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King Lear questions

King Lear

First of all let’s look at the broad categories questions usually fall into:



You may be asked to discuss the following when it comes to characters:

King Lear:

  • a tragic hero? (does he recognise his flaws and gain self-knowledge?)
  • his nobility (is he a good man? / strengths & weaknesses / virtues & flaws)
  • his relationship with his daughters & treatment of / by them
  • the extent to which he is responsible for the tragedy which occurs
  • our level of sympathy for him


  • his nobility / is he a good man? / strengths and weaknesses / virtues and flaws
  • our level of sympathy for him
  • his relationship with his sons & treatment of / by them
  • his dramatic function in the play

Lear & Gloucester:

  • how and why their stories mirror each other
  • the extent to which they bring about their own downfall
  • our level of sympathy for them


  • too good to be true or a believable character?
  • virtues and flaws / our level of sympathy for her
  • dramatic function in the play?

Goneril and Regan:

  • treatment of their father
  • extent to which they present a very negative view of women


  • an admirable villain? or a sociopath?

Edmund and Edgar:

  • contrast in their characters and personalities

Kent and The Fool

  • dramatic function and believability

All characters:

  • contrast the extremes of good and evil presented in the characters in the play
  • the play is very pessimistic about human nature
  • the play is very pessimistic about human relationships / family / parent – child dynamics


The major themes in the play are:

  • Justice
  • Family
  • Loyalty & Betrayal
  • Blindness
  • Appearance vs Reality (Deception/Manipulation)
  • Madness
  • Love
  • Good and Evil
  • Suffering
  • Forgiveness
  • Kingship

For each theme – no matter what the wording – ask yourself

WHO does this theme apply to?
HOW / WHY does this character have to deal with this issue?
Do they CHANGE over the course of the play?
Are there any SCENES which highlight this theme specifically?
What are our FINAL IMPRESSIONS of this issue?


  • Relevance to a modern audience
  • Pessimistic play?


  • Language & Imagery
  • Dramatic Irony
  • Compelling Drama – scene or scenes


In each case you are given a statement which you can fully agree with, partially agree with or completely disagree with. In the most recent Chief Examiner’s Report, students were advised to avoid taking an overly simplistic approach (“I agree 100% that…”). It’s understandable that this would be your first instinct under exam conditions, but remember that a single sentence rarely sums up accurately the complexity and nuance of an entire play. Yes, you’ll look for evidence that supports the statement, but you’ll also need to display an awareness that different phases in the play contain different truths. Your attitude to a character, theme, relationship in the play will change and morph as the play unfolds and the plot develops…

King Lear

King Lear is a man more sinned against than sinning” – Discuss

Lear is a ‘foolish fond old man’ who deserves everything he gets” – Discuss

Lear embarks on a harrowing journey through suffering to self-knowledge. At the end of the play he is a better and wiser man

The play King Lear is a realistic tragedy that depicts the tragic consequences of one man’s folly

King Lear is not a tragic hero, but rather a victim of circumstances


“Gloucester is a weak and gullible man, but at heart, a decent one”

“Gloucester serves an important dramatic function in making Lear’s circumstances more credible”

“Discuss the dramatic significance of the Gloucester story in the play King Lear”

Lear and Gloucester

“Neither Lear nor Gloucester are deserving of the love and service they receive from their followers”


“Cordelia shares with her father the faults of pride and obstinacy”

“Cordelia’s dramatic function in the play is twofold: her wisdom highlights her father’s foolishness; her goodness  highlights her sisters’ malevolence” 

Goneril and Regan

“Lear’s evil daughters allow Shakespeare to present a very negative view of women in the play”


“Edmund is a sociopath: a charming liar, incapable of remorse, who views men and women merely as obstacles or aids to his ambition”

“Edmund is an admirable villain. At the beginning of the play he has nothing; by the end he is almost King”

Edmund and Edgar

“Gloucester’s sons represent the very best and the very worst in human nature”

Minor characters: Kent & The Fool

“The Fool serves as Lear’s conscience in the play. When he disappears, it is because Lear no longer needs him”

“The fool is an unnecessary distraction in the play King Lear”

“Kent is too loyal to be believable as a real human being”

General character questions

“The play King Lear offers characters who represent the very best and the very worst in human nature”

“Shakespeare’s King Lear presents a dark and pessimistic view of humanity”



“Cosmic justice is denied, yet human justice prevails in the play King Lear”


“The relationship between parents and children is unrealistically portrayed in the play King Lear”

