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King Lear by William Shakespeare

Teacher Guide by Kristy Littlehale

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Student Activities for King Lear Include:

King Lear is one of the most complex plays written by William Shakespeare, with its many characters, disguises, and surprising outcomes. The play is based on the tale of King Leir of Britain, who supposedly ruled in the 8th century B.C., and whose life and reign are detailed in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s 12th century work, Historia Regum Britanniae, or History of the Kings of Britain. Typical of most Shakespearean tragedies, old King Lear is brought to ruin, and eventually death, by a tragic flaw: his foolishness spurred on by his pride. Shakespeare examines many universal themes and ideals such as the dangers of foolishness and manipulation, the consequences of greed, and the bittersweet happiness of redemption and reconciliation. Also intrinsic to his works, Shakespeare takes the opportunity to do some moral instructing to the monarchy about sharing wealth with the poor. King Lear, while complex, also provides audiences with a simple warning about what happens when we rely on our pride and ego, rather than our reason, to make our decisions.

By the end of this lesson your students will create amazing storyboards like the ones below!




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King Leir

The inspiration for Shakespeare’s play comes from Geoffrey of Monmouth’s book, published in 1136, called History of the Kings of Britain. Supposedly, King Leir of the Britons ruled in the 8th century B.C., which is also about the time that Rome was being founded. These coinciding milestones may contribute to why Shakespeare peppered the play with so many references to Roman gods and goddesses. The primary plot of the play follows the history closely: King Leir has three daughters, two of whom flatter him to receive their shares of the kingdom, and one who truly loves him but refuses to play his games. Leir also only asks for 100 knights for his entourage, which his wicked daughters reduce to zero after a couple of years. Eventually, his sons-in-law band together and overthrow him, so Leir is forced to flee to France. He, along with Cordelia and their forces, attack and retake the throne of England. However, in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s account, Leir reigns for three years after he regains his crown, and then Cordelia succeeds him thereafter. Shakespeare strays from these events by killing off Lear and Cordelia, and leaving the dubious future of the kingdom in Kent’s and Edgar’s hands instead.


The Great Chain of Being

A concept that was near and dear to the hearts of many Medieval and Renaissance people is the idea of the Great Chain of Being. The Great Chain of Being provides a hierarchy of roles for the people of the Medieval world, beginning with God at the top, and eventually moving down to animals and plants. In between these roles are kings and queens, clergy, knights and nobles, and finally peasants. This hierarchy is also modeled in the feudal system that began with the king and ran down to the serfs. The Medieval mindset held that if there was a disruption in this chain, usually in the higher levels of the hierarchy (such as a nobleman usurping the throne from a king), the universe and nature would respond violently until balance was restored. This belief is reflected in many works of art and literature, but it is especially present in Shakespeare’s plays. For instance, in Julius Caesar, the citizens report strange happenings in the city of Rome, including men’s hands on fire but not burning, a lioness wandering around in the Capitol but not attacking, and blood raining down on the Capitol. Calpurnia remarks to Caesar in warning:

When beggars die there are no comets seen;
The heavens themselves blaze forth the death of princes.

Julius Caesar II.ii.30-31

Calpurnia’s warning comes true, because little does Caesar know, his best friend is planning to assassinate him the following morning. This disruption in the Great Chain also has consequences for Brutus and Cassius, and all of Rome, as Caesar’s assassination brings about a period of chaos and bloodshed for Rome, and results in the deaths of Brutus and Cassius. In King Lear, the disruption caused by Lear’s actions are reflected in the wild storm depicted in Act III.

There are many interesting depictions of The Great Chain of Being that can be easily researched by students. Some interpretations incorporate supernatural elements such as angels and demons; others are very specific in their classifications of the hierarchies, including “higher” and “lower” animals. Students will notice, however, that the monarchy is always placed at the top, near God, and sometimes only below the Pope. This has to do with the Divine Right of Kings, another concept that helped absolutist monarchies control most of Europe for hundreds of years.

