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King Lear Study Guide.

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King Lear

ABOUT THE PLAY

King Lear
By William Shakespeare
Directed by Kimberley Rampersad

House Program for King Lear

Grade Recommendation 8+

Content Advisory

Please see the show page for a detailed audience advisory.

Synopsis

The issue of succession is not confined to kings and queens. Every parent wishes to pass on some kind of legacy to their children, be it a business, a beloved home or even a family keepsake. How can our domestic kingdoms, no matter how modest, be divided amongst our children without showing favouritism or alienating a sibling? It is the same with love: how can we parcel out our deepest affections and loyalties without causing pain. In King Lear, Shakespeare elevates this domestic drama into grand tragedy, gifting us with one of world literature's greatest and most flawed characters, a ruler and a father "more sinned against sinning." 

Utterly exhausted by his decades-long reign over a quarrelsome kingdom, the elderly Lear announces his intention to divide his kingdom between his three daughters. The sisters' inheritance will be determined by their love for their father, which Lear commands them to express in the noblest phrases. Daughters Goneril and Regan flatter their father's wishes, but Cordelia, unable to express her deep filial love, remains silent. For her reticence, Cordelia is banished. Hardly has the crown left Lear's head when his imperious daughters humiliate him before the court that once bade him allegiance. Soon the conniving sisters fall prey to a master schemer: Edmund, the bastard son of Gloucester, who will stop at nothing to seize the power denied to him by his illegitimacy.  

Within this duel crisis of loyalty and succession-Gloucester has made an even more disastrous pledge to a deceitful offspring-Shakespeare artfully poses several metaphysical questions. Is cruelty and the lust for power simply an expression of Nature or is it unique to humanity? Why are we so inclined to choose illusion over what we know in our hearts is untrue? And are suffering and bitter experience the only paths to wisdom? The play's multi-layered language, vivid dramatic turns and broad cast of memorable characters offer multiple answers and interpretations for every human heart and every family.

Curriculum Connections

  • Global Competencies:
    • Citizenship, Collaboration, Communication, Critical Thinking, Creativity, Metacognition, Self-Awareness
  • Grade 8
    • The Arts (Drama, Music, Visual Arts)
    • Language
  • Grade 9-12
    • The Arts (Drama, Music, Visual Arts)
    • English
  • Grades 11-12
    • The Arts (Drama, Music, Visual Arts)
    • English
    • Social Sciences and Humanities

Themes

  • Aging and Ageism
  • Belonging
  • Children and Parents
  • Death and the Meaning of Life
  • Deception and Disguise
  • Exclusion and Inclusion
  • The "Great Chain of Being"
  • Family Relationships
  • The Fragility and Importance of Memory
  • Inheritance and Legacy
  • Madness and Reason
  • Power and Leadership
  • Redemption and Forgiveness
  • Wisdom and Ignorance
  • Worthiness

 

DISCUSSION AND REFLECTION QUESTIONS

PRE-SHOW QUESTIONS

  • What makes a family?
  • Who has the most power in a family? Does that change depending on the situation or the family? Does it change over time? How have power dynamics in families changed over the last many generations?
  • Think about your relationships with the Elders in your life. What are the joys? What are the challenges?
  • Do you believe that Elders are valued in our society? Why or why not?
  • How do you show your love for the important people in your life? In what ways do you most appreciate being shown that you are loved?
  • How do your cultural or personal values and beliefs affect your understanding of love and how it should be expressed?
  • Why do parents and children misunderstand or disagree with each other?
  • Why is it difficult to repair family bonds when they are broken?
  • Have you ever changed your words or actions in order to appease someone? If so, how did that feel?
  • What does legacy mean to you? Do you think this will change as you grow older? Why or why not?
  • How do you think the experience of seeing a theatrical production of King Lear might differ from reading the play or watching a film adaptation?

POST-SHOW QUESTIONS

  • King Lear contains more references to animals and the natural world than any other play by William Shakespeare. Why do you believe this might be? What role did nature play in the production? 
  • What does this play suggest about the role of memory in shaping our sense of self and identity?
  • What can this play tell us about our relationships and responsibilities to the Elders in our lives?
  • Why do you think Cordelia chooses to behave so differently from her sisters? Do you agree with her decision-making?
  • What are the differences between each of King Lear's daughters? What might each of them represent in the world of the play?
  • Are there any unintentional harms that might be caused through the production of this play? If so, what are they and what might be done to take care of the artists and audience members participating in the work?
  • What did you think of how Blindness was explored and represented in the play? Did it resonate with contemporary understandings?
  • In what ways does the Fool serve as a voice of reason and truth in the play? How does he challenge Lear's decisions and actions, and what impact does this have on the story as a whole?
  • Which character did you feel most sympathy for and why?

MINDS ON

Objective: Students will examine clues in Shakespeare's language that reveal similarities and differences between King Lear's three daughters.

Materials: Printed copies of the excerpt from Act 1, Scene 1, writing materials (in a variety of colours), whiteboard/flipchart and markers.

Directions:

  • Begin by introducing the scene and its context, explaining that King Lear is considering dividing his kingdom among his daughter based on their declarations of love for him. He asks that question of each of his daughters: "Which of you shall we say doth love us most?"
  • Divide the class into small groups, assigning each group one of the daughters: Goneril, Regan or Cordelia.
  • Ask each group to read their assigned daughter's response to King Lear's question aloud.
  • Then, invite them to respond to the following questions.
    • How does your character begin their response?
    • How do they address their father?
    • Does your character reference any other characters in the play?
    • Did you notice any particular tactics used in their response?
  • Invite each group to circle any images used in their character's text using the following legend:
    • In green, circle the images with positive connotations.
    • In red, circle the images with negative connotations.
    • Note the commonalities between the images that the character chooses to use.
  • Once each groups has had a chance to read and analyze their assigned passage, reconvene as a larger group.
  • Ask each group to share their findings with the larger group.
  • Encourage students to think critically about the language used by the characters, and how it reflects their personalities and motivations.
  • Facilitate a discussion about the significance of these differences and similarities, and how they might contribute to the overall themes and conflicts in the play.

