Four tragedies - Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, Othello, the Moor of Venice, Macbeth and King Lear - David Bevington and David Scott Kastan 1988, 2005
Adelman, Janet. ed. Twentieth Century Interpretations of “King Lear.” Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1978. Adelman offers a useful anthology of modern criticism of the play, including commentary by C. L. Barber, L. C. Knights, Kenneth Muir, Phyllis Rackin, and her own valuable introductory essay, as well as interpretations, considered below, by Booth, Bradley, Cavell, Danby, Mack, and Rosenberg.
Alpers, Paul. “King Lear and the Theory of the ’Sight Pattern.’ ” In In Defense of Reading: A Reader’s Approach to Literary Criticism, ed. Reuben A. Brower and Richard Poirier. New York: E. P. Dutton, 1962. Responding to the critical commonplace that the play’s pattern of “sight imagery” traces a movement toward moral insight, Alpers argues that the recurring language of vision is used not metaphorically but literally to suggest human relationships and moral obligations. Eyes are important in King Lear because they permit recognition, because they weep, and because in their fragility they reveal the human vulnerability that is preyed upon in the play.
Booth, Stephen. “On the Greatness of King Lear.” “King Lear,” “Macbeth,” Indefinition, and Tragedy. New Haven, Conn.: Yale Univ. Press, 1983. For Booth the play’s “greatness” lies as much in its length on stage as in the depth and power of its artistic vision. King Lear forces an audience to experience the play in ways that reflect the characters’ experience of events, as a shocking confrontation with cruelty in the face of the persistent promise—and failure—of order and resolution.
Bradley, A. C. “King Lear.” Shakespearean Tragedy, 1904. Rpt., New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1985. In a seminal essay, Bradley finds that the play confronts us with the rending image of the destruction of good by evil, a pattern true to the tragic facts of life but balanced by the assertion that adversity purges and purifies. Evil is powerful in the play but it is “merely destructive,” Bradley says, as the play suggests that life is valuable and must be faced patiently.
Cavell, Stanley. “The Avoidance of Love: A Reading of King Lear.” Must We Mean What We Say? A Book of Essays. New York: Scribner’s, 1969. Cavell’s richly suggestive essay argues that the play’s tragic action is motivated by characters’ efforts to evade the threat of exposure and self-revelation. Lear’s elaborate ritual in Act 1, Cornwall’s blinding of Gloucester, Edgar’s disguise and delay in abandoning it, and Lear’s renunciation in Act 5 are each modulations of the play’s characteristic action: the avoidance of recognition that is for Cavell the essence of the tragic experience.
Colie, Rosalie L., and F. T. Flahiff, eds. Some Facets of “King Lear”: Essays in Prismatic Criticism. Toronto: Univ. of Toronto Press, 1974. This collection of twelve essays on King Lear is designed, as its title suggests, to respond to various aspects of a play that resists any single critical approach. Among the interesting contributions are Bridget Gellert Lyons’s study of the subplot “as simplification” of the mystery of Lear’s experience; Rosalie Colie’s account of the contemporary social tensions articulated by the play; and Sheldon P. Zitner’s analysis of language itself as one of King Lear’s central thematic concerns.
Danby, John F. Shakespeare’s Doctrine of Nature: A Study of “King Lear.” London: Faber and Faber, 1949. King Lear, according to Danby, dramatizes the conflict between opposing concepts of nature: one, articulated by Elizabethans such as Richard Hooker, assumes that nature is orderly, rational, and benign; the other, voiced in the play by Edmund, envisions nature as amoral, aggressive, and unrelated to any providential plan. Danby’s intellectual history and his tracing of the theme of nature through the play and through Shakespeare’s career discover behind the play’s tragic tension an ultimately Christian view of the world and society.
