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King Lear /

Reading Shakespeare’s Language: King Lear

By Barbara Mowat and Paul Werstine
Editors of the Folger Shakespeare Library Editions

For many people today, reading Shakespeare’s language can be a problem—but it is a problem that can be solved. Those who have studied Latin (or even French or German or Spanish) and those who are used to reading poetry will have little difficulty understanding the language of poetic drama. Others, though, need to develop the skills of untangling unusual sentence structures and of recognizing and understanding poetic compressions, omissions, and wordplay. And even those skilled in reading unusual sentence structures may have occasional trouble with Shakespeare’s words. More than four hundred years of “static”—caused by changes in language and in life—intervene between his speaking and our hearing. Most of his immense vocabulary is still in use, but a few of his words are no longer used, and many of his words now have meanings quite different from those they had in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. In the theater, most of these difficulties are solved for us by actors who study the language and articulate it for us so that the essential meaning is heard—or, when combined with stage action, is at least felt. When we are reading on our own, we must do what each actor does: go over the lines (often with a dictionary close at hand) until the puzzles are solved and the lines yield up their poetry and the characters speak in words and phrases that are, suddenly, rewarding and wonderfully memorable.

Shakespeare’s Words

As you begin to read the opening scenes of a Shakespeare play, you may notice occasional unfamiliar words. Some are unfamiliar simply because we no longer use them. In the opening scenes of King Lear, for example, we find such words as haply (perchance, perhaps), sith (since), and sirrah (a term of address that shows the speaker’s position of authority). Words of this kind will become familiar the more of Shakespeare’s plays you read.

In King Lear, as in all of Shakespeare’s writing, more problematic are words that are still in use but that now have different meanings. In the opening line of King Lear, the word affected is used where we would say “been partial to.” Later in the first scene, we find several where we would use “separate,” addition where we would use “title,” owes where we would use “owns,” and plighted where we would use “pleated” or “folded.” In the play’s second scene, character means “handwriting,” closet means “private room,” and practices means “plots.” Such words, too, will become familiar as you continue to read Shakespeare’s language.

Some words are strange not because of the “static” introduced by changes in language over the past centuries but because these are words that Shakespeare is using to build a dramatic world that has its own space, time, history, and background mythology. King Lear is a particularly interesting example of this practice, in that, in this play, Shakespeare creates two worlds separated by centuries of time but that seem to exist simultaneously. One of these worlds is that of the Britain inhabited by the legendary King Leir, who, in the histories of Shakespeare’s time, came to power “in the year of the world 3105”—i.e., in 845 B.C.E., many years before the founding of Rome. This world is created through references to “the mysteries of Hecate,” to “Scythians” and other barbaric peoples who “make their generations messes [i.e., eat their own young],” to “Apollo” and “Jupiter” (both of whom play important parts in the stories of early Britain). This world is recalled throughout the play in references to “Sarum Plain” (the prehistoric name for Salisbury Plain) and “Camelot,” in repeated references to “the gods,” and in dialogue about astrology (reportedly of wide influence in the early days of Britain), including such terms as “sectary astronomical,” “the operations of the orbs,” and “under the Dragon’s tail.”

At the same time, the early scenes of the play create a court and a political world that linguistically reflect Shakespeare’s own time. This is a world of “dukes,” “princes,” “kings”; it is a world of courtly phrases (“My services to your lordship,” “I must love you and sue to know you better,” “I shall study deserving”) and of formal courtly orders (“Attend the lords of Burgundy and France,” “To thine and Albany’s issue be this perpetual”). The two worlds of the play are linked through words that describe the land of Britain—“shadowy forests,” “wide-skirted meads,” “champains riched, with plenteous rivers”—words that could describe both ancient and seventeenth-century Britain. It is possible that, in part, King Lear’s seeming timelessness is a function of this double world created by the play’s diction.

