Themes in King Lear
Man’s Law vs. Nature’s Law: One of the central conflicts of Shakespeare’s King Lear is family relationships and how they are complicated by misunderstandings or conflicting social and political aims. Over and over, clashes between natural and human-made law recur, often over the subject of inheritance. Humankind’s law, here meaning that which is societally constructed and benefits the individual over the community, leads to the conflicts between both patriarchs and their children. It would be natural and just to give all their children equal inheritance—but Lear’s hope that he can provide his favorite daughter with more land and Gloucester’s refusal to treat Edmund like a true son because of his illegitimacy ultimately sets the play’s events in motion. Only through reaching an understanding of their own wrongdoings against natural law can Lear and Gloucester begin to resolve their family’s conflicts.
Failure of Authority in Chaos: Characters are ever at odds with their family members in King Lear, and this emotional turmoil and conflict leads to a desire for some kind of authority and order amid the chaos. As family ties are torn apart, and the state of the world falls into disarray, characters are driven to madness or the brink of it. In King Lear madness sometimes seems the only answer to the tragedy that occurs, as both ethical and evil character alike fall by the play’s bloody end.
Themes Examples in King Lear:
Act I - Scene I
"Time shall unfold what plaited cunning hides..." See in text (Act I - Scene I)
The adjective here is actually “plighted” and it refers to a bad condition or state. So, Cordelia is suggesting that the sisters’ cunning, or plans to gain power from their father, are not as subtle or crafty as they believe. The word “hides” relates to the theme of blindness and insight: the truth of the sisters’ plans will be uncovered and the faults in their characters will be revealed.
"yet he hath ever but slenderly known himself..." See in text (Act I - Scene I)
In this context, “slenderly” means “slightly” or “barely.” Regan and Goneril are discussing their concerns about their father’s actions, and Regan’s comment illustrates that Lear has always lacked any amount of personal insight. Their conversation suggests that they will find ways to deny their father authority and power in order to increase their own. Note how Goneril says that they must “look to his age” to inform their actions because of the “unruly waywardness” that Lear’s old age has caused. This means that they’ll likely argue that Lear is not fit enough to rule or make decisions for himself.
"and with what poor judgment he hath now cast her off appears too grossly..." See in text (Act I - Scene I)
Even Lear’s daughters see that he has exhibited poor judgment in his treatment of Cordelia. However, note that they are less concerned with Cordelia’s fate and more interested in how their father’s actions have reaffirmed their belief in his instability—particularly how it will affect them and their interests. Like Kent, they saw the wrong of Lear’s actions, but unlike Kent, they plan to use it to their advantage, revealing their lust for power and foreshadowing conflict between the daughters and their father.
"If for I want that glib and oily art, To speak and purpose not..." See in text (Act I - Scene I)
While today we use “want” to express a desire for something, Cordelia is using the verb in a more archaic fashion. Similar to the expression “to be found wanting” (meaning "to lack something"), this verb here means that Cordelia lacks the ability to speak like her sisters. This statement indirectly accuses them of speaking without real feeling or purpose. While Cordelia sees the importance among words, meaning, and values, she also lacks an ability to protect herself from the manipulative behavior of others. In this case, she’s truthful and honest but is left without an inheritance due to Lear’s anger.
"See better, Lear; and let me still remain The true blank of thine eye..." See in text (Act I - Scene I)
Kent’s comments introduce another theme to the play: vision and its association with insight. The language of King Lear is full of references to eyes and seeing. Blindness plays into this, with Lear being implored to see better to know that Cordelia meant him no harm with her lack of words. The inability of the characters to “see” is prevalent throughout the play, particularly with Lear and Gloucester.
"Here I disclaim all my paternal care..." See in text (Act I - Scene I)
Lear, privately hurt and publicly rebuked, not only refuses to bestow a dower on Cordelia, he also publicly disowns her in front of everyone. Cordelia’s refusal to play into her father’s vanity despite her great love for him has cost her his land and favor.
"Nothing, my lord. ..." See in text (Act I - Scene I)
We have seen Cordelia’s asides that she does love Lear, but she has no desire to make it explicit in front of everyone. Her refusal undermines the public authority that Lear has because she refuses to flatter him like the others for false reasons. For her, the private love she has for him as a father is more important that the authority he wields as king.
"Meantime we shall express our darker purpose..." See in text (Act I - Scene I)
Lear’s “darker purpose” is to partition his land among his three daughters so that he can effectively retire from the throne and live in peace and comfort. We learn a few things here. First, Lear values his authority and order, but he is also prideful and egotistical because of the way he partitions his kingdom. Note that this public display of power establishes two themes: family relationships, and authority and order. Lear makes a public demand from his daughters and has the authority to make everyone watch, regardless of whether or not they agree with his choices.
