Character Analysis in King Lear
King Lear: At the start of the play, King Lear is more concerned with appearances than reality. He has grown accustomed to receiving flattery; prizing outward declarations of love, rather than actual devotion. However, Lear develops over the course of the play. Though Lear loses his kingdom and his sanity, these losses ultimately lead him to value genuine loyalty and kindness above empty praise.
Cordelia: One of King Lear’s daughters, Cordelia is the only one to refuse to publicly declare and quantify her love for her father when asked. This refusal is not a marker of her disloyalty or treachery, as Lear originally assumes. Rather, Cordelia is the only of Lear’s daughters who truly loves him. She is a genuine and honest individual, and while this goes unrecognized by her father initially, he eventually realizes it.
Goneril and Regan: Goneril and Regan are King Lear’s other daughters. Unlike Cordelia, they immediately declare their supposed love for their father in front of the kingdom. We eventually see that their declarations were false, and that both daughters care more for their own interests than their father’s. They are selfish, greedy, cruel, and they value wealth, power, and status above family and compassion.
Edmund: The Earl of Gloucester’s illegitimate son, Edmund plots to take the throne from his brother Edgar (Gloucester’s legitimate son) in order to acquire power and rise above his status. Although villainous, Edmund is a somewhat sympathetic character. His motives are driven by an unfair social order that denies him rights, status, and respect, simply because he is Gloucester’s “illegitimate” son.
Character Analysis Examples in King Lear:
Act I - Scene I
"yet he hath ever but slenderly known himself..." See in text (Act I - Scene I)
In this context, “slenderly” means “slightly” or “barely.” Regan and Goneril are discussing their concerns about their father’s actions, and Regan’s comment illustrates that Lear has always lacked any amount of personal insight. Their conversation suggests that they will find ways to deny their father authority and power in order to increase their own. Note how Goneril says that they must “look to his age” to inform their actions because of the “unruly waywardness” that Lear’s old age has caused. This means that they’ll likely argue that Lear is not fit enough to rule or make decisions for himself.
"and with what poor judgment he hath now cast her off appears too grossly..." See in text (Act I - Scene I)
Even Lear’s daughters see that he has exhibited poor judgment in his treatment of Cordelia. However, note that they are less concerned with Cordelia’s fate and more interested in how their father’s actions have reaffirmed their belief in his instability—particularly how it will affect them and their interests. Like Kent, they saw the wrong of Lear’s actions, but unlike Kent, they plan to use it to their advantage, revealing their lust for power and foreshadowing conflict between the daughters and their father.
"If for I want that glib and oily art, To speak and purpose not..." See in text (Act I - Scene I)
While today we use “want” to express a desire for something, Cordelia is using the verb in a more archaic fashion. Similar to the expression “to be found wanting” (meaning "to lack something"), this verb here means that Cordelia lacks the ability to speak like her sisters. This statement indirectly accuses them of speaking without real feeling or purpose. While Cordelia sees the importance among words, meaning, and values, she also lacks an ability to protect herself from the manipulative behavior of others. In this case, she’s truthful and honest but is left without an inheritance due to Lear’s anger.
"For you, great king..." See in text (Act I - Scene I)
Lear says this part to the King of France. Since he has stripped Cordelia of her dowry, Lear tells the King of France that he should withdraw his courtship of Cordelia in favor of someone "worthier," which is to say someone with more possessions and wealth. The King of France's response demonstrates how such worth is not how he values people, particularly one he loves.
"[to Cordelia] The gods to their dear shelter take thee,maid, That justly think'st, and hast most rightly said!..." See in text (Act I - Scene I)
Kent says these words to Cordelia, emphasizing his approval of her actions and his condemnation of Lear’s. Kent’s ability to “see” reason and understand Cordelia’s actions set him apart from Lear and Gloucester. His banishment represents Lear’s inability to see things as they really are.
"recreant..." See in text (Act I - Scene I)
Lear’s accusing Kent a “recreant” means that he considers Kent “unfaithful” or a “traitor.” A recreant is someone who is unfaithful to a belief, and since Lear is the king and sovereign, it is expected that his subjects obey his will and follow his orders. Lear’s use of this word reinforces this image of Lear as someone who expects obedience from others.
"Here I disclaim all my paternal care..." See in text (Act I - Scene I)
Lear, privately hurt and publicly rebuked, not only refuses to bestow a dower on Cordelia, he also publicly disowns her in front of everyone. Cordelia’s refusal to play into her father’s vanity despite her great love for him has cost her his land and favor.
"Although the last, not least..." See in text (Act I - Scene I)
Lear has three daughters, and this statement is a clear indication that he values his youngest as much or possibly more than the other two. The private relationship between father and daughter, or daughters for that matter, becomes complicated by the politics of authority, power, and order, but here we see that Lear shows care for Cordelia.
"Nothing, my lord. ..." See in text (Act I - Scene I)
We have seen Cordelia’s asides that she does love Lear, but she has no desire to make it explicit in front of everyone. Her refusal undermines the public authority that Lear has because she refuses to flatter him like the others for false reasons. For her, the private love she has for him as a father is more important that the authority he wields as king.
