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King Lear /

Further Reading: King Lear

Abbreviations: Ado = Much Ado About Nothing; Ant. = Antony and Cleopatra; AYLI = As You Like It; Ham. = Hamlet; 1H4=Henry IV, Part 1; 2H6 = Henry VI, Part 2; Lear = King Lear; LLL = Love’s Labor’s Lost; MV = The Merchant of Venice; Oth. = Othello; R3 = Richard III; Temp. = The Tempest; Tit. = Titus Andronicus; Tro. = Troilus and Cressida; TN = Twelfth Night.

Belsey, Catherine. “King Lear and the Missing Salt.” In Why Shakespeare?, pp. 42–64. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007.

Belsey examines the pervasive influence of the fireside tale genre on selected plays to argue that such stories, with their capacity to haunt the consciousness of readers and audiences, hold the key to why Shakespeare’s plays have remained durable and adaptable across centuries, cultures, media, and languages. Shakespeare’s retellings of riddles, tall tales, and fables of magic and witchcraft invite audiences “to feel . . . already unaccountably at home there.” Belsey’s focus, however, is not so much on the narrative parallels as on the differences that Shakespeare introduces in the process of reinscription. She begins the chapter on Lear by reading the play through the proverbial tale of a love test imposed by a rich father on his three daughters and his enraged reaction to the third daughter’s response that she loves him “as fresh meat loves salt.” Incorporating elements of the Cinderella story, the tale ends happily as do all of the “intermediary versions” of the Lear narrative available to Shakespeare and his contemporaries (including chronicle accounts and the anonymous play titled The True Chronicle History of King Leir [published in 1605]). The play’s first audience, recognizing the folktale pattern of the opening scene wherein the youngest child is conventionally the most trustworthy, “would be fully aware of the dramatic ironies involved in Lear’s choice.” What they could not anticipate was Shakespeare’s deliberate breaking of the folktale’s promise of a “happily ever after” conclusion. Noting how “the pleasure of the text does not depend on happy endings,” Belsey brings Jacques Lacan’s account of language as a “mismatch between words and things” to bear on the play’s tragic appeal and the “logic” of its closure. Just as Lear fails in 1.1 to recognize the “inadequacy of language when it comes to defining a condition that is not purely linguistic”—i.e., Cordelia’s cultural-genetic bond of kinship—so too in the final scene, when he is reduced to the howling cries of an animal (5.3.308), language proves incapable of signifying indescribable loss. The limits of language thus frame a play that dazzles with a “festival of signifiers.” In reworking a simple, austere folktale, Shakespeare “evoke[s] and transform[s] a genre often dismissed as trivial and artless.”

Booth, Stephen. “On the Greatness of King Lear.” In King Lear, Macbeth, Indefinition and Tragedy, pp. 1–57. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1983.

For Booth, the key to Lear’s tragic power lies in “the fact of indefinition”: “[L]iterary works we call tragedies have their value as enabling actions by which we are made capable, temporarily, of enduring manifestations of the fact that nothing in human experience is or can be definite.” His examination of the play’s many “indefinitenesses” in character, plot, and language leads to the assertion that “not ending is a primary characteristic of [Lear],” the only Shakespeare tragedy whose exit lines indicate no immediate destination for the remaining characters to repair to: the play’s survivors simply walk off the stage, not knowing who will actually rule the kingdom or where exactly they are going. The final twenty lines (5.3.375–95) are emblematic of the tragedy’s “manifold inconclusiveness.” Booth calls Lear Shakespeare’s “greatest achievement . . . because it is the greatest achievement of his audience.” Like the titular figure, the audience endures much, being forced to confront cruelty the way the characters of the play experience it: as a constant disappointment of the persistent promise of order and resolution (see, e.g., the terrifying shock of Lear’s entry at 5.3.307 SD, the dead Cordelia in his arms). Lear requires its characters and audience to “cope with the fact that the idea of the ultimate is only an idea” and to recognize “the infinity of possibility and the insufficiency of human mental resources to manage unstoppable improbabilities.” Between the essays on Lear and Macbeth, Booth provides an “interlude” (pp. 59–78) in which he compares LLL and Lear to show how inconclusiveness works in each play according to the generic requirements of comedy and tragedy.

