King Lear: Horrifying and Uplifting


King Lear Single Text Sample Answer

‘Reading or seeing King Lear is a horrifying as well as an uplifting experience’ (2006 HL)

written and submitted by Anon (LC student)


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This King Lear (Single Text) appeared in the 2006 Higher Level Paper. Read the response t this statement in its entirety and take a look at the feedback that was provided to it’s author:


Shakespeare’s ‘King Lear’ tells the utterly tragic tale of a king, his hamartia and his epic journey of suffering and self-realisation as a result of this fatal flaw: blindness. I must absolutely agree that the experience of reading or seeing ‘King Lear’ can be a horrifying as well as uplifting experience, and sometimes both at the same time. Shakespeare’s skilful nuance of emotion grips you from the explosive opening scene, right through to the tragic ending. It is in this tearjerking tragic ending, where shocking horror and joyous uplift are perfectly balanced and harmoniously juxtaposed that the infamous playwright plays his audience or readers like a violin; he has us in the palm of his hand – engulfed in the immersive experience. Other moments throughout the play purposely offer no such gratification. We are left disgusted by successive banishments, brutal violence, suffering and death. Fierce loyalty, bravery, enduring love and redemption grant us some well-needed relief and uplift during the course of the drama. I hope to explore these contrasting scenes in more detail in my essay.


In the horrifying opening scene of the play, the eponymous King Lear wishes to abdicate his throne, retain his kingly status and live happily in the pleasure of his daughters’ company. Lear conjures up an idiotic ‘Love Test’ to determine how his power and estate should be divided amongst his daughters: “Which of you shall say doth love us most?”. Goneril and Regan do not hesitate for a second to inflate the king’s ego by showering him in false flattery: “ I love you more than words can wield the matter” and “I am made of that self-same metal as my sister”. Cordelia, however, Lear’s youngest daughter who dares not stoop to such lows, refuses to comply and be dishonest. “I love your majesty according to my bond, no more nor less”. The arrogant Lear cannot take the hit, the public humiliation to his callous character and so, Cordelia is banished. This is difficult to watch as the audience/reader understands that older sisters are fooling the king. It is terrifying, the experience of watching Cordelia being banished, the pompous king betraying his one loyal daughter. This moral blindness continues with yet another banishment – that of Kent’s. The Earl of Kent recognises Lear’s mistake and desperately tries to talk some sense into him: “See better Lear”. It is no use. Lear’s iconic, rash response: “Come not between the dragon and its wrath”. He too is ostracised. Still reeling from Cordelia’s banishment, we are are again shocked by Lear’s reckless behaviour.


The subplot and the main plot of ‘King Lear’ mirror each other in a number of ways. The subplot’s protagonist, Gloucester, is characteristically quite similar to Lear. Gloucester also banishes his honest son Edgar. The illegitimate Edmund orchestrates his banishment beautifully by telling his father that Edgar is plotting against him. He does this in an effort to secure his own inheritance : “Legitimate Edgar, I must have your land”. This being said, Gloucester turns on Edgar without a shred of evidence proving Edgar’s guilt save for a forged letter. The recurring theme of parents flippantly betraying their offspring with no substantial cause is truly horrifying.


Violence is very prominent in this play, probably one of Shakespeare’s most violent plays in fact. The incessant brutality is scary, it is both physical and verbal. Kent viciously assaults Goneril’s serving Oswald in Act 2 Scene 2 because of mistreatment of Lear. Kent’s intentions were sound, however, the manner in which he ruthlessly insults Oswald is unwarranted and excessive. He calls Oswald a “knave, a base, a whoreson and a son and heir of a mongrel bitch” to name but a few. There is an endless list of events of physical violence but I think the gouging out of Gloucester’s eyes is certainly the most horrifying. This iconic scene full of gory, visceral imagery is still imprinted in my mind, for better or for worse. Regan and her husband are merciless. This torment is inflicted for the simple reason that Gloucester helped Lear. In return not one, but both his eyes are plucked. In Regan’s own words: “one side will mock another, the other too”.  Scenes such as these certainly do leave a sour taste in the mouth of the audience/reader.


