Questions on Shakespeare’s Tragedies
Shakespeare, William. King Lear. (Norton Tragedies, 2nd ed. 739-823).
1. How many different meanings for the term “nature” are developed in this play? Who articulates the various meanings? Are these significations kept distinct? Do they remain stable throughout, or are certain characters disabused of what they had formerly thought? Discuss your findings.
2. The various characters try to assert control over the play’s events by using a number of different linguistic strategies: rash invective, Machiavellian analysis, extreme bluntness, flowery evasion (Oswald), the language and song of madness and foolery, and visionary or prophetic poetry. Discuss a few of them by way of response.
3. In Act 1, Scene 1, does Lear’s division of his kingdom in 1.1 remind you of a fairy tale? If so, in what way, and of what specific fairy tale does it remind you? Describe your expectations about how the story might end based on Lear’s opening division of the kingdom in the particular manner Shakespeare has contrived.
4. In Act 1, Scene 1, what, if anything, is the problem with Lear’s decision to step aside (if not quite abdicate) and to divide his kingdom into thirds? Moreover, is there a problem with his demand for a public display of affection from his three daughters? Why does he appear to need such a display?
5. In Act 1, Scene 1, what reasons does Cordelia offer herself and the King for not going along with his request for a public display of affection? Are her speech and bearing appropriate, or inappropriate? Explain your reasoning.
6. In Act 1, Scene 1, Kent speaks truth to Lear’s raging power, and gets himself banished. How good is his attempt as a piece of rhetorical persuasion? If you find it flawed, do you think any other strategy might have worked where his failed? Why or why not?
7. In Act 1, Scene 1, what comments do Regan and Goneril offer at 1.1.286-307 regarding their father’s past character and his present conduct? In what sense might their views be considered reasonable? Nonetheless, what do they reveal about themselves in this conversation, especially in their upbraiding of Cordelia right before this conversation?
8. In Act 1, Scenes 1-2, the Edmund/Gloucester sub-plot (or co-plot) also gets under way. At this early stage, what relation subsists between it and the main Lear/Daughters plot? What common theme or themes do you see in them both? (The same question might be asked subsequently, as the two plots unfold, and would make a good paper topic at this more detailed level.)
9. In Act 1, Scene 2, Edmund and Gloucester give us their respective understandings of “nature.” How does each talk about this concept? What advantage does Edmund have over Gloucester partly because of their differences regarding this matter, and why?
10. In Act 1, Scene 4, consider the Fool’s interaction with the King. What does the Fool do for Lear — how helpful are his insights to Lear (and to us as viewers)? Discuss also the manner (songs, riddles, etc.) he employs to convey his meaning. Which do you find most effective, and why? (This question might be asked of any segments in which the Fool appears, and could be developed into a good paper topic.)
11. In Act 1, Scene 4, observe how the servant Oswald behaves towards Lear after the latter has given away his kingdom. What manner does he use towards Lear from lines 44-85, and why? (Refer to Scene 3 for the latter issue.) What opportunity does Oswald’s behavior provide the newly disguised Kent?
12. In Act 1, Scene 4, Goneril enters around line 190 and makes herself odious to Lear. What in particular does he find so offensive in Goneril’s manner and in the things she says to him? By Scene 5, what insight does he begin to gain about his treatment of Cordelia? How would you characterize his state of mind by the end of Scene 5?
13. In Act 2, Scene 1, by what specific means (words and actions) does Edmund not only manage to drive Edgar out of doors but also to win himself still more credit with his father Gloucester and ingratiate himself with Cornwall?
14. In Act 2, Scene 2, Kent comes across Oswald and insults this servant in a very precise manner. Observe Kent’s tortured attempt afterwards to explain to Regan and Cornwall why he has been thrashing their sister’s messenger. What limitations does Kent show as a speaker in this episode?
15. In Act 2, Scene 3, Edgar takes on the identity of a mad beggar, calling himself “poor Tom.” Why might this be an appropriate identity for him now, aside from the obvious motive of avoiding detection? How do Edgar’s words in adopting this identity connect with the play’s central themes so far? (Possible paper topic: trace this question forwards: how does Edgar’s sojourn as “Poor Tom” through Act 4, and then his reassumption of his proper self in Act 5, help us understand the errors, sufferings, and human potential of other characters in the play?)
16. In Act 2, Scene 4, Lear is furious when he learns of Kent’s punishment. He blames Goneril but quickly learns that Regan, too, is against him. Explore what leads up to Lear’s frustrated exclamation, “O, reason not the need!” and his subsequent tirade (2.4.264-86). Why is it so important to Lear that he retain his hundred knights? What seems to be his state of mind towards the end of this scene?
