Shakespeare's King Lear

Working through the amazing verse of the play over eight sessions gives an exceptional chance to experience the power and profundity of perhaps Shakespeare’s greatest play. We will experience the play’s drama and profundity as Lear abdicates in favour of his daughters. We will relate to the alignments of good and evil people that results. We will experience the terrors of storms and of human cruelty, and our vulnerability to them. We will wonder at Shakespeare’s imagination as it embraces the scale of the humiliation to which we can be subjected and then as he shows the beauty of the love that can restore us. In tragedy our belief in who we are – and our sense of what really matters in life – are uniquely intensified.


  • Michael Wood, In Search of Shakespeare, BBC 2003
  • John Bell, On Shakespeare, Allen and Unwin 2011
  • Ron Rosenbaum, The Shakespeare Wars, Random House, 2006
  • Peter Levi, The Life and Times of William Shakespeare, Papermac, 1998
  • Jonathan Bate, The Genius of Shakespeare, Picador, 1997
  • T.J. Kelly, Understanding Shakespeare, King Lear, Jacaranda, 1961
  • Derek Traversi, An Approach to Shakespeare, 1 and 2, Bodley Head 1968-9
  • Jonathan Bate and Eric Rasmussen, Shakespeare, The Complete Works, Macmillan Education 2007


  • To the end of Act 1, sc.2: Lear divides his kingdom. His daughters' respond hypocritically to the love test. Lear disowns Cordelia and banishes Kent. The King of France sees Cordelia’s worth and will marry her. Edmund makes his triumphant manifesto of what he sees Nature to be, and begins his campaign to oust his brother and gain his father Gloucester’s lands.
  • To the end of Act 1, sc.4: Kent, disguised, wins Lear’s trust. The Fool warns Lear of his folly in trusting Goneril and Regan. They accuse him and his knights of riotous behaviour. He curses Goneril and threatens reprisals. The two daughters join forces against him.
  • To the end of Act 2, sc.4: Lear repairs to Gloucester’s castle for support. The fool comments again on his folly. Kent, now Lear’s envoy to Gloucester, meets Oswald, Cornwall’s messenger, and attacks him. Although Kent is the King’s envoy, Cornwall puts him in the stocks. Regan’s animus against her father makes her complicit in this. Kent takes his plight philosophically but Lear, sensing the insult it is to him, is overcome with rage and can’t bear the pain. Impotently, he threatens revenge. Edgar learns that Gloucester wants him killed and flees, disguised as mad Tom.
  • To the end of Act 3 sc. 4: News comes of an army coming from France to support Lear. Lear, raging for vindication, goes out into the storm with the Fool as his companion. Kent finds him and marvels at the night’s fury. Lear shows the first signs of concern for someone else when he feels pity for the Fool. Kent guides them to a hovel nearby.
  • To the end of Act 3, sc. 6: Gloucester confides to Edmund his desire to help the King. Edmund betrays him to Cornwall who rages at him. In the hovel to which Kent has taken Lear and the Fool they find Edgar pretending to be Tom, a madman possessed by the devil. Lear’s mind veers towards real madness, but he has undergone a massive change and philosophises madly about human vulnerability. Gloucester, with a torch, finds them and proposes to take them to safety. Lear’s memory of his daughters' rejection overwhelms his imagination and he puts them on trial.
  • To the end of Act 4, sc. 2: Gloucester sends Lear on a litter to Dover and Edgar is moved to see how much greater Lear’s suffering is than his. Cornwall sends to warn Albany of the French army and then exacts a terrible revenge on Gloucester, cruelly blinding him. One of his servants, revolted, fatally stabs Cornwall. Edgar, still disguised, leads his blinded father towards Dover where he intends to suicide. Goneril adulterously woos Edmund. Albany berates her over her unnatural treatment of her father and commits himself to Lear’s cause.
  • To the end of Act 4, sc.6: In the camp of the French Army Kent learns of Cordelia’s moving response to the news of her father’s plight – her smiles and tears. In his bewildered state, Lear sometimes remembers why the French army has come but he is ashamed to meet Cordelia. He has been moved to the French camp, but Cordelia is shocked at how madly he has been behaving. The Doctor reassures her that he can be healed. Cordelia insists that the campaign they are waging is all for love. Regan, jealous of her sister, wants Edmund for herself. In a boldly theatrical scene Edgar saves his father from death by suicide. Gloucester vows patience henceforth. Lear enters to them and the two great rivers of suffering converge. In a heartbreaking scene Lear imagines that he is still the King instructing his army to fight. He goes on bitterly remembering the injuries his daughters have done him. He seems to remember Gloucester but shows little sympathy over his blinded eyes. He plumbs the depth of angry cynicism about women, justice and political power. When soldiers come to rescue him, he runs off as if in a mad game. Cordelia tends to her father in a deeply felt scene of reconciliation.
  • To the end of Act 5: As the battle nears, Regan and Goneril both claim the right to marry Edmund. His solution will be to get rid of one or other of them and he swears he will thwart Albany’s effort to save Lear and Cordelia and sends to have them secretly executed. Though not nobly dressed Edgar appears and challenges Edmund. The English forces win the battle and Gloucester again despairs. Edgar encourages him to better thoughts. Lear and Cordelia are in prison and he unrealistically promises her a future in which they can live together for ever, disregarding the rest of the world. Putting Edmund in his place, Albany asserts that he is the one in control. Edgar appears, and in a duel fatally wounds Edmund. He offers Edmund reconciliation, and tells him of being with Gloucester in his wonderful last moments. He also tells him of Kent’s heartbreak. Goneril and Regan have killed one another, and Edmund is moved to repentance. But his order for the killing of Lear and Cordelia has been forgotten. Lear, however, has killed Edmund’s assassin but was unable to save Cordelia and he enters with her in his arms challenging all to howl with grief. He convinces himself that he can still see signs of life in her, but his mind is hardly taking in the situation. Finally, after insisting, devastated, that she is dead, his mind gives way and he dies ecstatically pointing to the smile he thinks he sees on her lips.

By the end of this course, students should be able to:

  1. Read Shakespeare’s verse with clearer recognition of the way its details affect us.
  2. Become aware of the particular quality of each passage of verse, of what is individual about it
  3. Become more aware of the tone of a passage.
  4. Become more aware of the pace of a passage
  5. Become more aware of the way Shakespeare not only tells a story but engages us with larger themes.
  6. Become aware of the way that the discrimination between human values is central to Shakespeare’s work.
  7. Become aware of the way Shakespeare directs us to the nature of things.

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