King Lear | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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Professor Regina Buccola of Roosevelt University explains the themes in William Shakespeare's play King Lear.

King Lear | Themes



Everything that happens in King Lear occurs because the king is old and weary. His decision to divide his kingdom and step down sets almost all other action in the play in motion. The only exception is Edmund's plot against his father, Gloucester. However, Edmund's ruse is linked thematically to the main plot, as one of the reasons Edmund claims Edgar wants to displace their father is that he is unwilling to wait for Gloucester's death to take his place.

Much of the tragic irony in King Lear revolves around aging. The king, who admits to being old and tired, wants to retire while retaining all the privileges of being a king. His elder daughters think he took too long to step down from the throne. This tension between a younger generation's loyalty to a patriarch versus that generation's desire for power is visible not only in Lear's daughters but also in the way Gloucester's son Edmund jockeys for early advancement.

Family Relations

King Lear addresses family relationships, including those between children and fathers and between siblings themselves. However, family relations do not occur in a vacuum; they are entwined with the theme of order. A ruler's decision to relinquish his position and depend on his children's love would be fraught in any situation, but in this case, where the decision entails dividing a kingdom, the family intersects with the social order.

Family relationships have legal and emotional repercussions. Gloucester laughs about fathering Edmund out of wedlock in Act 1, Scene 1, but his son's illegitimacy is the source of tremendous suffering for his entire family later. Edmund's resentment of his illegitimacy is one of the emotional engines of the play.

In that same opening scene, we see the importance of familial love in Lear's demand to his daughters. Lear doesn't just want to love his daughters and to have them love him. He asks them to publicly proclaim their love. His responses to all three daughters, but especially to Cordelia, show his profound misunderstanding of them.

Madness and Foolishness

Throughout King Lear, many characters attempt to reason clearly and determine the right course of action. However, their reason often fails them as they are blinded by self-interest, naivete, or excessive trust. It is as if the entire kingdom's rational vision is blurred or clouded. When characters set aside their rationality, through either madness or foolishness, they see and speak more clearly. The king's Fool is the first to do this—he accurately and bitterly diagnoses the situation in the kingdom, taxing Lear for his misjudgment. In one of Shakespeare's few uses of a physician, one is brought in to help diagnose Lear's maladies. This shows a gradual shift away from religious or superstitious understandings of health and slightly more toward a modern, scientific approach.


In dividing his kingdom, Lear disrupts the order of his nation, his household, and his family. Many developments throughout the play reinforce this upheaval and show how bad it is for everyone involved. Lear's Fool provides commentary on this disruption of order many times. Historically, it is one of a court fool's roles to comment on events no one else can address, but in King Lear, the Fool must do so throughout the play. The Fool's work begins in earnest in Act 1, Scene 4, when he calls Lear foolish for having given his kingdom away.

However, the play comments on disorder in many other ways. Cordelia and Kent are loyal to Lear, but because he cannot see their loyalty, he banishes them. Edmund and Edgar are brothers and should love one another, but Edmund displaces Edgar. And when Lear is most upset with his daughters, he calls down a curse to make their wombs infertile (a disruption of both nature and social expectations) so as to end his line.


Vision is a major theme throughout King Lear. Shakespeare explores this theme in many ways, both literal and symbolic. These explorations begin in the play's first scene; before Lear ever appears onstage, other characters (Kent and Gloucester) discuss changes recently seen in him. Lear later acts as if he can see into his daughters' hearts, but he quickly shows he cannot penetrate their words or Kent's disguise.


Similarly to the theme of order, much of the strife and confusion that creates conflict, and thus narrative, in King Lear resides in the concept of loyalty. Lear should be loyal to his family, and they to him; however, this is never the case. A father should be loyal to his sons, but again this does not occur. This is as much social commentary on Shakespeare's part as it is necessary for the plot. It is also quite similar to "natural order" or "natural laws" that family units and other positive interpersonal relationships benefit society. King Lear shows that when these loyalties are disrupted, an entire nation can suffer.

Questions for Themes

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