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W. Sharpe after R. Smirke. King Lear, act 1, scene 1. Engraving, 1792.

March 2009
Jeremy Ehrlich, Head of Education 2005-8,Folger Shakespeare Library.
Heather Bouley, student, West Springfield High School, Springfield, VA.

Plays/Scenes Covered
King Lear
What's On for Today and Why

Students will use online resources in order to examine patterns of imagery in King Lear. By comparing these patterns to those of other Shakespeare plays, the students will draw conclusions about the different reasons Shakespeare uses imagery in the play.


This lesson will take two class periods.

What You Need

Folger edition of King Lear
Available in Folger print edition and Folger Digital Texts

Internet-linked computer lab for the class period or available for homework

What To Do

1. Demonstrate the use of the online concordance at http://shakespeare.clusty.com. You might want to show students a variety of online concordances, such as the one at Open Source.


Explain that a concordance groups together all the uses of each word in a piece of literature. Show students how to search for a particular word on the site.


2. Divide the students into pairs. Give each pair of students a set of images to explore in the play. Make sure they know they will have to look up all the different forms of the word: a student with the verb "to bear" may need to enter "bear", "bears", "borne", etc. Possible sets of images to use include: nothing; see/saw/sight/blind; eye/eyes; love/loves; patient/patience/endure/bear; mad/madness/sense; gods; storm; justice/sin; nature/bastard; fortune. Interesting examinations that are harder to do with the concordance include the animal imagery in the play (especially Act 4); the different ways Lear is addressed over time; and the different ways Lear is addressed by different people.


3. Have the students use the online concordance to examine their sets of images. At each stage, make them attempt to draw conclusions: what does this information tell them about what Shakespeare is trying to say with his imagery? First, have them find and examine the uses of their word(s) in the play. As a conclusion, they may note the relative frequency of words in the play: they may note the word "mad" appears 18 times (some of these in stage directions), the word "sense" only five times, giving the play, perhaps, a feeling of madness greater than sense.


4. Second, have them examine each use of the word in the context in the play in which it appears. Can they find any patterns in the way a word is used throughout the play? They might note that "sense" or "love" rarely appear in positive contexts. Coax them to use this information to draw conclusions: what is the play saying about love? About sense?


5. Third, have them go back to the concordance and compare Shakespeare's use of these words in King Lear to his use of them in some of the other plays he was writing around the same time. Before Lear, scholars think he wrote Timon of Athens, and before that All's Well That Ends Well. After Lear, scholars think he wrote Macbeth and then Antony and Cleopatra. How is his use of imagery different in Lear than in the other work he was doing at the time? What kinds of conclusions can students draw from that information? In these four other plays, they might note that the word "mad" appears a total of 14 times, compared with 18 in Lear, or that the word "storm" appears a total of 3 times, compared to 16 in Lear (though some of those are in stage directions.)and "white" 18. How does the feel of this play change due to these changes in imagery from Shakespeare's other work of the time? How does the context for these usages change as well?


6. Finally, have the students examine Shakespeare's use of these images within the context of his entire body of work. Students might note that the word "storm" appears often in the rest of the canon as a verb, describing what a character does, but in Lear is only used to describe the weather. What can students conclude about the reasons for these differences from the rest of the canon?


7. Have students report their findings to the whole group. Have groups compare other students' findings with their own to see if they can uncover any larger patterns of imagery in the play.



How Did It Go?
Were students able to draw conclusions from the information they received from the concordance website? Were they able to generate a discussion about the imagery in the play? Did the exercise show the students image patterns they had not seen before?

If you used this lesson, we would like to hear how it went and about any adaptations you made to suit the needs of YOUR students.

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