Side Note

Ironically, Shakespeare’s patron, Queen Elizabeth I, had a storied family history with disrupting the Chain. Her father, King Henry VIII, appointed himself as the Supreme Head of the Church of England with his Act of Supremacy in 1534. This disrupted the hierarchy because King Henry replaced the Pope, who was believed to be appointed by God, as the head of religious and political affairs.



Essential Questions for King Lear

  1. How can pride cause someone to make foolish decisions?
  2. Why is it important to think through a situation, rather than make rash decisions?
  3. What are the potential dangers of greed?
  4. Why is forgiveness so important?
  5. How can suffering help a person become more empathetic and understanding?
  6. What is manipulation and why is it wrong?
  7. How does nature seem to balance out the poor decisions made by humanity?
  8. What qualities do tragic heroes possess?

King Lear Lesson Plans, Student Activities and Graphic Organizers

King Lear Summary | Plot Diagram


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Students can create and show a storyboard that captures the concept of the Five Act Structure by making a six-cell storyboard, like the one below. For each cell, have students create a scene that follows the acts in order: Prologue, Conflict, Rising Action, Climax, Falling Action, and Denouement.



Example King Lear Five Act Structure

Act 1: Prologue

King Lear, in his old age and wavering wits, wishes to give up his throne to his daughters so that he can retire with 100 knights for an entourage and enjoy the time he has left. He demands that each daughter tell him how much she loves him so that he can divide up their inheritance to them.


Act 1: Conflict

King Lear unwisely chooses his two older daughters, Goneril and Regan, over his youngest, Cordelia, because they flatter him while Cordelia believes in deeds over speech. The king disinherits her, and Cordelia goes off to marry the King of France instead. Lear also banishes the Earl of Kent for defending Cordelia. Meanwhile, Edmund, the illegitimate son of the Earl of Gloucester, is plotting to turn his father against his legitimate son Edgar, so that he can inherit the Earl’s properties.


Act 2: Rising Action

Goneril and Regan mistreat their father and show nothing but disdain for him. Kent returns in disguise, loyally serving the king to keep an eye on things. Edmund stages a fake fight with Edgar and convinces his father that Edgar wants to kill Gloucester. After Kent is put into the stocks by Cornwall for fighting with Oswald, the king arrives and becomes enraged. Goneril arrives, and she and Regan solidify their alliance by demanding that the king get rid of all of his knights. The king, in near tears and losing his senses with grief, gallops off into the stormy night.


Act 3: Climax

The King of France has called for a war against England. Gloucester goes after King Lear to help him, telling Edmund of his plans, who promptly betrays his father to the sisters. Out in the stormy night, King Lear, his Fool, Kent, and Edgar, disguised as a beggar and calling himself “Tom”, are sheltering in a hut. Gloucester finds them and smuggles the king to Dover because there are plots against him. Gloucester is arrested by Cornwall’s men, and Cornwall gouges his eyes out. One of Cornwall’s servants steps in and mortally wounds Cornwall before he himself is killed.


Act 4: Falling Action

Gloucester is in despair, but Edgar, still in disguise, saves him from suicide and takes him to Dover. Meanwhile, Goneril and Edmund have begun a romance, and Goneril wants her husband Albany out of the picture because she finds him to be weak. Cornwall dies, and she worries that widowed Regan will steal Edmund. Goneril’s servant Oswald finds and tries to kill Gloucester, but Edgar kills him instead. He retrieves a letter from Oswald from Goneril showing her plans to kill Albany and marry Edmund. At the same time, King Lear has been brought to Cordelia, who is nursing him back to sanity.


Act 5: Denouement

Edgar delivers the letter to Albany before battle. Goneril and Regan are fighting over Edmund, who has pledged himself to both sisters. Edmund captures Lear and Cordelia in battle and orders Cordelia to be killed by making it look like a suicidal hanging. Albany reveals his wife and Edmund’s treachery; at the same time, Regan falls ill. Albany challenges Edmund to fight, and Edgar arrives in armor, fights Edmund, and defeats him. He reveals his identity and the fact that his father is dead. Edmund kills himself shortly after finding that Goneril poisoned Regan and then stabbed herself. Lear kills the man hanging Cordelia but not in time, and he dies from grief. Albany surrenders power to Kent and Edgar.



