey."

    The Fool

    FOOL
    Thou wast a pretty fellow when thou hadst no
    need  to care for her frowning; now thou art an O
    without a figure: I am better than thou art now; I
    am a fool, thou art nothing. To Goneril. Yes,
    forsooth, I will hold my tongue. So your face
    bids me, though you say nothing.
                      Mum, mum,
                      He that keeps nor crust nor crumb,
                      Weary of all, shall want some.
                                                                    He points at Lear.
    That's a shelled peascod.
    GONERIL
    Not only, sir, this your all-licensed Fool,
    But other of your insolent retinue
    Do hourly carp and quarrel, breaking forth
    In rank and not-to-be endurèd riots. (1.4.196-208)

    Here, Goneril complains to Lear about the licensed fool's "insolence." (A "licensed fool" literally has a license to say whatever he wants. Lear's Fool is a lot like Feste in Twelfth Night.) So, what's Goneril complaining about, exactly? As we can see from this passage, the Fool offers some pretty precise and irreverent social commentary—King Lear is "nothing" now that he's given all his power and land to his children, and so on.

    Act 2, Scene 3
    Edgar

    EDGAR
    The country gives me proof and precedent
    Of Bedlam beggars who with roaring voices
    Strike in their numbed and mortifièd bare arms
    Pins, wooden pricks, nails, sprigs of rosemary,
    And with this horrible object, from low farms,
    Poor pelting villages, sheepcotes, and mills,
    Sometime with lunatic bans, sometime with prayers,
    Enforce their charity. 'Poor Turlygod! Poor Tom!'
    That's something yet. 'Edgar' I nothing am. (2.3.13-21)

    When Edgar disguises himself as "Poor Tom," an inmate of Bedlam hospital and the kind of guy who roams about the country "roaring" like a madman and begging for charity, his plight draws our attention to the homelessness in the play and in Shakespeare's England. 

    By the time Shakespeare wrote King Lear, Bedlam (a.k.a. Bethlehem Hospital) was an asylum notorious for its appalling conditions and brutal treatment of its patients, some of whom were given licenses to beg outside the hospital. Here, Edgar strips himself down to the skin with only a "blanket" to cover his "loins," ties his hair in knots, and smears his face with mud so that he cannot be recognized. "Edgar I nothing am" he announces, meaning, 1) he's no longer Edgar and 2) now that he's a homeless wanderer, he is nothing.

    Act 2, Scene 4
    Goneril

    GONERIL
    Hear me, my lord.
    What need you five-and-twenty, ten, or five,
    To follow in a house where twice so many
    Have a command to tend you?
    REGAN
    What need one? (2.4.299-303)

    King Lear begins his retirement with retinue of a hundred knights. Eventually, Goneril and Regan demand he get rid of his men and decrease Lear's knights to a number of seventy-five, then fifty, then twenty-five, then one, and then, finally, zero. A big fat goose egg.

    What happens to all those men who were once employed in Lear's service? They simply disperse, becoming part of a growing population of what historian A.L. Beier referred to as "masterless men," homeless wanderers that roamed the countryside. As Beier notes, vagrants were called "masterless" because they were unemployed and landless in a period when the able-bodied poor were supposed to have masters" (Masterless Men: The Vagrancy Problem in England 1560-1640, p. xix). The dispersal of King Lear's knights not only speaks to Lear's dramatic loss of power but also offers a bit of social commentary in the play.

    King Lear

    LEAR
    O, reason not the need! Our basest beggars
    Are in the poorest thing superfluous.
    Allow not nature more than nature needs,
    Man's life's as cheap as beast's. Thou art a lady;
    If only to go warm were gorgeous,
    Why, nature needs not what thou gorgeous wear'st,
    Which scarcely keeps thee warm. But, for true
       need— (2.4.304-311)

    When Goneril and Regan strip Lear of all his knights and say he has no "need" for so many men, Lear proclaims that "need" is not the point. Lear acknowledges he doesn't "need" a retinue of knights but, he says, even the lowliest "beggars / are in the poorest thing superfluous." 

    Translation: even beggars have something more than the bare minimum, so Lear should be able to keep his retinue of knights. If all men were allowed only to have the bare essentials, he would be no better than an animal or, "beast." As an example, Lear points out that Goneril and Regan wear gorgeous clothes that can hardly be said to keep them warm—Goneril and Regan wear such outfits not because they need them for warmth but because they're fashionable. So, is Lear right? When man only has the bare essentials, is he no better than an animal?