Shakespeare’s Sentences

In an English sentence, meaning is quite dependent on the place given each word. “The dog bit the boy” and “The boy bit the dog” mean very different things, even though the individual words are the same. Because English places such importance on the positions of words in sentences, on the way words are arranged, unusual arrangements can puzzle a reader. Shakespeare frequently shifts his sentences away from “normal” English arrangements—often in order to create the rhythm he seeks, sometimes to use a line’s poetic rhythm to emphasize a particular word, sometimes to give a character his or her own speech patterns or to allow the character to speak in a special way. When we attend a good performance of the play, the actors will have worked out the sentence structures and will articulate the sentences so that the meaning is clear. When reading the play, we need to do as the actor does: that is, when puzzled by a character’s speech, check to see if the words are being presented in an unusual sequence.

Often Shakespeare places the verb before the subject (e.g., instead of “He goes” we find “Goes he”). In the opening scene of King Lear, when Gloucester says “yet was his mother fair” (instead of “yet his mother was fair”), he is using such a construction. Such inversions rarely cause much confusion. More problematic is Shakespeare’s frequent placing of the object before the verb and sometimes before the subject and verb (e.g., instead of “I hit him,” we might find “Him I hit”). When Lear says “That we our largest bounty may extend,” he is using such an inverted construction (the normal order would be “that we may extend our largest bounty”). Lear uses another such inversion later in the same scene when he says “Ourself . . . shall our abode / Make with you,” and again with “Five days we do allot thee for provision.” The king of France uses a similar inversion when he says to Cordelia “Thee and thy virtues here I seize upon.” King Lear is among those plays of Shakespeare that make frequent use of this more complicated kind of inversion. In this play, in fact, Shakespeare sometimes complicates his sentences yet further by combining subject/verb/object inversions with subject/verb inversions—as in Goneril’s remark to Regan: “Such unconstant starts are we like to have from him” (where the normal order would be “We are like [i.e., likely] to have such unconstant starts from him”).

Inversions are not the only unusual sentence structures in Shakespeare’s language. Often in his sentences words that would normally appear together are separated from each other. (This may be done to create a particular rhythm or to stress a particular word.) In Lear’s command to his daughters in the opening scene, “Tell me, my daughters— / Since now we will divest us both of rule, / Interest of territory, cares of state— / Which of you shall we say doth love us most,” the phrase “tell me . . . which” is interrupted by Lear’s explanation of why he is giving this command. Later in the scene he separates subject from verb when he says “Ourself by monthly course, / With reservation of an hundred knights / By you to be sustained, shall our abode / Make with you by due turn,” where “ourself [i.e., I] . . . shall our abode / Make” is interrupted by a series of phrases, and the verb and its object, as noted above, are themselves inverted. In order to create for yourself sentences that seem more like the English of everyday speech, you may wish to rearrange the words, putting together the word clusters and placing the remaining words in their more normal order. You will usually find that the sentence will gain in clarity but will lose its rhythm or shift its emphasis.

Locating and, if necessary, rearranging words that “belong together” is especially necessary in passages that separate subjects from verbs and verbs from objects by long delaying or expanding interruptions—a structure that is used frequently in King Lear. For example, when Lear asks Burgundy whether he wants to marry the now dowerless Cordelia, he uses such an interrupted construction:

Will you, with those infirmities she owes,

Unfriended, new-adopted to our hate,

Dowered with our curse and strangered with our oath,

Take her or leave her?


The king of France answers Lear’s charges against Cordelia with a speech containing a similarly interrupted clause:

                                                  This is most strange,

That she whom even but now was your best object,

The argument of your praise, balm of your age,

The best, the dearest, should in this trice of time

Commit a thing so monstrous to dismantle

So many folds of favor.


Cordelia herself responds to France’s speech with a plea to Lear built around an interrupted structure:

                                     I yet beseech your Majesty—

If for I want that glib and oily art

To speak and purpose not, since what I well intend

I’ll do ’t before I speak—that you make known

It is no vicious blot, murder, or foulness,

No unchaste action or dishonored step

That hath deprived me of your grace and favor. . . .


