Teaching Shakespeare!

A Folger Education Blog

Exploring "King Lear" as a Reader, Teacher, and Audience Member

King Lear
King Lear, 1874. Folger Shakespeare Library.

By Dan Bruno

King Lear, in its embodiment of the horrors of human existence, is the black hole at the center of the Shakespearean tragic universe, drawing in any sense of light and hope and keeping it from escaping.

The big questions at the center of this play challenge us as human beings to confront a difficult truth: namely, that love is the source of Lear’s evil.

None of the deeper thinking that this post hopefully represents would have been possible without the resources the Folger Shakespeare Library offers. I arrived at the library on a Thursday morning and did some research in the library.

That night, I attended the engaging performance of King Lear put on by the Globe Theatre. The next day, I was part of a teaching workshop on the play. As you read the rest of this, consider that in a two-day period, I watched the play, researched the play, and learned about the play in a single place.

I first started my Lear thinking while I was under the streets of DC, in the stacks at the Folger, looking up and down the lengthy corridor for resources on a different project, when I came across the section on King Lear and began leafing through the books on the shelf.

This play makes a mockery of love. There are traditionally three types of love: the erotic (eros), the filial (philos), and the transcendent (agape).

In Lear, the erotic love is embodied by some of the least admirable characters in the play: Goneril, Regan, Cornwall, and Edmund. Until Cornwall’s death, Regan and he have a sexual relationship based on a mutual interest in cruelty.

In fact, I sometimes get the sense that Regan and Cornwall would be better cast in an episode of Criminal Minds featuring a pair of serial killing sexual sadists. Goneril, once she casts off the far more virtuous Albany, lusts after Edmund, poster child for violence, deception, and general psychopathy. Regan, once Cornwall meets his end, lusts after Edmund for the same reasons.

The filial gets similar treatment: the relationships between siblings here bear no resemblance to those in Hallmark movie-of-the-week tear-jerkers. In fact, in Lear’s kingdom, being a sibling appears to be rather hazardous to one’s health. Who betrays Edgar? His brother. Who kills Edmund? His brother. Who kills Regan? Her sister. Who kills Cordelia? Her sisters.

The transcendent love of the parent for the child is where these cracks begin. The violence visited on the fathers Lear and Gloucester by their children shows the brokenness of parental love in Lear’s kingdom. Children are the products of the homes in which they live, and Lear seems to be just as capricious and violent as his two eldest daughters (I mean, who just decides that he is just going to give up the kingdom and split it in thirds).

Lear, when living with his eldest daughter, carouses and disrupts with the best of them. When Goneril complains, Lear roars, threatens, menaces. Gloucester, admittedly, seems to deserve his violence less, but we do not get to see much of how he treats Edmund outside of the first scene. He begrudgingly admits his part in Edmund’s birth, but also says that he loves both of his sons well while introducing Edmund to the King’s steward, Kent.

The violence of Lear’s kingdom was at the forefront of every scene of the performance the Globe company put on in the Folger theatre. As Lear carouses and disrupts Goneril’s household, he violently misuses Oswald in a way that almost makes him a sympathetic character.

Moreover, Joseph Marcell’s Lear never seems remorseful or repentant, even before he loses his mind. He does not deign to apologize to his daughter for his own unsavory behavior. Instead, he rages and rails, cursing her and wishing her infertile with such feeling that I actually pitied Goneril.

Then, of course, I remembered of whom we were speaking, so I got over it around Act 2. The performance really emphasized the misuse of love by showing how very absent it was in Lear’s kingdom.

Questions of love and love’s misuse in the play provide a rich vocabulary for high school students who are grappling with these same issues in their own lives. In pursuing the big questions in Lear, we do the kind of critical, rigorous thinking that’s at the heart of great teaching and learning.


Dan Bruno has been a high school English teacher for nine years. He has a Master of Education in Social Foundations of Education from the Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia. He also has a National Board Certification in Adolescent/Young Adult English/Language Arts. In July 2014, Dan was a participant in the Folger’s Teaching Shakespeare Institute. He currently lives in Pennsylvania with his wife and two sons. 


  • Interesting commentary.

    Of course, a key dimension of Gloucester’s failed epicureanism is his inability to recognize his own son’s handwriting, and consequent failure to identify the fact of Edmund’s forgery. This is a striking instance of what Marjorie Garber has termed the “ghostwriting” theme in the plays – a recurrent emphasis on the instability of texts that predates “postmodernism” by four centuries. These instabilities include, but are probably not limited to, mistaken belief in authorship (12th Night, Lear, etc.), texts that fail to arrive in a timely manner (R&J), and texts that fall into the wrong hands and precipitate prosecution for conspiracy and treason (history plays).

    For reasonably apparent reasons, the important role that letters and other texts play in the plays has been radically underestimated by most orthodox Shakespeareans. Despite the importance of Garber’s work, it has, so far as I am aware, been very largely ignored since publication in 1987.

  • Thank you for bringing the bit about the letters to the fore. I am always looking for some good scholarship to read and will track down this bit by Garber. I really love her work, so I am surprised that I have missed this one.

    • You are very welcome. You will find on further inquiry that from one point of view Shakespeare is entirely medieval in his orientation towards the written word. He prefers the presence of the speaker, and the written word is for him a substitute, a way to supply the lack of presence with an inferior substitute. Like Ben Jonson (see his grammar, p. 1) writing is for him an accidence, not a substance.

      Of course, ironically, the bard’s fictive letters also set the epistolary standard of the age, occurring in nearly every play in the canon and remaining among the most extraordinary samples of the genre extant from the age. He must have been closely attuned to the canonical advice of Angel Day’s 1586 letter writing manual.

      Strange how such a man never wrote a letter (based on surviving evidence) to anyone, or, perhaps better put, not one of the many correspondents we should think he must have had, bothered to ever keep a single letter that he wrote. Such are the accidents that keep happening to the ghostwriter.

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