    Act 3, Scene 3
    Edmund

    EDMUND
    This courtesy forbid thee shall the Duke
    Instantly know, and of that letter too.
    This seems a fair deserving, and must draw me
    That which my father loses—no less than all.
    The younger rises when the old doth fall. (3.3.21-25)

    When Edmund learns that his father, Gloucester, is helping King Lear against Cornwall's wishes, he decides to betray his father for political gain. What's interesting about this passage is that Edmund sees his conflict with his father as a conflict between the younger generation and "the old." Why is that? 

    Some argue that, when the play pits the younger generation against the old, it dramatizes a social problem in Shakespeare's England. The argument basically goes like this: In Shakespeare's England, there was a pretty small number of old men who held all the land, wealth, and power (when something like this happens, it's called a "gerontocracy"). There was also a large and growing population of young men without any power. The result? A whole lot of bitter young men (like Edmund) looking to get ahead and willing to do just about anything to accomplish their goals.

    This whole old generation vs. young generation thing isn't limited to just men in King Lear. Goneril and Regan are always going around saying that foolish, old, men like Lear don't deserve to have any power. If you want to think about this some more, check out "Symbols," where we discussion the relationship between "Old Men and Babies."

    Act 3, Scene 4
    King Lear

    LEAR
    Poor naked wretches, whereso'er you are,
    That bide the pelting of this pitiless storm,
    How shall your houseless heads and unfed sides,
    Your loop'd and windowed raggedness defend
       you
    From seasons such as these? O, I have ta'en
    Too little care of this! Take physic, pomp.
    Expose thyself to feel what wretches feel,
    That thou mayst shake the superflux to them
    And show the heavens more just (3.4.32-41)

    This is an important moment for King Lear because he not only recognizes the homeless problem in his kingdom, he also realizes that something must be done about it. Here, Lear acknowledges that, as king, he had the power and authority to make some social changes. Lear also seems to propose a redistribution of wealth, which is a pretty radical and astonishing thing for a king to do.

  • Compassion and Forgiveness

    Act 2, Scene 4
    Regan

    REGAN
    […] Shut up your doors:
    He is attended with a desperate train,
    And what they may incense him to, being apt
    To have his ear abused, wisdom bids fear.
    CORNWALL
    Shut up your doors, my lord. 'Tis a wild night.
    My Regan counsels well. Come out o' th' storm. (2.4.348-353)

    Regan seems pretty cold-blooded, don't you think? Not only has she driven her aging father from her home and out into the storm, she also orders her husband to lock the doors behind him! There's no compassion in Regan (or her sister Goneril, for that matter).

    Act 3, Scene 2
    King Lear

    LEAR
    My wits begin to turn.—
    Come on, my boy. How dost, my boy? Art cold?
    I am cold myself. Where is this straw, my fellow?
    The art of our necessities is strange
    That can make vile things precious. Come, your
       hovel.—
    Poor Fool and knave, I have one part in my heart
    That's sorry yet for thee. (3.2.73-80)

    Even while Lear teeters on the brink of insanity, he feels pity for the Fool. Mr. T would be proud.

    Act 3, Scene 6
    Edgar

    EDGAR, aside
    My tears begin to take his part so much
    They'll mar my counterfeiting. (3.6.63-64)

    Edgar almost ruins his "Poor Tom" disguise by weeping in pity for Lear's insanity. The "good" characters in King Lear are unable to control their emotions in the face of injustice and suffering.

    Act 3, Scene 7

    FIRST SERVANT
    Hold your hand,
    my lord.
    I have served you ever since I was a child,
    But better service have I never done you
    Than now to bid you hold. (3.7.88-92)

    Cornwall's own servant feels so much pity for Gloucester that he rebels against his master to try to prevent him from further wounding Gloucester. The servant's reward, of course, is that Regan stabs him.

    Act 4, Scene 7
    Cordelia

    CORDELIA, kissing Lear
    O, my dear father, restoration hang
    Thy medicine on my lips, and let this kiss
    Repair those violent harms that my two sisters
    Have in thy reverence made.
    KENT
    Kind and dear princess. (4.7.31-35)

    As she bends over her ailing father to revive him with a kiss, Cordelia reveals that she has one of the kindest, loving hearts in English literature. Even after her father unfairly banished her, love and forgiveness come naturally. Aww.