In each of these cases—and similar constructions occur throughout the play—the interruption of the main sentence elements serves to heighten emotional intensity. The separation of the basic sentence elements—“will you . . . take her or leave her,” “she . . . should . . . commit,” “I beseech your Majesty . . . that you make known”—forces the audience to attend to the characters’ accusations and explanations, and to feel the power of emotion conveyed in the interrupting material, while waiting for the basic sentence elements to come together.

Occasionally, rather than separating basic sentence elements, Shakespeare simply holds them back, delaying them until much subordinate material has already been given. Again, emotional intensity is heightened for an audience as it listens and waits for the sentence’s subject and verb. Lear uses such a delaying structure when he says to Cordelia, at 1.1.121–28,

For by the sacred radiance of the sun,

The mysteries of Hecate and the night,

By all the operation of the orbs

From whom we do exist and cease to be,

Here I disclaim all my paternal care,

Propinquity, and property of blood,

And as a stranger to my heart and me

Hold thee from this forever.

Again, in his speech banishing Kent, Lear uses a similar delaying structure:

That [i.e., because] thou hast sought to make us

        break our vows—

Which we durst never yet—and with strained pride

To come betwixt our sentence and our power,

Which nor our nature nor our place can bear,

Our potency made good, take thy reward. . . .


Shakespeare’s sentences are sometimes complicated not because of unusual structures or interruptions or delays but because he omits words and parts of words that English sentences normally require. (In conversation, we, too, often omit words. We say “Heard from him yet?” and our hearer supplies the missing “Have you.”) Frequent reading of Shakespeare—and of other poets—trains us to supply such missing words. In plays written five or ten years earlier than King Lear, omissions seem to be used primarily for rhythmic effects. In King Lear, however, Shakespeare uses omissions—of verbs, of nouns, of prepositions, of parts of words—as an integral part of the language world he is creating. Often the omission is uncomplicated, as in Kent’s “My life I never held but as a pawn / To wage against thine enemies, nor fear to lose it,” where “nor do I fear” becomes “nor fear.” A similarly uncomplicated omission is found in Lear’s “Therefore beseech you” (1.1.241), a compression of “therefore I beseech you,” as well as in France’s “Commit a thing so monstrous to dismantle” (1.1.250), where one needs to supply an “as” before “to dismantle.”

Many times in Lear, however, omissions are coupled with inversions or other dislocations of language. When Cordelia says, at line 317, “But yet, alas, stood I within his grace,” the word “if” has been omitted and the subject and verb inverted. When Regan replies to her, at line 320, “Prescribe not us our duty,” omission has again been combined with subject/verb inversion. (The normal structure would be “Do not prescribe our duty to us.”) Gloucester’s “Why so earnestly seek you to put up that letter?” (1.2.29–30) combines two inversions and an omission. (The normal order would be “Why do you seek to put up . . . ?”) Since these omissions and inversions occur as often in prose as they do in verse, they seem to be used not only for rhythmic effects but also to create a language world of unusually complicated syntax.

