King Lear: Lear's Language, Beginning vs. End of the Play

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2002

21 Pages, Grade: 2 (B)



1. Introduction

2. The Opening of King Lear

3. Approaching Madness

4. Lear and Suffering

5. The Ending of King Lear

6. Summary


1. Introduction

King Lear was first published in 1608 and is one of the numerous tragedies written by William Shakespeare. However, it is not just any of his tragedies, the tragedy of King Lear“stands like a colossus at the centre of Shakespeare’s achievement as the grandest effort of imagination”, says Foakes who is the Editor of the Arden Edition (Foakes 1997, 1). “In its social range it encompasses a whole society, from king to beggar, and invites us to move in our imagination between a royal palace and a hovel on a bare heath” (Foakes 1997, 1). Nevertheless, “complications have been kept to a minimum” (Brown 2001, 229) by Shakespeare. Still, this tragedy “is as demanding as any of the others – in some ways, it is the most epic of them all” (Brown 2001, 229).

Between all the commotion in the plot, Lear’s story “is the one clear and indisputable element” (Brown 2001, 229). From the beginning to the end, “Lear’s story is presented in stark and unavoidably physical terms” (Brown 2001, 231).

The threefold dignity of a king, an old man, and a father, is dishonored by the cruel ingratitude of his unnatural daughters; the old king, who out of a foolish tenderness has given away everything, is driven out into the world a homeless beggar; the childish imbecility to which he was fast advancing changes into the wildest insanity, and when he is rescued from the destitution to which he was abandoned, it is too late. (Bates 1906))

In a way that was new to himself and almost unknown in the theatre of his time, Shakespeare constantly drew attention to what his hero undergoes in body as well as in mind, in his senses as well as in his thoughts and feelings, achievements, and relations with other people. (Brown 2001, 231)

In this paper I am trying to follow Lear’s state of mind and thought. The King goes from power to madness and from royalty to peasantry. But how does he articulate his deep thoughts and feelings through language? How can the reader understand his change in mood? The following pages will give some insight on these topics and will help to a better understanding of the character of King Lear.

2. The Opening of King Lear

“No other opening scene of a Shakespeare tragedy puts before us so swiftly, so inevitably, so irreversibly its tragic node” (Grene 1992, 157).

The story starts with the aged king who is going to give away his land and power to his three daughters, Goneril, Regan and Cordelia. “The opening scene is in cool, even bantering prose” (Kermode 2000, 185). Lear is strong, he stands alone and “orders everything, and everyone responds to his slightest word or hesitation” (Brown 2001, 232):

Lear: Attend the Lords of France and Burgundy, Gloucester. (I.i.33)

Gloucester: I shall, my lord.

Lear: Give me the map there. (I.i.36)

When ordering the map, marking out his kingdom and the future divisions, Lear once again shows how great his power is and obviously feels good about himself. Although, in this scene, his power as a king is reduced to a sheet of paper which may easily be torn apart.

In the beginning, Lear is all that we imagine a King to be, he commands, directs and gives great speeches. He is a strong personality and the hierarchy in his kingdom is not questioned. Only the love test makes clear that Lear is not as strong as imagined. “Asking for a token of love is neither unreasonable nor wrong; and Lear, with reason, believes himself to be capable of enforcing it”. But, “it is the form of Lear’s question that irritates” (Berry 1999, 138), ‘Which of you shall we say doth love us most’ (I.i.51). The questioning of his daughters shows Lear’s emotional instability. Likewise, he uses many material and financial words, ‘business’, ‘interest’ ‘territory’, ‘cares of state’, but wants proof for an immaterial abstract thing, called love. He does not know the difference. Here, we see what Lear believes about love. He assumes “that it is quantitatively gradable” (Van Peer 1988, 234), as for instance ‘most’ and ‘best’ suggest. Lear “merits the extension of the largest bounty” on the most love. “Thus, degree of love is calculable” (Van Peer 1988, 235). With his questioning and his search for knowledge, Lear causes the whole tragedy of his family.

When Cordelia answers her father, in the foolish love-test, by saying ‘Nothing, my lord’ (I.i.86), Lear does not know respond anymore. He is facing the ruins of his “public ritual”. Only “fraught lines and half-lines replacing the stately verse periods exchanged with Goneril and Regan” follow (Grene 1992, 153). In the beginning. Lear“is almost always, regally, ‘we’ ” (Kermode 2000, 186).

