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Approaching the Play

King Lear gives us a grim story through startling poetry.  But it tells us neither how we must feel about it or how we must think about it.  If anything, its closing moments of quiet hysteria deny just that power to the play itself.  Edgar says, “the weight of these sad times we must obey,” not “the meaning of these sad times.”  This section hopes to provoke your development of meanings from the play.  No such meaning can be fully separated from how you already think and feel about things.  But some formal guidance may still be helpful.  We offer three general categories of explorations: ways of seeing; thematic questions; and how to connect King Lear with other things.

Lear Mourning the Death of Cordelia
After Chagall
By Chuck Rose at

Very few works of literature attempt the range of thoughts, problems, and circumstances we find in King Lear.  And not many of those leave the range of thoughts, problems, and circumstances so open-ended.  Indeed, the play is in many ways a study in purposeful confusion, one of the reasons it seems so modern.  But confusion is not the end of the play; it is the beginning of understanding it in our terms.  At the end Edgar, addressing the audience, says, “speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.”  We may take this as two demands upon us: one, to interpret, to find a meaning among its confusions; and two, to do so freely and honestly.   We are not to force the play into some preset container of meaning, but rather let its confusions open us to avenues of exploration, of engaging the play creatively.  At the end its meaning will unite its own words with our thoughts on those words, thoughts which may develop, change over time, and become deeper and richer with continued effort.  To think about this play this way is to think about life itself.  The play refuses easy answers, but it may in the end lead to good ones.



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