King Lear: Themes & Analysis

Instructor: Jason Lineberger

Jason has 20 years of education experience including 14 years of teaching college literature.

'King Lear' is widely considered to be one of William Shakespeare's masterpieces. He crafted this play to be a complex dramatic work that functions on a variety of levels. In this lesson you'll learn several approaches to its interpretation.

Analyzing Shakespeare's King Lear

Like all of Shakespeare's tragedies, King Lear is a complex play that can be understood on many different levels and from a variety of critical perspectives; it cannot be said to have one particular meaning. The reader can sometimes feel overwhelmed by its depths. In broad terms, this is a play about a King and his three daughters. Lear alienates Cordelia, the loyal daughter, while her two sisters plot to seize power. Add to that some nobles, both loyal and treasonous, and you have a plot with plenty of conflict.

Good vs. Evil

One of the broadest themes to emerge from this play is the classic conflict of good vs. evil. The wronged daughter, Cordelia, only does what is right, and the villainous son, Edmund, plays every underhanded trick in the book to rise to power. But it is not so simple as that. King Lear is complex, and that means nothing is black and white. This play explores all those shades of grey between good and evil. Regan and Goneril don't start out as the wicked sisters, but they're corrupted by greed. Lear himself starts off as a jerk who banishes his one good daughter, but learns to be a better person by the final act. Gloucester does the same thing, and only realizes how metaphorically shortsighted he was after literally losing his vision. Even Albany, a character married to the wicked Goneril, and allied with the villains, shows honor by the play's end. King Lear is not only an exploration of good and evil, it's also a look at whether redemption is possible.

Natural Order

Shakespeare often deals with the balance of order in his plays. In the comedies, something happens to upset order, and then the characters enter a state of lawlessness where anything can happen, until order is ultimately restored. The marriage that typically happens in the final act of a comedy is symbolic of the restoration of order, and the audience leaves satisfied that all is right in the world.

The tragedies operate on a different wavelength. They call order into question; and while order is restored in the end, it does so in a way that doesn't feel very satisfying or permanent. King Lear challenges order from the opening scenes. Lear tests his daughters, and values the exaggerated proclamations of love from Regan and Goneril. These unnatural (and untruthful) statements carry more weight with him than Cordelia's heartfelt silence. Regan and Goneril continue to break natural order by turning against their father and plotting to rule the kingdom. They even go so far as murder and suicide - huge crimes against natural order. Cordelia, on the other hand, remains true to her role as daughter and refuses to rebel against her father, even after he mistreats her. While her sisters attempt to get their way through subterfuge and treachery, Cordelia returns to Britain at the head of an army, to righteously rescue her father and save his kingdom. In a comedy, Regan and Goneril would get what was coming to them, and Cordelia would marry the hero; but Shakespeare avoids the obvious happy ending in this play. While the biggest offenders do die, Cordelia is also killed. The order that would have spared her life arrives too late, and Lear dies of a broken heart.

The conflict between the brothers Edmund and Edgar also represents a test of order. Edmund is illegitimate, so even his birth goes against order; but he offers an interesting counter-argument. He says that he represents a different type of order, a survival of the fittest. His ambition and ruthlessness represents nature's way of establishing rule. Edmund doesn't need some accident of birth to give him legitimacy. He tricks his father into banishing the legitimate son, Edgar, thus breaking the order of the family and nearly succeeding with his plan.

In the end however, Edmund dies and Edgar takes power. Those who attempted to usurp power meet with justice; but it's not as easy as that. Albany stands to take the throne at the end of the play, and although he was Goneril's husband, he was also allied with the villainous characters for most of the play. Order is restored, but it's a tenuous balance and the audience is left doubting whether the fragile peace will last.

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