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Examination Questions on King Lear

Question: What is your idea of the aim and lesson of the play?

Answer: Shakespeare sets life before us in all its phases, working free from restraint, and leaves us to estimate the truth as it is. When we ask the question: Where shall the love, the fidelity, and the courage which have closed the breaches in the moral world find their recompense? there can be but one answer: "Only in the life to come and in the consciousness that the struggle has borne valuable, if bitter, fruit in this life." Again, shall justice be content with the defeat and death of the instigators of this vast rebellion in nature? The moral points to a harder, more enduring punishment.

The old Roman idea of virtue consisting of courage, honesty, patriotism, and energy was very good; but Shakespeare sees something higher and nobler in the Christian principles, self-sacrifice, forgiveness of injuries, loving of enemies, faith, and charity. Engrafting these principles upon a blind idolatry, Shakespeare has endeavored to show us what life would be if man were free from the restraints which education in the modern sense of that term and Christianity put upon him, to show how, left to himself, he would develop the active powers of his nature, and the consequences of the free expansion of intellect, sensibility, and will. He has demonstrated the problem of life with mathematical precision; but he leaves us to examine ourselves and the people and things around us for the application of the proposition which he sets before us.

We must find the lemmas and corollaries; and last, but not least, he leaves us to make for ourselves the deduction of the great life principle, which forms the axiom of life's comedies and tragedies. With the lesson of life before us in Cordelia, silently, lovingly, reverently pausing before its great mystery, but taking it firmly for better or for worse, would we spurn it because the event seems to be barren of result, nay, is even fraught with sorrow? Would we follow Lear, flapping like a caged bird against the world, which is too narrow for his unlimited desires? We turn shudderingly from his awful fate. Then, shall we seek in Edmund's course the happiness which the restless soul demands? No; there is more hope in Kent's farewell,
"I have a journey, sir, shortly to go;
My master calls me, I must not say no"
than in the death agony of Edmund's last words,
"The wheel is come full circle; I am here."
If it be true that "All friends shall taste the wages of their virtue, and all foes the cup of their deservings," we find in the lives of Edgar and of Albany the earliest fruition of "the hope that is in us."

This play is the one which, from the difficulties of the subject and the skill and power of its handling, best illustrates the strength, energy, and versatility of the author's genius. It is worked out in the spirit of the Gothic art, where no rule governs but that each of the parts be perfect and in mutual relation. The more the design is varied and the more magnificent the parts, the grander will be the structure. Hence it is that when the tragedy is ended, and we come back from life as seen by Shakespeare to life as it is before us, we feel that
"The oldest have borne most: we that are young
Shall never see so much, nor live so long."

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How to cite this article:
Williams, Maggie. Shakespeare Examinations. Ed. William Taylor Thom, M. A. Boston: Ginn and Co., 1888. Shakespeare Online. 10 Aug. 2010. (date when you accessed the information) < >.

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