Study Guide

King Lear Power

By William Shakespeare


Act 1, Scene 1
King Lear

Our son of
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
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.")

[…] 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?

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.

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

This man hath had good counsel. A hundred
'Tis politic and safe to let him keep
At point a hundred knights! Yes, that, on every
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

I'll tell thee. To Goneril. Life and death! I am
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
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.

Doth any here know me? This is not Lear.
Doth Lear walk thus, speak thus? Where are his
Either his notion weakens, his discernings
Are lethargied—Ha! Waking? 'Tis not so.
Who is it that can tell me who I am?
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

[…] 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

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
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

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

[…] 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.

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