"Meantime we shall express our darker purpose..." See in text (Act I - Scene I)
Lear’s “darker purpose” is to partition his land among his three daughters so that he can effectively retire from the throne and live in peace and comfort. We learn a few things here. First, Lear values his authority and order, but he is also prideful and egotistical because of the way he partitions his kingdom. Note that this public display of power establishes two themes: family relationships, and authority and order. Lear makes a public demand from his daughters and has the authority to make everyone watch, regardless of whether or not they agree with his choices.
"Attend the lords of France and Burgundy, Gloucester..." See in text (Act I - Scene I)
King Lear’s first words direct the Earl of Gloucester to see to two important figures. This is meant to demonstrate how Lear and Gloucester are at the height of their power and prestige at the beginning of the play. By establishing these positions early, Shakespeare provides a space for this status to change, creating a sense of tension and expectation as the play unfolds.
"Sir, I shall study deserving. ..." See in text (Act I - Scene I)
In addition to learning about Edmund's physical characteristics earlier, we can see here by his modest and adroit reply that he is also has polished manners, demonstrating that he knows how to be a gentleman and polished courtier to compensate for being Gloucester’s bastard son and therefore not entitled to land or a title of his own.
"My lord of Kent: remember him hereafter as my(25) honorable friend..." See in text (Act I - Scene I)
The conversation between Gloucester and Kent provide adequate characterizations of both Earls, Kent in particular. He is characterized as a highly civilized and sensitive man, and, as we’ll see when he interacts with Lear, one who is not afraid to speak his mind.
"the issue of it being so proper..." See in text (Act I - Scene I)
The Earl of Kent calls Gloucester’s son “proper,” a word that suggests that Edmund is good-looking, well-proportioned and carries himself appropriately as befits a member of high society.
"I cannot wish the fault undone..." See in text (Act I - Scene I)
The Earl of Kent’s diplomatic and graceful answer to Gloucester’s question demonstrates his intelligence, wisdom, and tact. Note also how he calls Edmund “proper” in contrast to Gloucester’s asking if Kent smelled a fault, or an impropriety. While Kent does not deny that Gloucester was at fault, he makes a tactful choice to not censure Gloucester for having a child out of wedlock.
"mend your speech a little..." See in text (Act I - Scene I)
When King Lear tells Cordelia to “mend [her] speech,” Shakespeare complicates the theme of family relationships in that while Cordelia’s words signal her devotion to her father, he reads them as a rejection. King Lear feels betrayed by his daughter’s words because she refuses to express her love publicly in the way that he asks, undermining his authority as king and hurting him as her father.
"Jupiter..." See in text (Act I - Scene I)
Jupiter is the supreme god of the sky in Roman mythology, the equivalent of Zeus in Greek mythology. As Jupiter is the supreme authority of law and order, often referred to as, “shining father,” King Lear is asking the ruler of the heavens to help restore “order.” This is ironic as it is ultimately King Lear’s own absurdity and blindness that are causing disorder.
"inflamed ..." See in text (Act I - Scene I)
“Inflamed” means glowing or ardent. Cordelia’s suitors might have been inclined to run off now that King Lear has denied her dowry, but the King of France states that he loves Cordelia even more now that she is “dowerless.” The King of France respects Cordelia for her genuine nature, emphasizing his honorable values.
"Now, by Apollo, king, Thou swear'st thy gods in vain...." See in text (Act I - Scene I)
The greek god Apollo is associated with knowledge and sight. King Lear’s invocation of Apollo is ironic in that he is suggesting that the Earl of Kent is being unreasonable in assuming Cordelia’s honesty. Ironically, King Lear’s invocation actually illustrates his own refusal to see reason.
"Nothing will come of nothing..." See in text (Act I - Scene I)
Lear warns Cordelia that she will receive nothing from him if she doesn't profess her love. Cordelia loves Lear the most, but cannot find the words to express it. Her sisters, Goneril and Regan, deceive their father with flattery. The phrase "nothing will come of nothing" was a credo accepted by Christians during the Middle Ages. Of course, an important (Christian) exception is that God created the world from nothing.
Act I - Scene II
"fops..." See in text (Act I - Scene II)
The word “fop” has negative connotations and is the equivalent to calling someone a weak-minded fool. This word choice provides insight into how Edmund views those around him.
"character..." See in text (Act I - Scene II)
By “character,” Gloucester means the handwriting in the letter. Note here how he trusts Edmund to answer this question, suggesting that Gloucester either doesn’t know his son Edgar’s handwriting or that he blindly trusts Edmund to tell the truth.
"as if we were villains by necessity; fools by heavenly compulsion;..." See in text (Act I - Scene II)
After Gloucester leaves, Edmund mocks his comments, stating that the motion of the sun, moon, and planets have no influence on human actions. Further complicating the theme of family relationships, this statement emphasizes a generational difference: Gloucester defers to the heavens and believes them to be important; Edmund seeks more personal control over events. This parallels the contrast between Lear's belief in authority and tradition with his elder daughters' desire for personal control of their own fortunes.
"Thou, nature, art my goddess; to thy law..." See in text (Act I - Scene II)
Recall that in Act I, scene i, characters invoke the gods as authorities on order and justice. From Edmund’s perspective, the laws of “nature” give him as much right to rule as Edgar, which prompts Edmund to invoke nature as a goddess of divine order. Characters will continue to invoke nature throughout the play, as the natural world allows characters to transcend the rigid social order they are confined to.
