Space in King Lear


In Scene 1, Goneril declares that her love for Lear is “dearer than eyesight, space, or liberty” (Shakespeare 1.50). This moment foreshadows the tragedy that subsequently unfolds, where Lear loses all three things that are held to be of immense value. This essay focuses specifically on the presentation of space. Not only does it drive the play, for Lear’s division of “space” sets the tragedy in motion, the concept of space has important existential implications. In King Lear, the age-old question of identity, or who am I, is inextricably tied to the question of where am I. Space problematizes existence as it delocalizes man and results in the negation of being. The dramatization of space through the stage’s fluid transition from enclosures to open spaces also underscores important aspects of the human condition, such as the affliction of shame.

Space is a fundamentally indefinable area of “unlimited extent” (OED Online, “space”) that cannot be particularized, unlike place, which is defined as a “particular part or region of space; a spot, a location” (OED Online, “place”). Yet, characters desire mastery over space, and the play begins with Lear as an authoritative figure who is in the process of arbitrarily delimiting “space” by having it “divided in three” (Shakespeare 1.37-38). He presides over a map, and this is significant as cartography is the art of neatly containing space and rendering space identifiable with precision. Lear’s desire for accuracy and definition is made manifest in his attention to minutiae, for in parceling out Goneril’s share, he speaks “of all these bounds, even from this line to this” (Shakespeare 1.57). Moreover, the assertive localizing statement of “here is the place” is often repeated in the play, suggesting a desire and need for localization.

Notably, this search for localization is not merely confined to the physical plane, but is also existential. Localizing statements in the play are only made to Lear and Gloucester, who both share the trait of blindness (Shakespeare 11.1, 20.11). While Gloucester is physically blind, Lear’s madness is a form of psychological blindness that distorts his perception of reality.  Due to their blindness, both experience an infinite existential space of darkness, and are tormented because there is nothing to anchor their existence. To Gloucester, “all [is] dark and comfortless”, and this nihilism drives him to attempt suicide (Shakespeare 14.82). Similarly, after being reduced to nothing, the “tempest in [Lear’s] mind” (Shakespeare 11.13) is mirrored by the stormy darkness of the “wrathful skies” (Shakespeare 9.43). He seeks to “smite […] the world” and annihilate existence (Shakespeare 9.7). The play therefore portrays the human condition at its bleakest, when man’s life is void of meaning.

Additionally, the play sexualizes space, which is consistent with the traditional association of female sexual organs with absence, or space, compared to the male sexual organ, which is a presence that fills the space. This sexualization of space is first observed in the opening scene when Lear pronounces that it is of the “space” parceled to Goneril that he “make[s] [her] lady” (Shakespeare 1.59). While the transfer of physical space enhances Goneril’s social position as a “lady” of the court, “space” can also be understood on a metaphorical level as the sexual organs that make Goneril a “lady” in the context of womanhood. Similarly, when Edgar discovers Goneril’s adulterous intentions, he uses the imagery of an “indistinguished space” guided by her womanly desires to describe what can only be her sexual organs (Shakespeare 20.263).

However, this sexualization of space throws man’s existential being into question. Human life spontaneously comes into being, “spring[ing]” from the sexualized space of the womb (Shakespeare 4.270). However, the fact that man is something that comes from space, which is fundamentally absence (“nothing”), contradicts the logical deduction that “nothing can come from nothing” (Shakespeare 1.81). This creates existential anxiety for the characters, in particular Lear, because it negates man’s existence by suggesting that man is indeed nothing. Lear’s shockingly virulent curse can be seen as a desperate attempt to reconcile this contradiction, for in hoping that Goneril’s “womb convey sterility” and her “organs of increase”“dry up”, nothing can truly come from nothing (Shakespeare 4.268-269).

In King Lear, the boundless nature of space is also presented as hostile, and prompts characters to constantly engage in the search for accommodation. Place and space are often juxtaposed in the play, as in Scene 8, when Lear departs from Regan’s home into the heath, which is depicted by Gloucester as a barren space with “scarce a bush” for “many miles about” (Shakespeare 8.457-458). However, it is ironic that the expansive and uncurtailed space, as represented by the “open night”, is intrinsically oppressive to man, while an enclosed shelter is seen to offer relief. Kent notably declares that “the tyranny of the open night’s too rough / for nature to endure” when he persuades Lear to enter the hovel (Shakespeare 11.1-2). This is echoed in Gloucester’s “alack, the night comes on” (Shakespeare 8.455). The anxiety over fast-approaching, claustrophobic nightfall is especially important because darkness creates a truly empty space, where the few localizing markers of shrubbery and houses are completely eradicated. Yet again, in leading Lear to a farmhouse adjourning the castle, Gloucester asserts that “here is better than the open air” (Shakespeare 13.1). Interestingly, the search for accommodation is characterized by a constant interruption and movement of locations, from Regan’s castle to the hovel, and then to the farmhouse. Man’s valiant efforts to localize himself are ultimately futile because no lasting localization is found. Furthermore, the Fool starkly reminds us that the localized boundaries that man has demarcated for himself cannot confine space, which is the “out o’door” that unavoidably exists in its boundless nature beyond the flimsy “dry house” (Shakespeare 9.10-11).

On face value, characters avoid the heath’s openness in order to minimize exposure to the elements of “rain”, “thunderbolts” and “hurricanoes” (Shakespeare 9.2-5). However, it is important to note the openness of space invites scrutiny, and the natural elements that assail man are often associated with divine punishment. Lear notably calls on them to “smite […] the world” in an apocalyptic fashion (Shakespeare 9.7). Hence, the search for enclosures that disrupt and delimit space reflects a more complex facet of the human experience, for it is motivated by the desire to be hidden from external observation and judgment. Indeed, the enclosures in the play share this common thread of shielding the individual from view. In productions of King Lear, the hovel that Lear enters is often depicted as a “trap door” (Shakespeare 11.1 footnote) which offers surreptitious concealment. In Scene 13, while resting in the farmhouse, Lear exhibits a desire for additional enclosure and isolation when he requests that Kent “draw the curtains” and “make no noise; make no noise” (Shakespeare 13.77). The curtains partition the space and effectively shroud the individual from external view. Finally, Lear’s yearning for the enclosure of the prison, or “cage” (Shakespeare 24.8), which he envisions as a blissful experience with Cordelia, is telling despite his mad distortion of reality. Even as the “birds i’ the cage” are imprisoned within, others are locked out and barred from access (Shakespeare 24.8). This aversion to exposure, and open space, ties in with the central theme of shame in the play, which comes to the forefront when Lear desperately attempts to hide from Cordelia (Shakespeare 18.47).

Ultimately, King Lear is a powerful play that examines the existential identity of the “unaccommodated” man (Shakespeare, 11.96). The use of space forces the audience to interrogate man’s existence and conduct their own search for localization in a vast and boundless space.


“place, n.1.” OED Online. Oxford University Press, March 2016. Web. 20 March 2016.

Shakespeare, William. King Lear. Ed. Stanley Wells. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.  Print.

“space, n.1.” OED Online. Oxford University Press, March 2016. Web. 20 March 2016.


Categories: Literature

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