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Shakespeare's King Lear - Success and EthicsShakespeare's King Lear - Success and Ethics


King Lear


Key characters

King Lear, king of Britain. His daughters are:

  • Cordelia (youngest).
  • Goneril (eldest).
  • Regan.

 Shakespeare's King Lear - Success and Ethics

Fun facts

  • King Lear is the only Shakespearean character to die on stage from emotional turmoil.
  • The play is famous for its analysis of people’s psychological problems.
  • A big influence on Apple's legendary boss, Steve Jobs (pictured right).


The story

King Lear (Ian Holm ,pictured right, in a 1998 BBC production) wants to:Shakespeare's King Lear - Success and Ethics

  • retire in his old age.
  • give his kingdom to his daughters that he thinks loves him most.

To his great annoyance, Cordelia, his youngest daughter, refuses to flatter him, unlike her two sisters, Goneril and Regan, who, therefore, inherit all his kingdom.

Then Cordelia agrees to marry the king of France.

The Earl of Gloucester’s illegitimate son, Edmund, tries to cheat Edgar, his eldest brother, out of his land by forging and revealing a letter explaining Edgar’s plan to kill his father.

Lear moves in with Goneril and then Regan, who both throw him out because of his rowdiness.

Genuinely mad and devastated by his daughters’ cruelty, he has nowhere to go, because Goneril and Regan now have his kingdom.

On a stormy night the Earl of Gloucester offers to have him. But Gloucester has his eyes gouged out by the Duke of Cornwall (Regan’s husband), after Edgar betrays Gloucester’s contact with the French.

The Duke of Cornwall is then killed by one of Gloucester’s servants.

Goneril’s marriage is falling apart. Her husband, the Duke of Albany, accuses her of cruelty to her father (Lear), and she falls in love with Edmund.Shakespeare's King Lear - Success and Ethics

Meanwhile Cordelia, leading a French army, has landed in Britain and is eventually reunited with Lear.

(Cordelia, on the right, is pictured with her two sisters in Gustav Pope's 1876 painting)

The blinded Earl of Gloucester has asked Edgar (disguised as a mad beggar) to take him to Dover to commit suicide. But Edgar saves him by arranging for him to fall off level ground, not a cliff.

Then Edgar kills Oswald, Goneril’s servant, who is delivering a love letter from Goneril to Edmund (plotting Albany's death, so they can marry) .

Disguised Edgar:

  • gives the letter to an enraged Duke of Albany (Goneril’s husband, remember).
  • demands to fight Edmund, his younger, illegitimate half-brother, after the battle with the French.

The English army, led by Goneril and Albany, win easily and Lear and Cordelia are captured and imprisoned. by Edmund who is killed by Edgar.

Edgar reveals his true identity, the Earl of Gloucester dies offstage from the shock of:

  • this joyous news. Shakespeare's King Lear - Success and Ethics
  • Edmund's dying confession of his plan to kill Albany and execute Lear and Cordelia.

Edmund's death prompts Goneril to kill herself after poisoning Regan for loving Edmund, too.

Albany fails to save Cordelia from execution.

Lear carries her body and dies, grief stricken (pictured right in James Barry's 1787 painting) .


Lessons on success and ethics

 Shakespeare's King Lear - Success and Ethics

1. Beware of self-delusion

Lear (Derek Jacobi, pictured right, in a 2011 production):

  • is tricked by Goneril and Regan.
  • takes a long time to realize that Cordelia is the only daughter who really loves him.

His lack of self-knowledge (see points 2 and 3) makes it impossible to:

  • truly understand other people.
  • accept other people’s good advice.

 Shakespeare's King Lear - Success and Ethics

2. Self-respect is vital

Lear loses his self-respect after his cruel rejection by Goneril and Regan.

He says:

“How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is to have a thankless child” 

It is only when he realizes his sins (see point 3) that he regains his self-respect.


3. Self-knowledge and self-control make you happy

Through madness and sadness, Lear is forced to

  • honestly look at himself.
  • see all his weaknesses (e.g. vanity, insensitivity and arrogance).

This teaches him the importance of:Shakespeare's King Lear - Success and Ethics

  • humility and love.
  • self-control (control of his desires).
  • forgiveness (particularly from Cordelia for his cruel treatment of her).

Without this self-knowledge, he tragically loses:

  • Cordelia.
  • his wealth, kingdom and sanity.

Lear (Ian McKellen, Gandalf in the Lord of the Ring films) is pictured right above with  Cordelia (Romola Garai) in a 2007 production


Shakespeare's King Lear - Success and Ethics

4. Life is difficult

Lear’s life is painful, as is the Earl of Gloucester’s, who suffers from:

  • betrayal by his son (Edmund).
  • blindness.
  • death (preventing his reconciliation with Edgar whom he wrongly thought had betrayed him).

“As flies to wanton boys, are we to the gods, they kill us for their sport”, Gloucester says, likening people to insignificant flies who are destroyed by the gods (like uncaring ,or wanton, boys).

 Shakespeare's King Lear - Success and Ethics

5. True love

Cordelia shows what true love should be:

  • selfless (putting others first).
  • kind, loyal and patient. Shakespeare's King Lear - Success and Ethics
  • forgiving (she forgives her father, despite his cruel rejection).
  • honest (she loses her share of Lear’s kingdom because she refuses to dishonestly flatter him).

 Lear and Cordelia are pictured right in William Blake's 1779 painting.


6. Think before you actShakespeare's King Lear - Success and Ethics

Lear proves the wisdom of:

  • thinking things through.
  • working out the consequences of your actions before doing anything.

His jester, Fool, also shows him the advantage of just looking at the essential facts, so that problems can be seen more clearly and so solved more easily.


7. Beware of deception

Edmund, Goneril and Regan are all Machiavellian

In other words, they:

  • exploit people for their own ends
  • give the superficial impression of goodness (which fooled Lear into giving his kingdom to Goneril and Regan).

 Shakespeare's King Lear - Success and Ethics

8. It is never too late to change

Lear finally redeems himself by accepting

  • his past ignorance and mistakes.
  • Cordelia’s love.

“Pray you now, forget and forgive. I am old and foolish”, he tells her.


9. “Nothing will come of nothing”

Lear says this to Cordelia, meaning that she will get nothing (i.e. no share of his kingdom), if she does nothing (her refusal to flatter him).

 Shakespeare's King Lear - Success and Ethics

10. Preserve what’s good when improving

People often screw things up trying to make them better.

“Striving to better, oft we mar what’s well”, says the Duke of Albany.



Key quotes on relationships

I am a man more sinned against than sinning, Lear.


Key quotes on family

How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is to have a thankless child, Lear.


Key quotes on success

As flies to wanton boys, are we to the gods, they kill us for their sport, Earl of Gloucester.

Nothing will come of nothing, Lear.


Key quote on influencing people

Have more than thou showest, speak less than thou knowest, lend less than thou owest, Fool.


Key quote on quality

Striving to better, oft [often] we mar what’s well, Duke of Albany.


Key quote on change

The wheel is come full circle, Edmund (the first use of the modern phrase, ‘things come full circle’).


Key quote on ethics

The gods are just and of our pleasant vices make instruments to scourge us, Edgar.

Forget and forgive, Lear (to Cordelia).


Key quote on decision making

The art of our necessities is strange and can make vile things precious, Lear.


Key quote on communication

Mend your speech a little, lest it mar your fortunes, Lear


Key quote on society

Humanity must perforce prey on itself like monsters of the deep, Duke of Albany

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