Discussion Questions for King Lear
I look forward to our discussion of King Lear, which will commence in just a little while. I thought I would post the discussion questions on this blog, in case anyone wants to refer to them in the future. If you’re like me, you know that emails can be a little hard to track down sometimes. 🙂
1. ONE WORD?
One way of getting into a play or other work of literature is to identify a single word which, to your mind, captures the heart of the play–or at least your vision of it. As you read through or look back over King Lear, try to isolate this word, and then try to explain to yourself why it feels so important. Trust your instincts, and run with your imagination. Your word may be one that appears many times in the play, or only once.
2. FILIAL PIETY?
William Hazlitt, the great nineteenth-century essayist and critic, wrote that King Lear was Shakespeare’s best play, and that the source of its awful power was its treatment of filial piety, the bond between parents and children. Here is what he says in an essay on the play: “The passion which [Shakespeare] has taken as his subject is that which strikes its root deepest into the human heart; of which the bond is the hardest to be unloosed; and the canceling and tearing to pieces of which gives the greatest revulsion to the frame. This depth of nature, this force of passion, this tug and war of the elements of our being, this firm faith in filial piety, and the giddy anarchy and whirling tumult of the thoughts at finding this prop failing it, the contrast between the fixed, immoveable basis of natural affection, and the rapid, irregular starts of imagination, suddenly wrenched from all its accustomed holds and resting-places in the soul, this is what Shakespeare has given, and what nobody else but he could give.”
What does the play tell us about the relationship between parents and children? If Lear’s “firm faith in filial piety” leads to his tragic fall, what hope is there for the family? In Shakespeare’s dark portrayal of generational conflict, do you think he sides more with the old or the young? What is your evidence for this?
3. A POLITICAL PLAY?
Is King Lear primarily a political play that happens to be shaped by family dynamics, or a family drama that happens to have political repercussions? Does Shakespeare put more emphasis on the political or the familial? Why? Can you identify moments in the play where the emphasis shifts? What is happening in those moments?
4. GOOD AND EVIL?
In his essay about King Lear, William Hazlitt said that Goneril and Regan are “so thoroughly hateful that we do not even like to repeat their names.” Occasionally when we read works of literature we meet characters we absolutely despise. Then there are characters we absolutely love: Lear, Cordelia, Kent, Edgar. Something both literary critics and directors like to do is to read characters “against the grain,” whether by portraying a hateful character sympathetically or a loveable character critically. Choose one character in King Lear whom you strongly liked or strongly disliked after reading the play. Now, try to complicate your reading of the play by playing the devil’s advocate to yourself. Try to find what’s culpable in the beloved, and redeemable in the despised. Can you reconcile your two readings?
5. A HAPPY ENDING FOR LEAR?
In today’s world, if a director wants to put on a (modern) play, s/he must follow the playwright’s script to the “t”. That hasn’t always been the case. Before the era of modern copyright law, plays weren’t protected in this way; theatrical companies could change them pretty much at will, whether to appease the censors or appeal to audiences. It may astonish you to know that, for almost 150 years between 1681 and 1823, King Lear was performed with a “happy ending” supplied by an 17th-century editor named Nahum Tate. In this ending, Lear regains his throne and Cordelia marries Edgar.
The great eighteenth-century critic, essayist, and scholar Samuel Johnson restored the original ending of King Lear in his landmark edition of Shakespeare’s plays, even though Tate’s version continued to be performed, and he found Shakespeare’s morally appalling. In his notes to the play, he writes, “Shakespeare has suffered the virtue of Cordelia to perish in a just cause contrary to the natural ideas of justice, to the hope of the reader, and, what is yet more strange, to the faith of chronicles. […] A play in which the wicked prosper, and the virtuous miscarry, may doubtless be good, because it is a just representation of the common events of human life: but since all reasonable beings naturally love justice, I cannot easily be persuaded, that the observation of justice makes a play worse; or, that if other excellencies are equal, the audience will not always rise better pleased from the final triumph of persecuted vice.”
What do Johnson’s remarks tell us about his views of the purpose of drama and the relationship between life and literature? Are you sympathetic to Johnson’s comments? Would you prefer the happy ending?
6. THREE FILM CLIPS (optional)
If you have time, you might be interested in looking at one or more of the following film clips of Act 2, scene 4, where Lear, having stormed out of Goneril’s house, seeks accommodation with Regan. In a scene remarkable for its dramatic compression, Lear is rapidly stripped of all his followers and then shut out of doors as a storm approaches. The clips are from the 1971 production with Paul Scofield, the 1974 production with James Earl Jones, and the 2008 production with Ian McKellan, respectively.
Which interpretation do you like the most, and why? Is making a film of King Lear quite the same thing as putting it on stage? What do you think are the advantages and disadvantages, the opportunities and drawbacks, the possibilities and limitations, etc., of each medium?