King Lear

by: William Shakespeare

King Lear

How, nothing will come of nothing. (I.i.)

Lear begins the play by asking his daughters to declare how much they love him. His youngest daughter Cordelia has “nothing” to say. This line is Lear’s response. His repetition of the word “nothing” introduces an important theme of the play. Lear will be stripped of his kingdom, his power and his family, and left with nothing. King Lear asks whether there is anything to be learned or gained by the experience of having nothing, or whether, as Lear says here, nothing comes of nothing.

Who is it that can tell me who I am? (I.iv.)

When Lear’s daughter Goneril tells him he must dismiss some of his knights, Lear is furious. He asks this question rhetorically, not expecting an answer; Lear is just reminding Goneril that he is still king. However, the question of who Lear is lies at the center of the play. King Lear asks whether it’s possible to be a king if you don’t have the power of a king.

O, reason not the need! Our basest beggars
Are in the poorest thing superfluous;
Allow not nature more than nature needs,
Man’s life is cheap as beast’s. (II.ii.)

This is Lear’s response when his daughters ask him why he needs his attendant knights. The line foreshadows that Lear will soon be living side by side with the “basest beggars.” One of the central themes of King Lear is the question of whether poor and powerless people can live with meaning and dignity, or whether wealth and power are the only things that make life bearable.

Blow winds and crack your cheeks! (III.ii.)

As he wanders on the heath, homeless, powerless, and buffeted by a storm, Lear is reduced to the status of a beggar. However, he continues to talk like a king. Here, he tries to give the storm orders. The absurdity of giving orders to the weather highlights how human status and power are worthless in the face of the power of nature.

Unaccommodated man is no more but such a poor, bare, forked animal as thou art. (III.iv.)

Lear is astonished by the sight of Poor Tom, who is practically naked. He realizes that without the benefits of clothes, food, and shelter, humans are little more than animals. King Lear returns repeatedly to the idea that only wealth and social status make human life bearable.

Thou hast seen a farmer’s dog bark at a beggar? And the creature run from the cur? There thou mightst behold the great image of authority: a dog’s obeyed in office. (IV.vi.)

Having lost his kingdom, Lear realizes that “King” is just a title. The word is worthless without the power to back it up. By the same token, anyone can be a king if they’re powerful. Even a dog will be obeyed by people who fear its strength. King Lear suggests that the distribution of wealth and power in society is random, unfair and meaningless.

See how yon justice rails upon yon simple thief? Hark in thine ear: change places, and, handy dandy, which is the justice, which is the thief? (IV.vi.)

Lear, who has suffered more than he deserves for his original mistake, comes to believe that justice is meaningless. Justice is one of King Lear’s central themes. The play asks whether justice is a natural law or a man-made construct—or whether justice even exists at all.

I am a very foolish, fond old man,
Fourscore and upward, not an hour more nor less;
And to deal plainly,
I fear I am not in my perfect mind. (IV.vii.)

Lear begins the play blind to the reality of his position. He believes he will always be a king, even if he gives up his power. Over the course of the play he discovers his mistake. Finally he learns to see himself clearly, and in this speech, near the end of the play, he is able to describe himself accurately.

Howl howl howl howl! (V.iii.)

This line is Lear’s first response to the death of his daughter, Cordelia. From the beginning of the play, King Lear examines the power of language to express feeling. When Lear reaches his lowest point, he temporarily abandons language altogether and howls like an animal.

Why should a dog, a horse, rat have life
And thou have none at all? (V.iii.)

Even though Lear has learned the hard truths that justice is an illusion and human beings are animals, he is not able to accept his daughter’s death. He complains that it’s unfair that other animals are alive while Cordelia is dead. Lear’s inability to reconcile himself to his loss makes his own death especially tragic.