Study Guide

King Lear Society and Class

By William Shakespeare

Society and Class

Act 1, Scene 2

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?

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

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
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

What art thou?
A very honest-hearted fellow, and as poor as the
If thou be'st as poor for a subject as he is for a
king, thou art poor enough. What wouldst thou?
Who wouldst thou serve?
Dost thou know me, fellow?
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

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.
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

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

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?
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

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

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

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
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.

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