Everett, Barbara. “The New King Lear.Critical Quarterly 2 (1960): 325–39.

Everett takes issue with several Christian and allegorical interpretations of the play, readings that owe much to A.C. Bradley’s essay in Shakespearean Tragedy (1904)—minus his “careful reservations”—in which he suggested calling “this poem The Redemption of King Lear.” Among the critics she discusses are G. Wilson Knight, R. W. Chambers, J. F. Danby, and Kenneth Muir. Claims that posit a “redeemed Lear,” who loses the world in order to gain his soul, and an ending resonant with the “victory and felicity” of reconciliation and restored order cannot “be said to be ‘wrong,’ ” but they are exclusive and they are unnecessary to explain how the play succeeds. Instead of experiencing a moral epiphany informed by Christian ethics, Lear learns that he is “ ‘not ague-proof’ [4.6.124], that he is ‘a very foolish fond old man’ [4.7.69]; and this in itself contains further ranges of common suffering. No moralistic outline that blurs this can be fully satisfying.” Everett therefore proposes a more “metaphysical” reading that rests on the play’s presentation of startling disparities—all and nothing, “extreme power and vitality embracing its antithesis”—within a single imaginative world that resists conformity with “the symbolic clarity of a Morality or the simplicity of a mystery play.” In place of an “absolute dichotomy between ‘the world’ and ‘the soul,’ between ‘concretes and abstracts,’ ” Lear shows “a continual relation between the two that strengthens and enriches both”: see, for example, the king’s final lines (5.3.370–75), which “condense the poetic experience of the play, whereby the physical and the non-physical are shown in their mysterious relationship.” Ultimately, for Everett, the play exhilarates by allowing a responsive audience, within the framework of artistic design and poetic power, to endure and understand actions of great suffering and thus to master them. [The essay is reprinted in the Macmillan Shakespeare Casebook Series, Shakespeare: King Lear (pp. 184–202), edited by Frank Kermode (1969); and in Major Literary Characters: King Lear (pp. 119–31), edited by Harold Bloom (1992).]

Garber, Marjorie. “King Lear: The Dream of Sublimity.” In Shakespeare and Modern Culture, pp. 231–69. New York: Pantheon Books, 2008.

Guided by the thesis that “Shakespeare makes modern culture and modern culture makes Shakespeare,” Garber asks us to “reimagine . . . our own mental and emotional landscape as refracted through the prism of protean ‘Shakespeare.’ ” Her chapter on Lear is indebted to R. A. Foakes’s Hamlet versus Lear (1993), which analyzed the displacement in the 1960s of Ham. by Lear as Shakespeare’s “greatest” play. For Garber, the key question is “How did [Lear] come to be both the icon of Shakespearean greatness for the mid-to-late twentieth century and, at the same time, the most ‘modern,’ modernist, and indeed postmodern of Shakespearean plays?” The answer, she suggests, lies in its combination of the “affective sublime” (Lear and Cordelia) with the “bathetic grotesque” (the Fool, the blinding of Gloucester): What previous centuries objected to as indecorous, excessive, and nihilistic “was what made the play so modern, and so devastating.” Garber begins her probe of this connection with modern culture by considering the existential philosophy of Camus, who saw in Gloucester the best illustration of the absurd, and the critical views of Jan Kott, whose interpretation of the play in Shakespeare Our Contemporary (1964) “became vastly important for the itinerary of [Lear] in the theater and on film from the sixties on.” She then turns to an analysis of Samuel Beckett’s Endgame (1957) and Edward Bond’s Lear (1971): the former exemplifies the existential Lear “of conscious absurdity in an already grotesque world”; the latter creates an “impassioned political social” environment governed by socioeconomic pressures. For existentialists, the Dover Cliff episode is “the emblematic ‘modern’ moment of Shakespeare’s play”; for political, specifically Marxist, critics, the key moment comes in 3.4.32–41, when Lear senses “disparity between rich and poor, privileged and underprivileged.” Garber concludes the chapter with a discussion of the mathematician and philosopher Brian Rotman’s Signifying Nothing: The Semiotics of Zero (1987) to underscore Lear’s “very arithmetically minded” temper and “the relevance of zero” to the play’s “thematics of ‘nothing.’ ” As a dramatic signifier of “the emptiness, illogic, terror, and absurdity of the modern condition, [Lear] has been read in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries as an existential allegory [Beckett], as a social treatise [Bond], as a philosophical statement [Rotman]: an icon of modern life, not of modern man.”

