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Shakespeare, King Lear
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King Lear is the first text all year that we are reading in the original. It is also one of the densest, most complex, and most brilliant works in all of English literature. So we need to pay particular attention to Shakespeare's language.

At the same time, although there is no translator interposing him-/herself between us and Shakespeare's words, there are 400+ years between us and him, over the course of which the English language has developed substantially (mostly for the worse, in my opinion). Please do not underestimate the amount of time it will take you simply to understand what the characters are saying. My expectation for Thursday's class is that you will be absolutely clear on what all the words in all the speeches mean (use the footnotes in the book), and that you clearly understand what is going on in every scene you've read. If there's anything that remains unclear after you've read the footnotes and such, make a note of it and ask me about it at the beginning of class.

The introductory materials to our text (in the Pelican edition) are excellent; for background on Shakespeare's life and times, I suggest you read the short introduction entitled "Shakespeare's Life and Stage," pp. 7-11. A brief timeline of important dates in Shakespeare's life (according to the little we know of it!) appears at the bottom of this page, under the study questions.

However, the most important part of Thursday's assignment is that you
(a) make sure you understand everything you have read on the literal level by class time, and
(b) do not read past the end of Act II. This is important! If you read ahead, you will be tempted to bring up material from Acts III-V in class, thus ruining the dramatic experience (suspense) for everyone else. Please refrain from reading ahead.

Study Questions
Once you are CERTAIN you have understood exactly what all the words mean, if you have time, chew on the following questions:

(1) Keep track of all the negation in the play: "no" (and its homonym "know"), "nothing", "never" etc. Keep an eye on how different characters use the word "nothing." Where is Shakespeare going with this?

(2) Another key vocabulary of the play seems to be derived from the language of contractual obligation: words like "proper," "fit," "meet," "due," "duty," "deserving," "bond." Do you perceive these as having a moral or a legal flavour (or both)? How does this language inform the unfolding drama?

(3) Speaking of "bonds," three major social bonds seem to underlie the social and political architecture of the play: family/blood ties, service/fealty and marriage. Which of these bonds are severed? Which preserved? What happens when each is severed/preserved? Why so much attention to interpersonal bonding?

(3a.) And speaking of family, this play would certainly not satisfy Dan Quayle's early 1990s call for a return to "family values" in entertainment. Consider:

  • One half of the double plot concerns a conflict among sisters, the other a conflict between brothers. (We can call this the "horizontal axis" of family relations in the play.)
  • Both plots revolve around a generational conflict (the "vertical axis"): in one, a revolt of daughters, in other, a revolt of sons.
  • Fathers are deeply compromised in both plots (note there is no mother figure in either plot, a departure from the fairy-tale structure that seems to be set up in the opening scene. Why are there no mothers in King Lear, and why are fathers so important?).

What is Shakespeare "up to," dramatically speaking, with all this family dysfunction?

(4) Explore recurrent imagery (appearing sometimes in metaphorical, sometimes as literal form): sight/blindness, clothing/nakedness, "nature," weather, sex, madness. Chart the meanings of each image through various moments in the play.

(5) Disguise and recognition (remember the Greek Tragedies)--where do you see such moments in King Lear? How are they significant (symbolically, dramatically, rhetorically)? Don't forget to include verbal disguise (whose many variants we saw in Boccaccio).

(6) King Lear abounds in testing and trials. Keep an eye on these: what issues are raised? What do we learn about the characters involved? What is the significance of these lessons learned for the play at large?

(7) Shakespeare is known to have read Montaigne (in a translation by one John Florio, published in 1603, but "circulating in manuscript long before that"1). Do you see any influence of Montaigne's thought in King Lear? (See, e.g., Act III, sc. iv....)

1Dennis Kay, Shakespeare: His Life, Work, and Era (New York: William Morrow and Company, Inc., 1992), 155.

Some dates
  • 1556 - Anne Hathaway is born.
  • 1564 - William Shakespeare is born in April (probably the 23rd) in Stratford-upon-Avon (94 miles from London).
  • 1582 - Marries Anne Hathaway on November 27.
  • 1583 - Susanna Shakespeare is born.
  • 1585 - Twins, Judith and Hamnet Shakespeare, are born.
  • 1592 - Shakespeare leaves for London, joins acting troupe 'The Lord Chamberlain's Men,' begins to develop reputation as actor and playwright (important to remember that Shakspeare himself was in all his own plays!).
  • 1596 - Hamnet dies at the age of eleven. In the same year, Shakespeare becomes a "gentleman" (his father's lifelng ambition) when the College of Heralds grants his father a coat of arms.
  • 1599 - The Lord Chamberlain's Men lose lease on their theatre (called, simply, The Theatre); build Globe Theater on the other side of the Thames, using timbers from The Theater.
  • 1603 - James I (of England; VI of Scotland) ascends to the throne; the Lord Chamberlain's Men become the King's Men.
  • 1613 - The Globe Theatre burns down during a performance of Henry VII; the theatre is rebuilt, but Shakespeare retires.
  • 1616 - April 23, in Stratford, Shakespeare dies (according to tradition, on his 52nd birthday).

Shakespeare Resources on the Web

"Love, Tyranny, and Madness" --a BBC site/compendium of resources related to Shakespeare's King Lear.

"Mr. William Shakespeare and the Internet," a site at Palomar College (San Marcos, CA) aiming to be "a complete annotated guide to the scholarly Shakespeare resources available on Internet."

Shakespeare Web -- another collection of Web resources, some high-brow, some irrelevant.

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