King Lear (Arden Shakespeare Third Series)

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William Shakespeare edited by R.A. Foakes

DOI: 10.5040/9781408160268.00000006
Acts: 5. Scenes: 24. Roles: Male (13) , Female (3) , Neutral (0)

King Lear is an anguished tragedy of man’s cruelty to man. The play is extremely rich, encompassing every level of society and the extremes of emotion in the human experience. The play is shaken by a radical instability that is political and existential – a vast backdrop to the figure of the mad king, broken by politic flattery and injustice, howling into the wind.

In King Lear, family relations are continually called into question, as the text is concerned with the strength of blood in determining loyalty. The play itself has a corresponding plot and subplot, wherein Lear’s relationship with his three daughters, Goneril, Regan, and Cordelia, is mirrored in Gloucester’s relationship with sons Edmund and Edgar.

Critics have commonly focused on the juxtaposition of Edmund, Regan, and Goneril’s valuation of power, property, and inheritance, with Cordelia and Edgar’s familial devotion. The characters assess the importance of family by different means, but they are not immediately ‘greedy’ or ‘moral’, as a result. Moreover, the strain of kinship in the text can be seen as a transition from an old order to a new one; the younger generation is at ideological odds with their elders, explaining their difficulty to connect with one another.

King Lear is thought to have been composed in 1605-6. Two, exceedingly different versions of the play text survive: the Quarto of 1608 and the First Folio of 1623. The choices of the Arden text rely mainly on the Folio, but the editor has also included lines from the Quarto which are not found in the Folio, and has thoughtfully explained such textual variations.