The final aspects of horror I will discuss are suffering and death. Filial ingratitude is the stimulus for Lear and Gloucester’s descent into madness. “Unnatural hags” Goneril and Regan refuse to let Lear sojourn at their castles – he is cast away into the storm. The king’s “wits begin to turn” and before long he becomes insane. It is painful to watch the once all-powerful Lear bear the grunt of the harsh elements, all the while battling the “tempest raging in his mind”. As difficult as this was to read, I found Lear’s journey of suffering even more excruciating when I saw the live production. Again, the subplot and main plot mimic each other. Gloucester too is left to go mad. He realises he has done Edgar wrong and feels terrible for it. This very guilt breaks the character of Gloucester. He suffer immensely because of it. He gives up. Defeatism is what sets Lear and Gloucester apart. Gloucester’s willingness to die is saddening and actually, horrifying. “Away, and let me die!” Towards the end of the play, we see death after death take place – each one more shocking than the previous. Good and evil perish. Lear, Cordelia, Gloucester, Goneril, Regan, Edmund, Oswald and Cornwall all die. We witness everything from stabbing, to poisoning, to hanging, to death by heartbreak. Needless to say, these deaths were terrible to watch and read. Some violent, some subtle – all horrifying.


Amidst all this horror, there certainly are moments of uplift. The fierce and unwavering loyalty of characters such as Gloucester and Kent is admirable and, given their circumstances, courageous. After Kent is banished by Lear and warned not to return, he seeks his master out and serves him in disguise. Kent understands Lear’s folly better than anybody and wants to be by his side to help – acting as his protector. He leaves his post as Earl and plays pretence as a commoner, becoming omnipresent beside Lear. This illustrates his devotion. Numerous times he sacrifices himself for the sake of the aged king. Firstly, he dares attempt serve Lear again despite his warning and banishment. Later he attacks Oswald for calling Lear “my lady’s father”. Kent is incarcerated in the stocks and made subject to suffering at the hands of Regan: “till noon, till night my Lord, and all night too”. This all because he stood up Lear. This type of steadfast loyalty and unquestionable bravery is touching. Gloucester is also unflinching in his loyalty to the king. He provides him with shelter in his hovel. He aids Lear when it is not popular to do so, in fact he might just be killed if he is caught. Indeed he is caught and the punishment is gruesome. Although the experience of reading/seeing Gloucester’s eyes being yanked out is horrifying I found immense comfort in the Earl’s allegiance and sacrifice.


The second aspect which made the experience of reading and seeing King Lear uplifting in my opinion is the love portrayed in the play and, more importantly, the power of it. Virtuous characters Cordelia and Edgar are the epitome of pure and honourable. Both these characters have full cause to hate their parents after being wrongly disowned. This isn’t the case at all as the pair wholly forgive and love their fathers.  Edgar goes undercover as Poor Tom and is by his father’s side every step of the way on his journey of self-realisation. He deters him from committing suicide when Gloucester reaches an emotional rock bottom. Edgar’s unconditional love is powerful, uplifting and offers us hope. Cordelia behaves similarly. Cordelia is willing to fight a full-scale war to restore her father to his rightful position. The conveys to the audience the lengths to which one is willing to go to on behalf of loved ones.