Five Act Play Structure for King Lear

Example

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Student Instructions

Create a visual plot diagram of King Lear.


  1. Separate the play into the Prologue/Exposition, Rising Action, Climax, Falling Action, and Denouement.
  2. Create an image that represents an important moment or set of events for each of the acts.
  3. Write a description of each of the steps in the plot diagram.



Five Act Structure Template

Example

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King Lear Characters

As students read, a storyboard can serve as a helpful character reference log. This log (also called a character map) allows students to recall relevant information about important characters. When reading a play, small attributes and details frequently become important as the plot progresses. With character mapping, students will record this information, helping them follow along and catch the subtleties which make reading more enjoyable!


King Lear Characters

  • King Lear
  • Goneril
  • Regan
  • Cordelia
  • Earl of Kent
  • Earl of Gloucester
  • Edgar
  • Edmund
  • The Fool
  • Duke of Albany
  • Duke of Cornwall
  • Oswald

Character Map for King Lear

Example

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Literary Conflict Student Activity for King Lear


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Storyboarding is an excellent way to focus on types of literary conflicts.

Having students create storyboards that show the cause and effect of different types of conflicts strengthens analytical thinking about literary concepts. Have your students choose an example of each literary conflict and depict them using the storyboard creator. In the storyboard, an example of each conflict should be visually represented, along with an explanation of the scene, and how it fits the particular category of conflict.


Examples of Literary Conflict in King Lear

MAN vs. MAN

Goneril and Regan are initially allied with each other to gain as much power as possible; however, once Edmund comes into the picture, he drives a wedge between the sisters. As a result of his pledging his love to both women, Goneril poisons Regan. Once Regan dies, and Goneril’s husband Albany reveals he knows of her treachery, she kills herself.


MAN vs. SELF

King Lear realizes that he made a mistake in granting his kingdom and powers to Goneril and Regan while totally disinheriting Cordelia. He is so grief-stricken by this grave mistake that he gradually loses touch with reality, his wits only restored once Cordelia takes him in.


MAN vs. SOCIETY

Edmund, as an illegitimate son, has no claim to any of his father’s lands or property. He doesn’t feel it is fair that he gets less just because his father had an affair. However, because the laws of noble society dictate that illegitimate children are not legally eligible to receive an inheritance by their birthright, Edmund wants to change this by turning his father against his legitimate son, Edgar.


MAN vs. NATURE

When King Lear realizes the grave mistake he’s made by entrusting Goneril and Regan with power, this inner turmoil is mirrored in the raging storm that takes over the night. The storm threatens Lear’s health as he stands outside, tearing his hair and crying in despair.


Conflict in King Lear

Example

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Student Instructions

Create a storyboard that shows at least three forms of literary conflict in King Lear.


  1. Identify conflicts in King Lear.
  2. Categorize each conflict as Character vs. Character, Character vs. Self, Character vs. Society, Character vs. Nature, or Character vs. Technology.
  3. Illustrate conflicts in the cells, using characters from the story.
  4. Write a short description of the conflict below the cell.
  5. Save and submit the assignment.



Literary Conflict Template

Example

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Themes, Symbols, and Motifs Student Activity for King Lear


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Themes, symbols, and motifs come alive when you use a storyboard. In this activity, students will identify themes and symbols from the play, and support their choices with details from the text.


King Lear Themes to Look For and Discuss

Foolishness and Manipulation

Both King Lear and Gloucester are foolish in their haste to believe their deceitful children, which allows them to be easily manipulated. Lear’s daughters manipulate him with their words in order to make him believe that they deserve a piece of the kingdom. Cordelia, for her refusal to participate in such a trivial exercise, is disinherited and banished by Lear because he was too foolish to see that her sincerity lay in her refusal to placate him with meaningless words. To further drive this point home, King Lear allows the Fool to be one of his closest confidantes and allies during his struggle, and the Fool constantly reminds and berates the king for his foolishness. Gloucester is fooled by Edmund with the false letter from Edgar and the imaginary sword fight and wound that Edmund stages. His refusal to follow his instincts lead him to trust the wrong son.