Possible Extensions:

  • Thou and You
    • Looking at the entire excerpt form Act 1, Scene 1 and, using two different colours, identify where each of the following appears:
      • thou/thee/thy
      • you/your/yours
    • Then explore who uses thou/thee/thy and who uses you/your/yours. When do they use each of them?
    • When Shakespeare was writing, a formal hierarchal class system was prevalent and the uses of thou/thee/thy or you/your/yours indicated distinctions of interpersonal relationships as well as social class:
You/Your/Yours Thou/Thee/Thy
 To people of a lower class   To people of a higher class 
 To social equals (lower class)   To social equals (upper class) 
 In private   In public 
 To express familiarity or intimacy   To express formality of neutrality 
 To show scorn or contempt   To show respect or admiration 

 

  • These characters speak with purpose and choose when to use which words. What do you think their choices might tell us about their relationships in each moment?
  • Are there any comparable uses of language today?
  •  Venn Diagram
    • Use a whiteboard or flip chart to create a Venn diagram, with one circle for Goneril, one for Regan, and one for Cordelia.
    • Ask the class to identify and similarities or differences between the tactics used by the three sisters, and add them to the appropriate section of the diagram.

 

  • Debriefing Questions:
    • Was Lear's request to his daughters fair? Why or why not?
    • Why do you think that Cordelia responded to her father's request in the way that she did? If this ultimatum was presented to you, what would you do?
    • Do you think the sisters would have responded differently if their conversation was their father had been private rather than public? Why or why not?
    • What did you learn about the language used in the scene? What might this tell us about the future of these characters in the play?
    • Think about a time when you wanted to peruse someone with whom you were speaking. Which tactics do you think you used in your language to accomplish your goal? Did the tactics work? What do you think the reason was for them to work or not work?

 

 

CONNECTION TO THE ARCHIVES

Paul Gross, who is also a well-known screen actor, scriptwriter and director, will be playing the title role in the 2023 production of King Lear. He appeared in the title role in Hamlet at the Stratford Festival more than 20 years ago.

If you could play two titular Shakespeare characters over the course of your life, which would you choose and why?

 

Paul Gross as Hamlet in Hamlet, 2000

Paul Gross as Hamlet in Hamlet, 2000. Directed by Joseph Ziegler. Designed by Christina Poddubiuk. Lighting design by Louise Guinand. Sound design by Jim Neil. Photograph by Cylla von Tiedemann. Stratford Festival Archives, GPO.2000.006.0002

The Stratford Festival's Archives maintains, conserves and protects records about the Festival and makes those materials available to people around the world. Their collection contains material ranging from 1952 right up to the present and includes administrative documents, production records, photographs, design artwork, scores, audio-visual recordings, promotional materials, costumes, props, set decorations and much more. These materials are collected and preserved with the aim of documenting the history of the Festival, preserving the page-to-stage process, and capturing the creative processes involved in numerous other activities that contribute to the Festival each season.  

In addition to visiting the Archives in person, you can explore a selection of their holdings via their online catalogue.

 

RESOURCES

TrailerKing Lear
House Program - King Lear
Study Guide PDF - King Lear

Study Guides

View past Study Guides and Study Guides for all 2023 plays, available free of charge on our website.

ADDITIONAL RESOURCES

1606: The Year of Lear (James Shapiro)

2023 Shakespeare Lecture - The Hardness of King Lear: Kimberley Rampersad and Paul Gross in Conversation (McGill University)

Anti-Racist Shakespeare: King Lear- Shakespeare & Race, 2022 (Shakespeare's Globe)

Approaching Shakespeare: King Lear (University of Oxford)

PerformancePlus: King Lear (Stratford Festival) 

Thou and You in Shakespeare (Dr. Mark Womack)

"Unaccommodated Man": Dismodernism and Disability Justice in King Lear (Christine M. Gottlieb, Disability Studies Quarterly)

Stratford Public Library Suggested Reading List for King Lear

Booking Information: Tickets, Workshops, Chats and Tours

Student Matinées

You may book any available date, but selected student matinée performances for this show are at 2:00 p.m. on the following dates:

  • Thursday, April 27th
  • Tuesday, May 2nd
  • Wednesday, May 10th
  • Monday, May 15th
  • Wednesday, May 24th
  • Thursday, June 8th
  • Wednesday, June 14th
  • Tuesday, June 20th
  • Thursday, September 7th
  • Wednesday, September 13th
  • Thursday, September 21st
  • Wednesday, September 27th
  • Tuesday, October 3rd
  • Thursday, October 12th
  • Thursday, October 19th 
  • Wednesday, October 25th
  • Friday, October 27th

Workshop & Chats

Pre or Post-Show Workshops and Post-Show Chats (virtual, onsite or at your school/centre) can be booked by calling the Box Office at 1.800.567.1600.

TOOLS FOR TEACHERS SPONSORED BY

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Tools for Teachers include Prologues, Study Guides and Stratford Shorts.       


 PROUD SEASON PARTNERS 

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PRODUCTION SUPPORT FOR KING LEAR IS GENEROUSLY PROVIDED BY CATHERINE & DAVID WILKES.