Escaping the family in King Lear


The essay in the 2015 A level paper set by OCR centered on the idea that there is “.no escape from the family”.  This post is intended as part of a give back for my current year 13s who sat the paper in their Mock exams yesterday.  It is a short summary of thinking and needs to be filled out by students considering this area.

My intention is not to write a long essay here, but to present some bullets which might have resonance when planning this essay and others to which it relates.

OCR gave this comment in the Mark Scheme: This question invites candidates to evaluate the view that ‘In this play, there is no escape from the family.’ Candidates should look in appropriate detail (AO2) at the two principal divided family groups: Lear and his daughters, and Gloucester and his sons. Candidates need to look in detail (AO2) at both groups, looking at the love test, Cordelia’s rejection, and Lear’s exclusion. Answers also need to look at Gloucester’s attitude to, and treatment of his sons, and their contrasting responses to him. Candidates are likely to argue that in the concluding scenes family ties continue to assert themselves.  They add this in terms of assessment criteria: In section A, the dominant assessment objectives are AO3 (**), to offer responses informed by interpretations of other readers, and AO2 (**), to demonstrate detailed critical understanding in analysing the ways in which structure, form and language shape meanings in literary texts.
Answers are also assessed for AO1 (*), to articulate creative, informed and relevant responses to literary texts, using appropriate terminology and concepts, and coherent, accurate written expression and AO4 (*), to demonstrate understanding of the significance and influence of the contexts in which literary texts are written and understood.
This guidance is intended to indicate aspects of questions that may feature in candidates’ answers. It is not prescriptive, nor is it exclusive; examiners must be careful to reward original but well-focused answers and implicit as well as explicit responses to questions.  So far so good.

  • My first consideration in the question itself might be the noun “escape”.  I think this needs to be explored to an extent at the outset since it makes the question so much more than a response to the evident family intrigues and strands of narrative.  Writers need to consider who might be trying to escape, and what mechanisms might be preventing them from doing so.  Thus, Cordelia can be discussed as one who escapes in Act 1 (“freedom is hence”) from a controlling and cruel family, only to return in Act 4 in order to try to rescue her father.  In short -she has a chance of escape and flunks it.  Her family loyalty is highly praiseworthy, but her failure to gain victory in battle is her downfall.
  • Lear is divesting himself of his Kingdom.  However he is unable to forfeit the rights and power of a King.  As monarch, he is Britain and can be seen to find himself unable to relinquish his paternal control over the whole state, as well as over his daughters.  That they are only too keen to escape from his power and seem to shut him out on the Heath without a second thought, suggests that they are less trapped by this relationship and that , perhaps they escape their father’s influence quite easily (in terms of their moral position on the matter)..
  • At the end of the play, when Lear and Cordelia are reunited, opinions differ as to the nature and quality of reconciliation seen (do your own reading around this issue, Year 13).  Whilst Cordelia can be said to have been brought down due to her inability to escape her “bond” – the tie which holds her to Lear throughout the play, it is less clear whether he has been unable to escape, or, indeed, whether he intended to escape in the first place..Yes, he has been reunited and seems grateful on his own terms.  His idea of sitting in prison as “birds i’ the cage” suggest the very opposite of a wish for escape.  Since Cordelia’s feelings are never explored at this stage it is in the lap of the director to suggest Cordelia’s attitude.  Certainly one could suggest that her death in the dungeon with Lear as a spectator shows that her only means of escaping her father is to die.  Hardly a positive outcome.
  • In the Gloucester household there is a neat inversion.  Edmund stands outside the family at the beginning and wishes to enter it – once achieved, it is Edgar who needs to escape from the “new” family prior to being able to restore his position at the end of the play.
  • Edmund disposes of Edgar quite effectively and with minimal fuss, in order to establish himself as “family”.  His plotting removes his father and places him as “Earl of Gloucester” as the new figurehead of a family.  As with all in the play there is no extended information and families seem to consist only of those in the cast list – no parents, wives, mothers or offspring.  Given this, we could suggest that Edmund has successfully destroyed his entire family by his actions and established a new line, intending presumably to marry which ever of Goneril and Regan he can and thus uniting the two families at the centre of the play.  However for him the idea of escape is very clear once he has reached this point.  Edgar’s return as an anonymous challenger does not alert him to danger.  He does not see his end coming and it is only after the duel that the truth is revealed.  His family has caught up with him.  Unlike in the Lear plot, he has been unable to escape and has been vanquished by his wronged brother.
  • Students must consider the actions of Lear and Gloucester in terms of their family – banishment and preferment, but it is the idea of “escape which interested me in this question.
  • Don’t forget though – no discussion at A level will be well rewarded without reference to Language Structure and Form.  Look closely at the structure of the play – it begins with family intrigue for example: this can be no accident.  Also students need awareness of Contexts and a good working knowledge of critical positions.  The essays should be a debate.  In OCR’s note the word “evaluate” is used.  This is key.  There is no single answer to an essay such as this.  You are expected to weigh 360 degrees around thew question in order to attain the highest marks.

This website might help: link to Folger Library JSTOR and Shakespeare resource