Sample Questions

  1. The ending of King Lear has been described as totally pessimistic. How far do you agree?

Reasons why it is pessimistic:

Although Regan, Goneril and Edmund die, is this sufficient retribution for the tide of suffering they have created? The tone of the whole play is dominated by evil. Throughout the play there is an absence of the gods or any divine framework (Line 230 Act V) that may help to make sense of the tragedy of so many unnecessary deaths (note that Kent fades just as the Fool did "break heart….") and the breakdown of two (imperfect) families. Cordelia’s death seems totally futile and utterly destroys Lear whose death itself is full of pathos.

Gloucester’s death seems unnecessary and his suffering has been needless and undeserved. Edgar is not convincing ("The Gods are just….Line 160, Act V) yet there is great deal of pathos in his description "O fault!…." (L.183, Act V)

The final, saddening scene dominates the whole of Act V and its relation to the rest of the play is somewhat disjointed – it does not necessarily reflect the world the play inhabits.

Reasons why it isn’t pessimistic:

There is the triumph of Edgar over Edmund, which is symbolic especially because they forgive each other. Is Edmund humanised by his brother’s description of their father’s death?

Goneril and Regan destroy one-another which is also symbolic i.e. evil inevitably destroys evil. Their cruelty has won them nothing. There are moments of hope and joy for Lear and Cordelia ("we two will sing like birds i’th’cage"). Prison in Lear’s terms seems to be a more desirable place than the court. There is genuine beauty of imagery at the play’s close. The survival of this joy depends on them remaining together, their reconciliation partly dominates the tone of the ending. It is bittersweet and contradictory just as Gloucester’s death is when his heart "burst smilingly". It does seem that death is a release for both Lear and Gloucester (L. 287-289).

Edgar and Albany will the "gored state sustain" and it is possible that Edgar’s final speech show he has learnt from experience and will govern well.

2) Discuss the treatment of love in King Lear

There is the love test at the beginning of the play – a paternal / filial love is confused with materialism "Which of you shall say doth love us most" / "That we our largest bounty may extend". There is a great deal of imagery associated with materialism such as Lear haggling over his retinue and the inherent contradictions such as "a third more opulent" – surely a third is a third so there is a redundancy of language. There is materialism within words: they are a tangible measurement of love. Cordelia’s "nothing my lord" proves a real love which is sincere and cannot be measured by words in contrast to her sister’s speeches.

Love seems to be displayed in loyalty and duty. Gloucester and Lear are shallow, concerned by their status. However, the King’s Fool is loyal and Kent who lacks recognition by Lear still remains by his side so love for them is connected to fidelity.

Love is also portrayed as quite pessimistic: it is reduced to nothing. This can be found in Cordelia’s death, Kent going within his "master" towards death etc. It seems that there is not place on earth for true love even Cornwall’s servant dies when trying to help Gloucester.

There is a great deal of lust within the play: the sisters’ towards their husbands is based on territory and materialism.

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