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I want to believe: Astrologers and Sceptics in King Lear

Teachers' Rating:
  7 ratings

Johannes Hevelius. Selenographia. Gdańsk, 1647

March 2009

Danielle Bottinger teaches English at The Epiphany School in New York.


Plays/Scenes Covered
King Lear 1.2.91-116
What's On for Today and Why

How much did an Elizabethan audience want to believe in destiny?  To what degree was astrology an accepted science, and how was it used in everyday life? It is tempting to consider Shakespeare’s audience a gullible lot, not exposed to the great scientific discoveries of our time, and therefore willing to place their fate in the hands of stars and planets.  Was that true?  And in light of its possible untruth, what does that tell us about the two opposing speeches made by Gloucester and Edmund in 1.2 of King Lear?    How would the audience react to those lines, and what light would those lines cast on the characters speaking them?


Students will look at two conflicting writings on a solar eclipse that occurred on March 29, 1652, called Black Munday.  One account describes the terrible calamities that will occur after the eclipse, while the other points out how incredibly ridiculous it is to believes calamities can be caused by an eclipse.  Students will discuss the views of each event, discuss how Shakespeare’s audience would have reacted to the idea of eclipses, and finally perform both Gloucester and Edmund’s speeches trying out different subtexts to reveal each character’s bias.


What You Need

Folger edition of King Lear
Available in Folger print edition and Folger Digital Texts

Handout #1

Handout #2


Black Munday: Handout #1
Black Munday: Handout #2
What To Do
  1. Have students write on the following “Do now” topic: Do you believe in astrology?  Why/not? Ask a few students to share their writing.
  2. Ask two student volunteers to read aloud the speeches made by Gloucester and Edmund in Act 1.2.91-166 of King Lear.  This could be a cold reading, or it could have been assigned the night before.
  3. Discuss the differences between Gloucester’s and Edmund’s views.  In what does each believe?
  4. Hand out or show two excerpts about Black Munday (Handout #1).
  5. Divide students into small groups and have them read the excerpts and record answers to the following:  What are the different views of the same event?

Based on the primary source documents, with which character (Gloucester or Edmund) would Shakespeare’s audience have agreed?  Why?

With which character do you agree? Why?

Do you think Shakespeare believed in astrology?

  1. Have each small group report back to the large group.
  2. Ask for volunteers to read the Gloucester and Edmund speeches one more time, trying different subtexts as they read.  For example, the Gloucester reader could emphasize that he knows the audience disagrees with his views.  The Edmund reader could read knowing that that the audience is intellectually on his side, even though he’s a villain.
  3. Ask the students to predict what will happen to both characters as the plot develops.  Students can refer back to these predictions as the story unfolds.

How Did It Go?
The large group discussion should show some thought on each of the questions posed above, although no definite conclusions need to be made. The final Gloucester and Edmund readings should show that students can incorporate different subtexts into their performances.

If you used this lesson, we would like to hear how it went and about any adaptations you made to suit the needs of YOUR students.

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