'King Lear' Themes

The themes of King Lear are enduring and familiar even today. The master of language that he was, Shakespeare presents a play whose themes are seamlessly interwoven and difficult to separate.

Natural vs. Culture: Family Roles

This is an important theme in the play, as it brings about much of its action from the very first scene and connects to other central themes like language versus action, legitimacy, and perception. Edmund, for example, asserts that his status as illegitimate son is only a product of unnatural social constructs. He even goes so far as to suggest that he is more legitimate than his brother Edgar because he was born in a passionate—although dishonest—relationship, the product of two humans following their natural drives.

At the same time, however, Edmund disobeys the supposedly natural drive of a son loving his father, behaving so unnaturally as to plan to kill his father and brother. In the same “unnatural” way, Regan and Goneril plot against their father and sister, and Goneril even schemes against her husband. Thus, the play demonstrates a preoccupation with familial connections and their relationship to the natural versus the social.

Nature vs. Culture: Hierarchy

Lear grapples with the theme of nature versus culture in a very different way, evidenced in what has become the legendary scene on the heath. The scene is rich in interpretations, as the image of the helpless Lear in the midst of a colossal storm is a powerful one. On one hand, the storm on the heath clearly reflects the storm in Lear’s mind. Just as he cries out, "Let not women’s weapons, water-drops, stain my man’s cheeks!" (Act 2, scene 4), Lear connects his own teardrops with the storm’s raindrops through the ambiguity of “water-drops.” In this way, the scene implies that man and nature are much more in tune than suggested by the unnatural cruelty of the family members depicted here.

At the same time, however, Lear attempts to establish a hierarchy over nature and thereby separate himself. Accustomed to his role as king, he demands, for example: "Blow, wind, and crack your cheeks!” (Act 3, Scene 2). While the wind does blow, it is obvious it does not do so because Lear has demanded it; instead, it seems like Lear is fruitlessly attempting to order the storm to do what it had already decided to do. Perhaps for this reason, Lear cries, “Here I stand your slave […] / but yet I call you servile ministers” (Act 3, Scene 2).

Language, Action, and Legitimacy

While Edmund grapples with the theme of legitimacy most clearly, Shakespeare presents it not just in terms of children born out of wedlock. Instead, he puts into question what “legitimacy” really means: is it just a word informed by societal expectations, or can actions prove a person legitimate? Edmund suggests that it is just a word, or perhaps hopes it is simply a word. He rails against the word “illegitimate,” which suggests he is not the real son of Gloucester. However, he ends up not acting like a real son, attempting to have his father killed and succeeding in having him tortured and blinded.

Meanwhile, Lear is also preoccupied with this theme. He attempts to give up his title, but not his power. However, he quickly learns that language (in this case, his title) and action (his power) cannot be separated so easily. After all, it becomes clear that his daughters, having inherited his title, no longer respect him as a legitimate king.

In a similar vein, in the first scene Lear is the one to align legitimate succession with being a faithful and loving child. Cordelia’s response to Lear’s demand for flattery centers on her assertion that she is his legitimate heir because of her actions, not because of her language. She says: “I love you according to my bond, no more no less" (Act I, Scene 1). Implicit in this assertion is that a good daughter loves her father deeply and unconditionally, so in knowing she loves him as a daughter should, Lear should rest assured of her affections—and therefore her legitimacy as both his daughter and his heir. Regan and Goneril, in contrast, are the ungrateful daughters who harbor no love for their father, showing that they do not deserve the land that he bequeaths upon them as his heirs.

Perception

This theme is most clearly manifested by the blindness on the part of certain characters to knowing who, exactly, to trust—even when it seems resolutely obvious to the audience. For example, Lear is fooled by Regan and Goneril’s flattering lies to him, and disdains Cordelia, even though it is obvious she is the most loving daughter.

Shakespeare suggests that Lear is blind because of the societal rules he has come to trust, which cloud his vision of more natural phenomena. For this reason, Cordelia suggests that she loves him as a daughter should, meaning, again, unconditionally. She relies, however, on her actions to prove her words; meanwhile, Regan and Goneril rely on their words to trick him, which appeals to Lear’s social—and less “naturally-informed”—instincts. In the same way, Lear baulks when Regan’s steward Oswald calls him “My lady’s father,” instead of “king,” rejecting the steward’s familial and natural designation rather than the social one. By the end of the play, however, Lear has grappled with the dangers of trusting too much in the societal, and cries upon finding Cordelia dead, “For, as I am a man, I think this lady / To be my child Cordelia” (Act 5, Scene 1).

Gloucester is another character who is metaphorically blind. After all, he falls for Edmund’s suggestion that Edgar is plotting to usurp him, when it is in fact Edmund who is the liar. His blindness becomes literal when Regan and Cornwall torture him and put out his eyes. In the same vein, he is blind to the damage he has caused by having betrayed his wife and slept with another woman, who birthed his illegitimate son Edmund. For this reason, the first scene opens up with Gloucester teasing Edmund for his illegitimacy, a theme obviously very sensitive for the often-spurned young man.