Loyalty (&/or Betrayal)

“It is only the loyalty of loved ones that enables Lear and Gloucester to endure their sufferings”


“The theme of blindness – both physical and emotional – is dramatically presented in the play King Lear”

Appearance vs Reality (Deception/Manipulation)

“In King Lear, whilst characters are initially fooled by appearances, they gradually come to see the truth”


“In King Lear, ‘sane’ characters frequently behave in a crazy manner, whilst ‘mad’ characters at times seem perfectly sane”


“Love as a redemptive force is a major theme in the play King Lear”

The play King Lear memorably explores the meaning of love

Good and Evil

“King Lear examines the nature of good and evil but neither force emerges triumphant”


“Learning through suffering is central to the play”


The importance of self-knowledge and forgiveness is strikingly evident in the play King Lear”


“The play King Lear explores what it means to be a good King”


“The play King Lear offers us one central experience: pessimism”

“Shakespeare’s vision of the world is not entirely pessimistic in the play King Lear”

“King Lear is one of the greatest tragedies ever written”

“Scenes of great suffering and of great tenderness help to make King Lear a very memorable play”

“The two plots of King Lear are closely paralleled in theme, character and action, to great dramatic effect”

“What, if any, relevance, does the play King Lear hold for today’s readers?”


“King Lear is a play filled with striking images and symbols which heighten our experience of the play”

“Dramatic irony is used to tragic, and occasionally comic effect, in Shakespeare’s King Lear”

“The way characters speak accurately reflects their personality in Shakespeare’s King Lear”

King Lear contains many scenes of compelling drama, but the extremity of the cruelty and violence presented prevents the audience from achieving catharsis. Rather than a release, we feel haunted by what we have witnessed

Book Covers sample answer

NOTE: This article was originally published in the Irish Independent Written Word Supplement, March 2014.

Publishing houses often create more than one cover for the same book, particularly if they feel the book will appeal to ‘multiple target demographics‘. In simple English, this means they think people of different ages, life stages, genders, hobbies and education levels will all like this book so they can’t just target one specific group (young adult readers, romantic fiction fans, sci-fi nerds) with their advertising efforts.

One way they get around this is by creating different book covers aimed at different groups. For example, you can probably remember that there were children and adult book cover versions of all of the Harry Potter books so that adults didn’t have to feel embarrassed sitting on the train reading them!

As with the photographs, you may be presented with more than one cover and asked which one you prefer, or which one best captures the theme of the written text. In this case an extract from the novel itself will most likely accompany the book covers so that you get a flavour for the book even if you haven’t read it. You might also be asked to say whether or not the book cover would entice you to buy and read the novel.

When assessing the effectiveness of a book cover or for that matter of any product or advertisement ask yourself three questions:

  1. Does it grab my attention?

  2. Does it make an impression?

  3. Does it convince me to buy the book / product / service?

Have a look at this book cover for the wonderful novel Skippy Dies by Irish author Paul Murray.

skippy dies b

Sample Question:

Does this book cover for “Skippy Dies” make you want to read the novel? Give reasons for your answer, based on a close reading of the various visual and textual elements. (20 marks)

Sample Answer:

This book cover instantly grabs my attention. I really like the design and colour scheme: the geometric pattern of semi-circles in alternating shades of green and red against a warm cream background is quite hypnotic. It also looks like the cover had water spilt onto it in places as the paint has smudged and I feel this prevents the design from being too clinical in appearance. This slightly bohemian edge is again evident in the vertical lines drawn by hand around the edges of the rough red and cream semi-circles which reveal the title of the novel and the author. I like the handwriting font too which adds to the informal vibe. All of these features add a warmth to the book cover; a willingness not to be too perfect, which I really like.

In much smaller font at the top and bottom are quotes from reviews, sourced from reputable newspapers The Times and The Guardian. Including these snippets tells us this is literature, not pulp fiction, and yet the promise of fun and entertainment ensures we’re not scared off – if reading this book is “hilarious” and “outrageously enjoyable” then I can cope with the “tragic” content!

At the very bottom of the page we’re told this book was “SHORTLISTED FOR THE 2012 COSTA NOVEL AWARD” and fellow author David Nicholls describes Murray as “A brilliant comic writer” At this point it’s difficult to resist this book, it’s being so highly praised!