"mend your speech a little..." See in text (Act I - Scene I)
When King Lear tells Cordelia to “mend [her] speech,” Shakespeare complicates the theme of family relationships in that while Cordelia’s words signal her devotion to her father, he reads them as a rejection. King Lear feels betrayed by his daughter’s words because she refuses to express her love publicly in the way that he asks, undermining his authority as king and hurting him as her father.
"Jupiter..." See in text (Act I - Scene I)
Jupiter is the supreme god of the sky in Roman mythology, the equivalent of Zeus in Greek mythology. As Jupiter is the supreme authority of law and order, often referred to as, “shining father,” King Lear is asking the ruler of the heavens to help restore “order.” This is ironic as it is ultimately King Lear’s own absurdity and blindness that are causing disorder.
"Hecate..." See in text (Act I - Scene I)
Hecate is the greek goddess of witchcraft and the moon. Throughout the play, King Lear will refer to various gods and goddesses as a way to appeal to divine justice and a sense of natural order to make sense of events.
Act I - Scene II
"as if we were villains by necessity; fools by heavenly compulsion..." See in text (Act I - Scene II)
The choice of "villains" and "fools" here is important. Edmund has just elected himself to be a villain, claiming that he will act according to his own interests as opposed to the will of the heavenly bodies. Ironically, his decision to act the villain could be seen as proof of Gloucester's prediction of negative events. This complication represents Shakespeare's goal to subtly reiterate the role of fate throughout the tragedy. Finally, “fools” will also play important roles later on complicating the question of whether the heavens or human actions lead to madness.
"as if we were villains by necessity; fools by heavenly compulsion;..." See in text (Act I - Scene II)
After Gloucester leaves, Edmund mocks his comments, stating that the motion of the sun, moon, and planets have no influence on human actions. Further complicating the theme of family relationships, this statement emphasizes a generational difference: Gloucester defers to the heavens and believes them to be important; Edmund seeks more personal control over events. This parallels the contrast between Lear's belief in authority and tradition with his elder daughters' desire for personal control of their own fortunes.
"Thou, nature, art my goddess; to thy law..." See in text (Act I - Scene II)
Recall that in Act I, scene i, characters invoke the gods as authorities on order and justice. From Edmund’s perspective, the laws of “nature” give him as much right to rule as Edgar, which prompts Edmund to invoke nature as a goddess of divine order. Characters will continue to invoke nature throughout the play, as the natural world allows characters to transcend the rigid social order they are confined to.
"Nothing, my lord...." See in text (Act I - Scene II)
The word "nothing" continues to echo throughout the play, as it did in scene i. Its repetition emphasizes the theme of nothingness and disorder. Cordelia’s answer to Lear’s request, and Edmund’s insistence that the letter is “nothing” both serves to break down the social order of these families.
"come, if it be nothing, I shall not need spectacles...." See in text (Act I - Scene II)
Recall the conversation in the previous scene with Lear and Cordelia. Gloucester quickly falls for Edmund's tricks, a lack of judgment that matches Lear's own misjudgment of Cordelia’s actions. This misjudgment characterizes both older men as blind to the true actions of others and lacking proper insight.
"Now, gods, stand up for bastards!..." See in text (Act I - Scene II)
While Edmund is Gloucester’s son, the social structure regards him as “illegitimate” and denies him any claim to his father’s land and title. Here, we see Edmund’s desire to transgress social norms for the first time, choosing nature as an alternate means for achieving status and power. This clever sidestep of social order reveals Edmund’s ambitious and cunning character—he is willing to go to great lengths to accomplish his goals.
"These late eclipses in the sun and moon(100) portend no good to us..." See in text (Act I - Scene II)
Gloucester, believing Edmund's deception, claims that the movements in the heavens foreshadow bad things to come. It is notable here that Gloucester invokes the sun and moon shortly after Edmund's swearing allegiance to nature. Both appear to be appealing to the same force(s), but their methods are distinctly different. Edmund looks to nature as a way to circumvent the constraints of society while Gloucester sees it as a divine power that rules over humanity. These views provide readers with a complex symbolic system, one in which the characters will interpret differently based on their beliefs and desires.
Act I - Scene III
"Old fools are babes again;..." See in text (Act I - Scene III)
Old age and the treatment of the elderly by the young manifests as a theme throughout this tragedy. Goneril’s comments clarify the presentation of old age in King Lear, suggesting that old men become like infants in their old age instead of becoming wiser and more respected. Goneril uses this notion to justify her actions against her father. What’s more, the word “fools” implies that with age comes a loss of reason and rational control. Since fools and madness comprise a major theme in the play, pay attention to how madness relates to insight and how characters view their own and the actions of others.
