Main Themes of King Lear Character Analysis

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The play King Lear by the great writer Shakespeare is a masterpiece like all of the rest of his plays. It is known as one of the greatest tragedies. Every play contains elements or themes which the writer subtly tries to explain to the audience. King Lear successfully highlights some very important themes and motifs which we are going to discuss shortly. Of all Shakespearean plays, this specific one relates quite well to society. It doesn’t employ fiction and is solely based on dark side of human nature and the repercussions of major sins in this life. So without further-ado let’s get to it!

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 Appearances versus Reality. 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, evident 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 be 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.

Appearances VS Reality

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 in reality.

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 at Goneril’s servant Oswald, when he calls him “My lady’s father,” instead of ‘king’, rejecting the servant’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 rules, 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 way, 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.

Actions Speak Louder Than Words

This theme is embedded all throughout the play, as mentioned in the previous theme all characters at some point put on a disguise or peel it off to reveal true colors. Whatever is said is almost arbitrary when contrasted with their actions, hence confirming the quote “Actions speak louder than words”. In this case, starting with Cordelia, who refuses to flatter her father with words but would rather be willing to show it through her actions which we see later on their reunion on the coast of Dover; whereas her sisters, Goneril and Regan are all honey mouthed in discourse but it’s their actions which show their characters best as how evil and cold hearted they are.

Similarly Edmund the bastard is portrayed to be the perfect son as he is very obedient and respectful to his elders and superiors; but as we very shortly see he’s all talk no action kind of a person who carries a very dark heart and soul. Here too his father is fooled by his words only to realize later he was wicked all along following the course of his actions; whereas Edgar the legitimate son may not seem the perfect son through discourse but fulfills the role of a son more than Edmund could ever come close to. Him guiding his blinded father towards the destination of his demise out of pity and sympathy even after the harsh treatment he received at his hands and his half-brother’s, without telling him his real identity in order to not overwhelm him is the ultimate depiction of this theme.


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Main Themes of King Lear Character Analysis. (2020, Sep 14). Retrieved from https://samploon.com/main-themes-of-king-lear/



Is suffering a theme in King Lear?
Yes, suffering is a major theme in King Lear as the play explores the consequences of betrayal, deceit, and greed, which ultimately result in the tragic downfall of the characters, causing immense pain and suffering. Lear's own suffering, both physical and emotional, serves as a powerful symbol of the play's overarching theme.
What is the main lesson in King Lear?
The main lesson in King Lear is that wisdom comes from experience and that age does not necessarily bring wisdom.
What is the most important scene in King Lear?
The most important scene in King Lear is the scene in which Lear renounces his throne. This scene is important because it shows the reader that Lear is willing to give up everything he has in order to do what is right.
What theme is exposed as a result of Lear's transformation?
1. Conserve water by using it wisely. 2. Do not pollute water with chemicals or other pollutants. 3. Protect water sources from contamination. 4. Reduce runoff from lawns and gardens. 5. Use environmentally friendly cleaning products.
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