Friday, October 21, 2011


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Responders appreciate texts for different reasons

written by Lisa Taylor

King Lear has been interpreted and received in many ways. Different readings have evolved over time due to social and political change, making it easier for each ideology to accept and value. Different productions of the play highlight particular themes, plots, and characters and their interactions, and by doing so, influence the meaning of society’s conventions. King Lear was established as a tragic text hence it was interpreted in an Aristotelian reading. An Aristotelian reading reveals the character flaw of the protagonist, ends unhappily due to an overall progression from order to disorder and incorporates an implacable force such as destiny or fate, usually represented by the Gods through nature. King Lear has also been interpreted as an Absurdist reading. Peter Brook’s 16 stage version accentuated the inhumanity and disinterest plaguing the then contemporaries, arising from an existentialist philosophy. The Bondi Pavilion version of King Lear was a feminist reading which focussed closely on the misogynist nature of women and how the insubordination of women has given rise to anarchy and chaos, placing men in a positive light. King Lear can therefore be appreciated throughout history due to the differing interpretations which place emphasis on certain aspects of the play.

King Lear as an Aristotelian tragedy has been appreciated by responders, who witness a systematic approach that effectively delivers a disordered ending from an ordered beginning, incorporating devices to aid this process. These devices all have a place and purpose in the play to achieve maximum effect � an audience catharsis. These devices include a plot built around a catastrophe, a cast of higher social status with superior moral qualities, a tragic hero or heroine being undone by a fatal character flaw, antagonists, a character that comments morally, often prophetically, and ultimately an unhappy ending. When Lear challenges his divine right as a king by dividing his kingdom before his daughters, the whole balance of life has been shifted and this is the starting point of the tragedy. Fate has been altered and the Gods show their anger through nature, by way of storms and anarchy amongst subjects and even family members, which then develops into a cataclysm. However, the responder does not feel resentment towards Lear, rather pathos because he was destined to fall from grace due to his hubris, or excessive pride. This hubris is the root of Lear’s “love test”, propelled by his need to feel loved and accepted by his own daughters. Catharsis is climactic in two particular scenes � when Lear loses his insanity in the storm, and towards the end when Lear is reunited with Cordelia’s corpse, the only time that he has spent with her since he has realised his fault of disowning his only good daughter. The 10 production directed by Richard Hytner made his a theatrical version that integrated baroque extremes to provoke dramatic argument. Opulence was rather exaggerated, yet this evokes the catharsis because of the obvious fall from grace, the descending into diametric opposition, and the weakening of hope. Responders’ sympathy towards Lear whilst he is carrying the corpse of Cordelia is encapsulated in the lines, “Do you see this? Look on her! Look, her lips. Look there. Look there.” These lines employ a nihilistic tone, that is, the belief that nothing really exists. An Aristotelian reading of King Lear purposely provokes the responder in a way that catharsis results. The responder is required to discern fate-accepters from fate-deniers, which allows pathos to reign. An audience thus accepts and values the reason why the Aristotelian tragedy is fashioned.

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King Lear as an Absurdist reading emphasises the grotesque humour of the play and the aim of holding up a mirror to the responder as a critic of society’s conventions, and social and political circumstances. Absurdist dramatists emphasise “silence as much as speech, absence as much as presence, incoherence rather more than coherence, scepticism about conventional reason and embrace and sometimes celebrate meaninglessness as a condition”, extracted from the English Studies Book by Rob Pope. This extract shows the necessary existentialist element. Existentialism is a philosophy that emerged due to the horrors and destruction of World Wars I & II, and The Depression. It states that a human being has no essence, no essential self, and is no more than what he is. G. Wilson Knight who one of the most influential Shakespearean critics of the twentieth century, emphasised the grotesque humour of the play, seeing as the central theme the presence of the absurd and the incongruous as exemplified by Lear’s plunge into madness, the humour of the Fool, and the scene where Gloucester believes he is jumping off Dover’s cliff. Peter Brook’s 16 production was itself designed by Brook who employed a minimalist setting, “the stage was made into a signifier of emptiness”, “only essential props, hewn from rough wood and metal…”, “the design intended to suggest a world in a constant state of decomposition”. These cosmetic attributes served the purpose of delineating an existentialist world in a stylistic setting, reinforcing the notion that this philosophy was in need of repeal and therefore, exposing this need through satire. Brook kept his production as neutral as possible by casting away sympathy and sentiment in character expression. This makes it harder for the responder to form judgements and discern less obvious antagonists from the protagonists. Absurd is definitely the way that the play is portrayed, as serious issues are carried out in humorous depictions. An example is Cordelia’s death, viewed by G. Wilson Knight as “the most hideous and degrading joke” of destiny which Lear must witness just as he is at the point of regaining his sanity. Lear’s defeated hubris is evident in the lines, “I might have saved her; now she’s gone for ever. Cordelia, Cordelia, stay a little” of scene 5, act , although intended as a solemn piece of the play, the cries far from the usual monotone are quite animalistic in sound and the pitiable Lear has failed as both a King and a father. It is plain to see that King Lear may be valued as an Absurdist reading due to the fact that societal change oftentimes only came about after satirical texts reared itself in the public arena.

King Lear may also be interpreted as a feminist reading, in particular the Bondi Pavilion production, as it exudes misogynist implications. Feminism is a politically motivated movement dedicated to personal and social change. Feminists challenge the traditional power of men (patriarchy) and revalue and celebrate the roles of women. Misogyny is defined as the hatred of women. “Nor rain, wind thunder, fire are my daughters, I tax not you, you elements with unkindness. I never gave you kingdom, called you children…” From this quote, pity and fear is aroused because the responder accepts that firstly, fathers are owed particular duties by daughters and secondly, chaos ensues when these aren’t given. Patriarchy, the norm of the times, is given a rude awakening when Goneril and Regan decide to take matters into their own hands. They do not accept fate and conspire to overtake their father’s authority. Women’s lust is seen as the centre and source of corruption, and henceforth is the root of the catastrophe. It is this female insubordination that is the greatest threat to the family, the only social organisation strong enough to able to combat it being the introduction of male power. Regan and Goneril are thus described as “unnatural hags” by their own father in act, scene 5. This quote comments on the role of women in Shakespeare’s time, by showing that undesirable consequences arise from not accepting fate. Cordelia’s absence, as the only virtuous daughter, removes from the scene any positive vibes of women. She is replaced with the Fool, a male, who is loyal to the King and is thus able to comment morally, often prophetically where Cordelia was not able to. The Bondi Pavilion production from start to end portrayed women as manipulative and callous, or to the lesser extent, foolish. This reading of King Lear can be valued contemporarily with ease in a feminist and misogynist context, as it’s interpretation appeals to the values of modern-day critics.

Clearly, King Lear can be appreciated throughout history due to the differing interpretations which place emphasis on certain aspects of the play. King Lear is versatile in that many interpretations have been made; this is essential in order for contemporary societies to receive and value the play from their own perspective. The Aristotelian, Absurdist and Feminist readings are just a few to name from the wide variations that exist today. This is why responders from different ages in time are able to appreciate and enjoy King Lear regardless of way it is written because it is the way it is interpreted that appeals to audience values.

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