"Now, gods, stand up for bastards!..." See in text (Act I - Scene II)
While Edmund is Gloucester’s son, the social structure regards him as “illegitimate” and denies him any claim to his father’s land and title. Here, we see Edmund’s desire to transgress social norms for the first time, choosing nature as an alternate means for achieving status and power. This clever sidestep of social order reveals Edmund’s ambitious and cunning character—he is willing to go to great lengths to accomplish his goals.
Act I - Scene III
"By day and night he wrongs me..." See in text (Act I - Scene III)
Contrary to how she expressed her feelings in scene one, Goneril has become increasingly frustrated with Lear to the point of showing a complete lack of sympathy or personal regard for him. With her new political power, she plans to subvert the power of the father-daughter relationship.
"He flashes into one gross crime or other,..." See in text (Act I - Scene III)
Lear’s behavior has markedly shifted from the first scene, in which he was depicted as an authoritative controller who managed the divestment of his land with care. Now that he has given up much of his land and power, Lear has become an agent of disorder, causing chaos in Goneril’s home.
"Old fools are babes again..." See in text (Act I - Scene III)
Goneril’s statement confirms the selfish qualities she expressed with Regan in scene i, in which they both made uncharitable comments on Lear’s age and state of mind. Considering Lear’s generosity with his land and power, Goneril’s actions and words reveal a highly opportunistic person, motivated by ambition rather than love.
Act I - Scene IV
"She'll flay thy wolvish visage...." See in text (Act I - Scene IV)
“Visage” means “face.” Lear curses Goneril by comparing her to an animal; in this case, her face to a wolf. In doing this, Lear states that Goneril is no better than an animal in her disposition and behavior—she does not have the respect for family ties that a human should.
"Sirrah, you were best take my coxcomb...." See in text (Act I - Scene IV)
A “coxcomb” is a fool’s hat, which has a red crest resembling a cock’s comb. As the Fool attempts to place his coxcomb on the Earl of Kent’s head, the coxcomb becomes a symbol of Kent’s foolishness for following King Lear despite Lear’s irrational political choices.
"How far your eyes may pierce I can not tell:(350) Striving to better, oft we mar what's well. ..." See in text (Act I - Scene IV)
While we spend more time knowing Goneril’s thoughts, Albany’s words here are important to understanding the theme of family relationships in this tragedy. He appears to believe that she should treat her father with more respect due to their familial relationship. He may be committed to Goneril through marriage, and his political position depends on her, but he has a much clearer vision of Goneril’s cruelty towards Lear, which has clearly started to drive him away from her.
"Who is it that can tell me who I am? ..." See in text (Act I - Scene IV)
Lear appears to believe that he is due respect and authority by virtue of simply being “Lear” rather than the power of his previous status as King. This is what makes him believe that he should be able to give up his power but still demand respect. His repeated questions about his identity suggest that he is slowly discovering that in giving away his authority and wealth, he has given away his previous identity.
"thou hast pared thy wit o' both sides, and left nothing i' the middle..." See in text (Act I - Scene IV)
The Fool does not make a direct point here, preferring to convey it through an image. The verb “to pare” means to slice or cut, and so the Fool says that Lear has cut off his intelligence on both sides, which could symbolically refer to Goneril and Regan since Lear gave each of them half of his estate. Having done this, Lear has “left nothing in the middle.” Therefore, the Fool suggests that Lear’s having no power or land of his own is the result of not having any “wit,” or power of reason.
"The sweet and bitter fool Will presently appear; The one in motley here, The other found out there...." See in text (Act I - Scene IV)
Fools are supposed to jest, but here he speaks with clear insight into Lear’s condition. We know that the Fool is sad about Cordelia’s leaving, and so his words are not meant to entertain Lear but to criticize him. The words may be lighthearted but the meaning behind them is strong. Being able to criticize Lear in this way suggests a role reversal: Shakespeare turned the Fool into a wise leader when Lear became a fool.
"Dost thou know me, fellow? ..." See in text (Act I - Scene IV)
Kent’s decision to disguise himself in order to serve Lear demonstrates how loyal he is to Lear's authority. Lear's failure to see through Kent’s disguise emphasizes his lack of insight and how blind he is to actions around him, providing an insightful metaphor for Lear’s inability to see his daughters’ real motivations.
"How sharper than a serpent's tooth it is..." See in text (Act I - Scene IV)
Goneril's ingratitude is "sharper than a serpent's tooth." Lear demands that Nature make Goneril infertile or that she be cursed with monstrous offspring. Lear clearly views either outcome as punishment for her betrayal; however, he doesn't seem to view his own serpent-like children as a potential reflection of his own character flaws (his arrogance, for example).
Act I - Scene V
"O, let me not be mad, not mad, sweet heaven Keep me in temper: I would not be mad!..." See in text (Act I - Scene V)
Lear has begun to realize that by giving away his power to his daughters, he has lost his identity as king. Here, he calls out to the heavens to help him, fearing that in losing his identity he will lose his mind. His appeal to the heavens shows his belief in the power of fate and the gods, but he has already begun to suspect that his anger at the “monstrous ingratitude” will be enough to drive him mad.
