King Lear’s Pragmatic Literary Analysis

December 9, 2020 by Essay Writer

A pragmatic approach to literary criticism enhances the 21st-century reader’s understanding of Shakespeare’s King Lear in a multitude of ways. The pragmatic approach was the popular canon at the time of Shakespeare’s composition, and continued to dominate the perspectives of critics and authors alike through the neoclassical period, continuing until the rise of Romanticism. An exploration into the characteristics of Shakespeare’s audience will improve the modern reader’s appreciation of the author’s intentions, themes and structure; furthermore, it will demonstrate that pragmatic views directly influenced the writing of King Lear. Finally, an examination of the pragmatic critiques of Shakespeare’s work, namely S. Johnson’s Preface to Shakespeare (1765), will illustrate how Shakespeare deviates from the ‘rules’ of the pragmatic perspective, which consequently adds to the timeless quality of his work.

Shakespeare wrote King Lear between 1604 and 1606. At that time, theatre in London had become a popular institution, despite some religious and moral objections. The Globe theatre was host to a variety of social classes. Courtly gentlemen and the newly wealthy gathered to exhibit themselves in the box seats. The middle classes, including a number of women accompanied by their husbands and students from the Inns of the Court drama school, regularly filled the gallery seats. The lower classes, which constituted a significant proportion of Shakespeare’s audiences, stood on the ground in front of the stage. Among them were the unemployed, apprentices, prostitutes, and pickpockets. Disturbances often erupted, and occasionally resulted in rioting. Pickpockets who were caught in the act were tied to a post on the stage; to the Elizabethan audience who were accustomed to public executions and torture, such treatment was not unusual. In fact, the audiences were quite fond of unusual spectacles and brutal physical suffering. They enjoyed battles, murders, ghosts, and insanity, but since these things were part of their daily lives, they did not visit the theatre for the purpose of seeing them. It can be assumed that since they were accustomed to such spectacles, it was in the pragmatic dramatists’ interest to include these elements in plays in an effort to increase the work’s relevance and entertainment value.

The Elizabethan public did not have access to newspapers or magazines, and even novels were scarce. Playhouses were therefore their primary – and often only – source of knowledge. They attended the theatre to learn and to enjoy themselves; this said, it is plain to see how the pragmatic theory of aesthetics grew so popular. Shakespeare’s audience was familiar with the story of King Lear and his daughters long before his own dramatization was written. It was repeatedly told by the early chroniclers of Britain and was the subject of an earlier play, The True Chronicle History of King Leir (1594). In 1603, James VI of Scotland became James I of England and proposed a political union of the two countries. Neither country was prepared to accept the union, and the King’s speeches between 1604-7 frequently referred to the misfortunes brought on Britain by the division. Hence, the division of Lear’s kingdom would have been significant to the air of national loyalty stirring amongst Shakespeare’s audiences. It is possible – and even likely – that this political climate influenced the dramatist’s thematic and historical choices for his play.

In his Preface to Shakespeare (1765), Samuel Johnson postulates that Shakespeare chose well-known tales because “his audience could not have followed him through the intricacies of the drama, had they not held the thread of the story in their hands.” He also claims that the Elizabethan audience “perhaps wanted some visible and discriminated events, as comments on the dialogue. He knew how he should most please.” It is impossible to know the extent of such thinking on Shakespeare’s authorial intentions, but an analysis of his work offers some insight.

The tale of King Lear was borrowed, while the interweaving of the Gloucester sub-plot was original. This supports Johnson’s comments about Shakespeare’s audience’s need for a recognisable story and some visual enhancement of the dialogue. The Gloucester plot in King Lear adds interest and sophistication to the play while translating the concerns of the central action into more familiar terms, providing the audience with a visual representation. The Gloucester plot receives more conventional treatment than the main plot; Edmund’s evil is partially explained by his birth conditions and his exclusion from society, unlike Goneril and Regan’s wickedness, which is never fully explained. Gloucester is more recognisable than Lear, as he is not plagued by kingly delusions, and reacts more rationally to his emotions. Note that when Edmund deceives him, he first calls for more evidence: “I would unstate myself to be in due resolution” (1,2,93).

In Act 3, scene 4, Edgar’s assumed madness contrasts with Lear’s, and strengthens the audience’s perception of the more obscure, mental stripping of identity and spiritual chaos. Similarly, the blinding of Gloucester in Act 3 is visually symbolic of the severe lack of perception he and Lear exhibit. It also presents the audience with a visual example of the corrupted sense of justice that underpins the play. During Lear’s mad visions on the heath, he exposes the pervading warped justice: “Tremble, thou wretch, / That hast within thee undivulged crimes, / Unwhipped of justice” (3,2,50 – 52). Furthermore, he refutes the traditional concepts of morality by undermining adultery’s status as a moral sin. Gloucester’s lines are written in plainer language (appropriate to his position); hence, those members of the audience who may miss the meaning as expressed by Lear have an opportunity to understand the rather profound statements about the need for suffering if one wishes to attain insight. Consider the following dialogue, spoken by Lear:

O, I have ta’en

Too little care of this! Take physic, pomp;

Expose thyself to feel what the wretches feel (3,4,32 – 34)

This stands in stark contrast to Gloucester’s “I stumbled when I saw” (4,1,20). It seems logical to assume that this sub-plot, full of visual manifestations of the complex Lear plot, was added to the original story for the benefit of the audience’s understanding, and to fulfill their desire for spectacle.

