King Lear by William Shakespeare is a play (or drama) that every AP English Literature student should be familiar with before taking their exam. Most scholars believe this play was written around 1605, between Othello and Macbeth. Lear is often credited as one of Shakespeare’s greatest plays and is a dynamic piece of literature to use for this exam. It is important to put this play into context. Many Elizabethans were concerned over the recent succession of the British crown after Queen Elizabeth I’s death in 1603 and the transfer of power to James I. There were also several high-profile cases that may have influenced this play. One of note involved Sir Annesley, whose eldest daughter tried to have her father declared insane to take his fortune. The youngest daughter Cordell was successful in defending her father. Elizabethans would have seen the parallels between Cordell and Cordelia’s plights.
In order to choose a literary work to answer your Free Response Question, it’s important to examine the themes outlined in the assigned essay. If you receive an essay assignment with a theme that is not prevalent in your work, select a different piece of literature you are familiar with as the topic of your essay. Below are the central themes which you may discuss in your King Lear AP English Literature Free Response Essay.
King Lear AP English Lit Essay Themes:
A prevalent theme throughout Lear, driving many of our main characters and much of the conflict. Goneril and Regan are seeking power when they feign love for their father to gain control of his kingdom. Lear continues to fight against the loss of his power and the symbol of what was his power when Goneril decreases the King’s retinue. Edmund uses violence and deceit to gain power over his enemies and in society. An analysis of power in this play would not be complete without considering the role gender and age play in Shakespeare’s time versus our own.
Chaos Versus Order or the Breakdown of Authority
Another theme one could use to interpret a Free Response Question. This idea can be examined in two ways: the political and the familial. There’s also the societal and the individual struggle between chaos and order. Political and socially we see this very clearly when Lear decides to break up his kingdom, plunging Britain into chaos. In the family setting, when Lear poses the question of who loves him the best, we see the erosion of family order as sisters jockey for their father’s favor and falsely claim love. From the individual perspective, we see an erosion in the order of the mind when we study Lear. His slow descent into near madness begins when he vainly believes that words show more than action and chooses to believe Goneril and Regan’s professed love over Cordelia’s. This theme is ripe for analysis in any essay and has several angles to choose.
Family (Parent-Child Relationship)
An important theme, particularly father-child relationships as Shakespeare gives us no mother-child pairings. The fathers in King Lear are both incapable of recognizing the true intentions of their children and are easily deceived. Lear is fooled by Goneril and Regan’s effusive words of love and Gloucester is fooled by Edmund’s false letter. Each father rejects the kind and honest child for the deceitful one. In the end, each father is also redeemed in some way by the true child’s love, but tragically their fundamental mistake in trusting a false child leads to their demise.
A strong undercurrent in King Lear. We enter a violent and volatile world in this play. Brutality seems to abound, and there appears to be little justice. Gloucester believes the natural order of the world does not follow the social mores we have placed upon ourselves, He even comments about the gods: “They kill us for their sport”. Edmund, on the other hand, believes that man gets what he deserves. He states “the gods are just”. Despite the two opposing views, Shakespeare presents us with a very uncertain picture by the end of the play. Those who deserve justice, most demonstrably death, get it – like Goneril and Regan. But the innocent die too, like Cordelia. Shakespeare leaves the audience uncertain where true justice lies.
One of the most visible themes if you see this play performed, but also makes itself known on the page. Lear and Gloucester are both contemplating their legacy, their deaths, and the state they will leave this world in when they depart. Lear’s legacy is on a much grander scale; he has an entire nation’s well-being to consider. Shakespeare contemplates the effects age has on one’s judgment in this play, but also our inherent instinct to hold onto our youth at all costs. Though Lear gives up his crown, he does not want to give up the trappings of his power, holding on to any vestige of his youth. Both Gloucester and Lear appear at peace with their age at the beginning of the play but come to full terms with it and their mortality by its end. Age is a means by which we can view Lear’s weakening physical and mental state; this is something Shakespeare emphasizes in several of his works, man’s inability to fight nature’s order.
How to use King Lear for the 2016 AP English Literature Free Response Questions
In some Free Response Questions, you will be asked to use a character as a means to analyze a particular theme. In the following question the act of deception is explored.
