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A Modern Perspective: King Lear

By Susan Snyder

Each of Shakespeare’s plays creates through language its distinctive geography. In the mental map generated by King Lear, the action occurs largely in this or that house, as opposed to this or that town. “The kingdom” is important, but not designated places in it. Even when Lear is outlining to his daughters their shares in that kingdom, he talks of natural features rather than named sites. The striking exception to this pattern is Dover: this place is first introduced in 3.1, and named ten times thereafter, underlining its status in the action as a kind of magnet-site to which every major character except the Fool is drawn in the latter half of the play. Regan and Cornwall harp on the place-name obsessively as they interrogate the captive Gloucester:

CORNWALL  Where hast thou sent the King?



Wherefore to Dover? Wast thou not charged at



Wherefore to Dover? Let him answer that.


I am tied to th’ stake, and I must stand the course.

REGAN  Wherefore to Dover?


The repeated questions have an immediate dramatic point, certainly: Regan and Cornwall are trying to make Gloucester admit his complicity with the French force that Cordelia is leading into Britain to rescue her father. Nor is there any question why most of the characters go to Dover. That is where Cordelia will land: from her and her army, the Lear party can expect “welcome and protection” (3.6.98), and against this French expeditionary force Goneril, Regan, Edmund, and the reluctant Albany must rally on the shore to fight. But repeating and insisting on the apparently simple question “Wherefore to Dover?” generates a certain excess of meaning, and suggests that Dover has significance beyond literal location.

And indeed, when we turn our attention to Lear and Gloucester at the very center of the dramatic action, the forces that propel these characters to Dover seem more fated than comprehensible and willed. While others may wish him to seek comfort from Cordelia, the mad Lear is on his own journey of self-discovery and cannot bear the shame of such a meeting with the daughter he wronged. Gloucester, blind and despairing, seeks only death at Dover. One place is as good as another for suicide, one might think. But Gloucester takes great trouble to get to Dover cliff, as if there were some peculiar rightness about this one spot as the stage for his exhausted exit from the world. The place again assumes special meaning in his insistent “Know’st thou the way to Dover? . . . Dost thou know Dover?” (4.1.63, 81).

Paying attention to these questions—“Wherefore to Dover?” “Dost thou know Dover?”—can focus for us several kinds of dynamic that work themselves out in King Lear. In Gloucester’s mind, the reality of Dover is a cliff, where the land ends abruptly and the sea begins: a sharp demarcation between the familiar and the unknown. After he has first caused harm by being easygoing and credulous (“I stumbled when I saw”) and then suffered shocking mutilation, Gloucester’s awakened self-knowledge has brought him to a physical and spiritual low point. He goes to Dover, the boundary site, to cast off the burden of his life: “From that place / I shall no leading need” (4.1.87–88). But this edge of nothingness becomes for Gloucester a place of radically new vision. Even in his own anticipating imagination, the cliff’s high head “Looks fearfully in the confinèd deep” (4.1.84), as if it is gazing into the alien element. When they arrive at Dover, the words of Edgar as Poor Tom spread out the disorienting new perspective:

                                            How fearful

And dizzy ’tis to cast one’s eyes so low!

The crows and choughs that wing the midway air

Show scarce so gross as beetles. Halfway down

Hangs one that gathers samphire—dreadful trade;

Methinks he seems no bigger than his head.

The fishermen that walk upon the beach

Appear like mice. . . .

                                   I’ll look no more

Lest my brain turn and the deficient sight

Topple down headlong.


In fact, they are nowhere near the cliff. Edgar is deceiving his father, leading him through an elaborate enactment of his despair and remorse, in order that he may put these behind him and move into a totally different posture of acceptance. This speech that so sharply images the unseen precipice brings home to us Gloucester’s inner crisis and the revolution of vision he undergoes at the extremity of life.

