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King Lear

William Shakespeare


Study Questions

Study Questions

Study Questions

Study Questions

1. What does the storm in Act 3 symbolize?

The storm powerfully symbolizes the chaos in Lear’s mind: the violent tumult in the natural world reflects Lear’s inner turmoil. But the storm also provides an example of the power of nature, from which not even a king is safe. Even as he challenges the storm, Lear recognizes his own mortality and human frailty—perhaps for the first time. The storm may also be a reference to the idea of divine justice, since tempests and thunder have been viewed in both Christian and pagan traditions as a demonstration of divine anger or power. Thus, the storm seems both to point out the weakness of Lear’s royal power in the face of nature’s supremacy and to imply that the gods are angry at the state of human affairs. Such anger is likely directed not only at Lear’s enemies for their ruthless and cruel ambition but also at Lear for his initial callous treatment of Cordelia.

2. What role do women play in King Lear?

The female characters in King Lear are powerful figures who are often as aggressive as, and at times more ruthless than, their male counterparts. Cordelia, who is pure, unselfish, and unflinchingly loyal, is a more standard Shakespearean woman than her strong, assertive, conspiratorial, violent, and regal sisters, Goneril and Regan. While the older sisters are clearly very different in personality from the youngest, and while Goneril and Regan are clearly villains, all three daughters resemble their father. In Goneril and Regan, the similarity rests in their pride, arrogance, and fierce temper; in Cordelia, it rests in her aura of royal dignity, courage, and uncompromising stubbornness. All three sisters help to propel the plot, and Goneril and Regan are even effective killers (Regan, most unusual for a Shakespearean woman, kills with a sword). The presence of these three women becomes even more interesting when we remember that, as often happens in Shakespeare, there are no mothers present in the play; Lear’s and Gloucester’s dead wives are mentioned neither by these men nor by their children. Without guidance from other females, the sisters actively pursue their desires as they themselves see fit.

3. Analyze the relationship between madness and blindness in the play.

The two elderly characters who suffer the most in the play are Lear and Gloucester. Their stories are similar in many ways; however, while Lear slowly goes mad, Gloucester is blinded but remains sane. Shakespeare implies a parallel between the two conditions: Lear and Gloucester both seem to be able to perceive certain things more clearly after they lose their faculties. Lear realizes only as he begins to go mad that Cordelia loves him and that Goneril and Regan are treacherous flatterers. He comes to understand the weakness of human nature, the emptiness of royal claims to power, and the similarity of all human beings as he rambles in his insanity. Similarly, Gloucester comes to understand which son is really good and which is bad at the very moment of his blinding. Still, both Lear and Gloucester sink into despair before their deaths. It is interesting to note that Lear’s eyesight fails in the moments just before he dies, while Gloucester wishes himself insane, thinking he might thus bear his misery more easily. This grim irony suggests a hopelessness that contributes to the general gloom surrounding the play’s end.

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