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.
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 King Lear. 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...
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