"Thou shouldst not have been old till thou hadst been wise..." See in text (Act I - Scene V)
In an earlier scene, Goneril and Regan stated that as Lear has become older, he has continued to lose his power of reason. This line complicates the themes of old age and madness in that the Fool suggests that with old age can come more wisdom, but Lear has apparently become old without learning anything. This is one of the most direct criticisms that the Fool has said to Lear, and it’s possible that Lear’s reaction in the next line is part of his slow realization that he has made decisions based on unsound judgment.
"She will taste as like this as a crab does to a crab...." See in text (Act I - Scene V)
Shakespeare again uses animals to symbolize the natures of different characters. The Fool cleverly points out that Goneril and Regan are both similar in their cruel and savage character, and Lear’s assumption that Regan will be any different from Goneril is somewhat comical. Once again, the Fool shows himself as one of the most insightful characters, which leads us to question who the real “fool” is.
Act II - Scene I
"Our good old friend, Lay comforts to your bosom; and bestow Your needful counsel to our business, Which craves the instant use...." See in text (Act II - Scene I)
Regan’s request for Gloucester’s wisdom and counsel represents a different take on old age than has been presented in the play thus far. Goneril and Regan have both stated that their father is old and foolish; however, here it at least appears that Regan values Gloucester’s council, suggesting that his age has provided him with experience to advise her. Shakespeare likely includes such moments to complicate and add nuance to his themes while simultaneously encouraging us to question the motivations of deceitful characters like Regan.
"Bringing the murderous coward to the stake; He that conceals him, death...." See in text (Act II - Scene I)
Edmund again uses an elaborate scheme for the sole purpose of duping his father, and thus, manipulates truth and perception to assure that Gloucester remains blind to his betrayal. Although Edmund’s trickery is somewhat convincing, it is ultimately successful due to Gloucester’s profound misjudgment of both of his son’s characters. This illustrates Edmund’s intelligence and cunning, but also Gloucester’s lack of insight concerning his own children.
"O, madam, my old heart is cracked, it's cracked! ..." See in text (Act II - Scene I)
Gloucester draws our attention to his “old heart,” implying that the pain of Edgar’s betrayal is not only damaging because of the relationship they have as father and son, but also it is more damaging because of Gloucester’s age. The pain of losing Edgar in this way causes Gloucester to start acting in ways similar to Lear, like choosing to help a lying and dishonest child instead of a loving and honest one.
Act II - Scene III
"Edgar I nothing am...." See in text (Act II - Scene III)
The word “nothing” makes another appearance as Edgar throws off his clothes in favor of a disguise as a bedlam beggar, or madman. Note that unlike Lear, Edgar has chosen to act mad rather than becoming so. However, it is worth noting that both have found paths to madness as a means of dealing with the disintegration of their own lives.
Act II - Scene IV
"O, sir, you are old...." See in text (Act II - Scene IV)
Lear has come to Regan to seek support for Goneril’s harsh treatment of him. Regan immediately targets his age, treating him like a child that should ask Goneril for forgiveness. Regan’s statement again brings up the interplay between madness and age by strongly contending that Lear’s aging mind is responsible for his behavior.
Act III - Scene I
"As fear not but you shall,—show her this ring;..." See in text (Act III - Scene I)
Kent does not have to explicitly tell Cordelia that he is the one communicating; he only has to send her his ring and purse, which he trusts that she will immediately recognize as his. This gesture emphasizes Cordelia’s sight, characterizing her again as being one of the most insightful characters of the play.
"This night, wherein the cub-drawn bear would couch, The lion and the belly-pinched wolf..." See in text (Act III - Scene I)
The verb “couch” means to lie down. The Gentleman uses language that associates Lear’s state of mind with nature and animals. Lear’s wild shouts parallel the raging storm, and even the fiercest animals would not dare to make themselves vulnerable to natural forces as Lear does. Lear’s savage fury at the storm emphasizes how his daughter’s betrayal and cruelty has caused him to lash out against nature, an irrational action that reveals his growing madness.
Act III - Scene II
"all germains spill at once, That make ingrateful man!..." See in text (Act III - Scene II)
As Lear calls on the storm to throw the world into chaos, this line provides support for how his anger is targeted at his daughters. The word “germains” means something akin to “seeds,” and so Lear is asking the storm to destroy all the seeds from which ungrateful people grow. Lear considers his daughters monstrously ungrateful for everything he has done for them, and his anger reveals itself further here.
"The art of our necessities is strange, That can make vile things precious...." See in text (Act III - Scene II)
Recall the connection here to Kent’s claim that only the miserable can see miracles in Act II, scene ii. When you are desperate, even shoddy things like this hut can seem precious. Only in Lear’s madness and desperation has he been able to see the beauty in the world. Again, Shakespeare shows that those we deem “mad” sometimes have the clearest insights.
"My wits begin to turn...." See in text (Act III - Scene II)
This line clearly informs the audience that Lear’s madness has begun to strongly take hold of him. However, Shakespeare complicates this by showing that Lear has a sense of self-awareness; that is, he realizes that it is happening to him. The Fool has shown that wisdom and madness are connected, and this line supports this notion by suggesting that as Lear’s “wits begin to turn,” he’ll get greater insight into himself.
"More sinned against than sinning...." See in text (Act III - Scene II)
Lear calls upon the gods to avenge him because he can no longer do so. Lear ceded his authority to his daughters and was betrayed; he is now a "poor, infirm, weak, and despis'd old man" (line 20). Though he invokes the "dreadful summoners" to execute justice, he quickly adds that he is "More sinned against than sinning" and therefore doesn't need to be punished. Lear still seems unable to recognize his own flaws.
