King Lear- An Analysis

We have now finished reading King Lear and have explored some of the literary elements presented in the text along the way. Our task now is to analyse the text as a tragedy and see how the things we have identified fit into the overall structure of the genre. To do so, we will move through the six elements that Aristotle describes as being essential to the make up of a tragedy.

Historical Context

In order to fully appreciate the text, we need to delve into the relevant social and historical context that surrounds King Lear. Create a blog post and do some research into the following:

  • The Elizabethan/Jacobean world view
  • The Divine Right to Rule
  • The state of England under Elizabeth I and James I
  • Shakespeare’s education and additional plays

Once you have researched these topics, summarise your knowledge on them and explain how they may have played a part in influencing Shakespeare’s writing of King Lear.

Melody and Spectacle

We begin our analysis with the melody and spectacle of the script. Students will work on creating a blog post on their individual blogs that examines this aspect of King Lear. 


  • Discuss, as a class, what is meant by melody and spectacle as defined by Aristotle is Poetics. Brainstorm some instances where these elements are used to convey or support an idea in the script of King Lear. 
  • Students are to select three of the examples we have discussed from above and collate any notes they have already created in a new blog post.
  • If they have not already discussed an answer to the following statement using supporting quotations from the text, they are to add to this blog post.

Shakespeare uses melody and spectacle in a highly symbolic manner to communicate important ideas about the characters power in the play and their mental state.


The diction of a play is another way of saying the language that the characters use. There are several important things to note about the language devices employed by Shakespeare.

The first is the use of verse and prose. If you are unsure about these devices, please read the following post that clearly outlines the differences and intended effects of each.

Identify three characters who switch from verse to prose in their speech. Find and copy two extracts for each character that illustrate this change.

Often, the change between verse and prose can signal something significant for that character at that moment of the story. The blog post referenced above does a great job at outlining some of the common reasons the different devices are used but you have to really look at when a character swaps from one to the other to, consider the other events happening at that moment in the play and then think about why a change would have occurred at this exact moment. It is not an ‘accident’ that they move between the devices.

For each of the characters above, explain why you think they have moved between verse and prose. What does this illustrate to us, the readers, about their position or state of mind? What does it allow us to understand about their character at that moment of the play?


The ‘thought’ of a tragedy refers to the key ideas that the play presents. You may have called them “themes” or “ideas” previously. They are, in essence, the same thing and the important thing to remember with the key ideas in the text is that they should be universal. If you need a refresher on just how important the ‘thoughts’ in any text are, have a read of this blog post here.

Reflect on the importance of a strong idea in a text. Comment on what impact an idea could have on a reader if it is presented in an effective manner. Brainstorm reasons why a writer may feel the need to present an idea to their audience.

King Lear presents the audience with a multitude of ideas. Possibly the most prevalent is the commentary it provides on ‘human nature’, particularly in relation to justice and power. It also raises the notion of “nothing will come of nothing”. As we come to understand over the course of the play, doing nothing often has more disastrous consequences than doing something. The tidy thing about King Lear is that all of these ideas are interconnected and it is almost impossible to talk of one without the others.

Summarise what “thoughts” Shakespeare presents about the following ideas in King Lear:

  • Human Nature
  • Justice
  • Nothing

Explore how Shakespeare develops his ‘thoughts’ about the ideas above. Analyse what devices he uses to engage the audience with his ideas. Note: devices could refer to characters, language techniques, symbolism, plot events. You should also look to connect your exploration to some of the historical contexts of the play- think like an Elizabethan!


Aristotle had very distinct ideas about how an effective tragedy should be constructed and this right here, is the place where I disagree with him. It sounds odd to say that I disagree with a man credited with establishing a huge chunk of our Western philosophy, however, on the matter of plot over character, I feel that our thoughts do not align. For me, character is the heart and soul of any story. A writers ability to construct a character who the audience connects with on some level is what makes a good story a great one. I, for one, am draw into the story by the premise of the plot but if I don’t feel like the characters are going to have grit and depth, then I can easily put the story down and feel no curiosity about how it ends.

Although Aristotle believed that the plot was the defining feature of the genre, he outlined a very specific character archetype which we now call the Tragic Hero.


Read the PDF above and think about how Lear fits the given definition of a tragic hero.

For each of the five characteristics, explain how Lear has been written to demonstrate them. Identify moments in the text where he either experiences or demonstrates each characteristic. Use quotations to support your responses.

Finally, the genre of tragedy has been a staple in the world of literature for well over a thousand years. One of the reasons behind this is the role that tragedy holds, as a genre, in the literary world. The goal of any tragedy is to ensure that the audience experiences catharsis. For a long time, psychologists and literary critics have explored the connection between a cathartic work of literature and the benefits to the human state of mind. Why is it that we feel lighter and of a more relieved mindset after experiencing something cathartic?

Sourced from

While the blurb above helps us to understand what catharsis is and how its effects can be explained, the paper below explores the connection between a cathartic experience via literature and the emotional benefits on the audience.


Read the paper above by Ritu Singh Bhal and summarise five key ideas that he expresses in his exploration of catharsis.

Explain how King Lear would have provided an Elizabethan audience with a cartharic experience.

Finally, analyse how the character of King Lear can be used to achieve an emotional purgation on an audience today and why an audience may crave this experience.

Posted by Renee Plunkett

Teacher of English at Mount Aspiring College, Wanaka, New Zealand.

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