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King Lear

by William Shakespeare

Sara Hansson García


1. Shakespeare’s Biography

2. Shakespeare’s works

3. Historical and literary context

4. King Lear’s structure

5. King Lear’s style and language

6. Review

7. Bibliography


Shakespeare’s biography

William Shakespeare is the most famous playwright of all times. He wrote his plays and sonnets during the Elizabethan and Jacobean Era and they are still widely known today. Despite being one of the most influential and famous authors ever known, William Shakespeare’s life is still a mystery.

His actual birthday is not even known. Scholars believe that he was born near April 23, 1564 in Stratford-upon-Avon, 165 km west of London. His father was a leather merchant named John Shakespeare, and his mother, Mary Arden, was a local landed heiress from a respected family. There is no existing record about William’s education. Experts think that it is very probable that he attended the local grammar school: the King’s New School in Stratford, where reading, writing and classic languages and literature were taught. What is certainly known is that he never went to University. This uncertainty about Shakespeare’s education has aroused suspicions about the original authorship of his work: is it possible that someone whose level of education is unknown could write such elevated discourses? Some people are sceptical about this and they even question William Shakespeare’s existence.

On November 28, 1585 with only 18 years old, Shakespeare married Anne Hathaway, a woman eight years older than him. She was three months pregnant when they got married. It is said that their relation was not very close and warm, however, they had three children: the eldest one, Susanna (1583), and twins Hamnet and Judith (1585). His only son, Hamnet, died at age 11 of unknown causes. Some people say that his famous character Hamlet was named after his own son.

After the baptism of his children, Shakespeare disappears from any historical record, and subsequently it is impossible to know what was he doing until the early 1590s when he is recognized as a playwright in London. This period of uncertainty is known as “the lost years”. It has been some speculations about William’s activity between 1585 and 1592: rumours said that he went to London fleeing from Sir Thomas Lucy, the landlord of the fields where William was caught poaching. It is also said that he might have been working as an assistant schoolmaster in Lancashire, or that he went on a pilgrimage to Rome.

At some point in the late 1580s, Shakespeare went to live to London, and by 1592 there is evidence that he earned a living as a writer and also as an actor. In 1594 William joined the acting company “Lord Chamberlain’s men” and became its chief playwright. There he wrote plays for a regular group of performers. Richard Burbage, the leading tragic actor of the day, was the one who always performed the principal characters. The company became very famous and often performed for Elizabeth I, Queen of England. In 1603, after James I ascension to the throne, the company changed its name to “The King’s Men” because the king granted his royal patronage. During the time he formed part of this company he wrote very famous plays like Romeo and Juliet (1594-1595), A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1595-1596), Henry V (1598-1599), Hamlet (1600-1601), etc. They were very popular and they had prestige. Shakespeare even published in octavo editions some of his works that were sold as popular literature. Besides being a writer, he was a pretty good business man and in 1599 he and his business partners built their own theatre on the south bank of the Thames River, “The Globe Theatre”.

His success allowed him to buy the second largest house in Stratford, New House, for his family. Besides, he also purchased leases of real state near Stratford that later on doubled in value, so he had enough income to write his plays uninterrupted and retire in comfort to Stratford in 1611.

It has been said that Shakespeare died the day of his birthday in 1616, but scholars think that such a coincidence is a myth. Church records say that he was buried at Trinity Church on April 5, 1616. In his will he stated that Susanna, his eldest daughter, was the heiress of most of his properties. However, his wife, Anne, received very little and she bequeathed his “second-best bed”.


Shakespeare’s works

Shakespeare is not only a playwright, but also a poet. He wrote 37 theatre plays and 154 sonnets. Nevertheless, his plays are more famous. It is important to remark that we know almost every play because of the publication in 1623 of Mr. William Shakespeare’s Comedies, Histories, & Tragedies, commonly known as First Folio. In this section of the paper, I am going to focus in theatre plays since King Lear is one of the important ones. Besides, I will try to mention the most important plays dividing them into four periods:

Plays probably written before 1594 (before Shakespeare joined “The Chamberlain’s Men”:

By this time, Shakespeare bet for “history plays”, a kind of tragic plays that represented royal characters and histories known by everybody. The audience was amused by this kind of stories because they already knew the plot. Between 1590 and 1592, it is probable that he wrote the three parts of Henry VI (the story about the contention between the two famous Houses of York and Lancaster), King John and Richard III (the story of a tyrannical king). It is probable that in 1592 he had written his first comedy: The Comedy of Errors (the story of twins accidentally separated after birth, the humour comes from slapstick and mistaken identity). And also his first tragedy: Titus Andronicus (his first attempt in making a revenge play, a story settled on the latter days of the Roman Empire).

