Patriarchy in King Lear and As I Lay Dying
Keith Muller teaches English at National Cathedral School in Washington, DC.
What’s On for Today and Why
This unit examines the relationship between tragedy and patriarchs in King Lear and William Faulkner's As I Lay Dying.
Students will examine the play, the novel, and a film (Apocalypse Now) and will research a twentieth-century political leader. They will write a creative composition and a compare/contrast essay and will begin adapting As I Lay Dying into a play.
This lesson will take two to three weeks as written. It may be adapted for shorter time slots by selecting individual activities from the overall unit plan.
What To Do
1. Inform students of the topic of this unit and mention the major assignments the unit comprises. Emphasize to the students that keeping the unit topic in mind as they read the texts will help prepare them for the assignments.
2. Assign a short creative composition in which students characterize their fathers. Remind students that an effective characterization makes a person seem lifelike—complex and compelling—to the reader. Emphasize that this composition is a great opportunity for students to experiment with their writing styles.
3. Discuss with students the genre of tragedy and the nature and qualities of the tragic hero (follow this link for more information).
4. Early in the students' reading of King Lear, ask them to choose and research a modern political leader who rules or ruled paternalistically. Explain to students that a paternalistic leader personalizes and attempts to control all matters of state—diplomacy, economy, trade, foreign affairs, media, and military—and fancies himself the father of his nation and people.
Students may start by researching countries that gained their independence in the twentieth century. Some possible examples of paternalistic leaders include Ferdinand Marcos, Suharto, Mobutu Sese Seko, François "Papa Doc" Duvalier, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, Fidel Castro, and Alexander Lukashenko. Students should use at least three sources in their research.
5. When students have finished King Lear, assign a short essay (two to three pages) comparing and contrasting Lear to the leader they researched.
6. Give students a brief introduction to Francis Ford Coppola's 1979 film Apocalypse Now that does not reveal anything essential about the character Colonel Walter E. Kurtz. Then show students a long clip or several shorter clips of Captain Benjamin L. Willard's encounter with Kurtz. During the remaining time or the next class period, have students discuss Kurtz's paternalistic and heroic qualities and relate the film to King Lear.
7. As students read As I Lay Dying, occasionally have a class discussion comparing and contrasting Lear and Anse with regard to their roles as patriarchs and their potential to be tragic heroes.
8. Assign students to start the process of adapting As I Lay Dying as a play (whose protagonist is Anse) by juxtaposing Anse's development with Lear's. Students should begin by writing short characterizations (two to three sentences) of Lear at each of the five stages of plot: exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, and denouement. Then they should divide As I Lay Dying into five acts, each corresponding to a stage in the conventional plot structure. Next, students should characterize Anse during each act. Their final task is to pair by act their descriptions of Lear and Anse.
9. When the class has finished As I Lay Dying, discuss Anse and Lear fully, as a group. Have the characters developed through struggle and sacrifice? Have they persisted in confronting their limitations? Do they ultimately acknowledge their responsibility to others? How do they see themselves in relation to other people (or other people in relation to themselves)? Do they understand and accept responsibility for the consequences of their own actions? Do they reject the role of victim? Does either one become a tragic hero?
What You Need
Folger edition of King Lear
As I Lay Dying
Apocalypse Now (1979, 153 min.)
How Did It Go?
Has the focus on patriarchs and paternalism helped students to understand tragedy and the tragic hero? Has it helped them to consider important questions about gender and power? Has students' pairing of a modern political leader and a fictional character enabled them to see real-world relevance in literature as well as to use literature to understand the real world?