Dollimore, Jonathan. “King Lear (c. 1605—6) and Essentialist Humanism.” Radical Tragedy: Religion, Ideology, and Power in the Drama of Shakespeare and His Contemporaries. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1984. Arguing against responses to King Lear that find the experience of suffering redemptive, Dollimore believes the play’s tragedy stems from the fact that human values (such as pity or justice) are dependent upon material realities (such as power and property). Only through his powerlessness does Lear come to feel the deprivations of others, but, Dollimore argues, pity born of powerlessness cannot redeem either Lear or his society.
Elton, William R. “King Lear” and the Gods. San Marino, Calif.: Huntington Library, 1966. Challenging optimistic Christian readings of King Lear, Elton explores both the complex religious climate of Renaissance Europe and the play’s sources and structure. Elton finds in the play a provocative ambiguity that permits spectators to discover in its grim spectacle either an example of the failure of pagan ethics or an image of the crisis of faith that marked the late Renaissance.
Empson, William. “Fool in Lear.” Sewanee Review 57 (1949): 177—214. Rpt. in The Structure of Complex Words. New York: New Directions, 1951. In his characteristically provocative manner, Empson explores the various meanings of the word “fool” in the play. The ambiguities that surround the word lead Empson to a sense of the play’s horror: Lear makes a fool of himself but in so doing reveals the folly of God and Nature. If there is an effective religious dimension of the play, Empson would locate it in Lear’s relation to the tradition of the Holy Fool defined by Erasmus and Thomas More, though it is less for Lear’s wisdom than for his endurance that we admire him.
Frye, Northrop. Fools of Time: Studies in Shakespearean Tragedy, pp. 103—121. Toronto: Univ. of Toronto Press, 1967. King Lear, according to Frye, articulates two versions of tragedy. Gloucester moves through terrible suffering to serenity as the violated moral order is validated and restored. Lear’s experience is less explicable: his abdication isolates him from his social context, forcing a radical questioning of identity that ends in anguish and absurdity. The play’s ultimate meaning, Frye finds, rests not in what characters learn but in what we learn by participating in their experience.
Goldman, Michael. “The Worst of King Lear.” Shakespeare and the Energies of Drama. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton Univ. Press, 1972. Goldman explores the play’s relentless intensification of suffering and degradation—the succession of savage shocks that demand from characters and audience efforts to make the horror bearable. Goldman shows the failure of these attempts to rationalize and contain the suffering, while he acknowledges their necessity: King Lear will not allow us to turn away from its pain, permitting us only the consolation of the discovery of the bond between ourselves and suffering humanity.
Hawkes, Terence. William Shakespeare: “King Lear.” Plymouth: Northcote House, 1995. Hawkes’s short, lively introduction to the play is less a systematic account of the play as a whole than a series of acute observations about crucial issues raised by the play, understood as both a text born in the particularities of Shakespeare’s time and one that subsequent ages have returned to again and again, discovering their own interests in it.
Hazlitt, William. “Lear.” Characters of Shakespeare’s Plays, 1817. Rpt., London: Oxford Univ. Press, 1966. Hazlitt regards King Lear as “the best of all Shakespeare’s plays” because of its powerful presentation of the passions that are its subject. King Lear balances its sense of the enormity of evil by exciting a desire for the goodness that has been destroyed; but, for Hazlitt, the play’s achievement finally resists formulation: “To attempt to give a description of the play itself, of its effects upon the mind, is mere impertinence: yet we must say something.”
Heilman, Robert B. This Great Stage: Image and Structure in “King Lear,” 1948. Rpt., Seattle: Univ. of Washington Press, 1963. In a book that was the first full-length New Critical study of a Shakespearean play, Heilman explores in detail the iterative language of sight, clothing, sex, and madness. In King Lear’s recurring patterns of imagery Heilman discovers its complex tragic awareness of both the reality of evil and the possibilities and value of goodness.