Act III - Scene IV
"Come, good Athenian. ..." See in text (Act III - Scene IV)
Moments earlier, Lear told Kent that he will go but will take the disguised Edgar with him, claiming Edgar to be his “philosopher.” Calling Edgar a “good Athenian” serves to also call him a Greek philosopher, because the people of Athens were associated with the field of philosophy and the pursuit of knowledge. In doing this, Lear shows that he values the disguised Edgar as a person of wisdom and knowledge, and since Edgar is appearing to be mad, Lear's preferring his company speaks to Lear's mindset.
"Death, traitor! nothing could have subdued nature To such a lowness but his unkind daughters...." See in text (Act III - Scene IV)
While Lear has demonstrated that he has begun to acquire a measure of empathy for the plights and situations of others, his remark here on Poor Tom’s (Edgar’s) state shows that he still views events through his own personal experience. For Lear, the path to madness and the subversion of the natural order happen through the betrayal of children against their father, which we’ve seen happening to Lear and Gloucester.
"Poor naked wretches, whereso'er you are,..." See in text (Act III - Scene IV)
Since Lear has started losing his wits, Shakespeare has been developing the association between insight and madness. This passage provides us with evidence that Lear has begun to acquire more knowledge as he struggles with his mental state. Having found shelter from the storm, Lear begins to reflect on his time as king and how he largely ignored the plight of his impoverished subjects. This selection shows how his recent experiences have helped him acquire a measure of empathy, or the ability to sympathize with the situation of others. Nature, as the storm, has provided an equalizing force that has allowed Lear to redefine what he considers necessary; he even sees a shack as precious.
"Take physic, pomp, Expose thyself to feel what wretches feel,..." See in text (Act III - Scene IV)
By “Take physic, pomp” King Lear means something like, "pompous men, take a taste of your own medicine." The medicine (“physic”) that Lear is thinking of is exposure to the elements. Lear has been thrown out by his ungrateful daughters, and for the first time, is exposed to the elements of nature as a poor man rather than a “pomp.” His current situation helps him to recognize that he has not helped those in need as much as he could. Lear suggests that the rich be exposed to this level of poverty to come to the same humble realization.
"I am almost mad myself: I had a son, Now outlawed from my blood; he sought my life, But lately, very late: I loved him, friend;(165) No father his son dearer: truth to tell thee, The grief hath crazed my wits..." See in text (Act III - Scene IV)
Gloucester sympathizes with Lear for his madness, as he too understands the tragedy that occurs from broken family bonds. Just like Lear, Gloucester has been betrayed by a child (even though he believes it to be Edgar rather than Edmund.) Shakespeare complicates the theme of family relationships here by emphasizing that their dissolution has the capacity to drive people mad. Gloucester and Lear feel deeply hurt by their children’s disloyalty, the consequences of which is dire.
"O, that way madness lies;..." See in text (Act III - Scene IV)
King Lear believes that he will go mad if he continues to obsess about his daughters' betrayal. He is already going mad because of his obsession with Regan's and Goneril's crimes, so his sudden insistence on shunning the topic is potentially a further symptom of madness.
"Take physic, pomp..." See in text (Act III - Scene IV)
The "physic" Lear refers to is human wretchedness. For the first time in his life, Lear has been subjected to poverty and pain. The "pomp" of his former life blinded him to human suffering—he has "ta'en/Too little care" of the poor. He now calls upon all pompous men to experience the "physic" that is human suffering.
Act III - Scene V
"I will lay trust upon thee; and thou shalt find a dearer father in my love...." See in text (Act III - Scene V)
Note that in the previous line Edmund states that it pains him to turn his father in because he is of his own “blood.” Cornwall suggests that he can take on the role of father to Edmund both politically, as he can grant a title to Edmund that a father usually grants, and biologically, in that he will replace a father by “blood.” Considering that Edmund has just betrayed his own father and Cornwall has taken him in as a figurative “son,” this illustrates Cornwall’s blindness to the danger that Edmund presents.
Act III - Scene VI
"litter..." See in text (Act III - Scene VI)
Gloucester has prepared a “litter” (a carriage or cart) to help get Lear to safety. Gloucester’s willingness to protect Lear, potentially at the expense of his own safety, shows that Gloucester is loyal to Lear. Gloucester is willing to sacrifice himself for Lear, and for what he considers the rightful social and familial order.
"When we our betters see bearing our woes, We scarcely think our miseries our foes...." See in text (Act III - Scene VI)
This is the second time we have seen Edgar express his pity for Lear. Earlier, Edgar worried that his tears would give away his disguise, and here, he says that his pity for Lear is so strong that he can barely feel his own pain. However, he does note that there is a similarity between the two, when he says "he childed as I fathered," which is to say that Lear suffers from his children’s actions, and Edgar suffered from his father’s. Edgar's revealing of this moment of personal pain provides one of the most explicit connections between the two family situations.
"It shall be done; I will arraign them straight...." See in text (Act III - Scene VI)
Revealing just how far he has descended into his madness, Lear begins to carry out an imaginary trial against Goneril and Regan for their betrayal of what Lear considers his gratitude. There are some parallels between the way Lear goes about this imaginary trial and the ceremony in Act I, scene i. However, one noticeable difference is that he refers to his daughters as “she-foxes,” bringing in more animal symbolism and revealing how he is now more aware of their cunning and heartlessness.
