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'King Lear' by William Shakespeare

One of our key texts this week is William Shakespeare’s tragedy King Lear.

The play begins with Lear relinquishing his crown, resigning from his position as ruler, and dividing up his kingdom between his three daughters; in other words, the play begins with the title character’s retirement. Although Lear seeks to ‘unburden’ himself of responsibility through this act, it leaves him uncertain of his place and identity. He wants to ‘retain/ The name, and all th’additions to a king’, but as he quickly discovers, this is easier said than done. Lear finds himself suddenly powerless, at the mercy of his cruel daughters Goneril and Regan. He travels between them, dependent upon them for food and shelter, until he is eventually forced out into the rain, weathering a terrible storm on a bare heath because his daughters will not let him keep his train of knights.

As well as charting the aftermath of Lear’s retirement, King Lear also explores the character’s mental and emotional instability. Throughout the play, Lear fluctuates between extreme anger and childish vulnerability; as Goneril comments to her sister Regan, ‘You see how full of changes his age is’. In the very opening scene, Lear demonstrates his irrational rage by banishing his youngest daughter, Cordelia, because she refuses to elaborate her filial affection in exchange for a portion of the kingdom. Following his night on the heath, meanwhile, Lear’s vulnerability is touchingly apparent, as he awakens in Cordelia’s care confused and afraid, seeking forgiveness, reassurance and support from his loving daughter. King Lear tells the story of a disintegrating identity, and of a man who fears he is going mad: ‘Who is it that can tell me who I am?’ he asks at one point in the play, later adding ‘O, let me not be mad, not mad, sweet heaven!’.

Before we hear from two actors about their own interpretations of the role, we thought it might be helpful to share with you some extracts from the play that explore the consequences of Lear’s retirement, as well as his mental disintegration. You can download these extracts by following the link at the bottom of the page. However, this reading is not compulsory, and you can continue straight to the next step if you’d prefer.

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This article is from the free online course:

Literature and Mental Health: Reading for Wellbeing

The University of Warwick

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