Plays probably written between 1594 1601:

Shakespeare writes at first plays which show the exuberance of youthful love, like the tragedy: Romeo and Juliet (1595), and the comedy A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1596). Then, he continues writing history plays such as the tetralogy known as “the Henriad” which contains: Richard II, Henry IV (Part I), Henry IV (Part II), and Henry V. In this period his plays show more real power and deeper insight into human nature, as we can see in the tragedies: The Merchant of Venice (1596), the tragedy about human cruelty; Hamlet (1600), a play of revenge; Troilus and Cressida (1601), a “problem play” that ends with the destruction of the love of the couple. Shakespeare also wrote lots of comedies like Much Ado about Nothing (1598), one of the best comedies of the writer that ends with multiple marriages and no deaths; As You Like It (1599), a pastoral comedy; Merry Wives of Windsor (1600) a play settled in the Elizabethan era, contemporary to them; Twelfth Night (1601), a comedy prepared for the close of the Christmas season.

Plays written between 1601 1608:

Along with the previous great tragedies as Hamlet, Julius Caesar, Troilus and Cressida… in this period, Shakespeare writes more extraordinary tragic plays like Othello (1604), a story about racism, love, jealousy and betrayal; King Lear (1605), the play we are going to analyse below; Macbeth (1606), a dark tragedy about the ambition of power; Antony and Cleopatra (1607), a roman tragedy about the relationship between the two famous historic characters; Coriolanus (1608), another roman tragedy based on the life of the legendary Roman leader Caius Marcius Coriolanus.

Plays written between 1608 1613:

The plays of this fourth period are remarkable for calm strength and sweetness. Shakespeare’s mother died and in 1611 he went to his village, Stratford to live and write in calm. The great plays of this period are:

Cymbeline (1609), a romance set in Ancient Britain that deals with the themes of innocence and jealousy; Winter’s Tale (1610), an intense psychological drama with a comedic happy ending; The Tempest (1611), the last play Shakespeare wrote alone, a romance with a tragicomedy influence.


Historical and literary context

The 16 th and 17 th centuries were, in England, a time of monarchic and religious instability. After Henry VIII broke with the Church of Rome and founded his own Protestant Church of England in 1536, England was thrown into a kind of religious identity crisis over the next few decades.

When the heiress of the throne and first daughter of King Henry VIII, Mary (popularly known as “Bloody Mary”) ascended to the throne, she established Catholicism again because she was a fervent catholic as her mother Catherine of Aragon. After a few years, Mary died and Elizabeth, Mary’s half-sister, became queen in 1558. Elizabeth I, last of the Tudor dynasty, was Protestant and settled Protestantism for many years. This back and forth from one religion to another was accompanied by danger, persecution and death for the English people.

After the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588, the country, as a Protestant nation, had established itself as a political power within Europe, and embarked upon a process of imperial expansion. Consequently, there was a great flowering in literature, classical studies, historiography, geography and philosophy, which makes the Elizabethan era a synonym of the English Renaissance. It is, the so-called ‘Golden Age’. When the Queen died, she appointed James VI of Scotland as her successor, and he became James I of England, the first of the Stuart dynasty. The period of his reign is called “The Jacobean era” and it only was the continuation of the growth of power and the expansion of colonies around the world.

Shakespeare was a product of his age. He was not only part of the flourishing literary world of modern England along with writers like John Donne, Edmund Spencer and Mary Sidney Herbert, but he was one of the master playwrights of his time along with Christopher Marlowe, Ben Jonson, Thomas Heywood, Kyd and John Webster. All this playwrights were the ones that constructed this Golden Ages of the theatre in England. Although they had literary aspirations, the world of the theatre was separated from the world of literature. The performance of dramas became in the 16 th century a lucrative business: it was made to entertain as many people as possible and to turn a profit for its participants. This change of the view of theatre, from religious representations, such as “morality plays”, to more popular performances in the late 1500 was closely linked to the transformations of London into a commercial centre and the increase of population. It was a huge demand of entertainment and the crown even sponsored it, so the number of theatres, companies, playwrights and representations increased in the town. The audience tastes could shift from one week to the next, so theatrical companies had to remain flexible and dramatic genres were never fixed or unified.

4. King Lear’s structure

King Lear is a tragedy written by Shakespeare around 1605 and printed and published for the first time in quarto in 1608 with the following title: The True Chronicle of the History of the Life and Death of King Lear and His Three Daughters. Later on, in 1623, a more theatrical version, The Tragedy of King Lear, was included in the First Folio.


