King Lear Themes

The main themes of King Lear include power and weakness, disruption of nature, and old age.

  • Power and weakness: By dividing the kingdom between his daughters, King Lear strips himself of power and becomes dependent on his untrustworthy daughters for care.
  • Disruption of nature: Lear disrupts the natural order by breaking ties with his daughter Cordelia and banishing her. This unnatural act mirrors Lear’s disruption of the political order by abdicating his throne prematurely. 
  • The aging process: Shakespeare depicts the tragedy of the aging process, tracing Lear’s descent from a noble king to an elderly man experiencing physical and mental decay. 

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Since it was first staged and published in the early seventeenth century, Shakespeare's King Lear has been the subject of extensive literary interpretation and the object of intense critical debate. The key issue here is whether King Lear is a classical tragedy with a redemptive moral or a radical departure from genre conventions, a play with a profoundly pessimistic, even nihilistic, view of man and the world he briefly inhabits. At the center of the division between the traditional and the modern readings of Shakespeare's Lear is the subject and theme of nature, human and universal, and the question of whether there is a moral order to be discerned within its workings. The traditional view of King Lear points to an array of unnatural forces, most notably Lear's premature abdication of his throne and his rejection of Cordelia's qualified love, as temporarily overturning the moral mechanisms of nature. This view of King Lear ascribes a regenerative function to nature, one that imparts a tragic nobility to the play's final outcome. On the other hand, many modern literary critics see unbridled and chaotic nature as the central force behind Lear's fall, with the overwhelming power of a brutish cosmos crushing Lear into a pathetic madman pointlessly crying out in a world without hope for redemption.

From a traditional perspective, Lear's downfall is the result of a tragic flaw in his character: his majestic sense of himself is not bounded by the norms of the natural order. Owing to this self-inflated dignity, Lear is blind to the natural precepts that govern Cordelia's response to her father's concern with the extent of her filial devotion. He not only fails to grasp Cordelia's moral viewpoint, he creates the preconditions for his own demise. He does so by abdicating his throne, disowning his natural child and then issuing a curse upon Cordelia in which he deigns to bend nature to his will, calling upon the sun and the goddess Hecate to help him obliterate his natural bond to Cordelia.

In the first instance, Lear earns his tragedy through a disruption of both the political and the natural order of things. Not only does he break up his kingdom, once Cordelia's refusal to acknowledge Lear's unbounded glory becomes plain, he overturns natural order as well. When Cordelia says that because she intends to marry she must share her love equally between her father and her future husband, we realize that this is plainly a proper and natural state of human affairs. Cordelia's assertion that, "I love your majesty / According to my bond; nor more nor less" (I.i.93), reflects a natural reciprocation of familial duties that were seen by Shakespeare and his audiences as right and fit. The bond to which Cordelia refers in justifying her qualification of duty is the bond of nature that ties the child to its parent in God's harmonious world. Thus, by rejecting the natural truth behind Cordelia's response, Lear sets himself against the fundamental laws of nature.

Worst of all, Lear brings tragedy upon himself when he speaks his famous oath by the 'radiance of the sun, Hecate and the night,' "by all the operation of the orbs" (I.i.110), thereby invoking cosmic forces and disturbances well beyond his power to command. Enraged by Cordelia's repeated "nothing," Lear launches into a diatribe that ends:

The barbarous...

(The entire section is 3,037 words.)