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King Lear

William Shakespeare

Themes, Motifs & Symbols

Analysis of Major Characters

Act 1, scenes 1–2

Themes

Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
Justice

King Lear is a brutal play, filled with human cruelty and awful, seemingly meaningless disasters. The play’s succession of terrible events raises an obvious question for the characters—namely, whether there is any possibility of justice in the world, or whether the world is fundamentally indifferent or even hostile to humankind. Various characters offer their opinions: “As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods; / They kill us for their sport,” Gloucester muses, realizing it foolish for humankind to assume that the natural world works in parallel with socially or morally convenient notions of justice (4.1.37–38). Edgar, on the other hand, insists that “the gods are just,” believing that individuals get what they deserve (5.3.169). But, in the end, we are left with only a terrifying uncertainty—although the wicked die, the good die along with them, culminating in the awful image of Lear cradling Cordelia’s body in his arms. There is goodness in the world of the play, but there is also madness and death, and it is difficult to tell which triumphs in the end.

Authority versus Chaos

King Lear is about political authority as much as it is about family dynamics. Lear is not only a father but also a king, and when he gives away his authority to the unworthy and evil Goneril and Regan, he delivers not only himself and his family but all of Britain into chaos and cruelty. As the two wicked sisters indulge their appetite for power and Edmund begins his own ascension, the kingdom descends into civil strife, and we realize that Lear has destroyed not only his own authority but all authority in Britain. The stable, hierarchal order that Lear initially represents falls apart and disorder engulfs the realm.

The failure of authority in the face of chaos recurs in Lear’s wanderings on the heath during the storm. Witnessing the powerful forces of the natural world, Lear comes to understand that he, like the rest of humankind, is insignificant in the world. This realization proves much more important than the realization of his loss of political control, as it compels him to re-prioritize his values and become humble and caring. With this newfound understanding of himself, Lear hopes to be able to confront the chaos in the political realm as well.

Reconciliation

Darkness and unhappiness pervade King Lear, and the devastating Act 5 represents one of the most tragic endings in all of literature. Nevertheless, the play presents the central relationship—that between Lear and Cordelia—as a dramatic embodiment of true, self-sacrificing love. Rather than despising Lear for banishing her, Cordelia remains devoted, even from afar, and eventually brings an army from a foreign country to rescue him from his tormentors. Lear, meanwhile, learns a tremendously cruel lesson in humility and eventually reaches the point where he can reunite joyfully with Cordelia and experience the balm of her forgiving love. Lear’s recognition of the error of his ways is an ingredient vital to reconciliation with Cordelia, not because Cordelia feels wronged by him but because he has understood the sincerity and depth of her love for him. His maturation enables him to bring Cordelia back into his good graces, a testament to love’s ability to flourish, even if only fleetingly, amid the horror and chaos that engulf the rest of the play.

Motifs

Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, and literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.
Madness

Insanity occupies a central place in the play and is associated with both disorder and hidden wisdom. The Fool, who offers Lear insight in the early sections of the play, offers his counsel in a seemingly mad babble. Later, when Lear himself goes mad, the turmoil in his mind mirrors the chaos that has descended upon his kingdom. At the same time, however, it also provides him with important wisdom by reducing him to his bare humanity, stripped of all royal pretensions. Lear thus learns humility. He is joined in his real madness by Edgar’s feigned insanity, which also contains nuggets of wisdom for the king to mine. Meanwhile, Edgar’s time as a supposedly insane beggar hardens him and prepares him to defeat Edmund at the close of the play.

Betrayal

Betrayals play a critical role in the play and show the workings of wickedness in both the familial and political realms—here, brothers betray brothers and children betray fathers. Goneril and Regan’s betrayal of Lear raises them to power in Britain, where Edmund, who has betrayed both Edgar and Gloucester, joins them. However, the play suggests that betrayers inevitably turn on one another, showing how Goneril and Regan fall out when they both become attracted to Edmund, and how their jealousies of one another ultimately lead to mutual destruction. Additionally, it is important to remember that the entire play is set in motion by Lear’s blind, foolish betrayal of Cordelia’s love for him, which reinforces that at the heart of every betrayal lies a skewed set of values.

Symbols

Symbols are objects, characters, figures, and colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts.
The Storm

As Lear wanders about a desolate heath in Act 3, a terrible storm, strongly but ambiguously symbolic, rages overhead. In part, the storm echoes Lear’s inner turmoil and mounting madness: it is a physical, turbulent natural reflection of Lear’s internal confusion. At the same time, the storm embodies the awesome power of nature, which forces the powerless king to recognize his own mortality and human frailty and to cultivate a sense of humility for the first time. The storm may also symbolize some kind of divine justice, as if nature itself is angry about the events in the play. Finally, the meteorological chaos also symbolizes the political disarray that has engulfed Lear’s Britain.

Blindness

Gloucester’s physical blindness symbolizes the metaphorical blindness that grips both Gloucester and the play’s other father figure, Lear. The parallels between the two men are clear: both have loyal children and disloyal children, both are blind to the truth, and both end up banishing the loyal children and making the wicked one(s) their heir(s). Only when Gloucester has lost the use of his eyes and Lear has gone mad does each realize his tremendous error. It is appropriate that the play brings them together near Dover in Act 4 to commiserate about how their blindness to the truth about their children has cost them dearly.

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the Gloucester side story

by Merpandderp, April 07, 2013

to help with the side story, think of the movie Thor:

Gloucester: Odin-son
Edgar- Thor (the good brother; gets punished and illegitimate brother takes over for a while)
Edmund-Loki (evil, illegitimate son who is jealous of his brother)

MIND BLOWN. Stan Lee probably read Shakespeare

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9 out of 21 people found this helpful

Help with the Gloucester side story

by Merpandderp, April 07, 2013

it is kind of confusing dealing with King Lear and his three daughters, and then having to deal with Gloucester. My suggestion, think of the movie Thor:

-Gloucester: Odin-son
-Edgar: Thor (the good brother who is supposed to succeed Odin-son/Gloucester when he dies; is deceived by Loki/Edmund and then gets punished)
-Edmund: Loki (the evil, illegitimate brother who is jealous of Thor/Edgar (except Loki was adopted); gets control of the throne for a while)

Hope this helps

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Fathers, Sons and Daughters and a Lot of Sorrow

by ReadingShakespeareby450th, December 04, 2013

There's “a time to keep and a time to cast away." King Lear just got his times mixed up, and it gave us a great play. Finished Lear on my way to reading and blogging about them all by April 2014.

In case you're interested in a few of my thoughts on the play, visit my blog (also there, I've linked to a good production of the play that's available on the PBS Great Performances website):

http://ow.ly/rsPRj

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