Hiscock, Andrew, and Lisa Hopkins, eds. King Lear: A Critical Guide. New York: Continuum, 2011.

The editors of this anthology state two goals in their introduction: (1) to extend reader interest in established areas of textual and critical discourse (e.g., the complex relationship between the 1608 Quarto and 1623 Folio versions of the play, performative values, and issues relating to cosmology, theology, morality, psychology, and the sociopolitical order of patriarchy); and (2) to open up “newer angles of vision on [Lear] by raising questions about seventeenth-century Britishness, early modern understandings of landscape . . . [and] ‘self-murder,’ and the implications of the insatiable appetite for Shakespearean adaptation.” Following René Weis’s survey of the play’s reception from 1606 to the present (in editions, performances, critical debates, and adaptations) are seven new essays that aim to “bridge the gap between” past and current scholarship: Joan Fitzpatrick, “The Critical Backstory”; Ramona Wray, “King Lear: Performative Traditions/Interpretative Positions”; Philippa Kelly, “The Current State of Thinking on King Lear”; Lori Anne Ferrell, “New Directions: Promised End? King Lear and the Suicide-Trick”; Anthony Parr, “New Directions: ‘The Wisdom of Nature’: Ecological Perspectives in King Lear”; John J. Norton, “New Directions: King Lear and Protestantism”; and Willy Maley, “Critical Review: ‘Great thing of us forgot’? New British Angles on King Lear.” The final chapter by Peter Stillitoe (“King Lear: Resources”) offers a guide to materials available for the teaching and study of the play (critical editions, online resources, films/videos/DVDs, and an annotated bibliography of the most recent publications relating to the tragedy).

Knowles, Richard. “Revision Awry in Folio Lear 3.1.” Shakespeare Quarterly 46 (1995): 32–46.

Knowles examines the 1608 Quarto (Q1) and 1623 Folio (F) versions of Kent’s long speech of instruction to the Gentleman in 3.1, the “centerpiece” of the scene, (1) to counter textual critics who regard F’s new material as a substitute for a very different speech in Q and (2) to encourage a rethinking of the traditional conflation of the speeches (the editorial norm, since Lewis Theobald in 1733, which can be found in the Appendix to the present Folger edition). While both versions share (with slight variations) the same opening four and a half lines, F omits Q’s next twelve-and-a-half, seemingly replacing them with eight new lines. Knowles finds incoherence and stylistic problems in the F speech and in the conflated arrangement noted above. Drawing on suggestions made by Peter W. M. Blayney, Knowles posits that the eight lines present only in F “are not in fact a consecutive block of text” representing “the recasting of a whole speech or substitution of one speech for another” but are two additional passages intended to “clarif[y] meaning” at “two different locations in the Q text.” As such, “they are local improvements, not significant revisions.” (The present edition at 3.1.21–46 follows Knowles’s proposed combination of the Q and F versions of Kent’s speech; see also the Appendix.)

Kordecki, Lesley, and Karla Koskinen. Re-Visioning Lear’s Daughters: Testing Feminist Criticism and Theory. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010.

