King Lear

by

William Shakespeare

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King Lear: Tone 1 key example

Read our modern English translation.
Definition of Tone
The tone of a piece of writing is its general character or attitude, which might be cheerful or depressive, sarcastic or sincere, comical or mournful, praising or critical, and so on. For instance... read full definition
The tone of a piece of writing is its general character or attitude, which might be cheerful or depressive, sarcastic or sincere, comical or mournful, praising or critical... read full definition
The tone of a piece of writing is its general character or attitude, which might be cheerful or depressive, sarcastic or sincere, comical... read full definition
Act 1, scene 4
Explanation and Analysis:

As is fitting for a tragedy of this scale, Shakespeare adopts a dark and anguished tone in King Lear that reflects the plight of his beleaguered tragic hero. Even the Fool, often a source of comic relief in Shakespeare, can offer no respite. In Act 1, Scene 4, he can only enforce the worsening outlook for the king:

Why—after I have cut the egg i’ th’ middle and eat up the meat—the two crowns of the egg. When thou clovest thy crown i’ th’ middle, and gavest away both parts, thou borest thy ass o’ th’ back o’er the dirt. Thou hadst little wit in thy bald crown when thou gavest thy golden one away. If I speak like myself in this, let him be whipped that first finds it so.

The Fool clearly conveys the hopelessness of the situation: Lear, despite having complete control over his kingdom, insists on dividing his power and sacrificing his station. It is as if he gave his very crown away. Everything that will come about in the rest of the play is the product of these mistakes, and Lear can only watch—through madness and lucidity—as they unfold around him.

As characters bicker incessantly and their behavior devolves into senseless violence, the tone deteriorates into an existential grimness. This final tone may be felt most strongly in Shakespeare’s treatment of Lear’s reaction to Cordelia’s death, in Act 5, Scene 3:

I know when one is dead and when one lives.
She's dead as earth. Lend me a looking glass.
If that her breath will mist or stain the stone,
Why then, she lives.

Even as he pronounces his daughter dead, Lear finds himself wallowing in denial of this tragedy—he attempts to see if she is alive by observing if her breath produces mist on a looking-glass. There are few things more heart-wrenching than a parent confronted by the death of their child, and Shakespeare's portrayal of the brutality of grief-driven denial brings home his grim and unflinching outlook on human nature.

Act 5, scene 3
Explanation and Analysis:

As is fitting for a tragedy of this scale, Shakespeare adopts a dark and anguished tone in King Lear that reflects the plight of his beleaguered tragic hero. Even the Fool, often a source of comic relief in Shakespeare, can offer no respite. In Act 1, Scene 4, he can only enforce the worsening outlook for the king:

Why—after I have cut the egg i’ th’ middle and eat up the meat—the two crowns of the egg. When thou clovest thy crown i’ th’ middle, and gavest away both parts, thou borest thy ass o’ th’ back o’er the dirt. Thou hadst little wit in thy bald crown when thou gavest thy golden one away. If I speak like myself in this, let him be whipped that first finds it so.

The Fool clearly conveys the hopelessness of the situation: Lear, despite having complete control over his kingdom, insists on dividing his power and sacrificing his station. It is as if he gave his very crown away. Everything that will come about in the rest of the play is the product of these mistakes, and Lear can only watch—through madness and lucidity—as they unfold around him.

As characters bicker incessantly and their behavior devolves into senseless violence, the tone deteriorates into an existential grimness. This final tone may be felt most strongly in Shakespeare’s treatment of Lear’s reaction to Cordelia’s death, in Act 5, Scene 3:

I know when one is dead and when one lives.
She's dead as earth. Lend me a looking glass.
If that her breath will mist or stain the stone,
Why then, she lives.

Even as he pronounces his daughter dead, Lear finds himself wallowing in denial of this tragedy—he attempts to see if she is alive by observing if her breath produces mist on a looking-glass. There are few things more heart-wrenching than a parent confronted by the death of their child, and Shakespeare's portrayal of the brutality of grief-driven denial brings home his grim and unflinching outlook on human nature.

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