Understanding King Lear

Study Day, Saturday 20 October 2018, 2.00-5.30 p.m.

Price: £50.00 / £45.00 students. Tea and coffee provided.
Venue: Stapleford Granary, Bury Road, Stapleford, Cambridge CB22 5BP
Bookings now open.

CAMcard holders can book at the student price. Please bring proof of status to the event. Free place for a teacher bringing 5+ students. Contact us for details:  info@literaturecambridge.co.uk

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Shakespeare's great tragedy

King Lear is one of Shakespeare's greatest plays. Two leading Cambridge scholars lead us through some of its powerful ideas.

Probably written in 1604, King Lear tells the story of an ageing king who divides his kingdom unequally between his daughters. In the conflicts which follow, Lear gradually descends into madness. One injustice leads to another. He understands his own folly, too late. 

For a detailed summary of the plot, see the Royal Shakespeare Society website.

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Adrian Poole

King Lear and the 'extreme verge'

This play has often been thought to extend traditional ideas of tragedy as far as they can go. This lecture will start from the scene on Dover Cliff, and explore what it means – for the play, for its characters, for readers and audiences – to be ‘stretched out’.

Fred Parker

Fred Parker

King Lear and 'the thing itself'.

Thus Lear hails Poor Tom, with a dreadful exhilaration at having got beyond all 'sophistication', all the ceremonial trappings of civilisation and culture, to arrive at last at the core, the bedrock, the naked truth of life.

Or has he? For Poor Tom is not Poor Tom, but Edgar in disguise. His madness is a lie as well as a kind of truth. Where has King Lear arrived? Where is he going? 

Here are the two conflicting impulses that shape King Lear: (1) the desire to get down to the hard, bare reality of things, set against (2) the convulsive insistence that there is more to life than this.

• Cordelia's 'Nothing' against the desire for the demonstration of love. •The realism of Goneril and Regan against Lear's 'Reason not the need'. • The Fool against the King.
• Foolish old men against emblems of significance.
• A necessary patience against 'the great rage'.
• The staging against the poetry, sometimes, or sometimes the poetry against itself.    

This immense play cannot, of course, be contained within this dichotomy, but in this lecture we will explore how far it takes us before it breaks down.

Royal Shakespeare Company: the plot of King Lear
Royal Shakespeare Company: dates and sources of King Lear
Royal Shakespeare Company: Key moments and facts about King Lear

Our lecturers

Dr Fred Parker is Senior Lecturer in English and a Fellow of Clare College, Cambridge. He teaches Shakespeare and Tragedy in the Cambridge tripos, and also works closely on literature between Milton and Byron (1660–1830) and its connections with moral philosophy. His books include Scepticism and Literature (2003) and The Devil as Muse (2011), which looked at the Devil as literary inspiration for Blake and Byron. Website.

Professor Adrian Poole is Emeritus Professor of English Literature and a Fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge. He has written and lectured extensively on Shakespeare, especially the tragedies, and on the afterlives of Shakespeare in the work of later artists, writers and readers. His books include Tragedy: Shakespeare and the Greek Example (1987), Shakespeare and the Victorians (2003) and Tragedy: A Very Short Introduction (2005). Website. There is a profile of Adrian Poole in the English Faculty magazine, 9 West Road (2015), p. 16.