“Choose a novel or play in which a character deceives others. Then, in a well-written essay, analyze the motives for that character’s deception and discuss how the deception contributes to the meaning of the work as a whole.”
There is a good deal of deception in King Lear to address for this Free Response Question. The two most demonstrative cases of deception are the antagonists Goneril, Regan, and Edmund. Goneril and Regan deceive their father to gain a greater share of the kingdom and ostracize their younger sister. They know that working together they will be able to achieve greater power. It is also clear by the end that each intended to rule alone. Each sister deceives the other in order to attempt to win Edmund’s love. Goneril poisons Regan in order to finally try to claim Edmund as a husband is the ultimate act of betrayal and deceit.
The sisters’ first actions of deceit against their father are the driving force of the play. Without them, we would have no conflict. Their deception of each other demonstrates that power corrupts familial loyalties and that family ties cannot bind someone who is power-hungry. The sisters; deceit is imperative to the theme of parental relationships and fathers’ inability to recognize the true nature of their children.
Edmund deceives his father as well, using a false letter and wounding himself to make it appear that his brother Edgar was trying to kill their father. Once this is accomplished, Edmund becomes the sole heir. He does all of this to gain status and power. However, these acts of deception against his father, against Edgar, and against Goneril and Regan, are not solely for power. Edmund is seeking the recognition that has been denied him because he was born a bastard. He is rebelling against the entire social system that allowed Gloucester’s true born heir Edgar to stand in a position of wealth. Edmund’s deceit is his currency and the means by which he accomplishes his goals. It contributes to the play’s overall themes of chaos versus order and the questioning nature of justice and is crucial to driving the plot forward.
How to use King Lear for the 2015 AP English Literature Free Response Questions
In some questions, you will be asked to analyze how a particular action function within the narrative. In the question below, cruelty is the means you are asked to view this world and how it is relevant to the theme and characters. The question follow.
“Select a novel, play, or epic poem in which acts of cruelty are important to the theme. Then write a well-developed essay analyzing how cruelty functions in the work as a whole and what the cruelty reveals about the perpetrator and/or victim.”
Cruelty abounds in King Lear. It is an accepted way of life. We see Lear cruelly disown his daughter because she does not succumb to false flattery. We see Edgar reduced to playing a beggar because of the cruel actions of his brother Edmund. Cruelty is a function of this kingdom, but nowhere is this more demonstrative than when Gloucester’s eyes are plucked out. In Act 3 Scene 7, Gloucester is captured by Goneril, Regan, and Cornwall and admits to helping Lear escape the castle. Cornwall declares that he cannot kill Gloucester without a formal trial, but he can torture him severely. They start with plucking his beard and taunting him. Eventually, Gloucester proclaims that he will see Lear restored and Cornwall makes it so this cannot be by plucking out one of Gloucester’s eyes. Later on, in the scene, they gouge out his other eye leaving Gloucester blind. Cornwall cares nothing for justice or respecting the norms of civility. Cornwall is a guest in his home and an elder statesman, but he does not show him the hospitality or deference he’s due; he simply answers to his own blind rage.
Regan and Goneril treat their father very cruelly. After he arrives at Gloucester’s castle, Goneril and Regan team up against Lear and insists he dismiss his knights and place his man Kent in the stocks. All this angers the king and drives him to distraction. Lear decides he would rather sleep out under the stars than in a house where he is disrespected. Goneril and Regan are only too happy to let their father wander out into a storm and prevent anyone from stopping him. They have no concern for Lear’s well-being, only their struggle for power. This reinforces the theme that power corrupts and also demonstrates the troubled parent-child relationship at play in the story. The sisters’ acts of cruelty demonstrate the demise of order and the rise of chaos in King Lear. Goneril and Regan’s actions only highlight their role, they represent pure evil in this world.
How to use King Lear for the 2011 AP English Literature Free Response Questions
Some Free Response Questions ask you to take a particular theme and explore how a character develops within it. In this case you are asked to take justice or injustice and explore the character’s quest and their success, then the effect this quest has on the overall piece. The question is:
“Choose a character from a novel or play who responds in some significant way to justice or injustice. Then write a well-developed essay in which you analyze the character’s understanding of justice, the degree to which the character’s search for justice is successful, and the significance of this search for the work as a whole.”