Even when the duo are not interacting on stage Lear and Cordelia offer us some of the most powerful scenes of the play, their unequivocal love for each other shines through. For me, this is perfectly illustrated in one of the most understated scenes of the play, Act 4 Scene 2. Neither are present in this scene but we get an insight into Cordelia’s forgiving nature and her loyalty to her flawed father. Kent is questioning a gentleman from the French camp about Cordelia’s reaction to the news of Lear’s mistreatment. The gentleman describes Cordelia’s response as “not a rage, patience and sorrow strove who should express her goodliest. You have seen sunshine and rain all at once”. This tender scene was soft and measured and yet, spoke volumes about the couple’s uplifting bond. Act 4 Scene 7 yet again grants us an enduring and delightful moment between Lear and Cordelia. Lear, upon seeing Cordelia for the first time begs for her forgiveness: “if you have poison for me I will drink it”. Cordelia’s response is simply: “No cause, no cause”.  This heartwarming scene sums up the power of love and testifies to the bond between father and daughter, even in the face of adversity.


The final scene is most bittersweet. We have accompanied Lear on three path of redemption. We are first-hand witnesses to his journey of self-realisation. We watched him suffer, repent and begin to understand his wrong doings: “How ugly didst thou in Cordelia show?”. The audience has seen the wheel come full circle. Lear is now a sane, humble man. He is excited, ecstatic even, to live out his days in prison, completely content on his daughter’s company. “Come, let’s away to prison; we too alone will like birds i’ th’ cage”. This undoubtedly an uplifting moment, however, our happiness and hope are short lived. We are horrified to see to see Cordelia hanged and Lear’s last shot at happiness into million pieces. The tragic sight of Lear carrying his dead daughter onto the stage is heartbreaking. The closing scene is a tear-jerker, we feel a whole range of emotion in such a short amount of time. We are arguably left on a high note, knowing Lear’s heart attack will reunite him with Cordelia in heaven.


I hope I have explored why I think the experience of reading or seeing ‘King Lear’ is both horrifying and uplifting in this essay.


Intro/Par 1:
  • very powerful opening
  • wide rang of vocab shown
  • I like how the student has addressed the question in the intro
  • effective reference to ‘hamartia’
  • leave out the last sentence: ‘I hope to explore these…’ – this takes away from the intro, no need to tell corrector ‘now I’m going to explore X,Y and Z in my essay’
Par 2:
  • effective reinforcement of questions key words ‘horryfying’
  • excellent textual knowledge (through key moments/quotes)
  • try to avoid summarising the plot in too much detail and try to elaborate more so on your own personal response to the key moment in light of the question – more ‘I think’ and ‘I felt’ phrases
Par 3:
  • effective reference to the text’s subplot – you mentioned that this was horrifying, which is effective, but you should try and elaborate more on why you found it horrifying (more personal response will allow you to obtain a very high grade, as you have a wonderful writing style and excellent textual knowledge)
Par 4:
  • ‘Violence is very prominent in this play’ – change to: Violence is a prominent theme in this text…
  • ‘Scenes such as these certainly do leave a sour taste in the mouth of the reader….’ – explore this in more detail
Par 5:
  • effective reference to the live play that you saw throughout
  • again, excellent reinforcement of the questions key words
Par 6:
  • again, wide range of vocab shown
  • excellent textual knowledge
  • balanced argument shown
  • perhaps more personal response and less reference to key scene details may be even more effective
Par 7:
  • ‘This conveys to the audience the lengths to which one is wiling to go to on behalf of loved ones’ – excellent insight, but explain why this is uplifting in maybe one or two more sentences (go the extra mile)
Par 8:
  • effectively articulated paragraph
  • excellent referencing of quotations 
  • try to provide more discussion on why this scene is heartwarming/uplifting
Par 9:
  • effective argument in the sense that this essay show how King Lear is both horrifying and uplifting at the same time
Conclusion/Par 10:
  • this essay deserved a more powerful conclusion
  • mirror what was said in intro
  • avoid ‘I hope I have explored’ type phrases


Overall this is a very good attempt at discussing the above statement. The author of this essay has displayed an excellent knowledge of King Lear and also provides a balanced and excellently articulated discussion. 


Two Concerns:

  1. This essay is probably too long 
  2. This essay needs even more personal response from it’s author in relation to the text and question posed




P: 15/18

C: 15/18

L: 15/18

M: 6/6


51/60 = 85% (H2)


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