King Lear



Tell me, my daughters,
Since now we will divest us both of rule,
Interest of territory, cares of state,
Which of you shall we say doth love us most
That we our largest bounty may extend
Where nature doth with merit challenge?

King Lear, Act 1 Scene 1

King Lear explores the theme of family and domestic conflict via two specific families: Lear’s and Gloucester's. King Lear – the oldest patriarch in Shakespeare’s body of work – offers up Kingdom and crown to his children, causing a familial and civil war. Concurrently we see the trials and tragedies of Gloucester and his two sons, all those whose dysfunction sits side by side with that of Lear and his daughters.

The two narratives in Lear illustrate the complex difficulties that arise within family units. Both positive and negative conclusions may be reached on analysing these stories. On one hand, Goneril, Regan, and Edmund embody a pessimistic vision of family relationships: they have no loving bond with their immediate family members, and they misuse the trust that they are given to achieve their own ends. On the other hand, however, Cordelia and Edgar offer a hopeful vision of familial love. Cordelia and Edgar show love, loyalty, and patience to their fathers, even after being unjustly disowned by them.

King Lear also offers a consideration of fatherhood, and what it means to be a good father. Lear is loving and affectionate to Cordelia at the opening of the play, but turns on her when she does not respond adequately to his demands. However, when he is betrayed by his remaining two daughters, Lear shows remorse for his actions, and expresses his renewed love for his daughter.


O heavens,
If you do love old men, if your sweet sway
Show obedience, if you yourselves are old,
Make it your cause. Send down, and take my part.

King Lear, Act 2, Scene 4

Gods and Cosmic Justice are often referenced throughout King Lear. The play’s setting is ambiguous, but the implication is of a pagan, pre-Roman era. For this reason, the ‘gods’, rather than ‘God’, are referred to by the characters.

Some of the characters in the play express a belief that the gods are indifferent to human suffering – or even that they take pleasure in it. When Gloucester is at the height of his despair, he says, “As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods, / They kill us for their sport” (Act 4 Scene 1). Later in the scene, Gloucester says “So distribution should undo excess, / And each man have enough” (Act 4, Scene 1). In this way, he suggests that humans should ensure everyone is treated fairly, because the heavens cannot be relied upon for justice.

In contrast, in the final scene of the play, Edgar says “The gods are just and of our pleasant vices / Make instruments to plague us” (Act 5, Scene 3). In other words, the suffering that humans experience is a consequence of their own lack of virtue. The gods are not so much unjust as canny; they make use of human vices to ‘plague’ humans.

At the close of the play, both antagonists and sympathetic characters die, leaving the audience to decide whether justice has been served.


The words “nature”, “natural”, and “unnatural” appear a combined total of 51 times in King Lear. This play also contains more references to nature and animals than any other play in Shakespeare’s body of work.

The play is deeply concerned with what constitutes the natural and unnatural. In the context of this play, the word ‘nature’ or ‘natural’ does not always refer to flora and fauna. Instead, it often refers to what is in accordance with a person’s state of life, status, age, etc. Lear and Gloucester both refer to their children as ‘unnatural’ in moments when they feel betrayed or humiliated by them, suggesting that their children’s behaviour is not in accordance with what should be expected of them.

At other points in the play, Nature is contrasted with Humanity. Edmund argues that, in his ‘natural’ state, he has as much a claim to Gloucester’s land as his legitimate brother Edgar does, and that it is only human convention that has labelled him ‘bastard’ (Act 1, Scene 2). As when Lear and Gloucester call their children ‘unnatural’, Edmund here sets humanity at odds with Nature. At other times, however, nature seems to be synchronised with human suffering. When Lear descends into madness, the wildness of the storm echoes his grief.

Nature is not always considered a benign or gentle force in King Lear. Both Edmund and Lear, who refer to Nature as a “goddess”, invoke her in moments when they are wishing suffering and destruction on another person. The violence of the weather also presents a threat to the characters, with Goneril and Regan asking Gloucester to lock his doors against the brewing storm.


King Lear explores the question of what it means to be loyal and loving. In the opening scene of King Lear, Lear demands a verbal expression of love from his three daughters. Goneril and Regan comply, but Cordelia refuses to make such a declaration. Lear, believing her to be unloving, disowns her. Cordelia protests that she loves her father, but that she cannot “heave [her] heart into [her] mouth” (Act 1, Scene 1). This scene raises one of the key questions of the play: is love best expressed in deeds or in words?

As the events of the play unfold, it becomes clear that Goneril and Regan are not able to live up to their exaggerated declarations of love. They both treat their father inhospitably and seem indifferent to his suffering. Cordelia, on the other hand, remains loyal to her father, forgiving him wholeheartedly when they are reunited, and remaining concerned for his welfare until the end. Despite Cordelia’s unwillingness to give in to her father’s demands, she is still able to show him empathy and compassion when he needs it most. When she first sees her father, Cordelia does not hold his past actions against him, but instead wishes him well:

O my dear father, restoration hang
Thy medicine on my lips, and let this kiss
Repair those violent harms that my two sisters
Have in thy reverence made.

Cordelia, Act 4, Scene 7

The Duke of Kent displays a similar desire to remain loyal to Lear. Despite his banishment, Kent continues to serve Lear under the disguise of a servant, Caius. Kent’s loyalty, however, is not blindly subservient; Kent is able to challenge Lear, particularly in the first scene of the play:

What wouldst thou do, old man?
Think’st thou that duty shall have dread to speak,
When power to flattery bows? To plainness honour’s bound
When majesty falls to folly. Reserve thy state,
And in thy best consideration cheek
This hideous rashness.

Kent, Act 1, Scene 1

Cordelia and Kent exemplify another of the key questions in this play: what does loyalty look like? Does a loyal friend, child, or servant do whatever they are told, or are they able to stand up for themselves when necessary?

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