King Lear is a smart choice for this prompt because justice is a major theme in this play. Cordelia suffers a major injustice at the hands of her father and her sisters when she is disowned. Instead of seeking revenge against those that betrayed her, she stays pure of heart. She accepts a marriage proposal and moves to France, but continues to love her father and her country. Cordelia always wants what is best for those she loves, even if they have not wanted that for her.
Cordelia returns to Britain when her father and country need her most, with an army to defend them. Though she does not come out victorious, Cordelia was key in defeating her sisters. Shakespeare is intentionally unclear when it comes to justice in King Lear. Cordelia’s understanding of justice evolves. She begins with an idyllic view but the lines blur as she suffers great injustices and works through them. At the end we are not left with clear winners and losers, nor are we left with a clear sense of what justice is in this world. Cordelia dies not knowing what kind of a world she is leaving. The small kernel of hope Shakespeare gives us is the reconciliation between Cordelia and her father. The injustice she suffered at his hand is undone before she dies. Cordelia’s search for justice serves the works as a whole and underline the chaos in Lear’s world and uncertainty.
With this guide and an in-depth knowledge of King Lear, you can have great success on the AP English Literature Exam. There are many resources out there to help you practice for the AP English Literature Exam, such as How to Study for the AP English Literature Exam. For an in-depth breakdown into Free Response questions, you should check out The Ultimate Guide to 2016 AP English Literature FRQs. You can take practice online exams at Albert’s AP English Literature Free Response Questions page.
Looking for AP English Literature practice?
Kickstart your AP English Literature prep with Albert. Start your AP exam prep today.
Until then, when I thought of writers, what first came to mind was Mom, hunched over her typewriter, clattering away on her novels and plays and philosophies of life and occasionally receiving a personalized rejection letter. But a newspaper reporter, instead of holing up in isolation, was in touch with the rest of the world. What the reporter wrote influenced what people thought about and talked about the next day; he knew what was really going on. I decided I wanted to be one of the people who knew what was really going on.204
In seventh grade Jeannette is the first person her age to work for the school newspaper, The Maroon Wave. She seeks it out as a place where she can belong and have an identity without worrying about people teasing her for being poor or dirty or criticizing her parents. During her work with the school newspaper Jeannette discovers what she wants to do with her life and what she later ends up doing: journalism. It is important that she not keep her work to herself or experience it alone, like her mother, but rather that it exist as a dialogue between her and the rest of the world.
If you don't want to sink, you better figure out how to swim.66
Rex teaches Jeannette how to swim by literally forcing her to sink or swim. He repeatedly throws her into a sulfur spring in the desert, rescuing her when she sinks only to throw her back in again. Using these methods, Rex is able to train Jeannette to paddle and swim in order to avoid being thrown back into the water. This strategy is representative of Rose Mary and Rex's general approach to parenting. Refusing to coddle their children, they often present them with challenges, some life threatening, that the children are forced to handle.
I wondered if the fire had been out to get me. I wondered if all fire was related, like dad said all humans were related, if the fire that had burned me that day while I cooked hot dogs was somehow connected to the fire I had flushed down the toilet and the fire burning at the hotel. I didn't have the answers to those questions, but what I did know was that I lived in a world that at any moment could erupt into fire. It was the sort of knowledge that kept you on your toes.34
After the hotel where they are staying burns down, a young Jeannette begins to think that fire is a recurring part of her life. She believes that her encounters with fire are all connected and impacted by each other. Most importantly, she realizes that her life is unpredictable and her status transient. Fire is sudden and damaging and capable of changing the trajectory of one's life in an instant. Jeannette's early experiences with fire foreshadow the combustive events to follow in her life.
Mom frowned at me. 'You'd be destroying what makes it special' she said, 'It's the Joshua tree's struggle that gives it its beauty'.38
When Jeannette devises a plan to aright the Joshua tree which has grown sideways in the direction of the constant wind that passes over it, her mother quickly dismisses the idea. Rose Mary claims that the tree is beautiful not because it grows straight like the other trees, but rather because its struggle defines it and makes it unique. Rose Mary is typically unwilling to tamper with nature and she is particularly drawn to the unique form of the Joshua Tree. Through the figure of the tree a young Jeannette learns an important lesson about non-conformity.