The tragedy is divided into 5 acts. Below, I will make a brief summary of each act that can be also the argument of the play in this paper:

Act I:

The first act is divided in 5 scenes, and it is where the crux of the story is revealed. The King, tired of governing, wants to divide his kingdom into three: one part for each daughter. The two elder ones,

Goneril and Regan, are married to the Duke of Albany and the Duke of Cornwall respectively, while the youngest one, Cordelia, is still unmarried. The King puts as a criterion the love and the flattery that his daughters show to him. While he is satisfied with his elder daughters, Cordelia refuses to flatter, so she becomes heirless. Earl of Kent tries to help Cordelia arguing with the king, but he ends in the exile. Between the two suitors of Cordelia, France is the only one that accepts her as a dowerless bride. Meanwhile, Edmund, the bastard son of Gloucester decides to change his fortune and make his step-father believe that his legitimate son, Edgar, is conspiring against him. Goneril decides to teach her father a lesson, because he is being too despotic, and communicates with her sister Regan in order to make her collaborate. Being in Albany’s Palace (Goneril’s), the King feels not welcomed: Oswald, the steward, following his mistress commandments, doesn’t obey neither him nor his men. Kent, disguised as Caius (a humble person) appears again, and gains the king’s approval to serve him. When Goneril, in an attempt to challenge her father, asks him to reduce the number of men that she hosts in, the king resolves to leave and go to Gloucestershire seeking for hospitality.

Act II:

The second act is divided into 4 scenes. Before the King arrives to Gloucestershire, Edmund prevents his step-brother Edgar to come home to receive the King. For opposing his brother, Edmund is promoted to a higher rank by Regan and Cornwall. Both of them visit Gloucester with the excuse of trying to reconcile Goneril and Lear. After a quarrel between Caius and Oswald, the King arrives and angers when he sees his new servant, Caius, in the stocks. Lear finds himself at the mercy of his daughters, who claimed to love him “all”, and discovers that Cordelia told the truth. Outraged and nearly mad, he leaves to the forest when a heavy storm is on the way.

Act III:

This act has 7 scenes because the scenery changes a lot and it’s where the plot is developed. Kent, still disguised as Caius, contacts with Cordelia through a Gentleman, who informs him about the French spies and soldiers that have come to the island to invade England. Lear, under the storm in that forest, becomes mad and starts to say nonsenses. Gloucester alerts Edmund about the division between Albany and Cornwall and about a letter that he has received with dangerous contents, and decides to send his son with the duke, while he goes to find the king. Edmund then tells that he will alert Cornwall immediately of Gloucester's plans and the treasonous letter. Caius (Kent) tries to shelter the King from the rain in a cave. An apparently humble person, Poor Tom (Edgar, disguised) enters in the scene, the king finds him intriguing and calls him a philosopher. Meanwhile, Gloucester arrives to the cave and Kent urges him to plead with Lear to go and he accepts when they accept Tom’s company. Then, Cornwall, with the information that Edmund has proportioned, makes him Earl of Gloucester, and becomes a better father for him. Poor Tom (Edgar), tells Lear that he will punish the daughters himself. Gloucester and Kent want to protect the king of the death threats that are circulating, and there’s a caravan waiting which will take Lear to Dover. Cornwall decides to seek and punish the traitor, Gloucester; also calls Goneril to bring the letter of France’s invasion to Albany. Edmund is asked to accompany her. Gloucester is brought and bound with chains to a chair in his own house, and he is interrogated. He admits that has sent the King to Dover, and Cornwall blinds one of his eyes. A servant defends him and dies stabbed by Regan and Cornwall is wounded. The other eye of Gloucester is blinded. He calls for Edmund’s help and realizes that he is his traitor.

Act IV:

The fourth act has got 7 scenes, and it displays the beginning of the resolution. Gloucester finds Poor Tom (his loyal son, Edgar) and tells him all what has happened and laments how stupid he has been towards his son. He asks poor Tom to lead him to the edge of the high cliff in Dover and leave him there. When Edmund and Goneril arrive to Albany’s home, Goneril finds Albany very displeased with the events with which she and Regan have been involved. Goneril defends herself accusing him of being weak and allowing the French to invade their lands. News arrives of Cornwall’s death. Albany takes it as a proof of justice of the gods. Goneril feels disgusted because her sister, now, as a widow,

