Major Themes in King Lear
A play by William Shakespeare.
A presentation by George Niven.
“Through tatter'd clothes small vices do appear;
Robes and furr'd gowns hide all. Plate sin with gold,
And the strong lance of justice hurtless breaks;
Arm it in rags, a pygmy's straw does pierce it.” – IV:vi
Clothing is used to signify power. Those who have power are dressed more
It is established that clothing does not make the man. A man may have
dressed up very well but have no legitimate claim to authority.
People who have the clothing of power, or the undeserved power, are able
to hide their wickedness and mistakes. Whereas those with little status must
deal with their problems.
Consequently this play asserts that there is more to being a leader than the
office of power. One needs more than the authority and trappings of a
position to be a good leader of men. A good leader would not need
authority nor fancy clothing to lead. Lear was always protected from
criticism by his royal robes and so be became selfish- he suffered for his bad
deeds. Edgar was given the opportunity as Tom O’ Bedlam to learn about
himself and the world and thus became a good leader.
“You see how full of changes his age is…he always loved our
sister most; and with what poor judgment he hath now cast her
off appears too grossly”-I:i
“A credulous father! and a brother noble, whose nature is so far from
doing harms, that he suspects none”-I:ii
• Those in the play who lack perception are used by the more
cunning. They suffer for their initial faults, although Edgar at
least gains in the end.
• Gloucester and Lear both fall from grace because they do not
see that their children are manipulating them. They suffer as
beggars and die without honour.
• Edgar, however, through being used by Edmund is forced to
suffer the hardships that build his character. He then becomes
just and brave before becoming the King himself.
“Let me, if not by birth, have lands by wit: all with me's meet that I can
fashion fit.”- I:i
• The obvious manipulators in Lear are Goneril, Regan, and
Edmund who trick their fathers into disowning their other
siblings to gain personally. They exploit the honest and
trusting natures of their siblings to get land and power. These
characters end up badly with Goneril poisoning Regan and
then stabbing herself, and Edmund being killed by his brother
in a duel.
• However the other manipulators end up well off because they
have noble intentions. Edgar takes advantage of Gloucester’s
superstition to protect him from suicide and enable him to see
his own faults. Kent manipulates Lear to give him support
when he is abandoned. Both are rewarded with triumph at
the end of the play.
“His roguish madness Allows itself to anything.”
Relationships are key to the sanity of all characters in the play. Lear starts
the play with some semblance of sanity - though Regan notes “Tis the
infirmity of his age; yet he hath ever but slenderly known himself.” Her
indication is that Lear's grip on reality has been, at best, tenuous. This
reflects the relationship that he has with his daughters at this point in the
play. All seems well, but Goneril and Regan's over-the-top acclamation of
their love for their father are false, indicating no strong bond between
father and daughters. This is reinforced as Lear casts aside Cordelia, who he
claims to have loved best. All of the relationships he has are weak and his
sanity is also brittle.
As those relationships deteriorate, so too does his sanity. The turning point
comes as he roams the heath contemplating the wrongs that Goneril and
Regan have done to him. Pondering their wrong-doing, Lear claims “that
way madness lies”.
Lear's sanity is strongest towards the end of the play. Having been reunited
with Cordelia, he apologises for the wrongs he has done her, and claims he
will live out the rest of his days happy in prison with her - provided they are
together. He has gained understanding of which daughter truly loves him.
His relationships are firm and transparent. His sanity reflects this strength
in his relationships.
“Thou, nature, art my goddess; to thy law my services are bound.”-I:ii
“No, you unnatural hags, I will have such revenges on you both”-II:iv
• In the play there are two perspectives on the quality of nature. That
of the evil characters and that of the good intentioned.
• Lear and Gloucester refer to nature as stable harmonious and
nurturing. They curse their children respectively as “unnatural hags”
and “Abhorred villain! Unnatural, detested,
brutish villain! worse than brutish!” showing they regard unnatural
as being evil and roguish. This is the nature of great trees and sunny
paddocks and bubbling streams.
• However Edmund likes nature because he sees it as the survival of
the fittest, most cunning, most ruthless and without right of birth or
importance of morals. Edmund exclaims “Thou, nature, art my
goddess” because as a bastard son he wants to gain power through
cunning and wickedness and not through the unnatural
mechanisms of regal custom. This is the nature of wild boars and
wolves and fighting for supremacy.

George N Major Themes in King Lear