King Lear’s Eco-Futurity

Below you will find an example of what a final draft of the Digital Gloss assignment can look like. Remember, you are free to choose two of the four subheadings.


From the division of the Kingdoms to the final “Never, never, never!” (24.303), King Lear seems totally sterile. Consider the infertility rings out in Lear’s refrain: “Nothing can come of nothing” (1.81 and 4.126); the way that the rosemary and pins Edgar “strikes” in his “bare arms” suggests nothing can grow in the earth (7.181-82); and the image of the failed graft with which Albany figures Gonoril’s “disposition” (16.32-36 Q1) as just three instances of King Lear‘s barren nature. And yet, for all the “Never’s,” “Nothing’s,” and “O’s” (24.304), the play teems with animal and vegetable life.

There is a veritable assemblage of foxes, horses, cats, adders, vultures, bears, crows, choughs, and all manner of dogs. Add to the menagerie of animals rosemary, samphire, and of course, “rank fumitory and furrow-weeds,/With burdocks, hemlock, nettles, cuckoo-flowers,/Darnel, and all the idle weeds that grow/In our sustaining corn” (18.3-5), and the play seems less a barren waste and more a seething aggregate of viability. Not only does the play stage vegetable excesses amid the total collapse of civilization, characters constantly attribute ruin to cataclysmic natural events. For instance, Gloucester attributes several crises to “These late eclipses in the sun and moon” (2.101-102), just as Kent credits “the stars/The stars above us” for their dire conditions. Despite the ruin, waste, and nihility with which the play engages its audience, I argue King Lear offers a model for sustainable futures. The prototype for human, nonhuman, and inhuman ecology the play provides is an especially useful resource for 21st century readers. Since we live after radical environmental change, i.e. humans effect the world now more than ever, we need to reconsider the future we have imagined for ourselves. If we look to our past, as Shakespeare looked to his, we can find ways to face our mistakes and develop a more capacious regard for nature and our place in it.

Critical Responses

King Lear has been a regarded as an exemplary instance of the pastoral in English since its inception. In recent years the play has become a key text for Posthumanism. Two key examples of Posthumanist King Lear scholarship are Laurie Shannon’s “Poor, Bare, Forked: Animal Happiness and the Zoographic Critique of Humanity,” from her book, The Accommodated Animal: Cosmopolity in Shakespearean Locales and Andreas Hofele’s “‘I’ll see their trial first’: Law and Disorder in Lear’s Animal Kingdom,” from his book Stage, Stake, and Scaffold: Humans and Animals in Shakespeare’s Theater.

Though Shannon and Hofele both agree that King Lear engages the animal kingdom as much as human sovereignty, they make two different arguments. Shannon argues (will develop the rest of the paragraph with a 3-4 sentence overview of her main claim and the compare it to Hofele’s argument in 3-4 sentences. Then in a third paragraph draw conclusions about ways the overlap effects my reading of the play)

Recent Performance History

Animals, vegetables, and minerals are important in two recent production of King Lear.

When John Lithgow played Lear in Central Park two summers ago, one commenter explained how a raccoon crossed the stage while Mr. Lithgow was off of it. The blog provided a record of all sorts of unexpected nonhuman interventions over the course of the production, as well as Mr. Lithgow’s delightful reflections on the production. (Develop with more detail and connect back to previous sections)

Consider also a recent production of the play in London in which the director cast one human and nine sheep. In Lear with Sheep, (will develop the rest of the paragraph with a 3-4 sentence overview of the production claim and the compare it to the Lithgow Central Park production in 3-4 sentences. Then in a third paragraph draw conclusions about ways the overlap influences my reading of the play)

King Lear, First Quarto (1608), based on the Stanley Wells Q1 Oxford Edition (2000).


Sc. 17
 [First] Gentleman
 [First] Gentleman
 [First] Gentleman
 [First] Gentleman
 [First] Gentleman
 [First] Gentleman
 [First] Gentleman
 [First] Gentleman
 [First] Gentleman
 [First] Gentleman
Enter the Earl of Kent disguised, and [First] Gentleman
Why the King of France is so suddenly gone back know you no reason?
Something he left imperfect in the state
Which, since his coming forth, is thought of; which
Imports to the kingdom so much fear and danger
That his personal return was most required
And necessary.
Who hath he left behind him general?
The Marechal of France, Monsieur la Far.
Did your letter pierce the Queen to any demonstration of grief?
Ay, sir. She took them, read them in my presence,
And now and then an ample tear trilled own
Her delicate cheek. It seemed she was a queen
Over her passion who, most rebel-like,
Sought to be king o’er her.
O, then it moved her.
Not to a rage. Patience and sorrow strove
Who should express her goodliest. You have seen
Sunshine and rain at once; her smiles and tears
Were like, a better way. Those happy smilets
That played on her ripe lip seemed not to know
What guests were in her eyes, which parted thence
As pearls from diamonds dropped. In brief,
Sorrow would be a rarity most beloved
If all could so become it.
Made she no verbal question?
Faith, once or twice she heaved the name of ‘father’
Pantingly forth as of it pressed her heart,
Cried ‘Sisters, sisters, shame of ladies, sisters,
Kent, father, sisters, what, i’th’ storm, i’th’night,
Le piety not be believed!’ There she shook
The holy water from her heavenly eyes
And clamor mastered, then away she started
To deal with grief alone.
It is the stars,
The stars above us govern our conditions,
Else one self make and make could not beget
Such different issues. You spoke not with her since?
Was this before the King returned?
No, since.
Well, sir, the poor distressed Lear’s i’th’town,
Who sometimes in his better tune remembers
What we are come about, and by no means
Will yield to see his daughter.
Why, good sir?
A sovereign shame so elbows him: how own unkindness,
That stripped her form his benediction, turned her
To foreign casualties, gave her dear rights
To his dog-hearted daughter-these things sting
His mind so venomously that burning shale
Detains him from Cordelia.
Alack, poor gentleman!
Of Albany’s and Cornwall’s powers you heard not?
‘Tis so; they are afoot.
Well, sir, I’ll bring you to our master Lear,
And leave you to attend him. Some dear cause
Will in concealment wrap me up a while.
When I am known aright you shall not grieve
Lending me this acquaintance. I pray you go
Along with me.