King Lear Themes
The main themes in King Lear are loyalty, madness, and power.
- Loyalty: While some of the play’s characters embody evil and cruelty, others demonstrate great loyalty and selflessness. Kent and Edgar are rewarded for their loyalty, but Cordelia’s devotion leads to her death.
- Madness: Lear’s “madness” appears to be a form of dementia and waxes and wanes throughout the action, contributing to both the tragedy and sense of irrationality in the play.
- Power: King Lear explores the illusory nature of power, with the initially disempowered Kent and Edgar ultimately triumphing over characters who seek to gain power for its own sake.
Last Updated November 3, 2023.
Ironically, in a play usually thought of as exemplifying cruelty and evil, there are characters who show an unremitting devotion to others even when they have been mistreated and seem to have nothing to gain by turning the other cheek. After his banishment, Kent goes out of his way to endanger himself in service of the king who has mistreated him. Cordelia forgives the father who has violently overreacted against her insufficient display of love to him. Edgar, as well, helps the father who has been gullible and irrational enough to believe the worst lies about his son. Shakespeare shows these examples of selflessness as both ultimately rewarded, for Kent and Edgar, and leading to death in Cordelia's case. She could have remained safe in France rather than intervene on behalf of Lear.
The Fool's loyalty to Lear is a double-edged sword, for even as he sticks by the king, his scraps of riddles and jokes are a devastating commentary on Lear's folly. The Fool disappears from the action, his fate apparently left a loose end by Shakespeare. One interpretation, however, is that at the conclusion when Lear cries, “My poor Fool is hanged!” he's referring not to Cordelia, as is generally accepted (since “fool” is a term of endearment) but to the actual Fool. It makes sense that in his mental state, Lear would possibly conflate his daughter's death with that of his jester, but in any event, the Fool's devotion to Lear probably has gone unrewarded, whatever his fate.
Rather than modern terms such as “psychosis” or “dementia,” one can still, with some validity, employ the contemporaneous description “madness” for all the types of mental aberration shown in KingLear. But the king probably has a disorder afflicting the elderly that can be interpreted as dementia or Alzheimer's disease. His violent and irrational reactions, even before he's been subjected to stress and mistreatment by others, indicate he's not thinking clearly. Like the typical dementia patient, Lear goes in and out of his impaired state. On the heath he appears to have lost his senses entirely, shouting uncontrollably and staging a mock trial with Edgar and the Fool. But when reunited with Cordelia, he acts as a quiet, regretful, and rational man. In the final scene, he correctly pronounces Cordelia dead but at the next moment asks that a glass be brought to see if her breath will stain it or if it will stir a feather. His plight might not have been clearly analyzed until the twenty-first century, in which, with the increasing elderly population, dementia has received much more clinical attention and has been more widely understood by the general public than in the past, when it was simply labeled “senility.”
Lear's action at the start of the play is one of renouncing power. Yet he still expects to be treated as a king, not realizing that he's made himself vulnerable through his abdication. What begins as an act of presumed selflessness precipitates the tragedy. The message is not necessarily that power is something one must cling to at all costs, but rather that the conventional form of it is a kind of illusion. The two men who are outwardly disempowered, Kent and Edgar, are victorious in the end. Edmund seeks and gains power but is defeated, though in his case it comes down to the prowess of individual men in combat, as if ultimately the decisive factor is brute force, or physical power. Edmund has manipulated Gloucester, Goneril, Regan, Cornwall, and even Albany, but all of this becomes meaningless or backfires. The results...
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show that there is, presumably, a moral principle that operates in the world. The frequent interpretation ofKingLear as expressing an extreme form of pessimistic nihilism is therefore not sustainable by the outcome, in which Edmund, Goneril, Regan, and Cornwall are all humiliated and defeated.
Shakespeare's setting of the play in remote antiquity, in the prehistory of Britain, as it were, distinguishes it from the other great tragedies, which all take place within the historical period. Yet modern place names and the external accoutrements of relatively recent times are used. The result is an impression of a timeless fairy tale, divorced from reality but paradoxically more “real” than a historical play might seem, precisely because, rather than being anchored in a specific period, the drama speaks for all times and places. The fable-like quality of the play implies that man's journey through time is a cyclic process: the actions seen here are fated to repeat themselves over and over, regardless of how far humanity has progressed and how much advancement is presumed to have taken place. An especially striking line is the Fool's statement that “this prophecy shall Merlin make, for I live before his time.” The Fool thus has knowledge of a time to come, as if he and the other characters exist in some fluid dimension where past, present, and future are all the same.
It would be impossible to omit the theme of irrationality in a summary of any Shakespeare play, but KingLear focuses upon it to a degree not seen elsewhere. Again and again there is no reasonable explanation for why the characters in the play act as they do. Yet the play resonates because “life” is like that. No one can rationally account for Cordelia's inability to say something more than she does about her love for her father. Similarly, Edgar makes no attempt to defend himself against Edmund's lies, though he is the “legitimate” son and therefore the empowered one. In their fugitive status, both he and Kent behave almost childishly, making the desperate situation into a kind of game. The speeches of the Fool, Edgar, and to an extent Kent all sound alike, and all three become symbols of some nonsensical quality that takes over men's senses when they are exposed to danger.
George Orwell's statement that although much speculation has been done about Shakespeare's religious beliefs, “it would be difficult to prove that he had any,” is relevant to this theme. The references to anything beyond “this world” in King Lear are consistent with the belief systems of the distant, pagan past. But even if a moral power is operating in this remote (but still timeless) realm, it is not one that can be associated with traditional ideas of spirituality. At times the characters appeal to “the gods,” but above all this is a human drama in which this world is presumably the only realm that matters. When Edmund says, “Thou, Nature, art my goddess,” he means precisely that the material world is what he worships and is all that matters to him. Though he's defeated, it would almost seem that in this line, he's expressing a key notion that accounts for much of the tragedy as it unfolds.
It was not until the nineteenth century that KingLear as Shakespeare conceived it came into its own as an iconic work. From the late seventeenth century until the Romantic period, the standard version of the play performed was the revision by the seventeenth-century dramatist Nahum Tate, in which a “happy ending” where Cordelia and Lear survive was tacked onto the play. It required the Romantic mindset, which was primarily secular and pessimistic, finally to restore the original conclusion. The non-concrete, fantasy-like aspect of KingLear was, as well, not understood by the rational zeitgeist of the entire period from the Restoration through the eighteenth-century age of neoclassicism and Enlightenment. It's not an exaggeration that since the Romantic period began, through to our own time, the message of most artistic works has at least implied that life must be seen in purely human terms. King Lear is a drama that satisfies this requirement, and much of its high status over the past two hundred years is due to the strikingly effective way it conveys a secular theme, though doing so amid the trappings of fantasy and of a mystical, unfathomable power that controls the universe.