At a Glance

  • Shakespeare explores the themes of power and weakness through the character of King Lear. By dividing the kingdom between his daughters,King  Lear relinquishes the throne, stripping himself of power. In his weakened state, he becomes almost infantile, relying on his untrustworthy daughters for shelter and emotional support.
  • Lear disrupts the natural order by breaking ties with his daughter Cordelia and banishing her from Britain. This unnatural act (of a father forsaking his kin) mirrors Lear's disruption of the political order by abdicating his throne prematurely. In the end, Lear's interference with the laws of nature brings about his downfall.
  • Shakespeare depicts the tragedy of the aging process, tracing King Lear's descent from a noble king to a feeble old man experiencing both physical and mental decay. Like most parents, Lear must rely on his children for support in his old age. In his case, this proves to be a particularly disastrous mistake.

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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...

(The entire section is 3,037 words.)