King Lear

by: William Shakespeare

Emptiness of authority

1
Blow winds and crack your cheeks! (III.ii)

Cast out into the storm, Lear starts giving orders to the wind, rain and thunder. In his previous scene, he hurled orders, threats and curses at his daughters and their husbands, to no effect. Lear has lost his power, but he still does not seem to realise it. When he starts bellowing commands at the storm, the audience can see that Lear is on the brink of madness. This scene also illustrates a broader truth: mankind is at the mercy of the natural world. No human, however powerful, can withstand a violent storm, or extreme cold, or death itself. As Lear begins to understand his own vulnerability, it will teach him to pity the poor of his kingdom, who must survive without shelter.

2
Thou hast seen a farmer’s dog bark at a beggar?[…]there thou mightst behold the great image of authority: a dog’s obeyed in office. (IV.vi)

Like everything Lear says to Gloucester on Dover beach, these lines are the rambling of a madman, but they contain an undeniable and bitter truth. Lear’s suffering and madness have taught him self-knowledge, in particular the knowledge that Lear the man is separate from Lear the king. As a result, Lear has gained several insights about the nature of his vanished power. In these lines he expresses the truth that anyone can wield power if they hold “office,” regardless of their personal qualities. Lear may have his daughters Regan and Goneril in mind, since he has compared both of them to dogs in previous scenes.

3
I am a king, my masters, know you that? (IV.vi)

Cordelia’s soldiers find Lear on the beach, raving mad. We know from Cordelia’s earlier description of him that Lear is in disarray, with weeds in his hair. Nevertheless, when confronted by the soldiers, Lear claims his status as king. We are tempted to laugh at this ragged madman calling himself a king, but of course in fact Lear is a king, if only in name. This moment points to a central theme of King Lear: “king” is only a word, and without the power to enforce it, kingship is a laughable thing. This point is reinforced in the next lines when Lear attempts to run away from the soldiers.