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Examination Questions on King Lear

Question: What is the view of human society in King Lear? What the conflicting principles of human nature? The causes, destructive and conservative, of the prodigious upheaval in the play?

Answer: The scene of King Lear was laid in an age antecedent to any historical record of England. Eight hundred years before Christ, manners were in a crude state. Christianity, with its civilizing influence, has done much to guide men in their duties to one another. The principle of force then ruled men, and absolute power was one of the rights of the king or chief of a nation. Superstition took the place of religion, and the brightest minds were dimmed by its baleful influence.

The innate peculiarities of men found ample room to develop in the exercise of the functions which belonged to the individual. Climatic and other natural influences made our ancestors a daring, liberty-loving people; consequently we find woman occupying a position in which she is honored and protected. In King Lear we have every phase of political and religious life, from the despotic old Lear to the dependent on Gloucester, from positive skepticism to the utmost faith in divine supervision. The mistakes of the highest political authority, the extent to which absolute power may counteract benign influences and the idea of justice which dwells naturally in the mind of man, and the instability of a government convulsed by civil strife, have their causes traced and their development outlined in the disastrous effects of Lear's unreasonable course. In religion we may find particular examples of the forces which, today, are building or destroying, in the moral world, the beliefs arising from different apprehensions of the truth, the evil overwhelming the good and producing fruit after its kind.

Heathenism prevailed, and man worshipped his ideal type of nature, or, contemning the weakness of man's grandest efforts or ideas, turned in disgust from the creations of his intellect. We have Edgar firm and loyal in the course which he has marked out for himself, sustained by his faith that "the gods are just, and of our pleasant vices make instruments to plague us"; Gloucester shrinking from the ominous combination of circumstances which opened up the fate superstitiously accepted by himself; Kent striking right and left for the truth, which comes to him only by instinct; Edmund, with his keen, penetrating intellect, spurning the vile trust in Gloucester's capricious deity and turning in disgust from the apparently crushed truth of the nobler characters; Goneril and Regan daring fate to the worst; Albany exemplifying patient endurance; while Lear exemplifies parental affection and trust, and Cordelia embodies filial piety.

We have here duty clashing with interest, selfishness with disinterested love, ingratitude with trust, evil with good. In the end, it would seem as if the evil conquered and as if the struggle had been useless. The great mystery of life remains unsolved, and Shakespeare, writing in a Christian age under Christian influences, leaves us to infer the moral in a Christian spirit.


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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) < http://www.shakespeare-online.com/plays/kinglear/examq/mfourteen.html >.
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