Theme is a pervasive idea presented in a literary piece. King Lear, a masterpiece of William Shakespeare, has very thoughtful themes. It presents the dilemma of human relations and exposes the dark sides of human nature, such as infidelity and ungratefulness. Some of the major themes in King Lear have been discussed below.
Themes in King Lear
Age and the process of aging is a significant theme of the play, King Lear. When a person starts aging, he starts losing his significance. As King Lear starts aging, he starts making decisions about his kingdom and makes a bet on the persons expressing their profound love for them. However, old King Lear does not understand Cordelia is the loyal one. Sadly, he trusts the deceitful ones. On the other hand, Edmund also waits for his father, Gloucester, to die so that he could inherit something to win social legitimacy in the eyes of the social fabric he wants to live in. In fact, King Lear’s age heralds a new social circle forming around him where he is not the kingpin, but just a commoner having no authority as in the past. However, he wants to retain the same authority even in his old age, that seems impossible. That is why he admits of his being old and the desire for retirement without having to abandon his privileges. Therefore, old age and its attendant features of losing privileges.
Family relationships and family loyalty are equally prominent as King Lear checks the loyalty of his daughters through their love. Though superficially, love is in abundance, it becomes scary when it comes to its application and demonstration. Cordelia, however, shows true loyalty to her father by staying with him until the end when Goneril and Regan conspire to keep the old man out of their castles. Despite severe emotional consequences and legal and regal repercussions, Goneril and Regan do not budge from their stand of keeping the king out. Similarly, Gloucester’s act of fathering Edmund seems a matter of childishness for him and causes sufferings for all others. King Lear’s earlier act of seeing familial love through expressions of love seems to hinge upon the fact that he wants to ensure family loyalty and blindly trusts the one who vocally vows to love him but abandon him later.
Madness and ensuing foolishness is another major theme of the play, King Lear. However, most of the characters, including that of the king, try to determine their reasonable behavior toward the choice they have to make. However, most often, they fail to think clearly. It is because most of them, including the King himself, try to keep their own interests before them, ignoring the interests of others. That is why he puts the entire kingdom in harm’s way with the desire for power come what may. His irrational desire to hear only love and nothing else and then irrational decision to cling to power even after dividing his kingdom seems a foolish decision, bordering madness. That is why the court jester, mostly known as fool, appears to help King Lear realize the situation prevalent in his kingdom. He makes the king realizes his own madness about judging people.
Significance of Order
Order and its significance in the world is another major theme of the play, King Lear. It is clear from the very start that King Lear is disrupting this order. He brings chaos in his family and his country. His desire for seeming love, even if it is flattery, makes him reject those who want to bring order and calmness. He almost disowns Cordelia for her honesty and divides his kingdom among two undeserving daughters. This brings chaos on which the court jester makes a commentary. Interestingly, even the jester taunts him for throwing away his kingdom. In fact, where Cordelia and Kent bring order and strength, Edmund, Edgar, Goneril, and Regan are the forces who bring disorder and disruption. Even King Lear himself wants disruption as he finally curses his treacherous daughter.
King Lear tests the loyalty of his daughters and their husbands through a test. He asks them to tell him how much they love him. Regan and Goneril instantly shower praises on him, vowing their everlasting and strong love, while Cordelia, who actually takes care of him and loves him very much, only states that she loves him. The king was enamored of this superficial realization of the love of his daughters that he instantly considers both of them worthy of the heritage to share his kingdom. However, he does not take care of Cordelia. Instead, he instantly disinherits her. Despite this treatment, she stays loyal to her father, demonstrating that the relationships of father-daughter are not subject to property and divisions; rather, it is an enduring bond of loyalty.
The theme of justice is intertwined with the theme of royal authority. King Lear does injustice to his daughter, Cordelia, who, despite her intense love for her father, is thrown away, while Regan and Goneril’s deception is bought by King Lear. He, however, faces injustice at the hands of both of his daughters so much so that he is left in the stormy weather to bear the brunt of his own doing. Later, he repents over this injustice meted out to him, saying that he has faced punishment more than his sin. However, later he seeks justice through a mock trial. Another point of injustice is to Edmund committed by Gloucester that he is illegitimate, which makes him jealous of his brother for which he plans his brother’s exile and murder Cordelia. The punishment meted out to him by the end is another instance of justice.
Appearance and Reality
Appearance and reality is another important theme of the play. Lear believes in the false narrative of his daughters, Goneril and Regan, that they love her more than he can think. However, he equally turns away his attention from the reality that his daughter, Cordelia, loves him the most. The appearances of his two elder daughters fool him, and he ignores his daughter, who shows him true love and loyalty. Similarly, Edmond, the illegitimate son of Gloucester, does not accept this reality and conspires to discredit his brother, Edgar, the legitimate son.
Compassion and humanity is another thematic strand that runs parallel to other themes. Although King Lear sends Kent into exile, he still comes back to serve him as a farmer. He knows that the king has done a wrong and would soon face repercussions. So, when the king sees the jester, he feels sympathy and compassion for him. The king also tears down his clothes to show his sympathy for poor Tom when he sees such poor people facing problems in life.
Nature and its impacts, like the storm in the play, shows that the kingdom of King Lear is in turmoil on account of his own actions. The turns in weather conditions also reflect how King Lear faces mental instability that leads to his confusion and madness. This is actually, as stated by King Lear himself, a tempest in his mind reflected through nature.
Vision is a minor yet important theme of the play, which is evident in many ways. Sometimes in literally and sometimes symbolically. King Lear’s call to his daughters to demonstrate their love is a loss of his vision that cost him his kingdom.