Characterisation - Lear

  • Complex tragic hero
  • Act 1 Scene 1 folly - deserved punishment
  • Displays traits designed to alienate audience
  • Quick to vituperative anger when displeased and too arrogant to take adgice - Lear = blind and irresponsible father & ruler
  • 'Darker purpose' - alarmed Jacobean audience = remembered the question of the succession during the reign of Elizabeth I
  • Lear attempts to divide power from responsibility - preoccupied with appearances
  • If he can retain the trappings of majesty without the 'cares and business' of ruling, he is content - we realise early how false his values are
  • Possible to see his desire to rely on Cordelia's 'kind nursery' as selfish - he intends marrying her of in A1S1 but expects to be nursed while he crawls 'unburdened' towards death
  • Both tyrannical patriarch and demanding child at the start of the play
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  • Yet we sympathise with this egotistical autocrat - in A2 his better qualities are revealed
  • Hiring of Kent/Caius is a sign that Lear inspires loyalty, and his interaction with the Fool shows a more tolerant side to his nature
  • Also becomes clear that Lear is trying to remain calm even when he feels he is being wronged
  • In the next scene - recognises that he has behaved foolishly and treated Cordelia unkindly
  • As his insights and troubles grow, so does our concern - we begin to share his outrage as Gonerill and Regan become more repugnant
  • There is desperation as well as egotism in his confrontation with his 'dog-hearted' daughters
  • Gradually Lear;s rage becomes signs of impotence, not authority
  • By the time he rushes out into the storm our sympathies are likely to lie - and will remain - with the beleaguered King
  • Critics have seen Lear's insanity as a learning process - he needs to suffer to improve his understanding of himself and the society which he lives; certainly he considers a number of topics he paid little attention to; the wretched condition of the poor, the corrupt justice system, true necessity.  He learns to distinguish between appearances and reality and considers the sufferings of those close to him.  Lear also becomes much more self-critical; he emerges from his torment as a more humble, loving and attractive character
  • Other commentators suggests Lear remains self-obsessed and vengeful - his philosophical enquiries on the heath are punctuated by thoughts of punishing Gonerill & Regan
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  • Again and again he returns to the crimes committed against him - he struggles to accept responsibility for his elder daughters' cruel natures and never fully acknowledges the folly of his actions of A1S1
  • We cannot remain too critical though - his reconciliation with Cordelia shows the best of Lear; ashamed of his former unkindness, he humbles himself before his youngest daughter, acknowledging her superiority
  • We can forgive him now focusing on the way he has been abused - at the end of the play, Lear seems to move beyond himself - he has certainly accepted his powerless diminished status and now sees himself primarily as Cordelia's father
  • His language reflects his progress - gone is the royal 'we' - now Lear uses first person when he speaks of himself and his feelings - Cordelia is reclaimed lovingly as 'my Cordelia' and in A5, Lear clings to his 'best object' protectively
  • He revenges her death by killing the 'slave' responsible for her hanging 
  • In all of his speeches in A5S3, the dying king focuses on Cordelia and the overwhelming grief he feels at her passing - Lear's love for and defence of Cordelia go a long way to redeeming him from charges of egotism 
  • Lear has clearly learned the value of true emotion - his recognition of the injustice in Cordelia's death suggests that his judgement has been restored
  • But wisdow comes too late - watching the final bleak moments of the play, it is easy to feel that Lear's sufferings have been in vain
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Characterisation - Gonerill & Regan

  • Very subversive figures 
  • Initally Gonerill seems to be the dominant sister - she decides that something must be done 'i' the heat' to ensure that Lear's rought treatment of Cordelia does not extend to Regan and herself
  • It is also Gonerill who raises the issue of Lear's knights and provokes the first confrontation with her father in A1S4 - up to this point Regan sees happy to follow Gonerill's course of action - but we get hints of her particular brand of ****** in A1S2 when she urges Cornwall to inflict further punihsment on Kent
  • And then in A2S4, she leads the onslaught against Lear - the sisters are now vicious equals - both participate in what is for many the most horrific scene in the play, the blinding of Gloucester 
  • Gonerill suggests the method of torture, 'pluck out his...eyes!' and then Regan assaults Gloucester, egging her husband on to further cruelty
  • They share many character traits - both are threatening and autocratic/cold and ambitious
  • Both lust after Edmund in a predatory and unfeminine way - they are masculine in other ways - Gonerill denies Albany's authority and arrogantly asserts her own power when she says 'the laws are mine not thine'
  • Regan may not be an adulteress, but she is a murderess, like her sister - she does man's work when she runs the servant through in A3S7
  • Gonerill & Regan's vindictive asssertiveness would have been particulary shocking for a Jacobean audience
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Gonerill & Regan