17. Act 3, Scenes 2, 4, and 6 are concerned with the actions of King Lear and others during a raging storm. In what sense is the storm metaphoric of Lear’s inner disturbance? In what sense is it significant as a natural phenomenon not reducible to Lear’s inner state and, therefore, perhaps relevant to broader issues of heavenly or natural justice in the play?
18. In Act 3, Scene 2, what does the storm apparently mean to Lear himself? How does he address the storm — to what extent does he connect its operation with what Regan and Goneril have done to him?
19. In Act 3, Scene 2, what service do the Fool’s songs and other utterances provide the King as both men suffer in the storm? How do you understand the Fool’s “prophecy” from lines 80-96? What is he suggesting?
20. In Act 3, Scene 4, what significance does King Lear find in “Poor Tom’s” sufferings and in his crazed utterances? What connections does he make between himself and this supposed beggar? What does he learn from him?
21. In Act 3, Scene 5, King Lear stages a mock trial for Regan and Goneril, with Poor Tom (soon to cast off his disguise) and the Fool (who exits the play at the end of this scene) as judges. What accusations does Lear level against Regan and Goneril? What might he be trying to accomplish by putting them on trial — what kind of “justice” is he looking for, and how does he assess the quality of the ad hoc court he has established?
22. In Act 3, Scene 7 (one of the most distressing scenes in any play I can recall), Gloucester, having been taken prisoner in his own home, is blinded. Why is it appropriate to Goneril’s nature (and to that of her sister as well) that she should choose this specific punishment for Gloucester, and how do the prisoner’s words only reinforce the desire of Regan and Cornwall to inflict that very punishment on him?
23. In Act 4, Scenes 1 and 6, the wretched Gloucester conceives of and then tries to make his final exit, but as it turns out, he is — or rather isn’t — in for a real letdown. What is Edgar trying to accomplish with his artistic, but misleading, treatment of Gloucester? Also, to what extent does Edgar’s interaction with his father Gloucester parallel or differ from his interaction (as Poor Tom) with the mad King Lear in Act 3, Scene 4?
24. In Act 4, Scenes 2 and then 5, Goneril first plots with Edmund to have him replace her husband Albany, and then Regan attempts to gain Oswald’s help as a courier in winning Edmund’s affections. How does this sexual competition symbolize the new dispensation to which Lear’s mistakes have led his kingdom? How does Albany’s assessment of Goneril (and Regan) in Act 4, Scene 2 help characterize this kingdom-wide degeneration?
25. In Act 4, Scene 6 (line 80ff) Lear engages in mad a ramble about the nature of kingship and authority, womankind, and the institution of justice. What obsessions grip him, and what insights does he offer regarding some of these subjects?
26. In Act 4, Scene 6 (lines 227-70), Edgar catches Oswald in the act of attempting to kill old Gloucester and dispatches him, reading afterwards Goneril’s treasonous letter to Edmund. Why does Edgar confront Oswald in rustic dialect? What role in the unfolding tragedy has Oswald played up to his ignominious end?
27. In Act 5, Scene 3, Lear, on his way to an army-camp holding cell with Cordelia, lays out his vision of the future the two will share. How does he assess the pair’s present circumstances, and what predictions does he make for their future? To what extent do the King’s lyrical words at this point, and in the aftermath when he confronts Cordelia’s lifeless body, amount to tragic insight? What has he learned from the terrible events that he has partly set in motion?
28. In Act 5, Scene 3, Regan and Goneril argue over Edmund. Where do they do so? Is this setting important? As asked in a previous question, how does this sexual competition symbolize the new dispensation to which Lear’s mistakes have led his kingdom? If you already deal with that question, consider Goneril’s answer to Albany when he confronts her with the letter she wrote to Edmund: how does she construe the nature of the political power she has been given?
29. In Act 5, Scene 1, Edgar (as an anonymous knight) gives Albany the letter he had found on Oswald’s body, and issues a challenge against Edmund as a traitor to his brother, father, and Albany. In Scene 3, Edmund must defend himself against the accusation of treason that Albany has seconded against him. In what sense is it poetic justice that the fight with Edgar should prove to be Edmund’s undoing? (Edmund had earlier declared “nature” his ruling spirit or concept; in the name and service of what outlook does he in fact die?)
30. In Act 5, Scene 3, by the play’s end, everyone who had stood to inherit the kingdom has died or been slain. Someone has to accept the responsibility of governing. What attitudes do Albany, Kent, and Edgar adopt towards this responsibility? Do Edgar’s last four lines (5.3.324-27) adequately sum up the play? Why or why not?
Edition. Greenblatt, Stephen et al., eds. The Norton Shakespeare. 2nd edition. Four-Volume Genre Paperback Set. Norton, 2008. ISBN-13: 978-0-393-93152-5.
Copyright © 2012 Alfred J. Drake