King Lear goes through his own psychological extremities in Dover. Brought there by his adherents to be put under Cordelia’s protection, he is plunged by the very prospect of that reunion into greater anguish. Lear retreats from facing the daughter he once cast off:

A sovereign shame so elbows him—his own


That stripped her from his benediction, turned her

To foreign casualties, gave her dear rights

To his dog-hearted daughters—these things sting

His mind so venomously that burning shame

Detains him from Cordelia.


At the play’s opening, Lear in his rage tried to erase this unaccommodating, plain-speaking daughter, to negate both her and the filial tie between them. “Better thou / Hadst not been born”; “we / Have no such daughter, nor shall ever see / That face of hers again” (1.1.269–70, 304–6). He has struggled in the meantime to keep Cordelia and his bond to her banished: from his sight, from his conscious mind. Her reappearance now, asserting that bond, is like Freud’s return of the repressed that stings while it clarifies. Before he can encounter her, Lear at Dover plumbs the depths of madness even more deeply (4.6). Still acting the autocratic monarch and magistrate as he reviews his archers, pardons and condemns wrongdoers, he lays hold through these fantasized scenes on truths about himself, his limitations, his participation in grimy human nature. When brought together at last with Cordelia, the shattered old man marks his own extremity by insisting he must be dead—“You do me wrong to take me out o’ th’ grave” (4.7.51)—but the reconciliation that follows is on very human terms: “Pray you now, forget, and forgive. I am old and foolish” (98–99).

Lear and Gloucester both go to the edge at Dover, and both come up against death (Gloucester wants to die, Lear thinks he is dead). What they achieve instead is a kind of reorientation, a transformed perspective that could not come about except by the radical revaluation that such extremities force upon them. We should recall that Dover is not just the edge of Britain but the place in that island country that is closest to foreign lands. At this farthest limit of the familiar, Lear and Gloucester confront the unknown—which is, paradoxically, their own selves. And, like the French army that pushes in at Dover, this alien force brings both great fear and deliverance.

Dover plays its part in other movements that inform King Lear. One of these dynamics we might call “beyond the end.” It has been operating in a way since the play’s opening, when Lear formally signals an end to his power through abdication but then keeps right on acting like a king, as he banishes Kent and Cordelia and travels from daughter to daughter with a royal retinue of a hundred knights. Mainly, though, it is an end to suffering that is repeatedly sought after, promised—and then denied. On what he believes to be Dover cliff, Gloucester thinks to shake off the world’s affliction because he cannot “bear it longer” (4.6.47). But when Edgar negates this closure of self-willed death, his father is pushed to endure yet more: “Henceforth I’ll bear / Affliction . . .” (93–94). Edgar himself, in his outcast state, has already experienced personally this rhythm of being pushed yet further. After the miseries of the storm, he feels himself at the lowest point of Fortune’s wheel, which must therefore turn him upward again; but then his father enters with bleeding holes instead of eyes, a sight to mock any balanced prediction of Fortune’s unpredictable ways. Edgar’s comforting conventional image of the course of events as a wheel guided by Fortune, which dictates that “The worst returns to laughter” (4.1.6), yields at this new, overwhelming pain to something much more like the wheel that the Fool has earlier shown us, something careening downhill out of control (2.4.78–80). “Who is ’t can say ‘I am at the worst’?” wonders a stunned Edgar, pushed to his own new extremity; “I am worse than e’er I was” (4.1.27–28). Lear, as we have seen, avoids the closure of suffering offered by Cordelia and runs on to endure more laceration in his madness. After father and daughter are at last reconciled, the comfortable end they promise each other is foreclosed again when her forces lose the battle and they are both taken prisoner. Even in the appalling finality of Cordelia’s death, Lear’s own end is postponed, so that he can suffer yet further agonies over her body before exhaustion at last takes him. What the awestruck survivors record at the play’s close for both Gloucester and Lear is this endurance of repeated blows, beyond the end:

            The wonder is he hath endured so long. . . .

