Original essays in this volume are a wide-ranging set of perspectives on one of Shakespeare's greatest works. Reprinted classics add to this rich collection of critical views.
King Lear is quite relevant to today's concerns on many levels, not the least of which is the treatment of the elderly, the rule of government, the relationships between superiors and inferiors, treatment of the poor and homeless, and the nature of mental illnesses. And, of course, it is a spectacularly beautiful play.
The essays here on Lear begin with a brief biography of Shakespeare. There is also an illuminating treatment of the historical background of the play, including its first performances and possible audience reactions.
As with much Shakespearean criticism, close reading bears fruits. One essay offers close reading of several key passages, with an eye to the differences between the first published version, the Quarto of 1608, and the revisions found in the Folio version of 1623. It also examines in detail Shakespeare's use of imagery, versification, and allusion and the ways they function in the passages under discussion and in the play as a whole. This is supplemented by an essay on the ways in which audiences and critics have responded to Shakespeare's tragedy, including a survey of modern criticism, from 1930 to the present.
Another essay contrasts two of the greatest dramatic characters in Elizabethan literature, Shakespeare's King Lear and Marlowe's Tamburlaine. The parallels and comparisons enlighten us further on how amazing but also how different these characters are.
Sight, blindness, insight and ignorance play a central role in the play. One chapter examines these themes in great depth. References to seeing and eyesight begins with Goneril's hyperbole, when she claims that she loves her father "dearer than eyesight," and does not end until the last words of act 5. The pattern also involves "the paradox of blindness in those who see too well," along with innocents like Edgar, who does not see well enough and must learn, like others, to see better through bitter experience.
Yet another essay views King Lear in the historical context and with close analysis of the kinds of language to be found in the play.
The volume also explores the various ways Shakespeare adapts aspects of comedy within the structure of King Lear for heightened tragic effect. The comedy, in effect, being very dark.
As a number of scholars have noticed, the story of King Lear has many analogues, if not direct sources, in myths and archetypal legends. Another essay, "The Lear Myth," concisely reviews a number of these analogues, which may be traced back to ancient times.
A detailed interpretation of patriarchy and the role of the mother in Shakespeare's tragedy follows. This essay is joined by an illuminating and provocative series of insights into the complete lack of a mother in the play: this feminist perspective adds much to any reading.
Perhaps the most famous line in Lear, "Ripeness is all" reflects "something of the ultimate value of this life" and the way Shakespeare reassures us "that Mastery of experience is a final good." A substantial essay examines this idea and explores it as well as its counter-arguments.
Of course, these essays represent only a fraction of the large number of critical interpretations available to readers. For further reading, the selected bibliography at the end of this volume will prove useful to all who wish to enhance the rich resources herein provided.
Each essay is 5,000 words in length, and all essays conclude with a list of "Works Cited," along with endnotes. Finally, the volume's appendixes offer a section of useful reference resources:
- Chronology of William Shakespeare's Life
- Works by Shakespeare