King Lear

by: William Shakespeare


Many of the tragic events of King Lear are foreshadowed from the beginning of the play, which creates a sense that the characters’ suffering is inevitable, and reflects Lear’s blindness to the consequences of his actions by helping the audience to foresee events which Lear himself cannot. Just as significant are the events which are not foreshadowed. The death of Cordelia is the play’s most terrible event, but to the audience it comes as a surprise: in the world of King Lear, the reality of suffering exceeds our worst expectations.

Gloucester’s Blinding

Gloucester’s blinding is foreshadowed from the play’s opening scene. Goneril declares that her father’s love is “dearer than eyesight,” (I.i) a turn of phrase which asks us to think about how terrible it would be to lose the power of sight. Kent underlines the foreshadowing later in the scene when he begs Lear to “let me still be the true blank of thine eye” (I.i). A “blank” is the centre of a target, so Kent’s metaphor invites us to picture a weapon aimed at an eye. Immediately before his blinding, Gloucester himself tells Regan: “I would not see your cruel nails/Pluck out [Lear’s] poor old eyes” (III.vii). The heavy foreshadowing of Gloucester’s blinding underlines the central theme of blindness in King Lear.

Lear’s Downfall

In an instance of especially cruel ironic foreshadowing, Lear predicts the results of dividing his kingdom will bring him peace and happiness, not understanding he is creating the exact opposite effect by making his daughters declare their love. “‘tis our fast intent/ To shake all cares and business from our age/… while we/ Unburdened crawl toward death,” (I.i) he says, in revealing his plans, adding that he’s dividing the kingdom so “that future strife/ May be prevented now.” The early establishment of Lear’s expectations for his actions make the actual outcome ironic, as we are aware of the stark disparity between the serenity he hoped to foster and the havoc he created. Lear’s decision to divide his kingdom incites everything he is trying to prevent – his daughters are divided by strife and all end up dead, and the last days of his life are heavily burdened by care and unhappiness.

Lear’s Madness

The Fool tells Lear that “thou wouldst make a good fool” (I.v) and to “take my coxcomb” (I.iv) (a “coxcomb” is the hat worn by a professional fool). These jokes point out that Lear has behaved foolishly in giving his kingdom away, but they also foreshadow that Lear will take the Fool’s place by losing his wits. Lear himself suspects that he might go mad: “O let me not be mad, not mad, sweet heaven!” (I.v), and shortly before his madness begins he foresees it: “I shall go mad” (II.ii). His daughters also suspect he is not well: Goneril says they should look out for “the unruly waywardness that infirm and choleric years bring with them.” (I.i) The foreshadowing of Lear’s madness increases the tension of the scenes in which Lear confronts his daughters. As Lear gets angrier, we anticipate that at any moment he will crack and lose his mind altogether. This foreshadowing also increases our sense of Lear’s vulnerability, which helps us to pity him and to side with him against his daughters.

Lear’s Homelessness

The Fool warns Lear that his decision to give his kingdom to his daughters will end in his being left without a home: “I can tell why a snail has a house…to put’s head in, not to give it away to his daughters” (I.v). Lear himself fails to foresee his homelessness, even though it is foreshadowed in some of his own lines. He advises the banished Kent to gather “Provision/To shield thee from disasters of the world” (I.i), a line which invites the audience to imagine everything that might happen to someone left without a home. The audience learns in the play’s opening scene that Goneril and Regan are plotting against their father—“We must do something, and i’the heat” (I.i)—so we are not surprised when they shut the gates on Lear. The fact that Lear cannot see what Goneril and Regan are going to do, even though the audience can, emphasises Lear’s blindness to the truth about his daughters.