Moral Instruction for Nobility

Shakespeare is known for utilizing his plays to send important morals or warnings to the monarchy in veiled ways (in order to keep his head attached to his shoulders). King Lear delivers two important moral instructions for the nobility that are worth noting. King Lear, while out in the storm, muses that as king, he never really took time to understand the hardship of the impoverished people. He suggests that the nobility should go out and learn what it is to be a “wretch” and then share more wealth with them to create a more “just” world. The second instance of moral instruction comes when Gloucester pays “Tom” for taking him to the edge of the “cliff.” He tells Tom that a rich man should feel grief and agony so he will be compelled to distribute his “excess wealth” until every man has enough wealth.


The Consequences of Greed

While it initially seems like all the nice characters finish last, Goneril, Regan, Cornwall, Oswald, and Edmund all meet their most untimely deaths as a result of their pursuit of power and riches. Goneril, Regan, and Cornwall’s lust for power reveals their absolute cruelty, which they direct at King Lear and Gloucester. Edmund’s greed for his father’s inheritance reveals his despicable betrayal of his only brother. Oswald’s actions go beyond merely following his master’s orders: he sees opportunity in apprehending Gloucester, and in turn, envisions many honors and thanks and an escalation in standing in the house once Goneril becomes Queen.


Reconciliation and Redemption

While Lear and Gloucester allow their flaws to get in the way of their reason and make a grave error in deciding which children they trust, they are eventually able to reconcile with Cordelia and Edgar and find forgiveness with them. This redemption for their sins from two very selfless characters does not absolve their guilt and grief, but it does provide some rectification for their mistakes before they die.



King Lear Motifs & Symbols to Look For and Discuss

Lear and Gloucester’s Blindness

Both King Lear and the Earl of Gloucester experience a metaphorical blindness that makes them miss the obvious devotion and love of their honest children in favor of the flattery and lies of their other children. This blindness eventually leads to their ruin, and then their deaths. Both men are also blind to the true identities of Kent and Edgar. Gloucester suffers a physical blindness as well at the hands of Cornwall, who at the same time reveals Gloucester’s blunder in trusting Edmund. Gloucester is left to wander off without physical sight, but truly seeing for the first time, the error of his decision.


The Storm

At the exact time that King Lear realizes the true character of his daughters Goneril and Regan, along with his mistake of disinheriting Cordelia, a great storm begins to rage. It mirrors his own inner turmoil, along with the imbalance of power in the Great Chain of Being. Other characters remark that it is one of the worst storms they’ve ever witnessed, which further substantiates the idea that because the Crown is in crisis, the heavens are revolting violently.


Disguises

Both Edgar and Kent have to utilize disguises to hide in plain sight while they complete their goals. For Kent, he wants to preserve the king’s sanity and kingdom, and protect him from his evil daughters. He disguises himself and becomes the king’s faithful servant, while maintaining an open line of communication with Cordelia. Likewise, Edgar has to disguise himself as a beggar in order to escape his father’s wrath caused by Edmund. He maintains his disguise until he is able to defeat Edmund in a proper fight, although his revelation of his identity to his father causes him to die of grief and joy.


Classical Cultures

Throughout the play, characters make reference to various Greek and Roman gods and ideas. King Lear often calls out to the gods for patience or in anger, and throughout the play, Apollo, Jupiter, Jove, Juno, and Cupid are all mentioned. Edgar, as “Tom” references Nero. King Lear calls Edgar a “Greek philosopher” and finds kinship with Edgar, who rambles on in third person as “Tom”, because Lear himself is beginning to slip into a certain kind of rambling madness.


