Part of the Heinemann Advanced Shakespeare series, this version of King Lear aims to help A Level students understand the text and develop their own insights. It includes notes to bridge the gap between GCSE and A Level, space for students' own annotations, and activities and assignments.
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1. The fool in ‘King Lear’
The fool is one of the most important characters of ‘King Lear’. In fact, he is more than a fool; he is the wisest man that we find in the play. The fool becomes prominent in the fourth scene of the first act. The king has just started to get insulted by Gonerial, his first daughter. At this time, the fool makes fun of the stupidity of the king in his act of dividing the kingdom among his two daughters. He advises the king to
‘Have more than thou owes
Speak less than thou knows’
The fool is a very courageous kind of person. He considers himself very wise and openly calls the king a fool. According to the fool, the king had already lost all other titles. The title of the fool is the only suitable title for his present condition.
According to many critics, the fool is very young in age. But he speaks like an old man. When Goneril tries to control the king, the fool considers it unnatural and compares the situation to that of the cart pulling the horses. He asks the king whether he knows why a snail has a house and the king couldn’t answer the question. Then the fool explained that a house is for putting in the head of the snail. The fool cleverly uses this example to make the king understand that even little animals like the snail have more intelligence than King Lear.
In the second act, the fool observes the insult shown to the king by his second daughter. Seeing the injustice done to his master, the fool makes the following observation:
‘Fathers that wear rags
Do make their children blind
But fathers that bear bags
Shall see their children kind.’
The fool feels that the king should be sent to the school of an ant because the ant knows how to keep some grain for the cold season. But the king didn’t reserve anything for his own use in the old age. The fool helps us to reduce the tension of the horrible tragedy that is ‘King Lear’. At the same time, he also acts as the ‘suppressed commonsense of King Lear’. What the fool speaks is actually what King Lear feels in the innermost corner of his mind.
The fool is a very loyal person. When the king was thrown out of the house, the fool faithfully follows him to the cold heath. Being very young and weak, the fool is not able to withstand the attack of the cruel English weather. He understands that his health is in danger but still tries to cling to the king with his occasional jokes.
Finally the fools understands that his death was near and at this moment he prophetically speaks about ‘going to bed at noon’ which meant dying at a very young age. These are the very last words of the fool in the play. We come to understand that Shakespeare had got rid of the character in the middle of the third act since his dramatic purpose is already completed.
12th February, 2004.
2. Goneril and Regan
Both Gonerial and Regan are embodiments of evil in Shakespeare’s “King Lear’. In the very opening scene of the play, the cunning nature of the two sisters is revealed by Cordelia’s comments on them. Cordelia says-
‘Time shall unfold
What plighted cunning hides;
Who cover faults.
Both Goneril and Regan flatter the king in great detail when he asked them to describe how much they loved him. Goneril is the first person to answer the king. According to Goneril, her love towards her father is ‘dearer than eye-sight, space and liberty’. She loved her father beyond all manner of loving. When her turn came, Regan claimed that she was also made of that selfsame metal as her sister. Her only complaint was that Goneril was not long enough in describing her love towards King Lear. Hearing the flattering of the two daughters, the foolish king gave away all his property and political powers to them. Very soon they revealed their true nature by secretly conspiring against their father. At the very end of the first scene, we find them discussing the unreliable temperament of King Lear. They
How to use this book
The text of Shakespeares plays
Imagery and metaphor
Issues and themes
Preparing for an examination
Writing an essay
A question of approach