can marry the handsome Edmund. When Albany finds out that Edmund was the one who accompanied his wife to home and that he is the responsible of Gloucester blindness, he swears to fight for Gloucester. Kent is informed of Cordelia’s response to his letter, she was very moved and felt sorry for her sisters and her father. Lear refuses to see his daughter because he is ashamed of his behaviour, but Cordelia is worried and asks the doctor to save him from his illness. Regan asks Oswald what is in the letter of Goneril to Edmund, she is jealous of her sister, and sends him to remind Edmund about their plans of marriage. Edgar arrives with Gloucester to Dover and pretends they are on the top of the cliff, then Gloucester falls forward of the cliff, he believes, but he is safe. Edgar acts as another man who finds Gloucester alive after the fall, and calls it a miracle. Lear appears and they converse, Lear states that a blind sees better the world than him. He recovers his sanity and identifies Gloucester. Attendants of Cordelia find Lear and are happy to follow him as a king. Oswald enters and wants to kill Gloucester, but Edgar interposes and kills him. Before dying Oswald pleads Edgar to deliver the letter from Goneril to Edmund. She begs in the letter to slay Albany so they can be together. Edgar vows to defend Albany. Cordelia thanks Kent for protecting her father, Lear, who after a long sleep awakes, sees Cordelia and thinks she is a spirit.

Act V:

The final act has only 3 scenes, and it’s when the story is resolved. Regan asks Edmund if he loves her sister, he answers that he only feels "honoured love" towards her. Regan warns him to stay away from Goneril. Goneril at the end points out that they must join together against France and ignore their personal conflicts. Edgar finds Albany and shows him the letter. Edmund in a soliloquy wonders which sister he should take, both, one or neither. He decides to use Albany during the battle and then kill him anyway. In the battle, Cordelia and Lear have lost and been taken captive by Edmund. Albany asks Edmund to turn the prisoners into his protection, and he assures that they will be passed. Regan implores Edmund to marry her and accept all the titles and Goneril tries to interpose between them. Albany arrests him for treason and calls him for a duel, Edmund accepts. Edgar, still disguised, states that he desires to fight with Edmund, calling him a traitor. Edmund falls, Albany shows her wife the letter that she wrote to Edmund, and she retorts that he can’t punish her because she is the ruler. Dying, Edmund asks his contrary to reveal his identity, and Edgar confesses who he is. He announces what he has done, and tells that his father, when he confessed him his identity was so overwhelmed that his heart stopped functioning. It is announced that Goneril has stabbed herself admitting that she had poisoned Regan. Edmund kind of sees his end, he also should die. Albany asks Edmund about the circumstances of the prisoners, and he admits that he commanded their murder but, as he hopes to do some good, he sends an officer to stop Cordelia’s hanging. Lear appears carrying Cordelia’s body and very sad admits that he has killed the guard who hung her. He finally recognizes Kent and learns by his words that he has accompanied him, disguised as Caius, all this time. A messenger informs that Edmund has died. Albany tries to reset Lear’s absolute rule and Kent and Edgar’s power. Lear, mourning the loss of Cordelia dies, so Albany gives Kent and Edgar the rule of the country, but Kent refuses and Edgar becomes the new ruler.


There are at least 25 characters that take part in the play. However, I will only describe concisely the major ones: King Lear, Goneril, Regan, Cordelia, Earl of Kent (Caius), Edmund and Edgar. Then I will only mention the secondary or not so important characters.

King Lear: He is the fictional King of a Celtic and pre-Christian Britain. At the beginning of the play he is presented as a despotic and arrogant king, but, through the story, he suffers a process of “anagnorisis” becoming crazy and finally understanding that precisely who doesn’t pretend anything is the better one. Ironically, he also is a little bit the ‘fool character’ of the story. At the end, he dies as a result of his sorrow and stupidity.

Goneril and Regan: The two elder daughters of the King prove to be the most unreliable characters of the play. They begin challenging his father giving him a lesson, but the confrontation ends in a war. They are not reliable because while they assure to love his father “all”, then they are the least persons to help him, and while they share their power interests with their husbands, then they are disposed to give in anything to obtain the love of Edmund. Jealousy and greed are the words that describe them best.

Cordelia: The youngest daughter of Lear is the most sincere character of all. She does not want to cheat anyone in order to improve her personal benefits and positions. She is treated very badly by his father at the beginning of the play, but then she is proved to be the best daughter. She marries the King of France, and at the end she dies hanged by orders of Edmund.

The Earl of Kent: Kent, as well as Cordelia, suffers the despotism of King Lear and is sent to the exile. However, he proves to be his best advisor and also a true and devoted friend. He denies leaving the king and disguises himself as a humble beggar, Caius, in order to be by his side all the time and take care of him. Despite his loyalty, the king doesn’t seem to esteem him very much. As we can see at the end, it is not very clear that the king even recognizes him.