    King Lear

    LEAR
    Be your tears wet? Yes, faith. I pray, weep not.
    If you have poison for me, I will drink it.
    I know you do not love me, for your sisters
    Have, as I do remember, done me wrong.
    You have some cause; they have not.
    CORDELIA
                                                               No cause, no
       cause. (4.7.81-87)

    This is, maybe, the most tender of moments in the play. When Lear awakens and finds his daughter at his bedside, he acknowledges the way he's hurt Cordelia and admits that she has "some cause" to wish him harm. Yet, despite everything, Cordelia finds it within herself to utter "no cause, no cause."

    Act 5, Scene 3
    Edgar

    EDGAR
    Kent, sir, the banished Kent, who in disguise
    Followed his enemy king, and did him service
    Improper for a slave. (5.3.258-260)

    Cordelia's not the only one who forgives Lear's terrible behavior. Even after Kent is banished by his king (for no good reason, we night add), he still finds a way to serve his "enemy king." Kent disguises himself as "Caius" so he can get a job being Lear's servant. Now that's devotion, wouldn't you say?

    EDGAR
    Let's exchange charity.
    I am no less in blood than thou art, Edmund;
    If more, the more th' hast wronged me. (5.3.200-202)

    After Edgar stabs his evil brother in the guts, he decides it's time to "exchange" forgiveness. Aww, how sweet. 

    But wait a minute, is this supposed to be a touching moment or not? At first, Edgar seems to make an offer of peace, by saying that, even though he (Edgar) is a legitimate son and Edmund is a "bastard," he's no better than Edmund. Touching, right? 

    Not so fast. Edgar continues on to say something like: "But if I am better than you, you've wronged me even more than I thought." Sounds like a backhanded compliment to us. (Did we mention that Edgar says all of this while Edmund's bleeding out of his guts?)

    LEAR
    Poor naked wretches, whereso'er you are,
    That bide the pelting of this pitiless storm,
    How shall your houseless heads and unfed sides,
    Your looped and windowed raggedness, defend
       you
    From seasons such as these? O, I have ta'en
    Too little care of this. Take physic, pomp.
    Expose thyself to feel what wretches feel,
    That thou may'st shake the superflux to them,
    And show the heavens more just (3.4.32-41)

    Up until now, King Lear has never really thought about the plight of homelessness. This is the first time he acknowledges the "poor naked wretches" in his kingdom as he realizes that he hasn't done enough to solve the homeless problem. Lear's compassion moves him to acknowledge that he should have done something about it when he had the power and authority to make a difference.

    EDMUND
    This speech of yours hath moved me,
    And shall perchance do good. (5.3.236-237)

    Even Edmund, the play's villain, finds himself moved by pity when his brother Edgar describes the death of their father. As a result, Edmund tries to save Lear and Cordelia's lives by confessing that he's ordered his henchmen to hang them. But, just when we might begin to think that things might turn out well, we Learn that Cordelia has already been hanged.

  • Justice

    Act 3, Scene 2
    King Lear

    LEAR
    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)

    Lear sees himself as a victim of injustice – his daughters have betrayed him and now he's caught out on the heath during a terrible storm. What's interesting about this passage is the way Lear literally accuses the storm of being his daughters' agent ("servile minister"). For Lear, it seems the whole world is against him.

    Act 3, Scene 4
    King Lear

    LEAR
    Poor naked wretches, whereso'er you are,
    That bide the pelting of this pitiless storm,
    How shall your houseless heads and unfed sides,
    Your looped and windowed raggedness, defend
       you
    From seasons such as these? O, I have ta'en
    Too little care of this. Take physic, pomp.
    Expose thyself to feel what wretches feel,
    That thou may'st shake the superflux to them
    And show the heavens more just. (3.4.32-41)

    This is an important moment for King Lear, who has never before contemplated the plight of homelessness. Here, he realizes that he hasn't done enough to solve the homeless problem in his kingdom as he acknowledges that, as king, he had the power and authority to do something about it. This is pretty extraordinary because it suggests that the acts of human beings are the things that prove "the heavens [to be] more just." In other words, there can only be justice in the world when human beings behave justly toward each other.

    Act 3, Scene 7
    Duke of Cornwall

    CORNWALL
    I have received a hurt. Follow me, lady.—
    Turn out that eyeless villain. Throw this slave
    Upon the dunghill.—Regan, I bleed apace.
    Untimely comes this hurt. (3.7.116-119)

    Contrary to what he says, Cornwall's wound is very "timely"; the servant has served up justice for Gloucester's eyes.