"[Aside] My tears begin to take his part so much, They'll mar my counterfeiting...." See in text (Act III - Scene VI)
Edgar feels such sympathy for Lear that he begins to cry, fearing that his tears will ruin his disguise. Note the imagery of the eyes and tears in association with emotional insight and truth. Though it is Lear’s children who abandon him and Edgar’s situation is the opposite, Edgar is able to relate to Lear’s situation in that he knows all too well the devastating emotional impact of being cut off from one’s family.
"He's mad that trusts in the tameness of a wolf, a horse's health, a boy's love, or a whore's oath...." See in text (Act III - Scene VI)
King Lear's jester, like many of the fools in Shakespeare's plays, is the person who usually perceives situations in the most honest way. Even though Lear is now completely dejected and mad, his jester continues to chide him about his character flaws—namely the arrogance that prompted Lear to give his kingdom to his ungrateful and wicked daughters.
Act III - Scene VII
"So white, and such a traitor!..." See in text (Act III - Scene VII)
Here, Regan further insults Gloucester by plucking out hairs from his “white” beard, an action that once again highlights her disrespect for the elderly. Shakespeare further heightens our awareness of Regan’s cruelty by reminding us of Gloucester’s old age and his helplessness.
"Pluck out his eyes...." See in text (Act III - Scene VII)
Notice that while Regan calls for Gloucester’s death, Goneril instead states that they should remove his sight. While blindness and insight largely have been figurative and metaphorical in the play to this point, this call for physically blinding Gloucester raises the stakes of the political climate, emphasizing the cruelty of Lear’s daughters and their boundless ambition.
Act IV - Scene I
"my son(35) Came then into my mind;..." See in text (Act IV - Scene I)
This line is a form of dramatic irony. The audience knows that the madman whom Glocester saw in the storm was actually his son Edgar who now stands before him as Poor Tom. Glocester however does not make this connection, further demonstrating his metaphorical blindness along with his literal blindness.
"'Tis the times' plague, when madmen lead the blind...." See in text (Act IV - Scene I)
Gloucester is saying that it is a tragedy of the time that the mad must lead the blind. To Gloucester, Poor Tom is a mad man, merely one step above being blind. However, recall that Shakespeare has established madness and insight as intertwined on the path to gaining a deeper understanding of a complex world, as we have seen in Lear and the Fool’s interactions. Even while Gloucester could see, he was blind to the character of those around him. When Gloucester puts his faith in a madman, he illustrates that in this chaotic world, being sane does not mean one has greater insight, just as having eyesight does not mean one can “see.”
"And worse I may be yet: the worst is not So long as we can say ‘This is the worst...." See in text (Act IV - Scene I)
After Edgar sees his father being led by the Old Man, he alters his earlier sentiment, stating that there are many others worse off than he is. His statement here suggests that someone’s having enough composure and reflection to see how bad a situation is must mean that the situation is not at its absolute worst; being able to say this means that things could still become worse. This shift in Edgar’s character illustrates his capacity to look outside his own problems and sympathize with the feelings of others, similar to Lear’s encounter with the disguised Edgar earlier.
"I stumbled when I saw:..." See in text (Act IV - Scene I)
Now that he has lost his sight, Gloucester begins to despair that he has no purpose left beyond seeing his son Edgar again. This metaphor illustrates how Gloucester now realizes he was blind to Edmund’s betrayal, emphasizing how he couldn’t properly walk or “see” his way when he had eyes.
"I have no way, and therefore want no eyes;..." See in text (Act IV - Scene I)
Gloucester's resignation epitomizes the fatalism present in most of the play. Fate directs the outcome for each character, so it doesn't matter what a person does; his/her end has already been written. Gloucester doesn't need eyes to see that he has nowhere to go—he already knows it.
"As flies to wanton boys, are we to the gods...." See in text (Act IV - Scene I)
Gloucester suggests that the gods are malevolent and enjoy torturing humans for sport; they are "wanton boys" and humans are "flies." There is no divine justice—only the sport of vicious gods who delight in suffering and reward cruelty.
Act IV - Scene II
"Tigers, not daughters, what have you performed? A father, and a gracious aged man,(45)..." See in text (Act IV - Scene II)
Albany now sees Goneril and Regan’s true colors and compares them to animals to characterize them as vicious and barbarous. Note that he states that not even a bear would hurt their “gracious” and kindly father in the way that they do, suggesting that Goneril and Regan’s cruelty is even more brutal than animal life. Goneril and Regan’s greed and senseless violence brings them down to a level of savagery that even the most lawless beasts would not descend to.
" worth the whistle...." See in text (Act IV - Scene II)
“Worth the whistle” refers to the proverb “It is a poor dog that is not worth the whistling.” Goneril uses this allusion to chastise her husband for not welcoming her when she came home; in other words, there was a time when you thought I was worth the whistle. Since she was just claiming that her husband was a “fool” unworthy of her body, it is odd that she would care that he did not welcome her home.