            The oldest hath borne most.

(5.3.384, 394)

The special emotional force that many feel in King Lear has much to do with this peculiar strategy of repeatedly suggesting a limit to pain and then frustrating the expectation; the dashed hopes of audience as well as characters intensify the suffering that follows.

Both of the dynamics so far discussed display kinds of pattern: the redemptive one of descending into the depths to be rewarded with new vision, the intensifying one of promising a stop to suffering only to bring on yet more. A third dynamic is akin to that of expectations denied, but is in its very nature more random and erratic. The Fool is its chief exponent. Through scene after scene, as the tormented king suffers one blow after another, the capering Fool by his side responds with jokes and reductive nonsense. The following short sequence may stand for many moments where heroic pathos is suddenly jarred by slapstick comedy:


O me, my heart, my rising heart! But down!

FOOL Cry to it, nuncle, as the cockney did to the

eels when she put ’em i’ th’ paste alive. She

knapped ’em o’ th’ coxcombs with a stick and

cried “Down, wantons, down!”


On Lear’s towering rage and pain, the Fool superimposes a ludicrous kitchen scene with a foolish woman struggling to slap down live eels into a pastry. The degrading image complicates our sympathetic identification with Lear’s royal pathos, enables simultaneously a more distanced and critical view which finds the king as foolish as that cockney and his imperious commands as ineffective as if they were addressed to a bunch of wriggling eels. With such dislocating effects, the Fool’s patter again and again threatens Lear’s heroic status—reduces him momentarily from his royal uniqueness to any ordinary, foolish old man, reduces his experience from world-shattering cataclysm to the commonplace, predictable fate of any father silly enough to give away his property and become dependent on his heirs. When Lear in the storm summons thunder, lightning, and torrents of rain in language of cosmic power and commands them to destroy the world that has so devastated him, the Fool thinks more prosaically that, even if it must be shared with hypocrites, “a dry house is better than this rainwater out o’ door” (3.2.12–13). They are wet and unsheltered. Cosmic concerns shrink suddenly to homely needs. However titanic a figure Lear presents in the storm, we cannot shut out the other image opened by the Fool’s down-to-earth practicality: that of an old man comically at odds with reality, giving orders to the universe.

The Fool disappears from the play in Act 3, but his syncopated rhythm continues, grotesque comedy repeatedly threatening tragic dignity. To some extent the Fool’s role of nonsensical deflation is taken over by Lear himself. Already his early tantrums have been open to interpretation as overreactions to slights that are less than earth-shaking, bringing him close to comic self-parody. In later scenes the very language of wayward association and non sequitur that manifests his madness keeps him hovering between tragic grandeur and absurdity. The Fool is still with him when he arraigns his absent daughters in the mock trial of 3.6, but Lear is now himself a source of grotesque comedy, addressing his real grievance against Goneril to a joint-stool and couching it in an absurd image: she “kicked the poor king her father” (3.6.51–52).

If Gloucester’s sufferings at first seem exempt from these grace notes of absurdity, he is nevertheless exposed at “Dover cliff” to the extreme of comic degradation. After the long buildup to a dramatic suicide leap (matching his “climb” in the script), the old man simply topples over (4.6.51). That which, as an idea of an action, arouses not a smile (i.e., Edgar leading his father to a nonexistent cliff and allowing him to go through the motions of throwing himself over), when physically acted out becomes something like a clown’s pratfall. At his most serious moral climax, Gloucester enacts the supreme indignity of falling on his nose. And when he intersects with Lear later in this scene, the pain of these two human ruins is punctuated by further absurdity. The mad Lear finds in his former friend only grotesque similitudes: Goneril with a white beard, a superannuated blind Cupid (4.6.115, 152).