Act I - Scene IV
"How far your eyes may pierce I can not tell:(350) Striving to better, oft we mar what's well. ..." See in text (Act I - Scene IV)
While we spend more time knowing Goneril’s thoughts, Albany’s words here are important to understanding the theme of family relationships in this tragedy. He appears to believe that she should treat her father with more respect due to their familial relationship. He may be committed to Goneril through marriage, and his political position depends on her, but he has a much clearer vision of Goneril’s cruelty towards Lear, which has clearly started to drive him away from her.
"Who is it that can tell me who I am? ..." See in text (Act I - Scene IV)
Lear appears to believe that he is due respect and authority by virtue of simply being “Lear” rather than the power of his previous status as King. This is what makes him believe that he should be able to give up his power but still demand respect. His repeated questions about his identity suggest that he is slowly discovering that in giving away his authority and wealth, he has given away his previous identity.
"thou hast pared thy wit o' both sides, and left nothing i' the middle..." See in text (Act I - Scene IV)
The Fool does not make a direct point here, preferring to convey it through an image. The verb “to pare” means to slice or cut, and so the Fool says that Lear has cut off his intelligence on both sides, which could symbolically refer to Goneril and Regan since Lear gave each of them half of his estate. Having done this, Lear has “left nothing in the middle.” Therefore, the Fool suggests that Lear’s having no power or land of his own is the result of not having any “wit,” or power of reason.
"I am a fool, thou art nothing...." See in text (Act I - Scene IV)
Traditionally, the Fool was able to act outside conventions and even had the unique privilege of criticizing the King. In this scene, the Fool speaks in mad riddles yet makes insightful comments about Lear's current condition. Note that “nothing” is used here again, echoing Lear, Cordelia, Edmund, and Gloucester, which suggests that Lear has become nothing himself by giving away all the power of his kingdom.
"O, you sir, you, come you hither, sir: who am I, sir?..." See in text (Act I - Scene IV)
Lear demands that Oswald acknowledge his presence and his status as king, or at least as the former king. Lear’s insistence on being seen and recognized suggests that they are a part of having authority—leaders and subjects must acknowledge one another for the relationship to operate properly. Oswald’s and Goneril’s treatment of Lear violates not only traditional expectations of hospitality but also subverts the power dynamics between father and daughter and king and subject.
"Dost thou know me, fellow? ..." See in text (Act I - Scene IV)
Kent’s decision to disguise himself in order to serve Lear demonstrates how loyal he is to Lear's authority. Lear's failure to see through Kent’s disguise emphasizes his lack of insight and how blind he is to actions around him, providing an insightful metaphor for Lear’s inability to see his daughters’ real motivations.
Act I - Scene V
"O, let me not be mad, not mad, sweet heaven Keep me in temper: I would not be mad!..." See in text (Act I - Scene V)
Lear has begun to realize that by giving away his power to his daughters, he has lost his identity as king. Here, he calls out to the heavens to help him, fearing that in losing his identity he will lose his mind. His appeal to the heavens shows his belief in the power of fate and the gods, but he has already begun to suspect that his anger at the “monstrous ingratitude” will be enough to drive him mad.
"Thou shouldst not have been old till thou hadst been wise..." See in text (Act I - Scene V)
In an earlier scene, Goneril and Regan stated that as Lear has become older, he has continued to lose his power of reason. This line complicates the themes of old age and madness in that the Fool suggests that with old age can come more wisdom, but Lear has apparently become old without learning anything. This is one of the most direct criticisms that the Fool has said to Lear, and it’s possible that Lear’s reaction in the next line is part of his slow realization that he has made decisions based on unsound judgment.
Act II - Scene I
"Our good old friend, Lay comforts to your bosom; and bestow Your needful counsel to our business, Which craves the instant use...." See in text (Act II - Scene I)
Regan’s request for Gloucester’s wisdom and counsel represents a different take on old age than has been presented in the play thus far. Goneril and Regan have both stated that their father is old and foolish; however, here it at least appears that Regan values Gloucester’s council, suggesting that his age has provided him with experience to advise her. Shakespeare likely includes such moments to complicate and add nuance to his themes while simultaneously encouraging us to question the motivations of deceitful characters like Regan.
"Bringing the murderous coward to the stake; He that conceals him, death...." See in text (Act II - Scene I)
Edmund again uses an elaborate scheme for the sole purpose of duping his father, and thus, manipulates truth and perception to assure that Gloucester remains blind to his betrayal. Although Edmund’s trickery is somewhat convincing, it is ultimately successful due to Gloucester’s profound misjudgment of both of his son’s characters. This illustrates Edmund’s intelligence and cunning, but also Gloucester’s lack of insight concerning his own children.