Johnson, Samuel. “King Lear.” Johnson on Shakespeare, ed. Arthur Sherbo. The Yale Edition of the Works of Samuel Johnson, vol. 8. New Haven and London: Yale Univ. Press, 1969. Johnson’s justly famous comments on the play defend the double plot as part of its “chief design” and respond to the question of its excessive cruelty. Johnson justifies the behavior of Regan and Goneril as “historical fact” but, approving Tate’s revision (see below), he finds the death of Cordelia shocking: “I know not whether I ever endured to read again the last scenes of the play till I undertook to revise them as an editor.”
Kott, Jan. “King Lear or Endgame.” Shakespeare Our Contemporary, trans. Boleslaw Taborski. Garden City, N.Y., Doubleday, 1964. Kott argues that the play is “grotesque” rather than tragic, since the tragic experience is located in an absurd universe where choice is irrelevant and defeat unavoidable. The play dramatizes the decay of the social order and offers no hope of healing or consolation. Only the Fool, in Kott’s view, fully sees the absurdity of the world, and Lear comes finally to share his disillusioned vision.
Kronenfeld, Judy. King Lear and the Naked Truth: Rethinking the Language of Religion and Resistance. Durham, NC and London: Duke Univ. Press, 1998. Focusing on the play’s images of clothing and nakedness and how these relate to religious and political issues of the period, Kronenfeld explores the play’s ethical concerns and strategies, as well as considers the theoretical question of how to do responsible historical readings.
Leggatt, Alexander. “King Lear”: Shakespeare in Performance. Manchester: Manchester Univ. Press, 1991. Leggatt’s short but useful performance history begins with a section on “Problems and Choices,” which discusses the challenges the play poses to directors and actors. It then offers sustained accounts of many of the major productions of the twentieth century, from Lewis Casson and Harley Granville-Barker’s at the Old Vic (with Gielgud as Lear) in 1940 to Michael Elliott’s televised version (with Olivier as Lear) in 1983.
Mack, Maynard. “King Lear” in Our Time. Berkeley and Los Angeles: Univ. of California Press, 1965. Mack, in a brief but influential study, considers King Lear’s stage history, its literary and imaginative sources, and its modernity. Mack’s analysis reveals that King Lear resists the sentimentality either of Christian readings that would transfigure the play’s suffering or of the nihilism that finds only imbecility in the play’s world. For Mack, Lear’s tragic experience agonizingly measures what human beings can both lose and win.
Rosenberg, Marvin. The Masks of “King Lear.” Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1972. Proceeding through the play scene by scene, Rosenberg combines critical analysis and theatrical history to explore the possibilities of meaning presented by the play. By surveying the interpretations of actors, directors, and critics, Rosenberg discovers that only in the theater is the full complexity of the play’s design organized and experienced.
Tate, Nahum. The History of King Lear (1681), ed. James Black. Lincoln, Neb.: Univ. of Nebraska Press, 1975. Tate’s Restoration adaptation of King Lear rejects Shakespeare’s tragic denouement in favor of a happy ending in which Lear survives and Cordelia lives to marry Edgar. The play’s commitment to poetic justice, as virtue is rewarded and vice punished, has been derided, but its theatrical success (keeping Shakespeare’s original version off the stage until 1823) reveals something profound both about changes in taste and about the horrific power of Shakespeare’s tragic design.
Taylor, Gary, and Michael Warren, eds. The Division of the Kingdoms: Shakespeare’s Two Versions of “King Lear.” Oxford: Clarendon Press; New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1983. The essays here are devoted to the thesis that the text of King Lear in the First Folio of 1623 represents Shakespeare’s revision of an earlier design rather than an imperfect version that must be corrected and supplemented by readings from the 1608 quarto. Contributors examine both the bibliographic and critical evidence for the theory that the two texts of King Lear are each unified and coherent versions of the play.
Warren, Michael J., ed. William Shakespeare: The Parallel “King Lear,” 1608—1623. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1989. Warren provides an important edition of the play, organized so that the two authoritative Lear texts (the Quarto of 1608 and the Folio text of 1623), with their substantial and significant differences, can be easily seen and compared.