The final absurdity, the most shattering non sequitur, is Cordelia’s death. It is hard to see any dramatic logic that prepares for this death or makes it an inevitable consequence of previous action, especially when the strong redemptive movement seems to point us in just the opposite direction, i.e., to the refounded relation of an enlightened Lear to his newly valued youngest daughter. Edmund does indeed tell us that if Lear and Cordelia are captured they will be shown no mercy, and we see him sending off a captain with orders that we suspect are to be fatal for the king and his daughter, but Edmund is soon defeated by Edgar and in his dying repentance rescinds the order. He is, for no discernible reason, too late. The entrance of Lear with the dead Cordelia in his arms unites absurdity at its most cosmic with the second dynamic, expectations of better times frustrated by the blow that makes things worse than before. At the same time, this unexpected disaster violently contradicts the pronounced movement toward new wisdom through suffering.

As we live through the action of the play and experience its conclusion, how do we weight these dynamics that are similarly persistent but so radically different from each other in impact and import? Individual readers and viewers may well differ in their reactions. Does the persistent strain of reductive grotesquerie make Lear and Gloucester ironic figures rather than tragic, their actions pathetic gropings in a senseless universe? Or can they be felt as all the more heroic in triumphing over the forces of absurdity and random cruelty to arrive at an ethic of love and social obligation, an ethic no less necessary to the human community even if the larger universe is amoral? If wayward comedy attends their presentation, does the resultant laughter distance or intensify participation in their pain? Does Cordelia’s death render Lear’s painful progress meaningless, or does it force us to reevaluate in less sentimental terms the limits placed on any such progress by the human condition itself? At the very end, as Albany and Edgar look to a future beyond Lear, is the final stress on reordering more humanely the “gored state” (5.3.389), or rather on slogging stoically on, beyond the “promised end” which has once more been denied?

When we look away from Lear and Gloucester, the careers of other characters also defy easy moral and psychological assessment. Edgar’s course is perhaps morally comprehensible in outline as he falls from high position to the condition of a destitute beggar and then wins his way back to his rightful estate, expanding his wisdom and sympathy in the process. Yet as Edgar at the play’s beginning is hardly a blind, selfish Lear, we may wonder if his suffering is not more gratuitous than redemptive. Through Edgar’s long engagement with the blind Gloucester, in his various disguises as beggar or countryman, the reader or viewer may well be anticipating the climactic moment when this devoted son reveals his true identity to the father who cast him off. But when it finally comes, that revelation is not shown to us but is only narrated. More unexpectedly, even shockingly, the revelation kills Gloucester. Does Gloucester’s death in extremes of joy and grief fittingly conclude his long painful spiritual odyssey, or is it yet another indication that random absurdity governs events, making nonsense of Edgar’s redemptive agenda? When Lear in defeat cares nothing for loss of royal power and serenely invites Cordelia to an idyllic life in prison where each will be totally absorbed in the other (“Come, let’s away to prison,” 5.3.9), Cordelia says nothing in response. Does Lear too unthinkingly accept the congealing of her young life with his old one, and look forward to a symbiosis that blots out her separate identity? So it could seem from the perspective of this daughter, who so firmly resisted Lear’s initial wish to have all her love himself. From this point of view, in fact—the need of any child to break away from a demanding, all-engrossing parent—even the actions of Goneril and Regan escape neat categorization as unfounded pure evil. So, from another angle, does the course of Edmund, their ally in the play’s oppositions of good children against bad. Even while these oppositions seem so stark as to invite a semiallegorical interpretation, Edmund can also be understood sociologically, as produced by the glaring social inequities of which this play recurrently reminds us. His malevolent ambition takes appropriate revenge on a society that has marginalized him as a bastard, automatically denying him the secure social position that otherwise his parentage and his talents would ensure.

Stark moral oppositions, then, are crossed in this complex play by trajectories of sociological and psychological questioning, just as the unexpected supplement and the random absurdity complicate Lear’s and Gloucester’s journeys toward insight. Like Dover, King Lear should act to open up vision, not close it down.