This sub-plot, however, also serves to satisfy the Elizabethan desire for poetic justice to a much greater extent than the main plot. Gloucester is punished for his lust and blind gullibility – albeit excessively. His wronged son defeats and fatally wounds his wicked son, is reunited with his father, and lives to prosper. Gloucester himself dies, but not before he has the opportunity to aid the king and develop a clear perception of the world, indicating an element of redemption. Edmund’s feeble attempt to save Cordelia and do “Some good” (5,3,43) before he dies may also be interpreted as slight redemption. The Lear plot offers the audience no such comfort. Lear’s suffering has far exceeded his crime, and his enlightenment is hardly consolation for the death of Cordelia. If the sub-plot was included to offer the Elizabethan audience enough comfort to allow their endurance of the ambiguity of the main plot, it was in vain. Shakespeare came under great criticism for failing to allow the “good” to emerge victorious in his plays; a tendency that is particularly noticeable in King Lear.

Samuel Johnson remarked that “Shakespeare suffered the virtue of Cordelia…contrary to the ideas of justice, to the hope of the reader, and… the faith of chronicles.” Johnson does concede that the depiction of wicked prospering “is a true representation of …human life,” but claims that he does not believe that it will please the audience more, and refers to Nahum Tate’s version and its popularity. Earlier in the Preface, Johnson takes a much more scornful tone when he states that Shakespeare “is so much more careful to please than to instruct, that he seems to write without any moral purpose,” and that “it is always a writer’s duty to make the world better.” The irony of this to a modern critic is two-fold; the general perception of knowledge has changed dramatically since the 18th century, and we now see it as relative and shifting. We understand that raising an issue will result in members of the public pondering the merits of it; today, this is considered a valuable form of learning. Modern audiences understand that the ambiguity of justice in King Lear adds to its didactic quality, and would likely be dismissive of Tate’s happy ending. A 21st century critique of the play from a pragmatic viewpoint would thus find that King Lear both entertains and teaches, thereby pointing to the power of the audience, and the changeable culture in which we live. Shakespeare had the extraordinary ability to “mirrour life” so accurately that he defied the conventions of his time, giving his work a universality that has endured for centuries.

It should be noted that evidence from prologues, choruses and epilogues reveals Shakespeare’s desire to please his audience: “And we’ll try to please you everyday.” However, there is no indication that he intended to use his work as an instructive tool. Pragmatic theory experienced a change in values around the rise of neoclassicism (1660) that shifted the priority from pleasing the audience to instructing them. A strong emphasis on the examples set by the ancient Greek and Roman artists developed, and this was the theoretical persuasion of most of Shakespeare’s critics. His disregard for the classical unities of time, place, and action and his mingling of genres were heavily disapproved of. In response to this, Johnson defends Shakespeare, thereby attesting to his own foresight and objectivity. He first writes that Shakespeare “has well enough preserved the unity of action,” and then goes on to dispel the importance of the other two unities, declaring that they derive from “false assumptions” because “It is false that any representation is mistaken for reality.” Johnson argues that Shakespeare’s work moves more naturally than the contrived unities of time and place would have permitted, and even foreshadows that a closer look at the principals of the two unities “will diminish their value” – which indeed they have.

Johnson also praises Shakespeare for defying the purity of genre, proclaiming that he “has united the powers of exciting laughter and sorrow…in one composition.” This is apparent in King Lear’s fool, who often provides frivolous comic relief (“Come o’er the bourn, Bessy, to me”) or, more often, reiterates the serious issues of the play in song. Johnson brings his argument around again to Shakespeare’s truth of representation:

The end of poetry is to instruct by pleasing. That the mingled drama may convey all the instruction of tragedy or comedy cannot be denied, because it includes both…and approaches nearer than either to the appearance of life.

It has become apparent, then, that where Shakespeare deviated from the conventions of the pragmatic perspective, he did so in order to create art that was true to nature, and a more realistic representation of humanity. This is evident in his structure, themes, and style, and gives his work eternal appeal. From a pragmatic perspective, we have considered the nature of the Elizabethan audience, which in turn, has provided insight into authorial choices of theme, structure, and the use of language – all of which have correlate with the diverse requirements of Shakespeare’s audience. The popularity of pragmatism at that time, coupled with the correlations drawn here between the characteristics of King Lear and Shakespeare’s audiences, make it difficult to deny that the pragmatic perspective directly influenced the composition of the play.

It seems that King Lear was written with the intention of pleasing the Elizabethan audience, and with the more modern intention of raising topical issues in a manner that would incite contemplation and possibly debate amongst the spectators. In the 21st century, this is known as “teaching”; therefore, a current pragmatics-based analysis of King Lear shows the work to be ideal. The pragmatic critical framework for analysis has illuminated the play in a modern context, in addition to illustrating its own impact on Shakespeare’s creation of King Lear.


1. Craig, H. & Bevington, D. (ed) (1973). The Complete Works of Shakespeare. Brighton: Scott, Foresman and Company.

2. Hyland, P. (1996). An Introduction to Shakespeare the Dramatist in his Context. London: Macmillan Press Ltd.

3. Preface to Shakespeare. ULR:

4. Leggatt, A. (1988) Harvester New Critical Introductions to Shakespeare: King Lear. London: Harvester/Wheatsheaf.

5. Lott, Bernard. M.A. PhD. (ed.) (1974) “Introduction”. In Shakespeare, W. (1974) New Swan Shakespeare Advanced Series: King Lear. Essex: Longman Group Ltd.

6. Shakespeare, W. (1974) New Swan Shakespeare Advanced Series: King Lear. Essex: Longman Group Ltd.

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