Arguably the most demanding role throughout Shakespeare’s works, it has
provided the greatest challenge for actors since it was first performed at the start of the 17th Century.
The play is concerned with the fall of King Lear. We can only guess
what he was like in his prime, but it is safe to assume that he was a larger than life figure, dominant and quick-tempered.
He enjoyed the high life, carousing with his Knights and going hunting. The land he ruled over was stable and strong, but he had little understanding of the problems faced by his subjects.
He showed favoritism towards his youngest daughter, which brought about
resentment from his two older daughters.
He inspired loyalty from his generation, represented in the play by Gloucester and Kent, and we can at least assume that Gloucester had similar character defects as Lear. He too enjoyed the high life.
We also note that Lear was vain, egotistic and proud, and as his mental
state degenerated, the extreme elements of his character were highlighted.
He engages in the foolish game of having his daughters proclaim the extent of their love for him, and this act destroys his family and causes upheaval throughout the land. The game stems from his wish to abdicate his responsibilities as Ruler.
In Elizabethan times, monarchs ruled by divine right. Lear’s
abdication brings down the condemnation of the gods and the noble characters in the play must suffer accordingly.
An integral part of Lear’s character is his interaction with the Fool.
Whilst Lear is the most demanding and complex role in the works of Shakespeare, the Fool is the most unusual character. He is almost a projection of Lear himself, a physical representation of Lear’s conscience. Yet Lear continually fails to listen to the wise words of his Fool. You will note that Shakespeare makes the point of referring to the Fool as Lear’s Fool. Apart from Kent, the Fool only reacts to Lear. Lear uses the Fool as a means of escape from the harsh world that treats him so badly. When he is at his most vulnerable, when he is full of self-pity and despair, he turns to the Fool for solace. The Fool is able to comfort Lear, but it comes at a price, for often the Fool will make a stern jibe at Lear, reminding him of his folly. In some productions, much is made of changing the roles of the Fool and the King. This is sometimes symbolically done by the King wearing the jester’s hat.
Perhaps we can understand the relationship between Lear and the Fool when we
Lear: “Does any here know me? This is not Lear:
Does Lear walk thus? Speak thus? Where are his eyes?
Either his notion weakens, his discernings are legthargied
Ha! Waking? ‘Tis not so
Who is it that can tell me who I am?”
Fool: “Lear’s shadow.”
That is how close Lear and the Fool are - even when Lear has fallen into
madness. The Fool is with him through all these torments.
The supernatural element surrounding the Fool is emphasized through his
prophecy, which we have quoted earlier. You will note that the last line reads, “The prophecy Merlin shall make; for I live before his time.”
This might at first seem nonsense, but the Fool is associating himself with Merlin’s magic. Perhaps he is free of time and as he disappears from the play, perhaps he goes into another age.
What makes any good tragedy work is the villain – the emissary of evil.
Along with Iago in ‘Othello’, Edmund is one of the most famous Shakespearean
villains, and often comparisons are made between the two. (You might like to refer to the Wolfnote for ‘Othello’). Although there are similarities between the two, there are also distinct
Whilst Iago is of noble birth, Edmund is a bastard and this is what haunts him.
Iago’s quest is clear – to bring down the one who slighted him.
Edmund’s task is more difficult. In order for him to prevail, he has to bring down a whole society. He has to bring about a world where illegitimacy holds sway.
Both these villains have no feelings of love for anyone but
themselves. They treat the women close to them despicably, using them as a means to promote their own evil. Yet Edmund’s very demeanor attracts the evil sisters because they consider him to be dangerous.
They want to play with fire.
Both Iago and Edmund strive to obtain power and to manipulate those around
At the end when their plans fall apart about them, Iago is unrepentant,
whereas Edmund shows regret. Deep down, Edmund longs to be honorable, and he shows courage in dueling with Edgar, who at that time is in disguise, whereas Iago is cowardly and persuades others to act for him.
Therefore, Edmund’s driving force is to revolt against those in power,
against traditional values and against the very make-up of society. He regards this revolution as a worthy cause, and his scheming is aimed at putting himself in power, gaining the throne.
He probably would prefer to rule alone, but he would need a Queen either Regan or Goneril, in order to continue his line, but he is not concerned if they should slay one another.
When he realizes that he has been dealt a mortal wound from Edgar, he is
comforted by the fact that an equal has killed him. We note that Edmund says, “The wheel is come full circle: I am here”. Too late, Edmund tries to reverse the death sentence he has placed on
Cordelia. He is quite fatalistic about his imminent death, and he waits for death to take him for he realizes he is bound for purgatory.