Shakespeare did not get his greatest themes from ancient Greece or from anywhere but real life. King Lear is a tragedy about old age. Growing old is a tragedy in itself--a tragedy for every man and woman who lives long enough to have to endure it. Lear and Gloucester both experience the tragedy of being old, despised, unnecessary and unwanted. The fact that both find themselves homeless in the wilderness is symbolic of the condition of old age. They have both been displaced by the younger generation. They have lost their property and their rights. Gloucester has even lost his sight. They both understand life as they never understood it before. Schopenhauer writes:
Only the man who attains old age acquires a complete and consistent mental picture of life; for he views it in its entirety and its natural course, yet in particular he sees it not merely from the point of entry, as do others, but also from that of departure. In this way, he fully perceives especially its utter vanity, whereas others are still always involved in the erroneous idea that everything may come right in the end.
It is significant that the two old men in the play were once rich and powerful, surrounded by people and highly esteemed. Lear was actually the king, and Gloucester was an earl. They learn that the bitter truth about old age is that they will soon have to die and will be deprived of everything, even including their bodies. Nobody really cares about old people. They are only in the way. Younger people find them boring and annoying. Hamlet’s attitude towards Polonius is a good example. In Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure, the disguised Duke Vincentio tells the prisoner Claudio who is sentenced to death:
If thou art rich, thou'rt poor; For, like an ass whose back with ingots bows,
Thou bear'st thy heavy riches but a journey,
And Death unloads thee. Friend hast thou none,
For thine own bowels, which do call thee sire,
The mere effusion of thy proper loins,
Do curse the gout, serpigo, and the rheum,
For ending thee no sooner. Thou hast nor youth nor age, But, as it were, an after-dinner's sleep,
Dreaming on both; for all thy blessed youth
Becomes as aged, and doth beg the alms
Of palsied Eld: and when thou art old and rich,
Thou hast neither heat, affection, limb, nor beauty,
To make thy riches pleasant.
(Act 3, Scene 1)