The Major Themes In Shakespeare's King Lear

King Lear is one of Shakespeare's famous tragedies written in the 17th century. In his play, he depicts the life of two fathers going through different, yet very similar situations, which greatly influences their decisions, and later, their lives. King Lear, the protagonist, is shown to be the tragic hero of this play, he committed a mistake by putting his pride and image above true feelings, leading to the banishment of his daughter, his loyal friend, and also giving away all the land and property he owns to the ones that despise him the most.

Shakespeare was able to interpret many themes throughout this play. Every theme plays a major role in molding King Lear into becoming a significant tragedy.

One of the first major themes in the play, which is present throughout most of the story, is the theme of family and the relationships conveyed between each character. As for Lear's family, he was deceived into thinking that his daughters should show the utmost love and respect to him, especially when giving away all his land to them. The way he is later treated by his two daughters, that he decided to give all his land to, shows that their previous expressed emotions in the royal court were nothing but lies. This kind of father-daughter relationship was unusual to the audience during their time, which made this play stand out.

On the other hand, readers can see Gloucester's love for his sons equally, despite one of them being a bastard, and despite that being socially unacceptable in their time. Although Edmund is very well treated and trusted by both his father and brother, and their relationship seems all right, but as he mentions in his first soliloquy 'Well then, Legitimate Edgar, I must have your land. Our father’s love is to the bastard Edmund As to th’legitimate. ', Edmund decides to plot against his brother to destroy Gloucester and Edgar's relationship. Edmund is well aware of his trustworthiness in his family's eyes, and he uses that to his own interests. Both fathers are hurt by what they see as their children's disloyalty, while their other children plot to actually destroy them, and this leads to a connection to the theme of blindness and insight.

The theme of blindness and insight run from the beginning of the play as symbols and basic references to eyes and seeing, when Kent is addressing Lear 'See better Lear…The true blank of thine eye. ', he is referring to Lear's quick misjudgment that led to his banishment and disownment of his daughter. Lear was also very blinded by Goneril and Regans' long, fluent sentences claiming their love for him that surpasses any kid of happiness. Similarly, Gloucester was metaphorically blinded by Edmunds plan to conceive Edgar as the rival of the family, and later on is literally blinded by Cornwall, 'Pluck out his eyes [Goneril]', for allegedly betraying him. After Gloucester's literal blindness, he begins to actually see the truth, and this is a moment of realization that Shakespeare intends to make part of any of his tragedies.

Another major theme that intensifies throughout the play is the theme of madness. There are several different characters who readers would question their state of mind, like Kent, Edgar, and especially King Lear. They all display different stages of madness when put under certain conditions. Edgar himself was not mad, but his attempt to disconnect himself from the royal life, escaping his father, was by creating an illusion of madness and disguising as poor Tom, he took it as far as to physically hurt himself in the arm to make it more believable, much like Edmund. Kent's loyalty led him also to disguise, but as Caius, a local man who would do anything to serve the King 'Call not your stocks for me. I serve the king, On whose employment I was sent to you'. Some would argue that being humiliated and banished in a royal court is degrading enough to never come back, but Kent's decision to not only follow Lear everywhere, refuse the offer to co-rule the kingdom, and imply committing suicide to join Lear in the afterlife may indicate a slight sign of madness.

Lear shows significant signs of madness since the moment he lashes out on his daughter and lawful friend in the royal court. His daughters are able to use this character flaw to further anger him, 'Lear's sanity is questioned by Goneril and Regan who refer to his age as a reason for his inconsistency but who also acknowledge Lear’s lack of self-awareness throughout his life'. As Lear goes through vast stages of madness, initiated by his daughters and their husbands, he eventually reaches a final moment of realization, 'I am a very foolish, fond old man…I fear I am not in my perfect mind [Lear]'. In Act IV he reaches the peak of madness and then starts to fade out of it and realizes his mistake, he apologizes to Cordelia, pleading for her forgiveness, saying 'If you have poison for me, I will drink it'. After Lears' moment of realization, going through several different phases like madness, coming out of madness and overcoming that madness, he accepts his fate and the outcomes of his mistakes, and that is a major part of a tragedy.

Cruelty and injustice were a major theme of this play. Characters were constantly pleading aid from the Gods to help them with their suffering and to bring justice onto the world, thinking that they are the ones being maltreated, like when Lear was being disrespected to by his daughters, he spoke to the Gods saying 'I am a man more sinn'd against than sinning', forgetting what he has done to Cordelia and Kent. Despite all the pleading, justice was strangely laid at the very end of the story, where Cordelia forgave her father; Lear died from sorrow, Cornwall dies from a wound and so does Edmund while Edgar shares the throne with Albany.

The irony of this play intensifies the effect of a situation on a character that is being portrayed to a reader. Dramatic irony was used in many scenes of the play; it first occurs when Lear rejects Cordelia's honesty and chooses Goneril and Regan over her, thinking that they will be true to what they said. Another form of dramatic irony was used when Gloucester refers to Edmund as 'loyal' and a 'natural boy' when talking to Cornwall, while Edmund was in midst of destroying his fathers' life. Irony played a vital role in making each theme stand out, 'The emotional effect is significantly increased by the use of dramatic irony in this play'.

These themes were all gathered in the end to form a universal message, which is to overlook the surface of a person, be cautious of their words and actions, and focus on what is in their hearts; and this is why King Lear has become one of the most significant plays of our time.

10 October 2020
Your Email

By clicking “Send”, you agree to our Terms of service and  Privacy statement. We will occasionally send you account related emails.

close thanks-icon

Your essay sample has been sent.

Order now
Still can’t find what you need?

Order custom paper and save your time
for priority classes!

Order paper now