Edmund: Edmund is the bastard and handsome son of Gloucester. Refusing to his condition, he designs a plan in order to gain the power and wealth that he would never get. He is the traitor par excellence in the story. He betrays his father and his brother becoming the mobile of the story. Due to his handsomeness, Goneril and Regan fight for his love and they end dead. At the end, he achieves the power that he desired, but he dies in a duel with his brother, accomplishing the fate that he deserved for causing so much pain and trouble.

Edgar: He is the legitimate son of Gloucester. Through the story we discover that he is the ‘good character’ that does everything well in order to bring justice in that disordered world. In fact, at the end, he becomes the ruler of the kingdom due to his exploits and his gestures of loyalty. He is the one who helps his father when he becomes blind and saves him from death. He also avenges the destiny of Cordelia, Gloucester, and all the characters that had been troubled by the bastard by killing Edmund, his brother, in a duel.


The staging of King Lear, like almost every old play, has changed quite a lot since first represented. However, roughly speaking, as it was a tragedy, the scenery and the “atrezzo” must had been rather poor, with little elements, and, of course, the illumination quite dark since the major part of the story happens in indoor spaces.

King Lear doesn’t need very complicated staging, there are two types of main scenarios that are essential for the representation: the inside of a castle (as the main inside space) and a light between trees in the forest. As for the wardrobe, since the story is set in the pre-Christian Britain, the dresses must have been with an appearance of Celtic and old clothes.

As for the records, the first time that King Lear was represented was on 26 th December 1606 at court. King Lear was “played before the King's Majesty at Whitehall upon S. Stephen's night at Christmas last” (The Stationers’ Register, 1607). It is thought that Richard Burbage played King Lear. It’s possible that Shakespeare rewrote it for a secondary representation at The Blackfriars in 1609, so that explains the other versions of the play. King Lear has been represented along 400 years, and lots of changes had been made in the scenography but also in the plot in order to renew the play and make it more suitable for our times.


King Lear’s style and language

King Lear is, as other Shakespearean plays, written in the conventional style of the day, with rhetorical phrases and elaborate metaphors. It is a tragedy of the latter period of Shakespeare’s production, so he presents very human characters and timeless and universal temperaments. In this kind of tragedies, he inserts the issue of “moral failures” that often lead into turns and twists of the plot, destroying the main character and those he loves.

As for the language, he uses the blank verse a lot during all the play. The blank verse is an unrhymed iambic five-stress (decasyllabic) verse that is similar to the prose because it doesn’t rhyme at all. However, Shakespeare also uses couplets, 37 rhyming five-stress iambic couplets used for two main purposes:

- To give emotional intensity to a speech, like in Edgar’s speech (III, vi, 100-111)

- To mark the end of the scene or of the speech, as it was usual in Elizabethan plays.

6. Review

King Lear is the very first Shakespearean play that I have read in my entire life. I found difficult the accessibility to the meaning due to the complicated metaphors and other expressions that he uses. I believe that for a young reader in the 21 st century is hard to understand many issues: First of all, the language, there are lots of words and rhetorical expressions that if I didn’t have footnotes, I would found it impossible to understand. I think this is a good way to see the employment of the language 400 years ago and to see how much it has evolved. I have particularly enjoyed the couplets at the end of the scenes because they made a difference between so much blank verse. The other thing that I have found hard to understand is the behaviour of so many characters, for example: Why does Albany behave so passive with Edmund until the end of the story? Of course, it is a tragedy and the end has to be impressive and bloody, but I still don’t understand it. The other thing that I wanted to highlight is the complicated plot, so many characters that interact and sometimes is hard to follow the line of the story. Despite all what I have said, I recognize that the end is extraordinary. The duel between the brothers was very revealing: the story of the battle between Good and Bad is as old as the first stories, but the audience always expects to see a kind of “moral” in the story, and Shakespeare succeeded in representing that. I particularly loved that despite being a tragedy, there’s a triumph of the ‘Good’.

7. Bibliography

Columbia College. Historical Context for King Lear by William Shakespeare. [online]. [Accessed 20 Apr 2014].

King Lear .org: The Complete King Lear Site. King Lear Character Outlines & Description. [online]. [Accessed 23 Apr 2014].

King Lear .org: The Complete King Lear Site. King Lear Performance History. [online]. [Accessed 9 May 2014].

Lee Jamieson. Shakespeare Biography, A Comprehensive Shakespeare Biography. [online]. [Accessed 20 Apr 2014].

Shakespeare Online. Shakespeare Online. [online]. [Accessed 20 Apr 2014].

Shakespeare Resource Center. Shakespeare's Biography. [online]. [Accessed 21 Apr 2014].

The website. William Shakespeare. [online]. [Accessed 20 Apr 2014].