"O, madam, my old heart is cracked, it's cracked!..." See in text (Act II - Scene I)
Gloucester’s use of “cracked” speaks to a breaking down of function and order, and the image of things, like Gloucester’s heart, becoming “cracked” appears elsewhere in the play and signifies madness. Shakespeare uses the imagery of the cracked heart in this line to help illustrate the connection between the pain of betrayal, like Lear has experienced, and madness.
"O, madam, my old heart is cracked, it's cracked! ..." See in text (Act II - Scene I)
Gloucester draws our attention to his “old heart,” implying that the pain of Edgar’s betrayal is not only damaging because of the relationship they have as father and son, but also it is more damaging because of Gloucester’s age. The pain of losing Edgar in this way causes Gloucester to start acting in ways similar to Lear, like choosing to help a lying and dishonest child instead of a loving and honest one.
Act II - Scene II
"This ancient ruffian, sir, whose life I have spared at suit of his gray beard,—..." See in text (Act II - Scene II)
A “ruffian” is a brutal villain. Oswald shows the same discrimination towards the elderly that Goneril and Regan do, but this time, he reminds the audience that the troubles of old age affect commoners, not just the nobility. Shakespeare thus reminds the audience that both the nobles and the lowly ruffians are bound to the laws of nature.
"Nothing almost sees miracles(170) But misery..." See in text (Act II - Scene II)
The theme of blindness and insight comes into play here again. Kent claims that the miserable are capable of seeing miracles, which suggests that his miserable state has allowed him an opportunity to help Lear by contacting Cordelia. He reads aloud her letter, revealing to the audience that she knows he’s serving in disguise and plans on finding a way to help improve the country’s situation. Lear’s situation is increasingly becoming more miserable, suggesting that he may see miracles or gain new insights.
Act II - Scene III
"Blanket my loins: elf all my hair in knots;(10)..." See in text (Act II - Scene III)
When Edgar says that he will “blanket [his] loins” and “elf all [his] hair in knots,” this means that he will wear a loincloth and make his hair matted and tangled. This will help Edgar disguise himself as a beggar, which will certainly differ from his appearance as a nobleman. However, consider Edgar’s disguise in comparison to Kent’s. Neither disguise should really fool those who know them well, and yet they seem to—again showing how much certain characters lack insight.
"Edgar I nothing am...." See in text (Act II - Scene III)
The word “nothing” makes another appearance as Edgar throws off his clothes in favor of a disguise as a bedlam beggar, or madman. Note that unlike Lear, Edgar has chosen to act mad rather than becoming so. However, it is worth noting that both have found paths to madness as a means of dealing with the disintegration of their own lives.
Act II - Scene IV
"That sir which serves and seeks for gain, And follows but for form,(80) Will pack when it begins to rain, And leave thee in the storm,..." See in text (Act II - Scene IV)
Since it’s been established that the Fool knows more about events happening in the play than the others, his rhymes warrant close scrutiny. In this case, he is saying that someone who serves Lear for appearances and personal gain will abandon Lear when the “storm” comes. Given the Fool’s insight, and the way things are going for Lear, this rhyme certainly foreshadows events to come.
"No, rather I abjure all roofs, and choose..." See in text (Act II - Scene IV)
Having both his daughters show him such disrespect, Lear has just invoked the heavens to keep him sane. However, now he threatens to live as an animal in the woods, a claim that suggests nature values justice and family bonds more than Lear’s present company. Since comparing people to animals has been used for insults, this sentiment complicates the symbol because it suggests that while beasts, animals are still less corrupt than humans.
"Nature in you stands on the very verge Of her confine:..." See in text (Act II - Scene IV)
Regan’s inclusion of “Nature” in her response to Lear has additional meaning. She means that “Nature” represents a place beyond the realm of human rationality, and since it is “on the very verge / Of his confine,” then she means to say that madness is coming closer to Lear. Because Regan frames the human mind as something that can be breached by nature, she reinforces her assertion that age or emotional instability can weaken it and allow the wild forces of “Nature” to take over.
"O, sir, you are old...." See in text (Act II - Scene IV)
Lear has come to Regan to seek support for Goneril’s harsh treatment of him. Regan immediately targets his age, treating him like a child that should ask Goneril for forgiveness. Regan’s statement again brings up the interplay between madness and age by strongly contending that Lear’s aging mind is responsible for his behavior.
"You heavens, give me that patience, patience I need! You see me here, you gods, a poor old man,..." See in text (Act II - Scene IV)
Lear’s daughters have systematically stripped him of his remaining knights, removing nearly all of his remaining power and authority in the process. In response to this, Lear again invokes the heavens to intervene; however this time, Lear asks for patience and sanity, fearing that he’s losing both. Goneril and Regan’s cold and unjust treatment of their father has severed the family ties, and has left Lear on the brink of madness.
