Shakespeare's "King Lear": Top 6 Themes

The Madness of King Lear
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This study guide lists the instances where the top six themes in Shakespeare's "King Lear" appear. In order to explore the themes described here, each scene should be reviewed in further depth and woven together with the other similar scenes.

The "King Lear" themes covered here include:

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

King Lear Theme: Justice

The theme of justice winds itself throughout the play, from the initiating actions to their tragic conclusion. Is Lear's terrible end a just punishment for his cruel and foolish decisions at the start?

In Act 2, Scene 4, Goneril and Regan make their father give up his servants and then they cast him out into stormy weather, bolting the door behind him. Their cruelty is a result of Lear’s erratic behavior towards their sister Cordelia and his distribution of power. Lear’s response to their cruelty challenges any notion of justice in what is occurring, in Act 3, Scene 2, when he says that he is “more sinned against than sinning.”

Lear later takes this understanding of an inversion of justice quite literally when he insists on a mock trial to bring his daughters to account in Act 3, Scene 6.

In Act 3, Scene 7, more cruel payback, a questionable form of justice, occurs when Cornwall gouges Gloucester’s eye out for helping Lear. Gloucester, like Lear, has foolishly shown favor to one of his children over the other and he learns from his mistakes the hard way.

The illegitimate and deceitful Edmond is in fact justly vanquished by his legitimate brother Edgar in Act 5, Scene 3. Edgar is responding to Edmond's betrayal of him, which was based in Edmond's jealousy of Edgar. Edmond had orchestrated his brother’s banishment and killed the innocent Cordelia, and he is punished. This is an instance of actual justice in the play.

The end of the play shows, the, perhaps, truly cruel justice at the heart of this tragedy. Because of his foolishness at the start of the play, Lear dies heartbroken, having lost the only daughter who truly loved him. Is this true justice? It is payback, but it is certainly not merciful justice.

King Lear Theme: Appearance Versus Reality

False appearances and underlying truth play against each other throughout the play.

At the start of the play, Lear believes his older daughters’ false and sycophantic professions of love and he rewards them with his kingdom. He equally foolishly banishes his truthful daughter Cordelia and his close ally Kent. He is fooled by appearances and cannot recognize true faithfulness and love.

In Act 1, Scene 2, Edmond hatches a plan to discredit his brother Edgar. Edmond is fiercely jealous of Edgar because Edgar is legitimate and has a higher social status. The illegitimate Edmond deceitfully discredits Edgar’s character to their father Gloucester.

Gloucester rejects his son Edgar based on a forged letter written by his lying son Edmond in Act 2, Scene 1. Again, we have an instance of a father believing the false appearances and being blind to the truth. Gloucester is later blinded quite literally and told he has been betrayed by Edmond himself, not Edgar.

Disguise is an aspect of this theme of truth and appearances: 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

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

Despite Lear's banishment of him, Kent returns to Lear’s service disguised as a peasant in order to protect him in Act 1, Scene 4. His compassion and loyalty overcome any other motivations.

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

In his madness, Lear can feel for others. In Act 3, Scene 4, he 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 the truth of her faithfulness and love, in Act 4, Scene 7, she tells him she has "no cause" to hate him. Her kind and true heart is steadfast to the end.

King Lear Theme: Nature

The raging storm reflects the turbulent political background Lear has created by bequeathing power to Goneril and Regan.

The weather also reflects Lear’s mental state as his confusion and grip on reality falter: “[T]he 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. They 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, driven mad by the cruelty of his eldest daughters and by the fruit of his own poor choices and decisions.

King Lear Theme: Sight and Blindness

The theme of sight and blindness is linked to the theme of appearances and reality. Lear is blinded by Goneril and Regan’s false flattery, the false appearance of love and devotion. He can not see Cordelia’s genuine affection for him, the plain reality that is not dressed in exaggerated false flattery.

The theme of blindness is echoed quite literally in Gloucester's parallel story. This father is similarly blinded by Edmond’s false account of Edgar and then is physically blinded by Cornwall who gouges his eyes out.

In Act 4, Scene 1, Gloucester can now, ironically, see the truth that was revealed when he was physically blinded: “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.” (Lines 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.