After dinner the whole family stretched out on the benches and the floor of the depot and read, with the dictionary in the middle of the room so we kids could look up words we didn't know...Occasionally, on those nights when we were all reading together, a train would thunder by, shaking the house and rattling the windows. The noise was thunderous, but after we'd been there a while, we didn't even hear it.56-57
This scene depicts one of the few peaceful, bonding moments shared between members of the Wells family. Not coincidentally, the family bonds around literature and reading. The importance of this scene is two-fold. Firstly, it debunks stereotypes about the homeless being uneducated or dumb and shows that even those without means can be learned. Secondly, it shows how Jeannette becomes influenced at a young age by the written word and is a possible explanation for her later interest in journalism. It is the parents' literary bent that ultimately saves the children, by giving them the education that allows them to escape their parents' life.
We're not poor.121
When the Walls receive a ride from a stranger after their vehicle breaks down on the highway, Jeannette is annoyed by the tone of the woman who offers to drive them home. She is particularly put off by the woman's frequent use of the word 'poor' to describe the family. Attempting to defend the dignity of her parents and siblings, Jeannette firmly asserts that the family is not poor and the woman quickly apologizes. Following this incident, Jeannette begins to define herself apart from her and her family's situation and she refuses to accept the disdain presented to her by some members of society.
Situations like these, I realized, were what turned people into hypocrites144
Jeannette stands up to her grandmother, Erma when she questions Jeannette's friendship with a African American classmate. When Erma gets angry, Jeannette is surprised that her parents aren't more supportive of her bravery in countering authority. Rex and Rose Mary are less concerned about Jeannette learning non-conformist practices as they are afraid that they will be kicked out of Erma's home. As a result, they chastise their daughter for angering her grandmother. After this incident, Jeannette realizes that even her parents can be forced to conform if the consequences of rebelling are severe enough.
'Oh Yeah?' I said. 'How about Hitler?What was his redeeming quality?'
'Hitler loved dogs,' Mom said without hesitation.144
Rose Mary tries to teach Jeannette a lesson in compassion. She explains that even the worst of people have good qualities. Jeannette is frustrated with the prejudice of her grandmother towards Blacks but Rose Mary encourages Jeannette to instead find her grandmother's positive traits and understand the upbringing that indoctrinated her with such hateful ideas. She wants Jeannette to understand, not judge.
Later that night, Dad stopped the car out in the middle of the desert, and we slept under the stars. We had no pillows, but Dad said that was part of his plan. He was teaching us to have good posture. The Indians didn't use pillows, either, he explained, and look how straight they stood. We did have our scratchy army-surplus blankets, so we spread them out and lay there, looking up at the field of stars. I told Lori how lucky we were to be sleeping out under the sky like Indians.
'We could live like this forever,' I said.
'I think we're going to,' she said.18
This passage illustrates a number of important characterizations in the memoir. Rex, is always dreaming up fantastic alternatives to reality to make life more adventurous for his children. Rex communicates serious situations as privileges and excitement. Jeannette is the only one who plays along with these fantasies of her father's. She believes the words he says, or at least, at a later age, the intent behind them. Though this is early in the memoir, already Lori shows signs of cynicism. She has already stopped believing fully in her father's fantasies and instead sees the reality of their circumstances.
Mom pointed her chopsticks at me. 'You see?' she said. 'Right there. That's exactly what I'm saying. You're way too easily embarrassed. Your father and I are who we are. Accept it.'
'And what am I supposed to tell people about my parents?'
'Just tell the truth,' Mom said. 'That's simple enough.'5
This conversation takes place immediately before Jeannette's description of her childhood. Her mother behaves almost like a muse invoking Jeannette's story and giving her the confidence to tell it. This quote also reveals some of Jeannette's apprehensions about letting her colleagues and friends know the truth about her life growing up. Even in adulthood, she has a hard time accepting the truth of her upbringing and fears that the past will somehow damage her present happiness.