Act III - Scene II
"The art of our necessities is strange, That can make vile things precious...." See in text (Act III - Scene II)
Recall the connection here to Kent’s claim that only the miserable can see miracles in Act II, scene ii. When you are desperate, even shoddy things like this hut can seem precious. Only in Lear’s madness and desperation has he been able to see the beauty in the world. Again, Shakespeare shows that those we deem “mad” sometimes have the clearest insights.
"here's a night pities neither wise man nor fool. ..." See in text (Act III - Scene II)
The Fool is saying that Nature affects everyone the same regardless of their social position. His statement also plays with the dynamic between “wise men” and “fools.” We’ve seen how the Fool and Lear have been trading roles so far in the play, and this comment reveals how wise the Fool is—even though he is essentially saying that wise men and fools are one and the same. This idea is supported by the idea that Lear is gaining more insight into events and himself as his mental faculties are compromised. The effect, therefore, of the Fool’s words is to show how madness and knowledge are intertwined as the lines between them become blurred.
"Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! rage! blow!..." See in text (Act III - Scene II)
This scene opens with Lear raging at the storm itself. Notice here the reappearance of the word “crack,” which brings to mind Lear’s earlier in Act II, scene i that his “my old heart is cracked, it's cracked!” Then, the word referred to the breaking down of Lear’s family structure and power, and here he invokes the storm’s wrath to destroy the law of the land. The storm carries on, physically causing chaos and metaphorically representing the disorder of the country.
"My wits begin to turn...." See in text (Act III - Scene II)
This line clearly informs the audience that Lear’s madness has begun to strongly take hold of him. However, Shakespeare complicates this by showing that Lear has a sense of self-awareness; that is, he realizes that it is happening to him. The Fool has shown that wisdom and madness are connected, and this line supports this notion by suggesting that as Lear’s “wits begin to turn,” he’ll get greater insight into himself.
Act III - Scene III
"There is some strange thing toward, Edmund; pray you, be careful...." See in text (Act III - Scene III)
Gloucester puts his faith in the wrong son, much like Lear trusts Goneril and Regan rather than Cordelia. Gloucester’s family can be seen as a mirror for Lear’s, as both Lear and Gloucester are blind to the characters of their own children. Since the audience knows of Edmund’s ambitious intentions, Gloucester’s faith in Edmund is an example of dramatic irony.
"Alack, alack, Edmund, I like not this unnatural dealing. ..." See in text (Act III - Scene III)
“Alack” is a term used to express regret, grief, or pity. Shakespeare complicates the theme of family relationships when he emphasizes that Gloucester considers Goneril and Regan’s callous treatment of their father to be “unnatural.” Their behavior goes against what nature seems to intend—that we care for the well-being of our family. Goneril and Regan’s monstrous natures they are not only cold and careless, but also inhuman—refusing even to let others help their father.
"The younger rises when the old doth fall...." See in text (Act III - Scene III)
As we’ve seen so far, the dichotomy between the fathers and their children in this play is pronounced: the fathers value fate, tradition, and order; the children (except Edgar and Cordelia) desire authority, power, and control of their own destinies. This tension works on the family level of those involved, but it also works metaphorically for the English state. If the young refuse to acknowledge and learn from the old, the social order will be thrown into disarray.
Act III - Scene IV
"ah, that good Kent!..." See in text (Act III - Scene IV)
Gloucester’s appearance and statements provide a good example of irony, because his failure to recognize Kent or his own son Edgar, despite how much he claims to love and value them, shows his blindness. This echoes Lear's inability to recognize Kent, and it provides a literal emphasis to the metaphorical blindness of the old men towards the actions of their children.
"I smell the blood of a British man...." See in text (Act III - Scene IV)
At first glance, Edgar's cryptic rhyme appears meaningless; however, the content actually carries strong significance for the play. While "childe" can refer to a nobleman who is not yet a knight, such as a squire, the connection to the words "child" and "children" is meaningful: children in King Lear have threatened their parents' way of life. Furthermore, the "dark tower" can apply to the positions of power that these children are seeking to take from their fathers, likely through violence by spilling "the blood of a British man." Similar to the wisdom found in the Fool's sayings, Shakespeare has clearly experimented with putting heavy content in seemingly foolish words.
