King Lear, one of Shakespeare's most renowned plays, is about a king who believes he can choose one of his three daughters to rule his kingdom based on which of them can profess the most love for her father. This premise can foster class discussion on familial love. The work also centers on succession, political upheaval, and women in positions of power; historical background on the reigns of Mary I and Elizabeth I will help contextualize the play. King Lear includes a large cast of characters, so making a character chart, including characters' relationships to one another, will help students keep track.

This tragedy offers fascinating motifs of appearance and reality, vision and blindness, as well as themes of justice and the loss of power. In the classroom, teachers are encouraged to show clips of live productions of King Lear to creatively engage students with the text. Generally speaking, this play is extremely dramatic, so students will love to read it aloud in class.

Content Warning

King Lear contains violence.

Summary

King Lear tells the story of an aging ruler who is considering passing his power on to one of his three daughters. To determine which of them is most qualified to take his place, he asks each of them to tell him how much she loves him. When one daughter, Cordelia, says she cannot put her love for Lear into words, he disowns her. The two remaining daughters, Goneril and Regan, claim to love King Lear more than they love anything in the world, yet their subsequent actions indicate otherwise. As the story goes on, they manipulate their elderly father, who is slowly beginning to lose his mind. King Lear is a classic tragedy about characters who quickly become more desperate, more insane, and more power-hungry as the play progresses.

Objectives for Teaching
King Lear

  • Trace both the main plot and the subplot throughout the play.
  • Identify and trace the development of themes in the text.
  • Discuss motifs that occur throughout the play, including vision vs. blindness, good vs. evil, and appearance vs. reality.
  • Define and find examples of literary techniques used in the text, including metaphor, pun, foreshadowing, etc.
  • Comment on whether King Lear is a good example of the classical tragic hero.

Key Elements and Techniques

  • Allusion
  • Aside
  • Comic Relief
  • Foreshadowing
  • Metaphor
  • Paradox
  • Pun
  • Subplot
  • Tragic Hero

Themes and Motifs

  • Power — King Lear experiences a significant loss of power in this play. Though it is his choice to try to give his kingdom to one of his three daughters, he struggles tremendously with that loss of authority, as it causes him question his identity as both a father and a king.
  • Justice — Throughout the play, justice seems to be constantly demanded, but no character is ever actually awarded it. This deprivation suggests that people either do not deserve justice, or sometimes, the world is simply unfair.
  • Forgiveness —  As bleak as the text is, some characters still manage to show compassion to others; however, the play causes readers to question the root of a person's ability to forgive—is it genuine human compassion, or is it just tied to family loyalty?

Related Works

Theme of Power

 

Theme of Justice

 

Theme of Forgiveness

Key Facts

  • Length: 120 pages
  • Publication Date: 1608
  • Recommended Grade Band: 11 – 12

Movies

A TV movie of the play starring Ian Mckellen was released in 2008.

Your students will love:

  • The ability to watch different live productions of the play
  • The natural theatrics of the text itself make it exciting to read aloud.

Students may have problems with:

  • Shakespeare's notably complicated and metaphorical language
  • The extremely bleak and tragic ending of the play

More Teacher's Guides to Literature:

See all our Teacher's Guides to Literature here.