King Lear - Context & Critical Approaches



The setting of King Lear is as far removed from Shakespeare’s time as the setting of any of his other plays, dramatizing events from the eighth century B.C. But the parallel stories of Lear’s and Gloucester’s sufferings at the hands of their own children reflect anxieties that would have been close to home for Shakespeare’s audience. One possible event that may have influenced this play is a lawsuit that occurred not long before King Lear was written, in which the eldest of three sisters tried to have her elderly father, Sir Brian Annesley, declared insane so that she could take control of his property. Annesley’s youngest daughter, Cordell, successfully defended her father against her sister. Another event that Shakespeare and his audience would have been familiar with is the case of William Allen, a mayor of London who was treated very poorly by his three daughters after dividing his wealth among them. Not least among relevant developments was the then recent transfer of power from Elizabeth I to James I, which occurred in 1603. Elizabeth had produced no male heir, and the anxiety about who her successor would be was fueled by fears that a dynastic struggle along the lines of the fifteenth-century Wars of the Roses might ensue.

Elizabethan England was an extremely hierarchical society, demanding that absolute deference be paid and respect be shown not only to the wealthy and powerful but also to parents and the elderly. King Lear demonstrates how vulnerable parents and noblemen are to the depredations of unscrupulous children and thus how fragile the fabric of Elizabethan society actually was.

1 of 5

Aristotle's Ideas about Tragedy

Aristotle said a tragedy must be:

- "serious"

- "with incidents arousing pity and fear"

- "wherewith to accomplish a catharsis of these emotions

Words to remember:

-Hubris - extreme pride 

-Anagnorisis - discovery/recognition 

-Hamartia - Mistake/error in judgement

-Catharsis - Cleansing/Purging

2 of 5

Critics -

  • Samuel Johnson found the ending shocking
  • Charles Lamb felt the play is so psychological that its form doesn't do it justice i.e. more suited for a novel. 
  • Hazlitt - "the play is too great for the stage"
  • Wilson Knight even said that Lear is a Christ-like figure
  • Tolstoy launched a withering attack on King Lear because of his naturalistic approach (concerned with character and judging them as real people). Orwell replied by saying that "it is only be being wilfully blind that one can fail to understand what Shakespeare is saying." 
  • Critics debate about whether it is a Pagan or Christian play. R.G Hunter - "harshly pagan" B. Everett says it is "impossible to decide." 
  • Feminist crtic Kathleen McLucksie argues that the female characters are either sanctified or demonised. 
  • Psychoanalytic reading - Lear harbours incestuous desires for his daughters. Lear as a child and narcissist. Lear as sacrificial victim. Nurture over Nature? (Lear has made Goneril + Regan the way they are by neglection and their treatment of him is ultimately his doing. 
3 of 5


  • Trevor Nunn (Lear as Ian McKellen) 2008 - Lear's oncoming dotage is announced at the beginning when he relies on note cards to help him through his speech about dividing the kingdom. In the early stages of the play, before events become monstrous, Goneril and Regan manage to evoke sympathy as daughters who are put-upon by a temperamental parent. 
  • Peter Brook (Lear as Paul Scofield) 1971. - Ends with a sense of unease and emptiness. There is visual contrast between the freezing blizzard outside and the roaring fires inside the castle) 
  • Michael Elliott (Lear as Laurence Olivier) 1983 - Lear enters his court like an exhausted Father Christmas with long white straggly hair and beard. Subtly satirsies the notion of a King's God-given ability to rule. However, he shows his mastery over a natural environment, implying his divine right to rule. 
  • Kozinstev 1971. - Communist perspective Lear conveys power and his growing madness and despair. In the storm scene he presents Lear as part of nature 
  • Book version - A Thousand Acres is based on King Lear and reveals long-term sexual abuse of the two eldest daughters by their father. 
4 of 5


  • "I am a man, more sinned against than sinning" - Lear, Act 3 Scene 2. 
  • "Which of you shall we say doth love me most?" - Lear, Act 1 Scene 1.
  • "Be Kent unmannerly when Lear is mad" - Kent, Act 1 Scene 1.
  • "Put on what weary negligence you please, You and your fellows. I'd have it come to question." - Goneril, Act 1 Scene 3. 
  • "all licensed fool" - Goneril, Act 1 Scene 4. 
  • "degenerate *******" - Lear (to Regan), Act 1, Scene 4. 
  • "nothing will come of nothing" - Lear, Act 1, Scene 4. 
  • “When we are born, we cry that we are come to this great stage of fools.” - Lear, Act 4, Scene 6.
  • “As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods. They kill us for their sport.” - Gloucester 
  • Thou shouldst not have been old till thou hadst been wise.” - The Fool, Act 1 Scene 5.
  • Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say." - Edgar, Act 5 Scene 3. 
  • “And worse I may be yet: the worst is not/So long as we can say 'This is the worst.” - Edgar, Act 4 Scene 1. 
5 of 5


No comments have yet been made

Similar English Literature resources:

See all English Literature resources »See all King Lear resources »