Shakespeare’s works have inspired generations of playwrights and authors, introducing a new style of storytelling that we take for granted in contemporary times. It wasn’t just his storytelling techniques that we can learn from, however. Shakespeare’s plays often incorporate astute, fruitful lessons concerning the fall and rise of emperors, the blossom and ruin of friendships, the tension between families and kingdoms, and how political rulers navigate these domains. Ultimately, the political themes in Shakespeare’s The Tempest and King Lear contain wisdom about the complexity of relationships, romance, and the consequences when these encounter one’s aspirations for power.

In this course, fellows will examine what these two plays reveal about the political themes of ambition and honor, love and friendship, and usurpers.

Image: Edwin Austin Abbey, King Lear, Act I, Scene I (Cordelia’s Farewell), 1897-1898 | Ford Madox Brown, Lear and Cordelia, 1849–54

Mary P. Nichols on Friendship in Aristotle's 'Ethics.'


Mary P. Nichols

Mary P. Nichols is Professor Emerita of Political Science at Baylor University. She is author of Thucydides and the Pursuit of Freedom, and Socrates on Friendship and Community: Reflections on Plato’s Symposium, Phaedrus, and Lysis. She has delivered lectures on ancient political theory, Shakespeare, and film.

Preview the Syllabus by Week/Session


  • King Lear, Acts I and II


Discussion Questions:

  1. What does the opening conversation between Kent and Gloucester tell us about the
    current political setting of the play? How does it hint at problems and themes that will come to dominate the play?
  2. Does Lear’s division of the kingdom serve the future good of England? Does the
    outcome of the first scene serve the future good of the country? Is Lear a good ruler?
  3. Is Lear a good father? Might Lear’s being a good father and being a good ruler
    be in conflict? Is Cordelia a good daughter?
  4. Who serves Lear best in the first scene? Who loves him most? Consider Kent and the fool in your answer.
  5. What does the play gain by Shakespeare’s inclusion of a subplot (story of Gloucester and his sons)?


  • King Lear, Acts III and IV


Discussion Questions:

  • What does Edgar’s disguise as a “poor Tom” from the London madhouse teach us about Edgar?
  • Why does Lear take such an interest in poor Tom, and even call him a philosopher? Is he correct when he calls Tom “the thing itself,” “unaccommodated man” (III.4.107).
  • What does Edgar learn while disguised as poor Tom?
  • Is Edgar justified in “trifling thus with his [father’s] despair” (IV.6.134)? What is he trying to teach him?
  • To what extent are Lear’s ravings when he meets with Gloucester “matter and
    impertinency mixed; / Reason in madness” (IV.6. 174–75)?


  • King Lear, Act V; The Tempest, Act I


Discussion Questions:

  • Why does Edgar intrude on Albany’s arrest of Edmund? Why does he challenge him
    to armed combat?
  • What has Lear learned from his sufferings? Was his tragedy necessary?
  • What do Edgar’s last words at the end of the play mean? Will Edgar be a good king? Is it likely that his rule will differ from Lear’s?
  • Why does Shakespeare make “nothing” and “all” reverberate throughout the play?
  • How does the short opening scene set the stage for The Tempest? How does it hint at problems and themes that emerge as the play unfolds?


  • The Tempest, Acts II, III, and IV


Discussion Questions:

  1. Once the ship is wrecked and its occupants cast upon shore, there are several visions of a new political order, such as plans to usurp power. There is Gonzalo’s utopian vision of the island as a commonwealth that he would administer “without sovereignty” (II.1.139–60). How does this play reflect on political foundings?
  2. Is Ferdinand a good match for Miranda? Is Prospero a better matchmaker than Lear?
  3. While Caliban describes Prospero as “a tyrant,/ A sorcerer, that by his cunning hath/Cheated me of the island” (III.ii.41–43), Ferdinand says that he is “so rare a wond’red father and wise / Makes this place Paradise” (IV.I.123–24). Which is more correct? How would Shakespeare comment on their statements?
  4. Why did Shakespeare include such strange beings as Caliban and Ariel in his play?


  • The Tempest, Act V


Discussion Questions:

  1. In the last scene of the play, several characters seek and grant forgiveness. Forgiveness also plays a large part in the resolution of Lear. What do we learn from these plays about forgiveness? Is there a place for forgiveness in ruling and in political life, more broadly?
  2. Does Gonzalo’s concluding observation about the outcome of the play ring true—that “all of us [have found] ourselves / When no man was his own”? (V.i.204–13). Does this apply to Prospero as well?
  3. Prospero orchestrates the last scene of the play almost as if he were a stage director bringing his play to a fitting close. How does Shakespeare offer a mirror to his own dramatic art in Prospero? Are there ways in which he is like and unlike Prospero?
  4. By the end of both Lear and the Tempest, a new political order has come into existence. Compare Prospero’s rule to Lear’s. Does King Lear offer sobering lessons for the future rulers in the Tempest?

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