Meantime we shall express our darker purpose.

Know that we have divided

In three our kingdom; and ‘tis is our fast intent

To shake all care and business from our age, ... (I.i.35-38)

Though, when “he loses his temper with his daughter, ... he uses ‘I’ ” instead of the earlier regal ‘we’ (Kermode 2000, 186).

Here I disclaim all my paternal cares,

Propinquity and property of blood,

And as a stranger to my heart and me

Hold thee from this for ever. (I.i.114-17)

Lear takes Cordelia’s ‘Nothing’ for zero. “Where Lear trusts in ritual to embody meaning, Cordelia insists that only in the innerness of the individual spirit can true truth live” (Grene 1992, 154).

The irony is that the bond according to which Cordelia loves her father is that same bond which he sought to have enacted in the love test. It is from this radical split between two means of expressing an ideal of mutuality that the tragedy opens out. (Grene 1992, 154)

Lear’s use of address forms is closely linked to his mood and temper. This becomes especially clear in the opening scene. Lear is at first addressing Goneril and then Regan in the love test. Both daughters are referred to with a form of ‘thou’. When asking Cordelia for her statement of love, Lear addresses her with the neutral ‘you’. There is a significant contrast between “the ‘you’ used to Cordelia, and the ‘thou’ of authority used to Goneril and Regan” (Van Peer 1988, 236), it clearly distinguishes between the sisters. Shakespeare intentionally “registers different relationships by linguistic usage” (Foakes 1997, 7). In this play he notably uses the subtle distinctions of ‘thou’ and ‘you’. “ ‘thou’ usually has overtones either of affection towards intimates, or of well-disposed superiority towards social inferiors, or of enmity towards strangers of the speaker’s own rank, while ‘you’ is the common more neutral form” (Foakes 1997, 7). Lear uses ‘you’ to address Cordelia because she is his favorite daughter. Although, ‘you’ is a more neutral form, here it states that Lear loves her the most, she is equal to him. Only when Cordelia disappoints Lear with her answer (‘Nothing, my lord’) he changes to the ‘thou’ of distance and dislike.

...what can you say to draw

A third more opulent than your sisters? (I.i.85-86)

But goes thy heart with this? (I.i. 105)

In a later scene, when Lear encounters Regan at her home (II.ii), “he begins using the affectionate and pleading ‘thou’ to her, expecting kindness from her, but when he realizes that she is as hostile to him as Goneril he changes to a distancing ‘you’ ” (Foakes 1997, 7). Also in the final scene Lear distinguishes the persons around him by the use of different address forms, “the pathos of Lear’s address to the body of Cordelia is enhanced by his use of the affectionate ‘thou’ to her, and the common ‘you’ to everyone else” (Foakes 1997, 8).

Why should a dog, a horse, a rat have life

And thou no breath at all? O thou’lt come no more,

Never, never, never, never, never.

Pray you undo this button. Thank you, sir. (V.iii.305-308)

However, Lear does not only address people in the play. He is also talking to the gods. On his rejection of Cordelia “Lear launches into a ferocious diatribe against his favourite daughter” (Cunningham, 22). “Lear calls on the gods to authorize his own objectives and, perhaps, to boost his personal confidence” (Brown 2001, 237). On the gods Lear swears comprehensively:

... by the sacred radiance of the sun,

The mysteries of Hecate and the night,

By all the operation of the orbs

From whom we do exist and cease to be,

Here I disclaim all my paternal care,

Propinquity and property of blood,

And as a stranger to my heart and me

Hold thee from this for ever.

... As thou my sometime daughter. (I.i.110-121)

“The principles which Lear takes as witness to his oath are the natural forces on which man depends for life, and they are, by implication, the principles Lear imagines Cordelia to have flouted” (Grene 1992, 155).


Excerpt out of 21 pages


King Lear: Lear's Language, Beginning vs. End of the Play
Martin Luther University  (Anglistics)
Shakespear's Plays
2 (B)
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
File size
456 KB
King, Lear, Language, Beginning, Play, Shakespear, Plays
Quote paper
Kati Bach (Author), 2002, King Lear: Lear's Language, Beginning vs. End of the Play, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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