"‘The worse:’..." See in text (Act IV - Scene II)
Oswald tells Goneril that her husband openly claimed that her arrival was “worse” than the arrival of the army. Even though Goneril assumes she has gained power, this Albany’s unabashed hatred of his wife and open disrespect show that Goneril has not achieved the influence that she imagines.
"Wisdom and goodness to the vile seem vile: Filths savor but themselves...." See in text (Act IV - Scene II)
“Filths” here refers to the “vile,” or evil, people, and “savor” means “to enjoy” or “to delight in.” Albany continues to berate Goneril for her actions, claiming that evil people will see true good as evil and their own evil actions as good. By expressing this, Albany accuses Goneril (and Regan) of being blind to her own misdeeds against her father because of her desire for power.
"our mild husband..." See in text (Act IV - Scene II)
Over the course of the play, Goneril has begun using the royal ‘we.’ This rhetorical move demonstrates how much power she believes she has gained, since traditionally only the ruling monarch uses such speech.
"This shows you are above, You justicers, that these our nether crimes So speedily can venge!..." See in text (Act IV - Scene II)
Having just heard the account of how Gloucester lost his eyes and Cornwall perished, Albany calls out to the heavens and praises them for how quickly they exacted retribution against Cornwall for his treatment of Gloucester. Albany now makes restoring the land to just authority and political order his purpose, much like Kent and Gloucester have. His belief in divine order and justice parallels the beliefs of Lear and Gloucester.
"have you madded...." See in text (Act IV - Scene II)
The word “mad” can be used as a verb, as it is used here, to mean “to make someone lose their mind.” By using the verb form of the word, Albany puts all of the blame on his wife and sister-in-law, accusing Goneril (and Regan) of making Lear go mad and lose his mind. Lear’s daughters have attributed his madness to his age, blind to their own role in bringing it on because of their selfishness. Albany has begun to see through his wife’s greed to get a better understanding of events.
Act IV - Scene III
"gave her dear rights To his dog-hearted daughters, ..." See in text (Act IV - Scene III)
Kent has revealed that while Lear is experiencing moments of clarity, he refuses to see Cordelia because he is so ashamed of how he treated her. Note the language here and how it represents Lear’s view of his children: Cordelia has “dear rights,” with “dear” not only meaning cherished or beloved, like a father might feel for his daughter, but also “treasured” or “valuable,” like the value of the estate she was owed. In contrast, the other daughters are described with animal imagery, emphasizing their base desires and lack of filial commitment.
"The holy water from her heavenly eyes,..." See in text (Act IV - Scene III)
Note the religious imagery that the Gentlemen uses to describe Cordelia’s reaction to the letter. Her tears are “holy water” and her eyes are “heavenly.” In comparison to her two sisters, Cordelia is characterized as angelic and saintly, and her compassion elevates her almost to a level of veneration. Furthermore, emphasizing Cordelia’s gentle nature here reminds the viewer of just how monstrous her sisters are.
Act IV - Scene IV
"He that helps him take all my outward worth..." See in text (Act IV - Scene IV)
Cordelia says that she would give all of her riches to the person who could cure her father of his madness. While her sisters are consumed by greed and the hunger for power, Cordelia would give all she has to help her father. This demonstrates Cordelia’s genuine and unconditional love for her father since she places his health over her own prosperity.
Act IV - Scene V
"What party I do follow...." See in text (Act IV - Scene V)
The “what” that characterizes Oswald’s allegiance in this line suggests that there is ambiguity in whom he will follow. Because he leaves this scene carrying both Goneril and Regan’s letters, this could be read as Oswald looking out for himself as he can now choose which party to give favor to. Though Oswald has been faithful to Goneril throughout the play, this moment of infidelity reflects the play’s overall theme of chaos in social systems: just as Regan and Goneril did not honor their father, Goneril’s servant has no real loyalty to her.
"My lord is dead; Edmund and I have talked; And more convenient is he for my hand..." See in text (Act IV - Scene V)
Regan and Goneril have already begun moving against one another, showing that their lack of tradition and respect for their father has now extended to their relationship as sisters. With the death of Cornwall, Regan seeks to marry Edmund; with her distaste for Albany, Goneril desires Edmund as a new husband. Both sisters seek to undermine the other, completely disregarding any filial love or respect they may have had for each other.
"Preferment falls on him that cuts him off...." See in text (Act IV - Scene V)
Recall that in the previous scene, Cordelia says that she would give all of her wealth to the person who could cure her father’s insanity. Regan is willing to reward the person who murders the blind and elderly Gloucester, underscoring how vastly different she is from Cordelia.
Act IV - Scene VI
"O, let me kiss that hand!..." See in text (Act IV - Scene VI)
The two old men finally come together in this scene, both disabled and barely able to conduct proper communication: Gloucester is blind; Lear is insane. However, while the blind Gloucester is able to recognize Lear despite his lack of sight, Lear’s insanity makes him the truly blind one. Shakespeare therefore also provides more on how madness is equated with insight in this exchange by showing that disability may offer clarity in certain aspects, but it may also prevent communication in others.
"fool of fortune...." See in text (Act IV - Scene VI)
Shakespeare often inverts the popular proverb "Fortune favors fools." Here, King Lear is fortune's fool; he, as the tragic hero, is certainly not favored. His foolishness (banishing Cordelia and dividing his kingdom between Regan and Goneril) triggers the tragic plot, in which he is always out of Fortune's favor.