Shakespearean Wordplay

Shakespeare plays with language so often and so variously that books are written on the topic. His wordplay in King Lear is particularly interesting in the way it varies Shakespeare’s usual use of puns and figurative language. A pun is a play on words that sound the same but that have different meanings. In many of Shakespeare’s plays (Romeo and Juliet and Taming of the Shrew are good examples), puns are used frequently. In King Lear they are used less often; when they are used, they carry interesting ambiguities, often conveying what may be sophisticated courtly wit or may be somewhat crass double entendre. For example, in the opening lines of the play, Gloucester responds to Kent’s question “Is not this your son, my lord?” with the statement “His breeding, sir, hath been at my charge,” a sentence that plays on two meanings of “breeding” and two meanings of “at my charge,” so that Gloucester can be heard to say, simultaneously, “I have been accused of begetting him” and “I have had to pay for his education.” In response to Kent’s “I cannot conceive you” (in which cannot conceive means “do not understand”), Gloucester replies “Sir, this young fellow’s mother could,” pretending to understand conceive to mean “conceive a child.” When Gloucester asks Kent “Do you smell a fault?” Kent replies “I cannot wish the fault undone, the issue of it being so proper,” playing with issue as meaning both “result” and “offspring” and with proper as meaning both “appropriate, fitting” and “handsome,” so that Kent’s words say both that the outcome is fitting and the offspring attractive. In a more serious passage near the end of the same scene, Cordelia leaves her sisters with the statement “Time shall unfold what plighted cunning hides,” where plighted has the primary meaning of “pleated, folded,” and unfold is a pun on “unpleat” and “reveal”; the statement carries an additional resonance in that plighted can also be used in reference to someone who has pledged her word or her honesty, so that Cordelia can be heard to say that her sisters, who have outwardly plighted their truth and love to Lear, have actually pledged instead their cunning.

Not only are puns used rarely and complexly in King Lear, but figurative language is also shifted away from Shakespeare’s customary use of metaphors (i.e., plays on words in which one object or idea is expressed as if it were something else, something with which it is said to share common features). Occasionally one does find straightforward metaphoric language. For example, as the characters’ suffering intensifies near the end of the play, their anguish is expressed through metaphors about instruments of torture. Lear says to Cordelia, for instance, near the end of Act 4, “I am bound / Upon a wheel of fire, that mine own tears / Do scald like molten lead”; a similar metaphor of torture is used at the end of the play when Kent urges Edgar to let Lear die: “O, let him pass! He hates him / That would upon the rack of this tough world / Stretch him out longer.”

These straightforward metaphors are, however, relatively rare in King Lear. More often the metaphors are either displaced or are placed slightly beneath the surface of the language. Most of the Fool’s speeches can be seen as examples of displaced and extended metaphor—as analogies in which the listener must provide the sometimes difficult connections between Lear’s situation and the Fool’s seemingly random comments. To take only two of many examples: In 1.4, Goneril addresses Lear as if he were her dependent, threatening him with “censure” and “redresses”:

I had thought by making this well known unto you

To have found a safe redress, but now grow fearful,

By what yourself too late have spoke and done,

That you protect this course and put it on

By your allowance; which if you should, the fault

Would not ’scape censure, nor the redresses sleep

Which in the tender of a wholesome weal

Might in their working do you that offense,

Which else were shame, that then necessity

Will call discreet proceeding.


In response to this speech, the Fool comments:

The hedge-sparrow fed the cuckoo so long,

That it’s had it head bit off by it young.

So out went the candle, and we were left darkling.


Metaphorically, according to the Fool, Lear is a hedge-sparrow, Goneril the cuckoo that the sparrow has fed, thinking it his; like the sparrow, Lear is now being attacked by his young. As Goneril continues her attack, the Fool comments: “May not an ass know when the cart draws the horse?” Metaphorically, Lear and Goneril are a horse and cart whose functions have gotten reversed.

Often the play’s language contains metaphors that do not lie clearly on the surface of the play but, when discovered, make the characters’ speeches much more vivid. When Edmund says, in the play’s second scene, “This is the excellent foppery of the world, that when we are sick in fortune (often the surfeits of our own behavior) we make guilty of our disasters the sun, the moon, and stars,” just under the surface of his language is a metaphor in which bad luck is imaged as a sickness caused by our own “surfeits”—i.e., overindulgences. (These lines also contain an amusing play on the word disasters, a word of astrological origin meaning, literally, “from the stars.”) In the opening scene, Lear’s “ ’tis our fast intent / To shake all cares and business from our age, / Conferring them on younger strengths, while we / Unburdened crawl toward death” (1.1.40–43) carries within it a metaphor in which man is pictured as a pack-animal that, in its old age, shakes off its heavy load. Later in the same scene, within Lear’s “I do invest you jointly with my power, / Preeminence, and all the large effects / That troop with majesty” (1.1.146–48), the word troop metaphorically makes “power” and “preeminence” and other “large effects” into companions that march along with “majesty.”