"How shall your houseless heads and unfed sides,(35) Your looped and windowed raggedness, defend you From seasons such as these? ..." See in text (Act III - Scene IV)
While the other characters see Lear as crazy, his ravings in the wilderness have actually helped him make more sense of the world and brought him greater insight into the state of the common people. Lear renounces his previous actions as king, which plays into traditional story elements of recognizing one's faults in order to begin repenting. However, Shakespeare has altered the structure of this moral arc by having Lear wade through madness to come to this realization.
"Poor naked wretches, whereso'er you are,..." See in text (Act III - Scene IV)
Since Lear has started losing his wits, Shakespeare has been developing the association between insight and madness. This passage provides us with evidence that Lear has begun to acquire more knowledge as he struggles with his mental state. Having found shelter from the storm, Lear begins to reflect on his time as king and how he largely ignored the plight of his impoverished subjects. This selection shows how his recent experiences have helped him acquire a measure of empathy, or the ability to sympathize with the situation of others. Nature, as the storm, has provided an equalizing force that has allowed Lear to redefine what he considers necessary; he even sees a shack as precious.
"I am almost mad myself: I had a son, Now outlawed from my blood; he sought my life, But lately, very late: I loved him, friend;(165) No father his son dearer: truth to tell thee, The grief hath crazed my wits..." See in text (Act III - Scene IV)
Gloucester sympathizes with Lear for his madness, as he too understands the tragedy that occurs from broken family bonds. Just like Lear, Gloucester has been betrayed by a child (even though he believes it to be Edgar rather than Edmund.) Shakespeare complicates the theme of family relationships here by emphasizing that their dissolution has the capacity to drive people mad. Gloucester and Lear feel deeply hurt by their children’s disloyalty, the consequences of which is dire.
"Is man no more than this? Consider him well. Thou owest(105) the worm no silk, the beast no hide, the sheep no wool, the cat no perfume. Ha! here's three on 's are sophisticated! Thou art the thing itself: unaccommodated man is no more but such a poor bare, forked animal as thou art...." See in text (Act III - Scene IV)
Notice that Lear describes his clothes as “lendings” before stripping them off, reminding the audience that they are not an essential part of him. His nakedness underscores the theme of disintegration; the stripping away of excess and returning to nature. Lear then describes Poor Tom’s madness as being the nature of “unaccommodated man,” suggesting that the human being in this state is more natural than those deemed “sane” in civilization.
Act III - Scene V
"How malicious is my fortune, that I must repent to be just! ..." See in text (Act III - Scene V)
Edmund’s betrayal of his own father is the ultimate corruption of the bond between father and child. Thus, Edmund’s breach of this parent-child contract in the name of justice and righteousness is ironic, because the audience knows of Edmund’s depravity.
Act III - Scene VI
"When we our betters see bearing our woes, We scarcely think our miseries our foes...." See in text (Act III - Scene VI)
This is the second time we have seen Edgar express his pity for Lear. Earlier, Edgar worried that his tears would give away his disguise, and here, he says that his pity for Lear is so strong that he can barely feel his own pain. However, he does note that there is a similarity between the two, when he says "he childed as I fathered," which is to say that Lear suffers from his children’s actions, and Edgar suffered from his father’s. Edgar's revealing of this moment of personal pain provides one of the most explicit connections between the two family situations.
"[Aside] My tears begin to take his part so much, They'll mar my counterfeiting...." See in text (Act III - Scene VI)
Edgar feels such sympathy for Lear that he begins to cry, fearing that his tears will ruin his disguise. Note the imagery of the eyes and tears in association with emotional insight and truth. Though it is Lear’s children who abandon him and Edgar’s situation is the opposite, Edgar is able to relate to Lear’s situation in that he knows all too well the devastating emotional impact of being cut off from one’s family.
"All the power of his wits have given way to his impatience: ..." See in text (Act III - Scene VI)
By “impatience,” Kent offers his own explanation for Lear’s madness: it’s due to Lear’s restlessness for answers. We have seen Lear’s behavior associated with his age, anger, and mental health. Kent’s statement suggests that Lear wishes to hurry up and resolve his problems. While this could work on a literal level, with Lear expecting his daughters to make things right, it can also operate on a metaphorical level, with Lear desiring a resolution to his situation. The latter is a little more likely, considering how Shakespeare has established madness and foolery as a path to insight. Regardless, Kent’s statement does suggest that one’s wits must be maintained against the threat of insanity, suggesting that chaos will break through a sound mind without enough resolve—paralleling Regan’s comments that a mind may become breached by outside forces. (See Act II, scene iv.)
Act III - Scene VII
"So white, and such a traitor!..." See in text (Act III - Scene VII)
Here, Regan further insults Gloucester by plucking out hairs from his “white” beard, an action that once again highlights her disrespect for the elderly. Shakespeare further heightens our awareness of Regan’s cruelty by reminding us of Gloucester’s old age and his helplessness.