Against the claim that Lear, “a monument of the patriarchal literary canon,” is “irretrievably sexist,” Kordecki and Koskinen seek to recover the king’s three daughters from the stereotypes of good and evil that have attached to the idolized Cordelia and demonized Goneril and Regan on both the page and the stage. The authors provide line readings of every scene in which the daughters appear so as to chart their collective and individual journeys from beginning to end. Serving as a “bridge between literary criticism and theatrical possibilities,” the book’s feminist readings are informed by extensive critical commentary and “tested with specific renderings, placing the reader in precise theatrical moments.” Kordecki and Koskinen base their readings on the 1623 Folio, which, when compared with the 1608 Quarto, yields “a more indefinite ethical atmosphere from which to view and judge Lear’s daughters, thus enhancing their complexity.” Central to the authors’ efforts to offer a Lear “without innate gender bias” is the argument that all three women are products of an acutely misogynistic environment created by their father, a world established before the start of the play and one in which each daughter must navigate her own course as she seeks “an active, meaningful role within a patriarchal society.” Following an introductory essay that addresses the limitations of established readings and traditional performance decisions (“The Problem with Lear”) are ten chapters: (1) The Trial: Goneril, Politician and Appeaser, 1.1; (2) The Trial: Regan, Soldier and Enabler, 1.1; (3) The Trial: Cordelia, Heir Apparent and Zealot, 1.1; (4) Goneril Makes Her Stand: Queen and Mother, 1.3 and 4; (5) The Sisters Unite: Kingship and Kinship, 2.1 and 2; (6) Regan and Torture: Abuser and Abused, 3.7; (7) The Sisters and Edmund: Agency and Sexuality, 4.2 and 4 [Q4.5]); (8) Cordelia Returns: Sinner and Saint, 4.3 [Q4.4] and 7; (9) Homeland Security: Defeat and Denial, 5.1, 2, 3 (Cordelia); and (10) Patriarchy Restored: Duplicity and Death, 5.3 (Goneril and Regan). A bibliography concludes the volume.

Mack, Maynard. King Lear: In Our Time. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1965.

In the three chapters that make up this highly influential study (“Actors and Redactors,” “Archetype, Parable, and Vision,” and “Action and World”), Mack considers aspects of Lear’s stage history, explores its literary and imaginative sources, and reflects on what in the play “speaks most immediately to us” in our own time. The chapter on the play’s theatrical afterlife includes discussion of Nahum Tate’s 1681 adaptation (which dominated the English stage for 157 years), a brief overview of many notable Lears (among them David Garrick, Edmund Kean, William Charles Macready, John Gielgud, Laurence Olivier, Michael Redgrave, Charles Laughton, and Paul Scofield), and a critique of the “rationalizing” efforts of directors such as Herbert Blau and Peter Brook who, eager to “motivate the [play’s] bizarre actions . . . in some ‘reasonable’ way,” favor subtext over text. Mack contends that after the horrors of two world wars and Auschwitz, our modern temper shares a particular affinity “with the play’s jagged violence, its sadism, madness, and processional of deaths, its wild blends of levity and horror, selfishness and selflessness, and the anguish of its closing scene.” Turning from stage history to “the genetic pole,” Mack focuses not on specific sources (e.g., Holinshed’s Chronicles, A Mirror for Magistrates, Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene, and Sir Philip Sidney’s Arcadia) but on “the traditions of thought and feeling in terms of which [Shakespeare] shaped his materials”; these “cogent influences” include folktales, medieval morality drama (with its homiletic structure and emblematic characters), and pastoral romance (the conventional pattern of which Shakespeare turns into the “greatest anti-pastoral ever penned”). The final chapter outlines reasons for Lear’s appeal to the modern age, describes the dominant mood of the drama as “imperative,” and refutes both Christian readings that sentimentalize the ending and nihilist readings that find only absurdity in the play’s world: “Existence is tragic in Lear because existence is inseparable from relation; we are born from and to it. . . . Man’s tragic fate, as Lear presents it, comes into being with his entry into relatedness, which is his entry into humanity.” Mack concludes with the claim that tragedy never “tells us what to think” but “shows us what we are and may be.”

Maus, Katherine Eisaman. “Vagabond Kings: Entitlement and Distribution in 2 Henry VI and King Lear.” In Being and Having in Shakespeare, pp. 99–132, esp. pp. 112–31. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013.

