The Construction of the Plot in `King Lear´

Essay, 1993

9 Pages



1. Introduction

2. The Exposition

3. The Development of the Conflict

4. Conclusion


1. Introduction

This essay is about the construction of the plot in King Lear. Throughout the essay I will refer to the quarto text The History of King Lear.

As for the construction of the plot both form and content will be taken into consideration. Since a tragedy is normally characterized by the rise of a conflict that terminates in a catastrophe, I intend to deal especially with those aspects of form and content which relate to the conflict that is significant for King Lear.

With regard to this conflict several questions can be asked. First of all there is the question of what constitutes the conflict and which different forms this conflict takes. Furthermore we need to examine whether the structure of the play and the development of the conflict correspond with each other. Moreover I would like to point out some traits of the construction, such as the double-action, which seem to be special about King Lear. The following paragraph will deal with the introductory part of the play, in which the basis for the conflict is established. And after that the further development of this conflict will be considered.

2. The Exposition

The function of an exposition in general is to set a situation, scenery out of which the further plot can develop. The main characters are introduced, the reader is shown how the characters are related to each other and what the circumstances of their lives are like. In a tragedy, however, the exposition has to contain an additional aspect. Since the conflict is a necessary element in a tragedy, the situation displayed in the exposition needs to have some traits which can give rise to such a conflict. Therefore the exposition hints at difficulties which initiate a conflict and finally the catastrophe, which is also a means to arouse the audience’s interest and attention. So the exposition gives a lot of information, and its design is decisive for the development of the play.1

The first scene in King Lear starts with a short conversation between Kent, Gloucester and Edmund, in which some information about Edmund’s relation to his father is given. Then the conversation is interrupted by Lear’s entrance, who immediately declares that he intends to divide his kingdom and thus sets the action going. Later on in the play the division of his kingdom and above all the fact that he rejects Cordelia, who unlike Gonoril and Regan really loves him, turn out to be fatal faults. But as early as the first scene we notice that Lear is wrong in doing so. Gonoril’s and Regan’s speeches, which seem to be overdone and show their hypocrisy, Kent’s warning, Cordelia’s honest behaviour and her way of reproaching her sisters indicate that deep conflicts will be caused by this event.

Furthermore Lear is characterized as a man who insists on his subjects and his daughters obeying his orders and submitting to his will. Lear’s reaction to Cordelia’s unwillingness to take part in this public `contest of love´ (Sc. 1; 38-100) reveals tyrannical features.2 This impression is supported by the banishment of Kent. Lear’s fault becomes obvious; it is Lear’s character which makes him set a situation out of which the tragic conflict arises.

So the first scene fulfils the features of an exposition; it introduces the main characters and constitutes the basis for the development of the main plot dealing with Lear and his daughters. However, there is a double-action in King Lear. For that reason a second exposition can be found in the second scene.3 The second scene exposes Edmund’s evil plans to win his father’s favour by showing his brother in a bad light and his first step to realize those plans. Here the basis for the conflict is even easier to recognize than in the first scene, the reason for which might be that fewer people are involved in the second plot of the double-action. And in addition to that Edmund already pursues his goal, while Gonoril and Regan have not yet influenced the action. Of course it would have been possible to design one exposition for both the main and the sub-plot. The fact that two expositions exist stresses the separateness and, to some extent, independence of the two plots;4 although it must not be forgotten that there are many overlaps between the two plots. Furthermore it deserves mentioning that the first scene already introduces Gloucester and Edmund and thus is part of the exposition of the sub-plot. The second scene finishes the introductory part of the play; and now the action can proceed.

3. The Development of the Conflict

At first only the main plot in King Lear will be dealt with, while the sub-plot will be discussed later on in this section.

Before the development of the conflict can be described, it must be stated that there is obviously not only an outward conflict between two contrary groups of characters, but also an inner struggle within the hero himself.5 Yet these two different levels on which outer and inner struggle take place must be considered as interdependent. So the development of Lear’s mental state cannot be separated from the relationship to his daughters.

It is typical of a tragedy that in the first half of the play one of the two parties involved in the conflict - normally the tragic hero – is successfully pursuing his intentions and thus seems to be victorious. But then the plot reaches a turning point after which the apparent victory turns into a decline leading to the final catastrophe. The turning point is normally marked by the fact that the conflict and also the tension reach their climaxes. A good example of this pattern can be found in Macbeth. The special thing about King Lear is that although Lear is the tragic figure in this play, the construction pattern just mentioned does not apply to the rise and fall of his cause.

The first half of the play is characterized by Lear’s decline and Gonoril’s and Regan’s rise; and the second half ends up with Lear’s death. Lear’s decline seems only to be interrupted by his reconciliation with Cordelia and the growing insight that his insanity reveals. Yet there is an explanation of this deviation from the conventional pattern. It is not Lear who influences the action in a decisive way. His decisions to divide his kingdom and to reject Cordelia set the action going, and Lear’s reactions to Gonoril’s

and Regan’s behaviour towards him put it forward (Sc. 4 and 7). After the storm scene, which can be seen as the climax and turning point of the play, Lear’s role is a totally passive one.6 But it is Gonoril, Regan, Cornwall and Edmund who take over the active parts. And the rise and fall of these figures correspond with the conventional construction of a tragedy. These characters are advancing very successfully up to the moment, when they try to force Lear to give up his entire entourage and when Lear is exposed to the storm.


1 Cf. A. C. Bradley: Shakespearean Tragedy, 3rd ed. Macmillan Education LTD 1992, pp. 31-33.

2 Cf. A. C. Bradley: Shakespearean Tragedy, p. 249.

3 Ibid, pp. 34f.

4 Ibid, p. 34.

5 Cf. A. C. Bradley: Shakespearean Tragedy, pp. 11f.

6 Cf. A. C. Bradley: Shakespearean Tragedy, pp. 42.

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The Construction of the Plot in `King Lear´
University of Reading  (English Department)
Shakespeare Post 1600
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Dieser Essay entstand während eines Stipendienaufenthalts an der University of Reading in einem Seminar zu Shakespeares Dramen.
King Lear
Quote paper
Dr. Jens Saathoff (Author), 1993, The Construction of the Plot in `King Lear´, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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