Top 6 "King Lear" Themes: Shakespeare

The Madness of King Lear
The Madness of King Lear. De Agostini Picture Library/Getty Images

This study guide brings you the top six King Lear themes. An understanding of the themes discussed here is essential to really get to grips with this classic play.

The King Lear themes covered here include:

  1. Justice
  2. Appearance versus Reality
  3. Compassion and Reality
  4. Nature
  5. Madness
  6. Sight and Blindness

King Lear Theme: Justice

In Act 2 Scene 4, Goneril and Regan make their father give up his servants and cast him out into stormy weather, bolting the door behind him. This is in response to Lear’s erratic behavior towards Cordelia and his distribution of power. Lear’s response to this in Act 3 Scene 2 is that he is “more sinned against than sinning”

Lear later insists on a mock trial to bring his daughters to account in Act 3 Scene 6.

Act 3 Scene 7 Cornwall gouges Gloucester’s eye out for helping Lear. Gloucester like Lear has shown favor to one of his children over the other, he learns from his mistakes the hard way.

The illegitimate Edmond is vanquished by his legitimate brother Edgar in Act 5 Scene 3. This is in response to his jealousy of his brother; having orchestrated his brother’s banishment and punishment for killing the innocent Cordelia.

Lear dies heartbroken having lost the only daughter who truly loved him.

King Lear Theme: Appearance Versus Reality

At the start of the play, Lear believes his older daughters’ sycophantic professions of love, rewarding them with his kingdom. While banishing his truthful daughter Cordelia and his close ally Kent.

In Act 1 Scene 2 Edmond hatches a plan to discredit his brother Edgar who he is fiercely jealous of because of his higher social status due to his legitimacy. Edmond discredits Edgar’s character to his father Gloucester.

Gloucester rejects his son Edgar based on a forged letter written by his deceitful son Edmond in Act 2 Scene 1.

Gloucester is later blinded and told he has been betrayed by Edmond, not Edgar. For most of the play, Edgar has been disguised as a poor man.

Kent is also disguised in order to help Lear.

King Lear Theme: Compassion and Reality

An important theme that runs throughout King Lear is the triumph of compassion and reconciliation in the face of tragedy.

Despite his banishment, Kent returns to Lear’s service disguised as a peasant in order to protect him in Act 1 Scene 4.

Act 3 Scene 3 Lear demonstrates compassion for his fool despite his own deterioration into madness.

Lear tears off his own clothes on finding ‘Poor Tom’ and laments the trials and tribulations of the poor.

As Lear and Cordelia are reconciled in Act 4 Scene 7, she tells him she has ‘no cause’ to hate him.

King Lear Theme: Nature

The raging storm reflects the turbulent political background Lear has created by pertaining power to Goneril and Regan. The weather also reflects Lear’s mental state as his confusion and grip on reality falter. “The tempest in my mind” (Act 3 Scene 4)

King Lear Theme: Madness

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 “’Tis the infirmity of his age; yet he hath ever but slenderly known himself” ( Act 1 Scene 1).​

One could argue that throughout the play Lear is forced to become more self-aware and unfortunately, he begins to accept his mental state is deteriorating “O, let me not be mad, not mad, sweet heaven”. At the end of the play Lear dies heartbroken, one could argue he is driven mad by his own poor choices and decisions.

King Lear Theme: Sight and Blindness

This links with the appearance and reality theme. Lear is blinded by Goneril and Regan’s false flattery and does not see Cordelia’s genuine affection for him.

Gloucester is similarly blinded by Edmond’s account of Edgar and is physically blinded by Cornwall who gouges his eyes out.

Gloucester acknowledges his desperate situation in Act 4 Scene 1 “I have no way and therefore want no eyes. I stumbled when I saw. Full oft ‘tis seen Our means secure us, and our mere defects prove our commodities.” (Line 18-21) Gloucester explains that he was metaphorically blind to his son’s behavior, he now knows but has no way to rectify the situation. His physical blinding has metaphorically opened his eyes.