Maus uses the history plays, MV, and Lear to explore the problem of property and identity, i.e., the relation between who a person is and what he or she has. Countering some materialist critics who view “being” (subject) and “having” (object) as one and the same—who believe that objects, in other words, “constitute subjects”—she advocates a more “dialectical and mutually constitutive” interrelationship in which persons relate to each other by way of things in an ever-changing context of social situations, economic transactions, and legal arrangements. Maus focuses her discussion of Lear’s “poetics of property” on the figure of the “ ‘vagabond king,’ theoretically entitled but actually dispossessed,” to argue that the play “coordinate[s] problems of entitlement with conundrums about distributive justice, raising fundamental questions about property relations and social organization.” The opening scene, wherein Lear’s plan to divide the kingdom “construes sovereignty as a form of property right,” quickly establishes the relationship between person and property as “double”: Lear’s love test presumes that the two are inextricable—that a “bequest of wealth is the same as . . . ‘love’ ”; Cordelia, Kent, and France, however, argue for their distinction, that love is “something other” (see 1.1.275–77). In the “wild spaces” of Lear’s middle acts, “where property rights are uncertain or are not worth asserting,” the struggle to distinguish between what is superfluous to the human condition and what is necessary operates at its most extreme (see 3.4.32–41 and 4.1.77–81). When Lear tears off his clothes at 3.4.116, he “leans simultaneously on both contradictory wings of the paradoxical relation between being and having”: “If . . . property, ‘the superflux’ . . . makes us human [see 2.4.304–7], it is apparently by” divesting oneself of “add-ons” and empathizing with others “that we become humane.” Prompted by the ambiguity surrounding the inheritance of the kingdom at the end of Act 5, Maus asks, “Who would want to rule Britain, and why?” The “apocalyptic language [of 5.3.316–17] suggests the extent to which the traumas of the play have made inheritance impossible. And it is impossible . . . primarily . . . because the . . . very desirability of property, and the importance of asserting title to it, itself is at last emptied out.”

McEachern, Claire. “Fathering Himself: A Source Study of Shakespeare’s Feminism.” Shakespeare Quarterly 39 (1988): 269–90.

McEachern combines source study and feminism to investigate Renaissance patriarchy through a study of fathers and daughters as presented in Shakespeare’s plays, with special emphasis on Ado and Lear. Viewing sources as “cultural context” rather than as “sites of mere borrowing,” she considers the playwright’s transformation of the Lear story, as found in Holinshed’s Chronicles and the anonymous play King Leir, in terms of his reaction to ideologies of dominant male authority. A key difference between the source material and Shakespeare’s tragedy lies in the motivation of the old king regarding his youngest daughter’s imminent marriage. The question of political succession motivates the earlier Leirs, the protagonist of the anonymous text actually desiring his favorite daughter’s public profession of love so that he might manipulate her into marrying the most politically appropriate husband. The motivation of Shakespeare’s Lear, in contrast, is complicated by a second set of pressures, this one more personal than political: namely, the preservation of his authority over the family unit. Driven more by emotional desire and the pain of losing his cherished daughter to another family, this Lear tries to force Cordelia “to buy her dowry with the very capital she herself must use to marry: her love.” His demand for absolute love, which renders marriage impossible, reveals his wish to keep her as a possession rather than relinquish her according to the “social demands of exogamy.” The dowry negotiation is not, then, the usual one between two men but between a father and his daughter, and “it is the father who subverts the conventions of patriarchy in defying its demand for male alliance through marriage”: “[R]ather than simply presenting a patriarch’s control over a woman, Shakespeare investigates the incestuous possessiveness that exogamy counteracts.” By letting us see Lear abuse his authority over Cordelia, Shakespeare undermines our confidence “in the power that we invest in kings and fathers . . . [and] exposes . . . the coercive pressures of patriarchy.”

Novy, Marianne. “King Lear: Outsiders in the Family and in the Kingdom.” In Shakespeare and Outsiders, pp. 121–46. Oxford Shakespeare Topics. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013.