In this final example we see not only a metaphor (in which the attributes of kingship are likened to the king’s traveling companions) but also personification, a kind of figurative language used with unusual frequency and power in King Lear. In personification, abstract qualities or natural objects are given human characteristics (so that “power” is allowed to “troop”). Kent uses personification when he says to Lear:

Think’st thou that duty shall have dread to speak

When power to flattery bows? To plainness honor’s


When majesty falls to folly.


In these lines, duty, power, flattery, honor, and majesty are given the ability to speak, to feel dread, to fall, to bow, to receive bows, to remain loyal.

Some of the most powerful scenes in King Lear depend heavily on personification. Lear responds to Goneril’s initial attack on him with his personification of “ingratitude”:

Ingratitude, thou marble-hearted fiend,

More hideous when thou show’st thee in a child

Than the sea monster!


His powerful speeches in 4.6 on “how this world goes” depend heavily on the personification of such abstractions as vices, sin, and justice, to which he attributes the ability to wear clothing and to be dressed in gold-plated armor:

Through tattered clothes small vices do appear.

Robes and furred gowns hide all. Plate sin with gold,

And the strong lance of justice hurtless breaks.

Arm it in rags, a pygmy’s straw does pierce it.


Most importantly, his speeches in the storm scenes of Act 3 are built around personifications in which wind, rain, lightning, and thunder are given cheeks that can crack, emotions that can rage; the elements, in these speeches, experience “horrible pleasures” and become “servile ministers” who have joined with Goneril and Regan to destroy him.

Implied Stage Action

Finally, in reading Shakespeare’s plays we should always remember that what we are reading is a performance script. The dialogue is written to be spoken by actors who, at the same time, are moving, gesturing, picking up objects, weeping, shaking their fists. Some stage action is described in what are called “stage directions”; some is suggested within the dialogue itself. We must learn to be alert to such signals as we stage the play in our imaginations. When, in the second scene of King Lear, Gloucester says to Edmund “Why so earnestly seek you to put up that letter?” it is clear that Edmund puts away the piece of paper he has been holding; Gloucester’s following question, “What needed then that terrible dispatch of it into your pocket?” lets us know that Edmund’s putting away of the letter was done obtrusively and that he put it in his pocket, not on a shelf or in a book. When in 2.4 Goneril enters and Lear says “O, Regan, will you take her by the hand?” the stage action is obvious. It is less obvious in 2.1 exactly how we are to imagine Edmund’s actions when he says “Some blood drawn on me would beget opinion / Of my more fierce endeavor. I have seen drunkards / Do more than this in sport.” Since a few lines later he says to his father “Look, sir, I bleed,” he has clearly wounded himself in some fashion, but the director and the actor (and the reader, in imagination) must decide on his precise action. Which weapon he uses and how and where he wounds himself will be answered variously from production to production. Learning to read the language of stage action repays one many times over when one reaches a crucial scene like that of the blinding of Gloucester (3.7) or the play’s final scene with its sequence of duels, exits, entrances, and deaths, in both of which scenes implied stage action vitally affects our response to the play.

It is immensely rewarding to work carefully with Shakespeare’s language so that the words, the sentences, the wordplay, and the implied stage action all become clear—as readers for the past four centuries have discovered. It may be more pleasurable to attend a good performance of a play—though not everyone has thought so. But the joy of being able to stage one of Shakespeare’s plays in one’s imagination, to return to passages that continue to yield further meanings (or further questions) the more one reads them—these are pleasures that, for many, rival (or at least augment) those of the performed text, and certainly make it worth considerable effort to “break the code” of Elizabethan poetic drama and let free the remarkable language that makes up a Shakespeare text.