The title also instantly intrigues, with the stark warning that in this book “Skippy Dies”. It’s a daring concept to tell the reader what’s going to happen and yet still ask them to invest their time and emotions in the characters, three of whom are represented in little uneven edged coloured blobs, each with their own rough line drawing. The presence of two boys and one girl at first brought a love triangle to my mind, but the fact that the girl is on the right rather than in the centre made me question this assumption. Their youth suggests that this might be a coming of age story, but my awareness that a central character dies gives this book an edge. It makes me think this is not going to be some twee little teen romance, but rather a book which challenges and provokes.

To conclude, this book cover most certainly made an impression on me and I am now tempted to leave the exam hall to go buy it!


Sample answer visual texts

NOTE: This article was originally published in the Irish Independent Written Word Supplement, March 2014.

We all know a good photo when we see it: a splash of colour, a glint in the eye, a captivating landscape, a moment frozen in time. Yet articulating what makes an image spellbinding can be quite difficult.

It can help to think of your eyes as zoom lenses and of the photo as a puzzle to be deciphered. Each piece of the puzzle can be zoomed in on individually, analysed, discussed and interpreted. Each element contributes to helping you make sense of the bigger picture.

Consider some of the following elements when interpreting an image:

Framing: What is your eye drawn to immediately? What’s in the foreground / background / centre / left / right of the frame? Is everything in focus or are some elements blurry? Why might this be?

Body language & facial expression: What mood is reflected in the subject’s face? Are their eyes telling you something? What about the tilt of their head? Look at their hands and arms and legs: are they reaching, holding, relaxing, moulding? Does the slope of their shoulders reflect their mood?

Setting: Where is the photo taken? When? Consider time of day, season and era. Clothes, hairstyles, accessories and objects can give you clues about where and when the photo is set.

Lighting & colour: is the lighting natural or artificial, indoors or outdoors? Are shadows used? To what effect? What colours stand out? Do they symbolise anything? Has a filter been applied? Why?

Comprehension questions on visual texts:

In the exam, there will typically be two or three images accompanying each written text. These can be any mixture of photos, paintings, graphs, book covers and possibly even cartoons, posters and advertisements. Although these last three have yet to make an appearance, whoever is setting the papers seems to like mixing things up a lot, so expect the unexpected! No matter what type of visual text appears, remember to zoom in on details, colours and, if relevant, text (font size & style). Questions can ask you to select your favourite image and explain why you like it; to describe the impact of the photo on you intellectually and emotionally; to evaluate how well an image captures a theme; or to assess how well the written and visual elements work together.

Let’s imagine this photo, and two others, accompany a text on the theme of childhood.

Hazel reaching up

Sample Question:

In your opinion, which of the visual images best captures the theme of childhood? Give reasons for your answer, supporting your points through close analysis of the visual text”. (20 marks)

Sample Answer:
In my opinion, image two, which shows a young girl reaching up to grasp the window ledge of an old school building, is the image which best captures the theme of childhood. Her small body is barely tall enough to see in the ‘window’ so she is on her tippy toes, her head is tilted right back and both of her arms are at full stretch. Her curiosity to see and to know, which is such a feature of childhood, is really endearing in this photo. [Focus on body language]

She looks too small to have started school yet and there is a nice contrast between the little girl outside the window and the painting of the two older children who are ‘in’ the schoolhouse. They are not nearly as enthralled by the concept of school once they have seen it from the inside, which is so true of childhood. As a child, you often want something really badly but once you’ve got it, you tire of it easily. [Focus on framing in the image, particularly the use of contrast]

I also found the detail in the painted children quite striking. The boy at the back of the window frame is pulling the hair of the girl in front of him. She looks quite distressed, while a shadow across his face captures his cruel intention. This detail captures the casual torment and violence children are capable of inflicting on each other. Physical fights, slaps, hair pulling and kicks from siblings and classmates are a feature of childhood many of us remember with a cold shiver down our spines. [Focus on facial expression & light/shadow]

Finally, this photo reminds me powerfully of schooldays from my childhood that seemed to drag on interminably. Neither of the painted children are paying any attention to their schoolwork: however, the clock on the wall says that it is a few minutes to four o’ clock so it’s hardly surprising that they’re finding it hard to concentrate! The torture of being trapped in the school for what seems like forever is further emphasised by the fact that it is clearly a bright summer’s day, reflected in the t-shirt, shorts and crocs worn by the little girl and in the blue sky at the top of the photo peeking through the fluffy white clouds. [Focus on weather, clothes and lighting to reveal season]

For all of these reasons, to my mind this striking image brilliantly captures the wonder, curiosity, fickleness and cruelty of childhood.