  • Renaissance models of femininity required women to be quiet and submissive 
  • Lear's daughters subvert all the accepted codes of feminine behaviour - they set out to destroy the family and the state - they are agents of chaos and misrule
  • The terror the sisters inspire is emphasised by the animal imagery in the play and by the abhorrence of female sexuality exhibited, especially by Lear
  • Ultimately we are supposed to reject Gonerilla and Regan utterly - we might recognise the validity of their complaints about Lear in A1S1; we might momentarily sumpathise with them because they are not Lear's favourites, but we still abhor them
  • Even Edmund comments on their bad natures - jealous, treacherous, immoral; these two display all the most distressing features of inhumanity, murdering and maiming without remorse 
  • The best that can be said for Gonerill and Regan is that they are energetic in their pursuit of self-gratification - there is a horrible fascination in watching them at work
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Characterisation - Cordelia

  • Lear's favourite daughter is possibly more problematical for audiences today than she would have been for the Jacobean theatregoer - she can seem infuriatingly pious 
  • Some critics interpret her refusal to speak flattering words to Lear and her acceptance of France as acts of defiance; she is in direct conflict with patriarchy on both occasions, refusing to submit to her father's will - her stubborn 'nothing' leads the way for Gonerill and Regan's rebellion 
  • If we follow this argument through, then it is possible to interpret Cordelia's death as a reward for her early disobedience - these however are extreme views, which do not really fit with the consistently high esteem in which Cordelia is held by the good characters - note that France takes her for her virtues alone
  • It is necessary to look at her motives in A1S1 - she is seeking to alert Lear to his poor judgement - her refusal to participate in a gliv public-speaking contest can be seen as a sign of her integrity 
  • As the play progresses, we learn to distrust all the characters who have an easy way with words
  • Cordeia's 'nothing' looks increasingly honest and worthy - when she returns in A4 Cordelia is anything but subversive; we are presented with a perfect daughter who will act as redeemer
  • A4S7, she is solicitous and respectful towards her father, restored as Lear's 'best object' 
  • It is probably Cordelia we remember; the selfless daughter, full of pity and love 
  • When Lear carries her corpse, yelling in agony, we are appalled
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  • Like Lear, we want to know why 'a dog, a horse, a rat have life/And thou no breath at all?'
  • Cordelia's death has troubled critics and audiences since the play was first performed - there are various ways of explaining it; Shakespeare needs a final cruel blow to bring about Lear's death - perhaps Cordelia's death is an expression of the playwright's tragic vision.  It might also be a final example of man's inhumanity to man in the world of King Lear.  Shakespeare perhaps wants to show the full horror of the consequences of Lear's folly - for some, Cordelia's death is the real tragedy of King Lear
  • Our assessment of Cordelia should probably conclude that although she is as stubborn as the rest of her family, she is a paragon in comparison with her sisters 
  • In two telling lines Lear says 'her voice was ever soft/gentle and low - an excellent thing in a woman'
  • It is impossible to imagine Lear's other two 'dog-hearted' daughters ever being described in the same way
  • Cordelia's characterisation goes some way to counteract the vicious, masculine cruelty of Gonerill and Regan - and the abhorrence of the female so prevalent in the play
  • We would probably agree that her death is worth avenging
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Characterisation - Gloucester

  • Has some individual features - his superstition, his adultery, but his character is determined largely by the parallel role he plays 
  • Like Lear, he is a complacent father, used to assuming authority - like Lear Gloucester acts rashly and ruthlessly when he believes that his son Edgar has rebelled against him, putting himself in his evil son's power - he fails to 'keep his nose in order' - his adultery might be seen as a failure to take his patriarchal responsibilities seriously - he is as blind as his ruler
  • He seems to lack resolution for much of A2 - he tries vainly to keep the peace between Lear and his daughters and it is difficult not to judge him harshly when his doors are shut against the king - all he can offer is faint-hearted protests
  • But Gloucester also displays more positive qualities - when he takes action he is brave and determined - he helps Lear on the heath, providing a litter to transport him to safety
  • Gloucester is heroic in A3S7, denouncing Gonerill and Regan ferociously - he proves that he can be stoical in the face of monstrous cruelty - when he learns the truth about Edmund his tormented desire to e reconciled with Edgar redeems him
  • Like Lear, Gloucester becomes increasingly generous as he suffers - he expresses great pity for Lear in A4 and is genuinely concerned about the dangers the old man and Poor Tom face when helping him - his developing convern for social justice mirrors Lear's
  • Gloucester's pain and despair reflects Lear's - while the lunatic king raves about his daughters, Gloucester confesses sadly that he is 'almost mad' himself, thinking about Edgar's supposed treachery
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  • Even after his 'fall' at Dover cliff and his agreement to 'bear/affliction till it to cry out itself/ 'Enough, enough' and die' Gloucester remains suicidal 
  • He welcomes Oswald's sword and is still deeply depressed as late as A5S2 - his dark thoughts play a key role in establishing and maintaining the bleak atmosphere of the second half of the play
  • Gloucester's pessimistic lines often seem prophetic; 'this great world/shall so wear out to naught' - his willingness to die perhaps points towards the carnage of A5S3, preparing us for the final tragic outcome 
  • His death can be seen as a 'dry run' for Lear's - some critics see Lear's passing as a mirror image of Gloucester's - the old earl dies when his 'flawed heart - / alack, too weak the conflict to support - /'twixt two extremes of passion, joy and grief,/burst smilingly'
  • The reconciliation with Edgar is too much to bear
  • Gloucester is punished very harshly for his misjudgements of character - Edgar's verdict, that he dies for adultery, is not easily accepted - for all his faults, Gloucester will probably be viewed by most audiences as a character more sinned against than sinning
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Characterisation - Edgar

