Major Themes in the Play “King Lear” by William Shakespeare Essay

September 29, 2020 by Essay Writer


The theme of madness is the most powerful aspect of this tragedy. King Lear is portrayed as being insane throughout the play and his condition deteriorates towards the end (Archer, Turley, and Thomas 521). Two of his daughters recognize their father’s mental state and perhaps take advantage of the insanity to acquire power at the expense of their younger sister (Edmiston and McKibben 97). However, the two daughters attribute their father’s mental challenge to his old age. The insanity influences most of the King’s decisions as he banishes his loyal daughter and divides power between the two disloyal children (Woodford 77). The decision to disown and curse his daughter, viz. Cordelia, is uninformed, as it cannot be expected from a mentality sound individual.

Some scholars argue that both Kent and Cordelia are aware of the King’s condition right from the beginning, which explains why they remain loyal to him even as he mistreats them (Archer, Turley, and Thomas 523). The madness is connected to the trouble that befalls the King later in his helpless state as he faces all sorts of mistreatments from the two daughters whom he gives the mandate to run the kingdom. Due to his insanity, he fails to make an informed decision regarding giving away power to the self-centered daughters.

Appearance versus reality

This theme stands out throughout the play as everything works against the readers’ expectations (Edmiston and McKibben 96). In the opening scenes of the play, King Lear relies on his older daughters’ faked sycophancy, and thus he rewards them with his kingdom. In addition, against the audience’s expectations, he sends away Cordelia, who is the only loyal daughter. In addition, he banishes Kent, who is one of his closest confidantes, on grounds of disloyalty. However, his two older daughters, whom he entrusts with his kingdom, are disloyal to him (Moore 181). The two daughters, whom he entrusts the kingdom, later betray him by mistreating and neglecting him in his old age.

Edmond conspires to discredit Edgar, his brother in-law, to his father (Ioppolo 139). Based on the conspiracy, his father sends Edgar away and shifts his trust on Edmond. However, Edmond is a traitor and he is only driven by jealousy to have his brother evicted so that he can gain power in the kingdom (Archer, Turley, and Thomas 529). As opposed to the expectations of his father, Edmond later causes trouble in the kingdom. The loyal characters in the play are expected to hold the best positions in the kingdom; however, they are portrayed as the poorest, while the disloyal persons hold powerful positions. Therefore, disloyalty wins over loyalty in this kingdom.


The theme of blindness stand out clearly in King Lear in relation to the physical blindness of Gloucester, who has his eye plucked off by Cornwall and Regan due to being loyal to the King (Urkowitz 136). The physical blindness is symbolic of mental blindness in decisions made by the main characters in the play. Such blindness is especially evidenced by the shortsighted decisions made by both King Lear and Gloucester in the play. The two are blind while selecting their favorite children to reward. For example, the King expels the honest child from his palace and gives leadership to the two irresponsible daughters (Edmiston and McKibben 92).

Blindness is also evidenced by the neglect concerning one’s responsibilities. For example, Gloucester is a philanderer and his behavior leads to the birth of an illegitimate child, viz. Edmund (Woodford 167). Edmund later becomes a threat to the kingdom to the extent of attempting to attain illegitimately. On his part, King Lear is blind in addressing the needs of the people that he serves as the King. He ignores the needs of the less fortunate instead of assisting them, as expected of a servant leader.


The play portrays both King Lear and Gloucester as irresponsible persons who lack the virtue of mercy (Archer, Turley, and Thomas 522). The King, in his capacity as the head of the throne, is expected to address the problems of the poor and less fortunate groups in society. Conversely, he ignores such issues. In the play, the King does not address the key issues affecting the needy. The King is self-centered and he does not exercise the servant style of leadership as expected of him. This self-centered nature of the King leads to the failure of his throne later on (Moore 182).

The irresponsible character of the King is also seen in his decision to delegate his roles and responsibilities to his irresponsible daughters, who are equally self-centered. Similarly, they do not care about the needs of the public (Edmiston and McKibben 89). In addition, the King has the responsibility of taking care of his youngest daughter. In addition, he has the responsibility of treating his daughters as equals (Woodford 113). However, due to his irresponsible character, he forces Cordelia out of his house and forgets about her. As a parent, one is supposed to take care of his/her children regardless of whether they are loyal or disloyal. However, the King is oblivious of his duties as a parent and a role model to his followers.

Just as the King has the responsibility of taking care of his daughter, Cordelia equally owes her father the duty of taking good care of him in his weak mental state (Moore 175). However, she neglects this role. On the other hand, Gloucester has the responsibility of taking care of his wife on top of remaining faithful (Archer, Turley, and Thomas 536). Husbands are expected to remain faithful to their wives. On the contrary, Gloucester’s philandering ways lead to the birth of a love child. This child later on causes problems in the kingdom by trying to rise to power illegitimately. In addition, Gloucester overlooks his responsibilities as a father by expelling one of his sons on grounds of disloyalty and dishonesty (Archer, Turley, and Thomas 521).

Authority and Order

The theme of power is evident at the beginning of the play where King Lear is portrayed as powerful and authoritative (Ioppolo 173). The aspect of power is seen in how he conducts his business without consulting his close allies. For example, he conducts the dramatic ceremony to divide power between his two daughters in the watch of Gloucester, Kent, and others. These individuals should question the King’s decision, but they opt to remain silent and watch as the events unfold (Urkowitz 112).

Power in this tragedy is not only exercised at the national level, but also at the family level. Without consulting anyone, the King expels his youngest daughter on grounds of being disloyal to his kingship. Divine power is also evident in the play as the King seeks providential help especially after the two daughters mistreat him later in his helpless state (Edmiston and McKibben 87). The King is heard ordering divine powers to come down and take his part after having a serious quarrel with the daughters.

Old age

Finally, the theme of old age stands out towards the end of the play. Due to old age, King Lear has to give up leadership to his daughters by claiming that he does not want to go to the grave burdened (Moore 169). King Lear has the sense that old age forces one to surrender some responsibilities as a way of preparing for death. Goneril and Regan recognize their father’s old age. They argue that his madness is mainly due to his age. Seemingly, the play suggests that old age deserves respect as Lear calls upon the gods to look at his old age and intervene in overcoming his tribulations (Archer, Turley, and Thomas 518).

However, the two daughters do not respect the fact that their father is old, and thus he deserves respect. On the contrary, they insult, ridicule, and neglect him. In addition, they do not take instructions from him, which leads to the fall of the kingdom. Madness and old age stand out as the most critical factors that influence the King’s decisions (Edmiston and McKibben 87). The two factors cause the King to make uninformed decisions leading to the downfall of the kingdom soon after his retirement. The old age contributes to the severity of the King’s mental illness.

Works Cited

Archer, Jayne, Richard Turley, and Howard Thomas. “The Autumn King: Remembering the Land in King Lear.” Shakespeare Quarterly 63.4 (2012): 518-543. Print.

Edmiston, Brian, and Amy McKibben. “Shakespeare, rehearsal approaches, and dramatic inquiry: Literacy education for life.” English in Education 45.1 (2011): 86-101. Print.

Ioppolo, Grace. A Routledge Literary Sourcebook on William Shakespeare’s King Lear, New York: Psychology Press, 2003. Print.

Moore, Peter. “The Nature of King Lear.” English Studies 87.2 (2006): 169-190. Print.

Urkowitz, Steven. Shakespeare’s Revision of King Lear, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2014. Print.

Woodford, Donna. Understanding King Lear: A student casebook to issues, sources, and historical documents. Santa Barbara: Greenwood Publishing, 2004. Print.

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