The tone of King Lear is bitter and hopeless, reflecting the pessimistic outlook of the play and the relentlessly tragic ending in which innocent characters die needlessly. While there are moments of hope when Lear and Cordelia are reunited at the end and Lear repents of his past mistakes, this hope is not rewarded. Cordelia dies despite Lear’s attempts to save her, and Lear dies essentially of grief. Violence and cruelty are everywhere in King Lear, and they are taken for granted by the characters, which creates a tone of resignation to the worst aspects of life. Characters make violent threats against one another: Lear tells Kent that “the bow is drawn, make from the shaft” (I.i). Kent is put in the stocks. Oswald is beaten up twice. The blinding of Gloucester is the most shockingly violent scene in any of Shakespeare’s plays. Violence happens even when the characters try to avoid it: Cordelia dies after Edmund repeals the order to kill her, implying that human attempts to avoid suffering are pointless. Gloucester captures this aspect of the play’s mood: “As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods,/They kill us for their sport.” (IV.i).
After a courtly and dignified opening, the tone of King Lear becomes progressively less controlled as the action progresses, underscoring the illusory nature of Lear’s perception of power. Kent begins the play as a senior courtier, giving Lear wise advice. When he returns in disguise from his banishment, Kent hurls insults and makes rude jokes. In the play’s opening scene, Lear’s anger is impressive and regal—“Come not between the dragon and his wrath” (I.i)—but as he begins losing power, Lear’s outbursts become more like desperate tantrums: “I will do such things—/What they are I know not, but they shall be/The terrors of the earth!” (II.ii). While the first half of the play takes place in palaces and noblemen’s homes, the second half of the play takes place in rough settings like a heath, a shack, a tent and the fields near Dover. This shift in tone creates the sense that the dignity and order of the play’s opening scenes is a temporary illusion. The power and authority Lear is desperate to hold onto are essentially meaningless. The one bright aspect of this overwhelmingly bleak play is Cordelia’s enduring love for her father, a natural emotion underscored by the tone’s shift away from civilization toward nature.