Last updated: February 16, 2019
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King Lear

Perhaps no play in English literature has attained the critical praise of Shakespeare’s “King Lear.” Universally admired for its modernist themes and form, as well as its innovative and daring use of language, the play contains some of Shakespeare’s most memorable quotes and lines. Additionally, the play represents Shakespeare’s attempt to grapple with some of the most compelling themes of human nature, the nature of human reason, and the consequences of human morality. In effect, the play is Shakespeare’s expression of a complete vision of human existence and the cosmos.

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One of the important themes of the play is the idea of measurability and immeasurability, which deals with what can be quantified and categorized and what cannot be quantified and categorized. Throughout the play, Shakespeare inverts the expected ideas of measurability and immeasurability to create dramatic irony and also in order to best express the underlying “chaos” which haunts our most trusted beliefs and understandings about the universe we inhabit. An important Shakespearean scholar, Harold Bloom, compares the play to the Bible and the Book of Job and sees a corresponding theme: “King Lear as tragedy finds its only worthy forerunner in the Book of Job,” (Bloom,1) and the reason why Bloom states that it is the Book of Job which is the “forerunner” to “King Lear” is that both stories attempt to deal with the idea of measurability and immeasurability. In the case of both “King Lear” and the Book of Job, the stories are essentially involved in the exploration of the dichotomy between visible (measurable) experience and invisible (non measurable) experience. For both Lear and  Job it is a question of having faith in the face of external chaos: visible tragedy and ruin.

The inversion of the measurable and immeasurable happens in the opening scene of the play when Lear speaks with his daughter Cordelia about how he will divide his Kingdom. The measurable elements are ironically reversed in the scene: with the more obvious measurable element, Lear’s land, being regarded as an abstraction, as something of little “measurability” by Cordelia, and the non-measurable aspects of Lear and Cordelia’s relationship: their love or lack of love, provoking Lear to demand a measurable expression of love from his daughter. The inversion of the expected ideas: “land as love” and “love as land,” so to speak help to show Shakespeare’s intention to place “measurability and immeasurability” in the center of his themes in this play.

Lear’s question to Cordelia  “what can you say to draw/ A third more opulent than your sisters? Speak.” (Lear, I.i. 87-88) recalls God’s rhetorical question to Job from the Bible “Canst thou draw out leviathan with a hook?”with the implication that there will be measurable consequences for the “wrong” answer. As with God’s question to Job, the impetus for Lear’s  question to Cordelia is non-quantifiable: it is not known why God allowed Satan to test Job nor is it ever explicated in the play King Lear as to why Lear divides his Kingdom. Cordelia’s reply, unlike Job’s submission to God, reveals the irony of Lear’s attempt to quantify the non-measurable: his daughter’s love:

CORDELIA: Nothing, my lord.

KING LEAR: Nothing!

CORDELIA: Nothing.

KING LEAR:Nothing will come of nothing: speak again.


(Lear, I. i. 91-95 )


The irony of the scene is that Lear cannot grasp the idea of something more important than that which can be measured, while Cordelia cannot grasp the importance of anything which can be measured and in being measured somehow sacrificing its goodness or truth. When she replies: “Unhappy that I am, I cannot heave/ My heart into my mouth: I love your majesty/

According to my bond; nor more nor less” she is, in effect giving Lear what he so desperately wants and needs: love, but his feelings are that Cordelia cares nothing about him. He tries to use a measurable force: the promise of inherited land, to provoke something which is immeasurable: love.  And the greatest irony is that it is language with which Lear hopes to quantify love; he merely wants the correct answer from his daughter, a measurable thing, while he actually wants her love which can’t be described or categorized.

The ironic use of language is probably one of the most important aspects of Shakespeare’s theme of measurability and immeasurability in “King Lear.” Just as the opening scene between Lear and Cordelia shows that language plays a  crucial role in how we, as human beings, understand and measure the world around us, particularly the world of emotions and feelings for which there are no other instruments.

Exemplifying this technique is Act 1 Scene 4, the scene between Lear and the fool, during which  the dichotomy between measurable and immeasurable forms the ironic basis of the interchange between the two characters. When the Fool tells Lear that “Truth’s a dog must to kennel; he must be whipped/ out, when Lady the brach may stand by the fire and stink,” (Lear I.iv. 640) he is trying to make it clear that truth can often not be quantified , it must be “forced” from the world of appearances, the world of measurability.  The “speech” the fool teaches to Lear is predicated on the ironic inversion of  the quantifiable and non-quantifiable:

Mark it, nuncle:
Have more than thou showest,
Speak less than thou knowest,

Lend less than thou owest,
Ride more than thou goest,
Learn more than thou trowest,
Set less than thou throwest;
Leave thy drink and thy whore,
And keep in-a-door,
And thou shalt have more
Than two tens to a score.

(Lear, I, iv. 645-655).


As the critic Bloom suggests: passages of “King Lear” so thoroughly deconstruct the Elizabethan word-logic and meaning of the time, violate every know rule of composition and indicate Shakespeare’s pre-modern grasp of modern literary criticism. “In a large act of metaphoric naming he abuses and violates language, rips words from their meanings, scatters sense in all directions,” (Bloom,130) and yet, despite this thorough de-construction of language and meaning, Shakespeare is able to return the play and the reader to definite logic and conclusion and enduring, universal articulation.

Nowhere is this “de-construction” of language as a source of measurability more clear than in Act 3, Scene 2 when Lear rages against the world of measurability, trying to find a way through it to the world of immeasurable emotions and human pathology that seem to underline experience with chaos: “Rumble thy bellyful! Spit, fire! spout, rain!/Nor rain, wind, thunder, fire, are my daughters:/I tax not you, you elements, with unkindness;/I never gave you kingdom, call’d you children,/ You owe me no subscription: then let fall/Your horrible pleasure: here I stand, your slave,/A poor, infirm, weak, and despised old man:/But yet I call you servile ministers,” (Lear, III. ii. 1609-1694) which establishes the fact that Lear is unwilling to see beyond the measurable world and seeks to establish dominion over the world of quantifiable elements.
Ultimately, Shakespeare resorts to describing the immeasurable not with a measurable tool such as language, but with a more primal, non-quantifiable, language of imagery and symbolism. The images of “King Lear” reach toward the deepest and most primal (and therefore enduring) symbolism in human psychology.             Shakespeare’s imagery in “King Lear” is not only capable of articulating universal expression and profound human experience, it is instrumental in defining those same entities, a capacity which very few literary works enjoy. This universality if image and symbol causes the play to embed itself deeply into the unconscious of the reader or audience-member. For all of its breadth, the imagery does attain symmetry and consistency of expression, a must for the aforementioned unconscious impact (and conscious reception) on the reader. In conclusion, the treatment of quantifiable elements and those which are not quantifiable as they interact with human psychology, spirituality, and motivation forms the crucial core of Shakespeare’s language and theme in King Lear.




Works Cited

Bloom, Harold, ed. William Shakespeare”s King Lear. New York: Chelsea House Publishers,    1987.