"You are my guests: do me no foul play, friends...." See in text (Act III - Scene VII)
Cornwall and Regan have turned against their own host, which illustrates their complete disregard for custom and tradition. Cornwall and Regan’s “foul play” highlights the theme of disintegration; dismantling any remaining semblance of order and tradition, and bringing Britain further into chaos.
"Lest it see more, prevent it. Out, vile jelly! Where is thy lustre now?..." See in text (Act III - Scene VII)
The theme of blindness and insight finds a physical manifestation in the blinding of Gloucester. He and Lear have not been able to see the cunning and ambition of their children; both are “blind” to these actions. Gloucester, for his loyalty to Lear, is physically blinded, paying with the loss of his sight for his blind trust of Edmund. This attack signals an increasingly literal violence taking place in the play, with the blind being punished for their mistakes but those who are doing the blinding becoming more monstrous and hateful.
Act IV - Scene I
"'Tis the times' plague, when madmen lead the blind...." See in text (Act IV - Scene I)
Gloucester is saying that it is a tragedy of the time that the mad must lead the blind. To Gloucester, Poor Tom is a mad man, merely one step above being blind. However, recall that Shakespeare has established madness and insight as intertwined on the path to gaining a deeper understanding of a complex world, as we have seen in Lear and the Fool’s interactions. Even while Gloucester could see, he was blind to the character of those around him. When Gloucester puts his faith in a madman, he illustrates that in this chaotic world, being sane does not mean one has greater insight, just as having eyesight does not mean one can “see.”
"And worse I may be yet: the worst is not So long as we can say ‘This is the worst...." See in text (Act IV - Scene I)
After Edgar sees his father being led by the Old Man, he alters his earlier sentiment, stating that there are many others worse off than he is. His statement here suggests that someone’s having enough composure and reflection to see how bad a situation is must mean that the situation is not at its absolute worst; being able to say this means that things could still become worse. This shift in Edgar’s character illustrates his capacity to look outside his own problems and sympathize with the feelings of others, similar to Lear’s encounter with the disguised Edgar earlier.
"I have no way, and therefore want no eyes;..." See in text (Act IV - Scene I)
Gloucester's resignation epitomizes the fatalism present in most of the play. Fate directs the outcome for each character, so it doesn't matter what a person does; his/her end has already been written. Gloucester doesn't need eyes to see that he has nowhere to go—he already knows it.
"As flies to wanton boys, are we to the gods...." See in text (Act IV - Scene I)
Gloucester suggests that the gods are malevolent and enjoy torturing humans for sport; they are "wanton boys" and humans are "flies." There is no divine justice—only the sport of vicious gods who delight in suffering and reward cruelty.
Act IV - Scene IV
"Crowned with rank fumiter and furrow-weeds, With hardocks, hemlock, nettles, cuckoo-flowers, Darnel, and all the idle weeds that grow..." See in text (Act IV - Scene IV)
Cordelia is not only describing what the crown on Lear’s head is composed of, but also she is telling the group where Lear can be found. Of these plants mentioned, many of them are weeds (fumiter, furrow-weeds, hardocks), several are poisonous (hemlock, nettles), and others are benign (darnel is a type of grass, for example, but the ancient Romans and Greeks used the cuckoo-flowers as a cure for mental illness). While making wreaths out of flowers is fairly innocent, it’s worth noting that Lear has made a wreath crown of plants that are largely poisonous and not commonly picked. This threat of the natural world on his head perhaps provides a visual indication of the chaos that has caused him to largely lose his wits.
Act IV - Scene V
"What party I do follow...." See in text (Act IV - Scene V)
The “what” that characterizes Oswald’s allegiance in this line suggests that there is ambiguity in whom he will follow. Because he leaves this scene carrying both Goneril and Regan’s letters, this could be read as Oswald looking out for himself as he can now choose which party to give favor to. Though Oswald has been faithful to Goneril throughout the play, this moment of infidelity reflects the play’s overall theme of chaos in social systems: just as Regan and Goneril did not honor their father, Goneril’s servant has no real loyalty to her.
"My lord is dead; Edmund and I have talked; And more convenient is he for my hand..." See in text (Act IV - Scene V)
Regan and Goneril have already begun moving against one another, showing that their lack of tradition and respect for their father has now extended to their relationship as sisters. With the death of Cornwall, Regan seeks to marry Edmund; with her distaste for Albany, Goneril desires Edmund as a new husband. Both sisters seek to undermine the other, completely disregarding any filial love or respect they may have had for each other.