In contrast to the mythic/psychoanalytic approach of Leslie Fiedler in The Stranger in Shakespeare (1972), Novy draws on social, economic, and political history to examine representations of difference and exclusion in MV, TN, Oth., Lear, and (briefly) Temp. In Lear, Shakespeare deals with two aspects of exclusion: outsiders in the family (the bastard and the difficult elder parent) and in the kingdom itself (the homeless poor and the mad). Images of being either a literal or figurative outsider are iterative in both the Lear and Gloucester plots. At a time “when poverty was marked by the increased visibility of bastards, elderly poor, and beggars,” Edmund, Lear, and Edgar (as Poor Tom) give dramatic voice to “outsider” issues specific to each of those conditions; Kent, Gloucester, and the Fool serve as further reflections of the outsider’s homeless status. While Goneril and Regan reveal themselves “as moral outsiders,” Cordelia, whose initial asides and subsequent disinheritance and banishment make her “look . . . like an outsider onstage,” is “an insider to the play’s value system,” one that prioritizes sympathy as “a human quality, not simply a feminine one.” Nowhere else in his treatment of other kinds of outsiders (whether ethnic or religious) does Shakespeare make “the theme of sympathy so explicit,” as most of the play’s “social outsiders come together in a community to help [the old king].” Novy concludes that Lear “is not just a play about homelessness, but also one about the pain and yet the importance of home and families.” Revealing serious flaws in both fathers and children, Lear nevertheless “draws readers and audiences into identifying with characters on both sides of the generational divide as it proceeds to its poignant reunions and its painful final bereavement.”

Ryle, Simon. “King Lear and Film Space: Something from Nothing.” In Shakespeare, Cinema and Desire: Adaptation and Other Futures of Shakespeare’s Language, pp. 36–84. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014.

Rather than focusing on the “political [and] . . . institutional desires” that occupy cultural materialists, Ryle emphasizes the “desire inbuilt in Shakespeare’s language,” which “impel[s] ever new Shakespeares” and needs to be read “through its heterogeneous intersections with modernity.” To this end, the book examines issues that are central to both Shakespeare and film: “media technologies, narrative territories and flows, mourning and loss, the voice, the body, sexuality and gender.” The chapter on Lear explores how the play’s “somethings from nothings” are translated into the cinematic space of five films: namely, Akira Kurosawa’s Ran (Chaos, 1985), Peter Brook’s King Lear and Grigori Kozintsev’s Korol Lir (both made in 1971), Jean Luc Godard’s King Lear (1987), and Kristian Levring’s The King Is Alive (2000). Central to Ryle’s analysis are the poststructuralist views of Jacques Lacan and Jacques Derrida. Among Ryle’s observations is his discussion of a scene in Kurosawa that depicts the Lear-figure Hidetora sinking to the ground as burning arrows whistle past him in a moment of symbolic death; emerging from this chaos, his blank eyes drained of life, he appears as “something undead,” a figure of “fearful and uncanny dimensions.” Commenting on how Edgar’s invocation of Dover Cliff (4.6.15–29) creates a “self-conscious non-space” that only the eyeless Gloucester can fully inhabit, Ryle notes Brook’s image of father and son appearing as fragmented bodies framed against the whiteness of the sky as they approach this “nothing cliff.” Kozintsev, who wrote that his film’s centralized concept of empty space and individual shapes was inspired by a Japanese Zen garden, links the blinding of Gloucester to a sexual act between Edmund and Goneril by means of a cut in the image track matching Gloucester’s scream to a bedroom where we see Goneril lacing up a boot and Edmund putting on his belt: the effect “literalizes, in film space, the connections between Dover [the play’s most vivid image of nothing], Gloucester’s emptied eye sockets, and Goneril’s genitalia that are foregrounded in Regan’s questions [at 3.7.64, 68; and 5.1.12–13].” The “audiovisual disjunction” of Godard’s avant-garde cinematography rethinks Cordelia’s initial “Nothing” as an embodied failure of language, with the word projected on the voicetrack over images of her mute body. Levring’s adaptation, which depicts stranded tourists rehearsing Lear in the desert, “approaches Shakespeare’s nothing through questions of performativity,” the vision of the naked Poor Tom being the image that most intrigues the director. Ryle concludes that in Lear Shakespeare “locates a series of somethings from nothings: the fecundity of the ‘round-wombed’ prostitute [Edmund’s mother, 1.1.14]; Lear as residue living beyond symbolic death; the emotional proximity of [Dover] Cliff. These ‘substitutive significations’ (to borrow Derrida’s phrase) insinuate themselves at the place of loss. As modern reduplications of the ongoing process of substitutive signification, cinematic adaptations and critical theory each constitute a compelling approach to Shakespeare’s nothing.”