  • Many critics feel dissatisfied with Edgar - he plays so many roles and performs such a wide range of functions; is he simply a plot device? Shakespeare does not spend much time establishing Edgar's virtues before having him disguise himself as Poor tom
  • Gloucester's legitimate son starts the play a passive, credulous dupe upon whom Edmund's devious practices ride easy 
  • In A1 he shows none of the heroism he displays later in the play - it is possible to detect progression in Edgar's characterisation as he moves from one role to another - he grows in stature through his use of disguises - he is forced to assume the garb of a madman to preserve his life, but his final disguise - masked avenger - enables him to take command of his own fate
  • Those who complain of Edgar's weak gullibility also forget that Jacobean audiences would have understood that good characters were easy to fool - villains were accepted as being so cunning that their evil intentions were impossible to detect - Edgar's willingness to be guided by Edmund might be seen as proof of his worthiness
  • On the heath, the role of the lunatic beggar pushes Edgar centre stage - many critics have noticed how the presence of the fake madman helps lear - as he interacts with Poor Tom, Lear's humanity and understanding increase - Edgar also comments on Lear and Gloucester's suffering, guiding audience responses to the two patriarchs in A3 and A4
  • He is actively generous too, in A4 Edgar guides Gloucester and tries to chase away his gloomy thoughts - like Cordelia, Edgar feels only sympathy for the father who rejected him so brutally
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  • At the end of A4S6, Edgar's role playing enables him to defend Gloucester when Oswald threatens him - to preserve Edgar's moral character (revengers in Jacobean drama often have sinister motives) Shakespeare shows us his remorse - his valour awakened, Edgar is now ready to challenge Edmund - his facility with language has been usd to protect himself and others - his deceptions are essentially honest
  • In A5, Edgar becomes an agent of justice - he helps to restore the old order - it is possible to view Edgar as the only character unsullied enough to rule after Lear's death - he has committed no crime against his family or the state - he has never questioned the authroity of his elders
  • He took action when necessary - the worst we can accuse Edgar of is of leaving it very late to reveal himself to Gloucester, and he is heartily sorry for this
  • Edgar has endured appalling privation and shown mercy and strength - when he speaks of his journey through the play as a 'pilgrimage' we understand the serious sense of purpose behind Edgar's role-playing 
  • Surely he has proved himself many times over?  When he unassumingly takes charge we have some justification for feeling that his succession is 
  • Some doubts remain - his uncompromising judgement of his father's 'crimes' are disturbing - what has happened to his Christian pity?  His belief that the God's are just looks decidedly suspect when Cordelia dies 
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  • In comparison with the titanic Lear, Edgar can also seem lacklustre
  • Our reception of his character depends heavily on how he is played on stage 
  • In performance, Edgar's heroic qualities can be stressed, and his disparate parts can be forced into a more or less satisfactory whole
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  • In comparison with the titanic Lear, Edgar can also seem lacklustre
  • Our reception of his character depends heavily on how he is played on stage 
  • In performance, Edgar's heroic qualities can be stressed, and his disparate parts can be forced into a more or less satisfactory whole
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Characterisation - Edmund