Act IV - Scene VI
"O, let me kiss that hand!..." See in text (Act IV - Scene VI)
The two old men finally come together in this scene, both disabled and barely able to conduct proper communication: Gloucester is blind; Lear is insane. However, while the blind Gloucester is able to recognize Lear despite his lack of sight, Lear’s insanity makes him the truly blind one. Shakespeare therefore also provides more on how madness is equated with insight in this exchange by showing that disability may offer clarity in certain aspects, but it may also prevent communication in others.
"fool of fortune...." See in text (Act IV - Scene VI)
Shakespeare often inverts the popular proverb "Fortune favors fools." Here, King Lear is fortune's fool; he, as the tragic hero, is certainly not favored. His foolishness (banishing Cordelia and dividing his kingdom between Regan and Goneril) triggers the tragic plot, in which he is always out of Fortune's favor.
Act IV - Scene VII
"O you kind gods,..." See in text (Act IV - Scene VII)
Cordelia calls out to the “kind gods” to restore her father to his former glory. This cry indicates her belief in the presence of divine justice and order to her world. However, as we will see over the course of the scene, the “gods” do not come to her aid and Lear’s mind is not restored.
Act V - Scene II
"What, in ill thoughts again? Men must endure(10) Their going hence, even as their coming hither; Ripeness is all: come on. ..." See in text (Act V - Scene II)
Lear and Cordelia’s forces have lost the battle, and Gloucester asks to be left to die. Edgar is caring of his father to the end, telling him that people do not get to choose when they are born nor when they die. Since the relationship between Edgar and Gloucester is the focus of this scene, which emphasizes the importance of the relationship between father and son rather than the war. (Although, we must consider the difficulties Shakespeare would have had in staging and performing a war scene.)
Act V - Scene III
"Thou'lt come no more, Never, never, never, never, never!..." See in text (Act V - Scene III)
The repetition of negative words in this passage adds to the many moments in the story where “nothing” was repeated, beginning with Cordelia’s “nothing” in Act I. Denial and nothingness have culminated in a loss of life that appears to lack meaning. Shakespeare therefore appears to end this tragedy not with violence on a grand scale but with an examination of how “nothing” can bring about such tragic consequences that have no logical explanation.
"No, no, no life!(365) Why should a dog, a horse, a rat, have life, And thou no breath at all?..." See in text (Act V - Scene III)
The repetition of “no” at the start of this passage along with the question marks convey Lear’s tone as soft and surprised. His words should be read as being hesitant and slow, asking these confused questions much as an innocent child would. He compares the innocent lives of animals to Cordelia, which shows how he cannot make sense of human injustice, believing that his daughter deserves to be alive simply because other creatures are allowed to live. This infantile questioning recall’s Goneril and Regan’s earlier assumption that as one ages, one reverts to a child-like state.
"Had I your tongues and eyes, I'ld use them so That heaven's vault should crack..." See in text (Act V - Scene III)
The word “crack” makes a final appearance here as Lear wishes that he could use the voices of others to open “heaven’s vault.” Since the heavens and gods are associated with fate, the idea of cracking the vault suggests that Lear wishes he could alter fate if only he had the power to. This stands in stark contrast with his earlier adherence and reverence of the heavens, and his desire for control over fate echoes Edmund’s. In Lear’s moment of loss, he wishes to overcome the power that nature has over his life.
"Is this the promised end?..." See in text (Act V - Scene III)
The “promised end” in Kent’s question means something like “doomsday” or “the end of times.” The placement of this line, spoken just after Lear’s heart-wrenching cries, helps emphasize how truly catastrophic the play’s ending is. Characters have been forced to grapple with the disintegration of everything they know—both the good and the bad. Kent’s line thus works on a few different levels. The characters and the audience have both just witnessed any remaining social, political, and familial order crumble into utter chaos. Kent’s words vocalize the culmination of all of these tragic events, expressing a concern that the worst is truly now upon them.
"Howl, howl, howl, howl! O, you are men of stones:..." See in text (Act V - Scene III)
In this heartbreaking scene, Lear’s language, while difficult to understand, reveals the depth of his emotion. The repetition of “Howl” calls to mind the storm from earlier, with Lear in this moment raging in his emotion. He calls the others “men of stones” because of how emotionless he finds them in this moment of catastrophe and wishes for their “tongues and eyes.” This desire for the sense of others is important because of how blindness and madness have been woven throughout the play: Lear is losing his own senses, and so he wishes those of others to look on Cordelia and express his anguish.
"Jesters do oft prove prophets...." See in text (Act V - Scene III)
Here, Regan states one of the main themes of this play: there is wisdom that comes from standing outside the constraints of society and acting a fool. There is also ominous foreshadowing within this line as Regan suggests that even things said in jest might actually happen. Foolery then becomes a type of omnipotent intuition that knows all by knowing nothing.