"every inch a king:..." See in text (Act IV - Scene VI)
Though Lear is technically the king, he doesn't seem very kingly anymore. We have seen him deteriorate ever since the betrayal of his daughters. Lear himself has denounced the pomp of kingship, so declaring himself "every inch a king" seems both mad and desperate.
Act IV - Scene VII
"benediction o'er me: No, sir, you must not kneel. ..." See in text (Act IV - Scene VII)
Cordelia asks her father to hold a “benediction,” a blessing that offers spiritual guidance, over her and tells him that he “must not kneel” before her. Both of these requests suggest a restoration of order: as a king, Lear should be able to lead and kneels to no one but God. However, Lear does not assume this role as he should and instead reads this request as mockery. This exchange demonstrates that Lear has descended from the role of king and accepted his role as a old fool.
"You must bear with me...." See in text (Act IV - Scene VII)
Explicitly, this is Lear asking his daughter to “forget and forgive” his old foolish nature. However, this line could also signify that Lear actually does recognize Cordelia and he is asking her to “forget and forgive” the moment at the beginning of the play when he cast her out and disowned her.
"Pray, do not mock me: I am a very foolish fond old man,..." See in text (Act IV - Scene VII)
Lear awakes from a much needed sleep to question the reality of his present situation. He sees what he believes to be Cordelia and speaks coherently, showing that his mental state has much improved. This admission of his foolishness in front of Cordelia amounts to a confession for his rash actions earlier when his pride caused him to break his familial bond with his daughter and cast her out.
Act V - Scene I
"for my state Stands on me to defend, not to debate...." See in text (Act V - Scene I)
As an illegitimate child, Edmund would not have received any of his father’s estate or social status. “State” in this context means social position. Edmund has fought for his place in the nobility and concludes this monologue by reaffirming his aims: despite his romantic entanglements with both women, he will “defend” or maintain his “state” or social position. This soliloquy offers the audience a motive behind Edmund’s actions and generates a small amount of empathy for the character.
"I had rather lose the battle than that sister should loosen him and me...." See in text (Act V - Scene I)
Here, Goneril asserts that she would sacrifice her army and all of her ambition if it meant that her sister would not take away Edmund, her love. Throughout the previous scenes, Goneril and other characters have talked about Goneril’s military prowess and stated that she is a better commander of the army than her husband. Within this aside, Goneril proves these claims to be false: her leadership is undermined by her selfish pursuits.
Act V - Scene III
"Vex not his ghost: O, let him pass! he hates him much(375) That would upon the rack of this tough world Stretch him out longer...." See in text (Act V - Scene III)
“Vex” means to trouble or disturb. After having prayed for Lear’s heart to break so that his suffering could be put to an end, Kent says that Lear’s soul must be left alone to pass peacefully from this world. Kent reveals himself once again as one of the most sympathetic characters of the play, understanding the depth of Lear’s suffering.
"No, no, no, no! Come, let's away to prison: We two alone will sing like birds i' the cage:..." See in text (Act V - Scene III)
Lear evokes an image of an animal in this moment that portrays a more romantic vision of their prison experience that will keep them safe from harm. The connection to animals is appropriate, as Lear has insisted earlier that humans are no more special than animals, so being a caged bird would not be a problem for him. Lear’s desire for this also reflects his hope of fulfilling his initial desire to give away his responsibilities and live without concerns in his old age.
"Had I your tongues and eyes, I'ld use them so That heaven's vault should crack..." See in text (Act V - Scene III)
The word “crack” makes a final appearance here as Lear wishes that he could use the voices of others to open “heaven’s vault.” Since the heavens and gods are associated with fate, the idea of cracking the vault suggests that Lear wishes he could alter fate if only he had the power to. This stands in stark contrast with his earlier adherence and reverence of the heavens, and his desire for control over fate echoes Edmund’s. In Lear’s moment of loss, he wishes to overcome the power that nature has over his life.
"Howl, howl, howl, howl! O, you are men of stones:..." See in text (Act V - Scene III)
In this heartbreaking scene, Lear’s language, while difficult to understand, reveals the depth of his emotion. The repetition of “Howl” calls to mind the storm from earlier, with Lear in this moment raging in his emotion. He calls the others “men of stones” because of how emotionless he finds them in this moment of catastrophe and wishes for their “tongues and eyes.” This desire for the sense of others is important because of how blindness and madness have been woven throughout the play: Lear is losing his own senses, and so he wishes those of others to look on Cordelia and express his anguish.
"And take upon's the mystery of things, As if we were God's spies: ..." See in text (Act V - Scene III)
Lear’s speech reveals how he has transitioned from having a superficial, material view of the world toward wanting something deeper and more meaningful. He tells Cordelia that he wants to “sing like birds i' the cage” and laugh at “gilded butterflies,” meaning that he prefers a life outside of politics and power where he can investigate “the mystery of things.”
"I might have saved her; now she's gone for ever!..." See in text (Act V - Scene III)
King Lear finally recognizes the chaos and destruction caused by his hubris and self-love. Cordelia, his loyal daughter, would never have been hanged if he hadn't banished her.
"let's away to prison:..." See in text (Act V - Scene III)
King Lear fantasizes about spending the rest of his life in prison with his daughter, Cordelia. He can't seem to face the reality that neither of them will likely be spared in the British camp.