    Act 4, Scene 1
    Earl of Gloucester

    GLOUCESTER
    As flies to wanton boys are we to th' gods;
    They kill us for their sport. (4.1.41-42)

    This is one of the most famous lines in the play. For Gloucester, the gods are not only indifferent to human suffering but they're excessively cruel, causing human misery just as easily and thoughtlessly as "wanton boys" might swat at "flies."

    Act 5, Scene 3
    Edmund

    EDMUND
    Th' hast spoken right. 'Tis true.
    The wheel is come full circle; I am here. (5.3.208-209)

    After the wicked Edmund is mortally wounded by his brother, he says "the wheel has come full circle" (once again, he's at the bottom of fortune's wheel). In other words, he suggests he got exactly what was coming to him. Is he right?

    Duke of Albany

    ALBANY
    The gods defend her [Cordelia]!—Bear him hence awhile.
                                                                            Edmund is carried off.
                    Enter Lear with Cordelia in his arms,                         
                              followed by a Gentleman. (5.3.307)

    If you want evidence that divine justice does not exist in the world of the play, look no further. Just as Albany prays to the gods to protect the innocent Cordelia from harm, Lear enters holding Cordelia's lifeless body in his arms. No wonder King Lear is known as Shakespeare's "bleakest" tragedy.

    History Snack: In 1681, playwright Nahum Tate rewrote Shakespeare's play so it would have a happy ending. In Tate's version, Lear and Cordelia live and Cordelia falls in love and marries Edgar.

    ALBANY
    All friends shall taste
    The wages of their virtue, and all foes
    The cup of their deservings. (5.3.366-368)

    Here, Albany explains why Edgar and Kent get to rule the kingdom – they're "virtu[ous]" so, they deserve it. According to Albany, everybody gets what they deserve. On the one hand, this seems to be true – Edmund is justly punished for ruining his father's and brother's lives, Goneril and Regan end up dead, etc.

    But wait a minute. Wasn't Albany paying attention five seconds ago when Lear entered the room with the dead Cordelia in his arms?! Cordelia certainly didn't "deserve" to die, so what the heck is Albany talking about? This statement seems pretty absurd, wouldn't you say? Especially since the evidence of Cordelia's unjust and undeserved death (that would be Cordelia's lifeless body) is on stage, in plain sight.

    GENTLEMAN
    […] O, she's dead!
    ALBANY
    Who dead? Speak, man.
    GENTLEMAN
    Your lady [Goneril], sir, your lady. And her sister
    By her is poisoned. She confesses it. (5.3.266-269)

    Both Regan and Goneril get their just desserts for cruelty and scheming – Goneril ends up taking her sister, Regan, down and then killing herself, too. While there is no system of justice imposed on the characters in Lear, they end up imposing justice on themselves.

    Edgar

    EDGAR
    My name is Edgar, and thy father's son.
    The gods are just, and of our pleasant vices
    Make instruments to plague us.
    The dark and vicious place where thee he got
    Cost him his eyes. (5.3.203-207)

    After Edgar mortally wounds his wicked brother, Edmund, he says "the gods are just" because they punish humans for their wrong doings. This seems to suggest that Edmund deserved what he got (a stab to the guts). Edgar also implies his father, Gloucester, got what he deserved for having an affair with Edmunds mother. Remember, Gloucester's eyes were plucked out after he was accused of treason, and he fathered a wicked child, Edmund, who betrayed him.

    King Lear

    KING LEAR
    And my poor fool is hanged. No, no, no life?
    Why should a dog, a horse, a rat, have life,
    And thou no breath at all? Thou 'lt come no more,
    Never, never, never, never, never.— (5.3.369-372)

    When King Lear, mourning the death of his beloved daughter, Cordelia, asks "Why should a dog, a horse, a rat, have life?" when Cordelia is dead, he gives voice the question we all ask when a loved one dies: Why?

    In the play, Shakespeare refuses to console us with his answer because there simply is no good explanation for why Cordelia is dead while creatures with less to offer the world get to live. In other words, Cordelia's death, like so many others, simply isn't fair and there's absolutely nothing that can be done about it. Lear will "never, never, never, never" see his daughter alive again.

    King Lear

    LEAR […] O heavens,
    If you do love old men, if your sweet sway
    Show obedience, if you yourselves are old,
    Make it your cause. Send down, and take my part. (2.4.217-220)

    After Goneril and Regan betray him, King Lear calls upon the heavens to take his side and send down a punishing storm. As if in answer to his prayer, Lear, and not his daughters, suffers in the ensuing storm when Lear becomes homeless and wanders the heath. Does Lear deserve this?