Snyder, Susan. “King Lear and the Psychology of Dying.” Shakespeare Quarterly 33 (1982): 449–60.

Recognizing that all tragedy “addresses the necessity of dying” (even when the tragic protagonist does not actually die), Snyder proposes that because of its “peculiar blend of dignity and defeat,” tragedy embodies two reactions to death. The first is that death is right and natural, since humans are governed by nature’s laws of growth and decay. Against this reaction, however, is set our implicit protest that death is wrong, unfairly imposed upon us by some external enemy. In Lear, wherein dying is “a kind of subtext,” Snyder finds an “undeniable special potency [that] may derive from this direct appeal” to our ambivalent responses toward death. Structuring her analysis of the play around the tenets of Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s influential Death and Dying (1969), which outlined five stages in the dying process—denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance—Snyder locates naturalistic and symbolic correspondences to these stages in Lear’s and Gloucester’s loss of power (“which is . . . what dying is about”), in their intense physical and mental suffering (“the dying experience of dislocation and disintegration has seldom found fuller dramatic expression than in Lear’s madness”), and in the double deaths of Lear and Cordelia, which “act out the paradox of mortality as both unnatural [Cordelia’s (5.3.308–11, 370–71)] and inevitable (the old and exhausted king’s [5.3.384]).” Snyder concludes that “our pleasure in tragedy [may be] owing in part to its power of bringing together what in our psyches simply coexist unrelated, these two reactions of recognition and resistance—bringing them together, not in resolution . . . but in energizing interaction.”

Stewart, Alan. “The Matter of Messengers in King Lear.” In Shakespeare’s Letters, pp. 193–230. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008.

Within the context of the materiality and protocols of letter writing in early modern England, Stewart offers new readings of Ham., Lear, Ant., MV, and 1H4. If we can recapture “what it meant to write, send, receive, read, and archive a letter,” we will better understand “how and why Shakespeare put letters on stage in virtually all of his plays”—nowhere, however, more frequently and intricately plotted than in Lear. Stewart focuses on “the personally conveyed letter, with its particular dynamics of delivery, reception, report and response,” to argue that messengers not only matter but are, in the case of Lear, “the matter” (see 2.2.45–52): the playwright’s decision to imply (see 2.1.117–20) rather than stage the reception of two letters to Regan—Goneril’s by way of her steward Oswald and Lear’s by way of an apparent stranger, the disguised Kent—“throws our attention onto the messengers rather than the letters they carry, thus identifying the play as “a matter of messengers.” Building on Richard Halpern’s argument that the central conflict in Lear is not between Edmund and Kent, as respective representatives of the new and old orders, but between Oswald (the play’s real “new man”) and Kent, Stewart explores “this opposition [as it] play[s] out through their differing versions of what constitutes a proper messenger.” The balance of the chapter considers how various types of letters are used to dramatic effect in the play: (1) closet letters, i.e., letters without messengers; (2) undirected letters that create geographical/spatial confusion for readers and audiences because they “circulate at high speed, miraculously reaching characters on the run, in disguise, and moving swiftly between multiple locales”; (3) “preposterous letters” that confuse because the timing of their reception seems off; and (4) letters whose messengers are interrupted. “With its letters forged, intercepted, delivered by men in disguise, delivered by no apparent means, thrown in at casements, and undelivered, [Lear] can be seen as [Shakespeare’s] most advanced exploration of the myriad problems and challenges facing communication via letters in the early modern world.”

Taylor, Gary, and Michael Warren, eds. The Division of the Kingdoms: Shakespeare’s Two Texts of “King Lear.” Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1983.

