Understanding Oneself in a Complex World as Theme: Like other tragic heroes, King Lear is on a journey to discover himself amid layers of complicated relationships. He strives to understanding who he is as king and what it means to lose political power. He strives to understand who he is as a father and who his daughters are as adults. He strives to understand his aging self, the limits of his mental and physical strength and what it means to approach the end of his life.
- For discussion: Describe the way in which Lear relinquishes political power, as well as his reasons for doing so. Is he a successful leader? Why or why not?
- For discussion: How does Lear define his relationships with his daughters? How does he measure their affections in act 1? How do their affections change over the course of the play?
- For discussion: What control does Lear have over his own future? How does Lear’s agency develop over the course of the play?
Compassion in a Cruel World as Theme: King Lear is a play marked by undeniable cruelty and tragedy, yet the familial and political ties that move some characters to treachery move others to compassion.
- For discussion: Consider the instances of cruelty and compassion in the play. Which characters display cruelty and which characters display compassion? Why? Which characters, if any, display both?
- For discussion: Many argue that the play expresses a pessimistic, or nihilistic, worldview. Do you agree or disagree? Why or why not?
Conflict Between Fathers and Children as Theme: Though King Lear has a considerable political layer, it is also a family drama. The parallel narrative of Gloucester and his sons accentuates the intimate familial conflicts in Lear’s story arc.
- For discussion: What motivates Lear to ask his daughters to compete for his affection? Why does Cordelia refuse to respond?
- For discussion: What obligation do Goneril and Regan have to their father? Is Lear justified in his demands? Are Goneril and Regan justified in casting him out?
- For discussion: Why does Edmund pursue power? Is his pursuit justified?
- For discussion: Compare and contrast Gloucester and Lear as fathers. Do they deserve the treatment they receive from their children?
The Pain of Losing Power as Theme: When Lear abdicates the throne, he sets off a sequence of events that ends in his rambling, crazed and naked, through the wilderness. King Lear enacts both the timeless story of a king’s fall from power as well as the decay inherent in the aging process.
- For discussion: What authority does Lear have at the start of the play? How does he exert his authority? How does Lear lose his power and how it is redistributed over the course of the play?
- For discussion: Over the course of the play, Goneril, Regan, Edmund, and Edgar all attain varying degrees of political power. How do they achieve it? How does it affect each of them?
- For discussion: Compare and contrast Lear as a paternal and political character. How does his relationship with his courtiers compare to his relationships with his daughters? Is he able to maintain power over one group more or less effectively than the other?
Motifs Underscoring Themes in the Play: A variety of motifs appear over the course of the play that emphasize major themes in the text. Motifs are generally images that repeat throughout a work, carrying symbolic or thematic meanings.
- Castles and wilderness: These contrasting locales offer the two primary settings throughout the play. The castle comes to symbolize social order and both political power and family ties. Alternately, the wilderness comes to represent a chaos and madness; it is a place far from the human world where characters can pursue their authentic selves.
- Costumes: Lear wears various regalia over the course of the play before ultimately disrobing, and Kent and Edgar both don disguises. Costumes come to symbolize the difficulty characters having in recognizing themselves and one another.
- Sight and blindness: Sight, figuratively and...
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