Themes, Symbols, and Motifs in King Lear

Example

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Student Instructions

Create a storyboard that identifies recurring themes in King Lear. Illustrate instances of each theme and write a short description below each cell.


  1. Click "Use this Template" from the assignment.
  2. Identify the theme(s) from King Lear you wish to include and replace the "Theme 1" text.
  3. Create an image for examples that represents this theme.
  4. Write a description of each of the examples.



Template: Theme

Example

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King Lear as a Tragic Hero


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King Lear is full of important literary elements for students to explore. One of these elements is the tragic hero, a protagonist who seems to be ill-fated, and destined for doom. In this play, King Lear is the tragic hero as his foolish decision leads himself and many others to their ruin and deaths.

The Greek philosopher, Aristotle, first articulated the specific attributes or principles of a tragic hero. For the storyboard below, students can use a template to storyboard the qualities that make King Lear a tragic hero. The finished product outlines each of Aristotle's principles with a detailed explanation of the specific attributes.


ATTRIBUTEDESCRIPTIONExample from King Lear
HamartiaHero's Flaw that Causes Downfall King Lear’s pride and love of flattery leads him to bestow his wealth and power to his daughters based solely on how well they could flatter him with words.
HubrisExcessive Pride As a result of King Lear’s foolish game, Goneril and Regan receive equal shares in the kingdom. Angered by Cordelia’s refusal to participate, King Lear disinherits her, leaving her no other option than to marry the King of France and leave England in the hands of her power-hungry sisters.
PeripeteiaReversal of Fortune Goneril and Regan are allied in their quest to wrench full power from their father. They treat him terribly, remove the knights from his entourage, and lock up his servant in the stocks.
AnagnorisisMoment of Critical Discovery After Kent is locked in the stocks, King Lear seems to realize his grave mistake and rides off into a terrible storm. He is wild with grief and begins to lose his sanity.
NemesisFate that Cannot be Avoided While Lear realizes his wrongs, and he does eventually reconcile with Cordelia, Albany and Edmund’s forces are already too strong. They readily defeat Lear and Cordelia, and Edmund takes them prisoner.
CatharsisAudience's Feeling of Pity or Fear After the Hero's Fall While Edgar is able to expose Edmund’s lies for what he really is, it is too late: Edmund has already sent a guard to kill Cordelia and King Lear. King Lear kills the guard, but it isn’t in time to save Cordelia’s life. Heartbroken, King Lear dies while holding her body in his arms. The audience feels pity that Lear realized his mistakes, but won’t be given a chance to rectify them.

King Lear as a Tragic Hero

Example

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Student Instructions

Create a storyboard that shows how King Lear can be considered a tragic hero.


  1. Identify events of the play or characteristics of King Lear that fit into Aristotelian attributes of a tragic hero.
  2. Illustrate examples for Hamartia, Hubris, Peripeteia, Anagnorisis, Nemesis, and Catharsis.
  3. Write a short description below each cell that specifically relates King Lear as a tragic hero.
  4. Save and submit the assignment.



Tragic Hero Template Blank

Example

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Vocabulary Lesson Plan for King Lear


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Another great way to engage your students is through the creation of storyboards that use vocabulary from King Lear. Here is a list of a few vocabulary words commonly taught with the play, and an example of a visual vocabulary board.


King Lear Vocabulary

  • benison
  • maledictions
  • knave
  • stocks
  • abjure
  • tempest
  • ague
  • dispatch
  • stratagem
  • puissant
  • bedlam
  • heralded

Vocabulary in King Lear

Example

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Student Instructions

Demonstrate your understanding of the vocabulary words in King Lear by creating visualizations.


  1. Choose three vocabulary words from the story and type them in the title boxes.
  2. Find the definition in a print or online dictionary.
  3. Write a sentence that uses the vocabulary word.
  4. Illustrate the meaning of the word in the cell using a combination of scenes, characters, and items.
    • Alternatively, use Photos for Class to show the meaning of the words with the search bar.
  5. Save and submit your storyboard.



Vocabulary Template Blank

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