KING LEAR STUDY GUIDE

THE PLAY

Who Is Shakespeare?

William Shakespeare was born in the small town of Stratford-upon-Avon, Warwickshire, England, in 1564. The exact date of his birth is unknown, but today it is celebrated on April 23, which is the date of his death and, based on the record of his baptism, may very well also have been his birthday. Shakespeare's father was John Shakespeare, a glover, and his mother was Mary Arden, the daughter of a wealthy farmer.

Shakespeare probably attended what is now the Edward VI Grammar School. At age 18 he married a farmer's daughter, Anne Hathaway, with whom he had three children: Susanna, born in 1583, and, two years later, the twins Hamnet (who died in childhood) and Judith. 

Nothing more is known of his life until 1592, when his earliest known play, the first part of Henry VI, became a hit in London, where Shakespeare had gone (without his family) to work as an actor.

Soon afterwards, an outbreak of the plague forced theatres to close temporarily, and Shakespeare turned for a while to writing poetry. By 1594 he was back in the theatre, acting with the Lord Chamberlain's Men. He quickly established himself as one of London's most successful dramatists, with an income that enabled him, in 1597, to buy a mansion back in Stratford. In 1599 he became a shareholder in London's newly built Globe Theatre. In 1603, Shakespeare's company was awarded a royal patent, becoming known as the King's Men.

Possibly as early as 1610, the playwright retired to his home in Stratford-upon-Avon, living there and continuing to invest in real estate until his death on April 23, 1616. He is buried in the town's Holy Trinity Church.

In the first collected edition of his works in 1623, fellow playwright Ben Jonson called him a man "not of an age, but for all time." Not only did Shakespeare write some of the most popular plays of all time, but he was a very prolific writer, writing at least thirty-eight works in twenty-three years. Shakespeare enjoyed great popularity in his lifetime, and 450 years later, he is still the most produced playwright in the world. 

Have you noticed that Shakespeare's plays usually have a lot of characters? It's true, and it can sometimes feel daunting to figure out who's who. It's helpful to understand that the characters often come in groups, with different groups being featured in different parts of the plot.

Scroll below to meet some of these memorable characters and hear a few of their emblematic lines.

THE PRODUCTION

A Family to Which We All Belong

Director's notes by Antoni Cimolino 

"Love cools, friendship falls off, brothers divide: in cities, mutinies; in countries, discord; in palaces, treason." - 1.2
"Is there any cause in nature that makes these hard hearts?" - Act III, scene 6


King Lear documents not only the breakdown of an old king and the destruction of two families but that of an entire country - and by extension, the society we live in today. The play was written in tough times, with growing religious tensions, rapid economic changes that drove extreme income disparity, great divisions between king and parliament that would lead a generation to civil war and end in the beheading of a monarch. In 1606, the play was on some level prophetic. Sadly, perhaps, it always will be. There are many similarities to the world we live in today. In western society, people under forty years old can be forgiven for suspecting that their parents have mortgaged their future. Being young and finding work has seldom been harder; debt levels will take years to be reduced, while an enormous generation of baby boomers will require more expensive medical care. The baby boomers themselves have parents who at eighty or ninety are having knees and other body parts replaced. The generational tension of King Lear speaks to us today as never before. And if we can lose patience and empathy with one's own family members, what hope is there for the poor whom we do not know?

Homelessness is a fact that my children's generation has witnessed and now takes for granted. To me in my youth it was almost the stuff of legend; one only saw "hobos" in Halloween costumes. How has this change come to be so accepted? Lear himself is shocked to discover the homeless poor and in the storm admits, "I have ta'en / Too little care of this."

As a play, King Lear is not simply bleak. It shows us characters who discover true empathy for others and enter a bigger world where they are members of a larger human family. Giving money to someone he thinks is a homeless man but who is actually his son, the nobleman Gloucester admits his own sins when he says, "Let the superfluous and lust-dieted man / That slaves your ordinance, that will not see / Because he does not feel, feel your power quickly; / So distribution should undo excess, / And each man have enough." 

That thought could have come from many of our greatest religious leaders. It could also have come from Karl Marx. But as we hear Gloucester say, "each man have enough," we all think: how much is enough? That is one question the With its criticism of religion, economic justice and the monarchy, it would have been a sure ticket to the Tower of London. play examines, as it is filled with people who try to quantify things. The king asks which of his daughters loves him most so he can reward her with the largest inheritance. Arithmetic is everywhere. The play is about the division of a kingdom, the additions of a king, his subtractors, and about becoming "nothing." Nothing. A zero without a figure in front of it. This mathematical idea of zero, of nothing, was still new and exciting to European thought in 1606. That you could have 3, 2, 1, 0, -1, -2, -3 was strange. It was difficult to imagine that something could exist yet be invisible. Like the homeless. Lear becomes such a thing.

For Shakespeare to have overtly written King Lear about his own time, circa 1606, would have invited disaster. With its criticism of religion, economic justice and the monarchy, it would have been a sure ticket to the Tower of London. Instead, he chose a story from the earliest time period of any of his plays - 800 BCE - and gave it a language that, despite many anachronisms, suggests a distant past. I have set this production in Shakespeare's own time. It now supports his language of a time past, yet points to the birth of the modern age and the world we live in today. It is ironic that his own time, the very period in which he couldn't set the play, now ideally suits it.

In directing King Lear, I have urged our actors and creative teams to think about the issues it raises for us today. In his journey through madness, Lear finds the need for social justice, faith in humanity, and love, and thereby discovers his soul. But in his and Cordelia's death, the horror around him, there is no victory for hope. The last words are "We that are young / Shall never see so much, nor live so long." Perhaps Shakespeare was inviting us - and especially those who are young - to write a different play within our own lives, that of our families and one world.

LESSON PLANS

THE PLACE

The Stratford Adventure

This 1954 Oscar-nominated film follows the founding of the Festival: how the idea grew, how a famous British director, international stars and Canadian talent were recruited, and how the Festival finally became a triumphant reality.

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Produced with the generous participation of: Laura Dinner and Richard Rooney, The Jenkins Family Foundation, The Henry White Kinnear Foundation, Ophelia and Mike Lazaridis, Jim and Sandra Pitblado, The Slaight Family Foundation, Robert and Jacqueline Sperandio.

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