On setting out to teach King Lear once again

So. It’s the start of term, I’m back in my own classroom after a year of carting my stuff around six different teaching zones, and I have an A level English Literature group after two years of focusing on English Language. Teaching A level English Literature is – as you might expect – one of my favourite things about my job, and I’ll be starting the year with King Lear, which is just about my favourite text to teach. Wahey! So, as a new-school-year resolution, I’m going to try to blog my way through teaching King Lear, partly as a record of the whole unfolding teaching process, and partly to help anyone who’s teaching it for the first time and could do with a hand.

A word first about the start of the A level course. I know A level English Literature isn’t simply a list of set texts, and that the course should involve a wider exploration of what the study of literature actually involves. In the past, I’ve begun the course by getting students to think about what literature is, why we read the kinds of books we do, how our interpretations are shaped by our own particular contexts, and so on. But I was never convinced that the students were ready for that kind of philosophical reflection at that point in their A level experience. Students are often too nervous to open up in front of peers who they might have only just met, and they can get hung up on not wanting to say the wrong thing. A few years ago, I decided to go straight into the first set text, and start to feed in wider critical concepts once students had found their feet and relaxed a bit. It worked much more effectively, and I’ve never been tempted to go back.

Michael Perry’s King Lear poster design. Source: Pinterest

We do the AQA B specification, and study Aspects of Tragedy and Elements of Political and Social Protest Writing, two big chunky genres that students enjoy. Most of our students have done Macbeth at GCSE, so should know something about tragedy already, and in many ways Macbeth is the perfect preparation for King Lear, raising similar questions about tragic protagonists and the errors that set their downfalls in motion, as well as the nature of kingship. But before we even start to think about tragedy, I put the students into groups, and give them a series of images to explore. I also give them a number of prompts:

  • What clues do these images give you as to the play’s central characters and themes?
  • What kinds of locations are featured?
  • What kinds of emotions are conveyed?
  • What do you notice about eyes?
  • What do you notice about crowns?
  • What do you notice about the number three?

The images I chose are all examples of art inspired by King Lear: theatrical posters, cover designs and illustrations. Pinterest is a great source of suitable images, and students can then, as a follow-up, be asked to find their own images and save them to a shared class Pinterest board. My King Lear Pinterest board is here, and you’ll also find some examples on Michele Walfred’s ‘King Lear Theatrical Posters’ website, which provides a fascinating commentary on some of these images. I chose these images to highlight particular aspects of the play and give students a context for their reading, but it’s important to note that the discussion generated also helps the students to get to know each other and establishes a culture in which they are allowed to be tentative and exploratory, sharing ideas and building on each other’s contributions.

Students then summarise the outcomes of their discussion. It’s interesting to see how much of the play’s plot and themes they can piece together. There are obvious points about tensions and rivalries within families, about the precariousness of the crown and the idea of division. Stefano Imbert’s poster for the Boomerang Theatre Company’s 2006 production depicts a man literally split into three, alone on a hilltop in a bleak landscape. Wieslaw Walkulski’s poster for the 1992 production of Król Lear at the Teatr Nowy in Poznan shows the king’s crown disintegrating and obscuring his vision. Istvan Orosz’s striking poster for the 1999 production of Lear Király at the Petrofi Theatre in Hungary, meanwhile, shows the crown entangled in the bare branches of the king’s mind. Other images – including Clare Van Vliet’s woodcut illustration for The Tragedie of King Lear and the stark poster produced for the Wharton Center’s 2011 production of the play – focus on the threat posed by the elements, while chess pieces and grasping hands also feature.

I then introduce some quotations from the play:

  • Meantime we shall express our darker purpose.
  • Come not between the dragon and his wrath!
  • He hath ever but slenderly known himself.
  • Now gods, stand up for bastards!
  • The king falls from bias of nature, there’s father against child.
  • Who is it that can tell me who I am?
  • How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is to have a thankless child!
  • Thou would’st make a good fool.
  • I pray you, father, being weak, seem so.
  • I prithee, daughter, do not make me mad.
  • You heavens, give me patience, patience I need!
  • I will do such things – what they are, yet I know not, but they shall be the terrors of the earth.
  • I am a man more sinned against than sinning.
  • The younger rises as the old doth fall.
  • Then let them anatomise Regan; see what breeds about her heart.
  • The worst is not, so long as we can say ‘This is the worst’.
  • As flies to wanton boys are we to th’gods; they kill us for their sport.
  • ‘Tis the time’s plague when madmen lead the blind.
  • Through tattered clothes great vices do appear: robes and furred gowns hide all.
  • You ever gentle gods, take my breath from me.
  • I fear I am not in my perfect mind.
  • O fool! I shall go mad.
  • I am a very foolish, fond old man.
  • The gods are just.
  • The wheel has come full circle.
  • Why should a dog, a horse, a rat have life, and thou no breath at all?

Students are asked to look for further examples of the themes they’ve identified, and to make connections between quotations. Again, it’s surprising how far students can get in these initial explorations. This week, for instance, my new Year Twelves observed that a number of the quotations make requests of the gods – from Edmond’s ‘Now, gods, stand up for bastards!’ to Gloucester’s ‘You ever gentle gods, take my breath from me’. However, they also spotted that the gods do not necessarily assent to these requests: ‘As flies to wanton boys, are we to th’gods; They kill us for their sport’. They linked this quotation to the recurring images of chess pieces, and the idea that while characters might think they can command the gods, they learn eventually that they are little more than pawns in an indifferent universe.

That was a long way to go in just our first two lessons, accompanied by incredibly rich discussions. Students drew on their knowledge of other plays, and working in groups meant that they were able to build relationships with their new classmates, as well as giving me the chance to observe how they interacted and gauge how confident they were in handling Shakespeare’s language. Their homework for the next lesson was to research the features of tragedy, which is the kind of flipped learning we’ve been doing in English for years without making a fuss about it 🙂

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