Two versions of Shakespeare’s Lear were published in the first quarter of the seventeenth century: the 1608 Quarto (Q1; reprinted in 1619 [Q2]) and the 1623 First Folio edition (F). The wide discrepancies between these versions (F, for instance, is missing about 300 lines present in Q1) are the subject of this collection of twelve new essays. Among the differences (and their implications for interpretation) noted by the volume’s contributors are F’s omission of much of the mock trial (Roger Warren); the treatments of Goneril (Randall McLeod), Kent (Michael Warren), and the Fool (John Kerrigan); the handling of the role of the king and the ending (Thomas Clayton); and speech prefixes (Beth Goldring). Other essays deal with the editorial practice of conflation (Steven Urkowitz), censorship (Taylor), Folio editors and compositors (Paul Werstine), and the fluctuating variation associated with “author, annotator, or actor?” (MacD. P. Jackson). The volume argues that the tradition of conflated texts has now died and that the play(s) must be thought of as distinct—each representing authoritative stages of composition; consequently, they must be issued today in separate editions. Although there is no consensus among the volume’s contributors concerning this theory of the Lear texts, Gary Taylor’s essay (“The Date and Authorship of the Folio Version,” pp. 351–451) attempts to prove that the Folio text is a Shakespearean revision of Q1, and that this revision dates from 1609–10. An introduction by Stanley Wells (“The Once and Future King Lear,” pp. 1–22) briefly examines the origins of both texts and their relationship to each other. Wells posits that “split[ting] asunder the two texts of [Lear] is a work of restoration, not of destruction”; in the process, “we shall gain a pair of legitimate—though not identical—twins.” A select bibliography follows three appendices: “Emendations Affecting Rare Vocabulary in the Two Texts of ‘[Lear],’ ” “Rare Vocabulary in the Two Texts of ‘[Lear],’ ” and “Internal Links in ‘[Lear],’ ‘Tro.,’ ‘R3,’ and ‘Titus.’ ” [For more on the differences between the Quarto and Folio versions, see “An Introduction to This Text.”]

Young, David. “The Natural Fool of Fortune: King Lear.” In The Heart’s Forest: A Study of Shakespeare’s Pastoral Plays, pp. 73–103. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1972.

In the chapter on Lear, Young outlines the play’s relation to the pastoral tradition, finding that the tragedy follows the tripartite pattern of pastoral romance as developed in Spain and Italy, and then elaborated in England: the pattern involves banishment from society (whether established as the court or the city), a period of sojourn in a natural setting (that “acts as a mirror to the mind”), and eventual return. Young contends that Lear employs this pattern in order ultimately to negate it, a claim he illustrates in part by examining the “curious kinship” between Lear and the pastoral romantic comedy AYLI, two plays that share plot devices of the typical pastoral narrative and a fundamental concern with the “nature of Nature.” Each, however, reveals a radically different natural setting: the pleasant and artificial forest of Arden offers “a protective fantasy that keeps the bitter weather and the suffering of unaccommodated man at bay”; the “harsh and fearsome” wilderness—“intensely realized” with the terrors of a wild storm and such “unpleasant realities” as Bedlam beggars and Poor Tom’s diet (3.4.136–47)—removes all such assurances. The natural world of Lear, in fact, is so “far from the norm of Renaissance pastoral romance” (see 4.6.119–24) that it may be classified as pastoral “turned inside out,” its characters denied the healing consolations that traditionally accompany the sojourn in the world of nature. Even the king’s willing renunciation of political power and courtly life (5.3.10–20), a staple of pastoral, does not insure him against further suffering, the play’s most devastating blow to follow before the end of the scene. Viewed in light of Cordelia’s death, Lear “appears as a play in which man and nature keep coming together, only to be inexorably separated.” Having redefined pastoral conventions, Lear “drives on to challenge basic assumptions about the essential harmony of man and nature,” the very core of the pastoral genre. In an appendix on the staging of pastorals (pp. 196–204), Young advocates “experimentation with more stylized treatments” of setting, characterization, acting, costume, makeup, structure, and atmosphere. Such “careful rethinking” may yield productions of Lear “that explore the symbolic and ‘metatheatrical’ elements of the play to greater effect.”