  • Like many villains in Jacobean drama, Edmund seethes with frustration about the 'plague of custom' that keeps him on the fringes of society
  • His Machiavellian qualities include his political ambition and willingness to use unsrupulous methods to achieve his aims - as Edmund says himself, he is adaptable and ready to manipulate events to serve his turn; 'with all me's meet/that I can fashion fit' 
  • His ability to adopt the right tone in any situation helps him in his progress towards power
  • But does Edmund really set himself up against the society he operates in?
  • Certainly he sneers at its values as his toying with the words 'base' and 'legitimate' shows 
  • Edmund seems to subscrive to a savage code; survival of the fittest - his goddess, Nature, is a brutal, anarchic, force - Edmund never apologises for his wickedness; he revels in it right up to the final scene 
  • All the beliefs he outlines in A1S2 suggests he rejects the hierarchy that has made his father and his brother so prosperous - but his own ambitions are worldly; really, he wants to succeed in society's terms - he aims first at Edgar's inheritance, then at Gloucester's title and finally at the throne of England - surely Edmund cannot therefore be viewed as an anti-establishment figure?
  • Yet Edmund is subversive - the alacrity of his rise is an indication of this - he is very successful in Gonerill and Regan's cruel world - he is responsible for the deaths of three princesses, as well as the cruel maiming of his father
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  • His progress is halted too late to save Lear
  • By the end of the final scene, Edmund has proved himself to be formidably destructive
  • He almost obtains everything he wants
  • However we come to loathe everything he stands for - we made admire his tenacity and quick wits, enjoy his energetic acting out of role sand the way he takes us into his confidence through his use of soliliquies, but we must reject him, as we reject Gonerill and Regan
  • In A5S3 Edmund is defeated when Albany and Edgar reassert the values of the old order - now Edmund is forced to reject his code and submit - his fall is as meteoric as his ride 
  • We know his subversion has failed when we hear him say he will forgive his deathsman if he is of noble blood - his dying desire to do good also seems to cancel out his earlier delight in his own villainy 
  • Edmund's strange last line 'yet, Edmund was beloved' might be read as confirming the virtuous characters' insistence throughout the play that caring and loyalty are important 
  • Few will regret the defiant ******* son's demise
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Characterisation - The Fool

  • The fool plays a number of roles; voice of conscience, social commentator, truth-teller, representative of Cordelia, vehicle for pathos, Lear's alter-ego, dramatic chorus
  • His songs, riddles and epigrams also provide comic relief - the flippant remark about Poor Tom's clothing is a good example of the Fool lightening the tone of a distressing scene 
  • Many of the Fool's other speeches can be played for comic effect, but it is possible to stress the 'bitter' rather than the witty fool - when he first appears in the play the Fool is extremely critical of Lear; 'dost thou call me a fool, boy? / all thy other titles thou hast given away; that thou wast born with' - these lines are typical of the Fool's interaction with lear - his sarcasm is blunt and hard hitting 
  • The Fool's bitterness can be understood by considering his role as Cordelia's representative - a truth-teller, like Lear's youngest daughter, he pines away when she goes to France 
  • Many of the Fool's early cutting speeches are designed to alert Lear to his daughters' true characters - however, unlike Cordelia, the Fool is never punished for his truth telling 
  • He is 'all-licensed - Jesters were often kept by the monarch to provide witty analysis of contemporary behaviour and to remind the sovereign of his humanity 
  • Certainly Lear's fool fulfils these functions for his master - he also enjoys a close and affectionate relationship with 'nuncle' Lear
  • It is the Fool Lear calls out to when he fears he is going mad - on the heath the king considers his servant's sufferings alongside his own
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The Fool

  • In return, the Fool remains steadfastly loyal - in a play where family relationships are disastrously bad, the Fool seems to play the role of good son
  • The Fool's role as social commentator has been linked to the prophecy he makes at the end of A3S2 - in this speech the Fool comments on the injustices and corruption of Lear's reign and perhaps predicts a better time to come
  • Throughout the play he draws attention to the chaos Lear has caused in the kingdom by making his daughters his mothers - the implication of many of his speeches is that Lear has wronged the country as well as himself
  • Some critics wonder whether the Fool's relentless harping drives Lear mad - most prefer to believe that the Fool serves a positive function when he criticises his master - he pushes Lear towards the truth and then tries to 'out-jest' his injuries, supporting the king as he makes his terrible journey through A3
  • So why does the Fool disappear?  Some commentators suggest Jacobean audiences would not have been disconcerted by the by the disappearance of a character half way through the play 
  • Other critics think that the Fool is dropped when he is no longer needed - the Fool's role was to help Lear see more clearly, and when his job is completed, he vanishes 
  • Other critics suggest it would be inappropriate to have a comic character (however dark his humour) in the bleak final acts of the play 
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The Fool

  • Finally, it is possible that the same actor played the Fool and Cordelia, and therefore they could not be on stage at the same time - women weren't in the theatres in the 16th 
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