Study Guide

King Lear Themes

  • Family

    (Click the themes infographic to download.)

    Do not take your dad to a production of King Lear on Father's Day. Actually, don't take your mom to see it on Mother's Day, for that matter. (Characters who are mothers, as several critics have pointed out, are noticeably absent in King Lear—but there's plenty of talk about moms in this play.) 

    Lear is not only a king, he's also a family patriarch whose plans to divvy up his kingdom among his daughters backfires, causing a civil war that gets played out as a large scale family crisis. Lear's family isn't the only dysfunctional crew in the play—the drama between Gloucester and his sons heightens the sense that King Lear is a decidedly domestic tragedy.

    Questions About Family

    1. Why does King Lear stage a love test between his daughters?
    2. Why does King Lear banish Cordelia? Is he justified?
    3. Explain how Goneril and Regan betray their father after he retires.
    4. How does King Lear's quarrel with his family play out on a national scale?
    5. Why is Edmund out to destroy his father and his half-brother, Edgar?

    Chew on This

    In King Lear, the aging monarch's crisis of kingship is played out as a distinctly family matter—in the play, civil warfare is literally a family squabble and Lear's most disloyal subjects are his unruly daughters.

    Edmund's wicked actions are not those of a motiveless man—he sets out to destroy his father and half-brother because he objects to society's treatment of illegitimate and second-born sons.

  • Power

    (Click the themes infographic to download.)

    Um, more like loss of power. Poor Lear really loses it all: his family, his mind... and his power.

    After retiring and divvying up his kingdom among his ungrateful daughters, Lear discovers what it's like to lose the power and authority that come with the responsibilities of active rule. In addition to being a monarch, King Lear is also a family patriarch and Shakespeare asks us to consider the similarities between a father's relationship with his children and a king's relationship with his subjects.

    Questions About Power

    1. Why does Lear want to divvy up his kingdom among his children? What happens as a result?
    2. Does King Lear have any power or authority left when he gives up his crown?
    3. Discuss why King Lear keeps a retinue of a hundred rowdy knights? Why do you think Goneril and Regan object to this?
    4. Who is left to govern the kingdom at the end of the play? Does anybody want the job? Why or why not?

    Chew on This

    Although King Lear sets out to avoid family and political conflict, his decision to retire and divide his kingdom results in a major family conflict as well as a full-blown national crisis.

    Without the title of "king," Lear's authority means ultimately nothing—Shakespeare's play, then, suggests that a monarch's power is completely arbitrary.

  • Justice

    (Click the themes infographic to download.)

    The excessive cruelty and portrayal of human suffering in the play make the world seem terribly unjust. Throughout King Lear, characters constantly appeal to the gods for aid but are rarely answered. The play suggests that, either the gods do not exist, or they are unimaginably cruel. King Lear seems to argue that it is up to human beings to administer justice in this world.

    Questions About Justice

    1. What is the play's position on the existence of divine power and divine justice?
    2. When do characters pray to the gods? Are their prayers ever answered?
    3. Do any characters get their just desserts in King Lear? Why or why not?
    4. How and why does Cordelia die at the play's end? How does her death shape our understanding of justice in the play?

    Chew on This

    In King Lear, the gods either don't exist or, simply don't care about human suffering – suggesting that justice does not exist in the world.

    The play suggests that the only way there can ever be justice in the world is when human beings behave justly toward one another.

  • Language and Communication

    (Click the themes infographic to download.)

    King Lear, being bleakity-bleak-bleak about most things we think are awesome (like love and family), also makes language look pretty depressing. Basically, it's a super-blunt tool that means... nothing.

    In King Lear honest speech is cool and all, but language often falls short of being able to accurately express human emotion. King Lear opens with a "love test" staged by the aging monarch to determine which of his three daughters can say she loves him "most." This turns out to be a huge mistake—the daughters who say they love their father more than anything in life end up mistreating him, while the daughter who says her love cannot be expressed with mere words, turns out to be Lear's only loving and loyal daughter. 

    King Lear, who has spent a lifetime being sweet talked by courtiers and subjects can't tell the difference between the truth and empty flattery. At other times, he simply does not want to hear the truth, as when he banishes the loyal Kent for speaking up about Lear's wicked daughters.

    Questions About Language and Communication

    1. How does Lear determine which daughter loves him "most"?
    2. What does Cordelia mean when she says she cannot "heave [her] heart into [her] mouth"?
    3. What are the consequences of Lear's "love test"?
    4. Do any of Lear's subjects ever speak the truth to the monarch? If so, which ones?

    Chew on This

    King Lear demonstrates that words are meaningless as proof of love: only actions matter.

    After Lear banishes Cordelia and Kent for speaking their minds, Lear's Fool is the only character that tells the king the truth.

  • Gender

    (Click the themes infographic to download.)

    There's a reason that King Lear isn't taught in Feminism 101... unless it's being held up as an example of misogyny.

    In King Lear, women are often seen as emasculating, disloyal, promiscuous, and the root of all the problems in the world. King Lear in particular has serious issues with women—when his daughters, Goneril and Regan, betray him, he begins a diatribe against women, particularly female sexuality, that echoes throughout the play.

    Questions About Gender

    1. What kinds of roles do women have in King Lear?
    2. There's plenty of talk about mothers in King Lear, but mothers are ultimately absent (as characters) in the play. What's up with that?
    3. What is King Lear's attitude toward his daughters? Does his attitude spill over onto all women?
    4. How do characters in the play view female sexuality (in a positive or negative light)? What textual evidence would you use to back up your claim?

    Chew on This

    When Lear's daughters betray him after he has given them his kingdom, he feels as though he has been emasculated—according to Lear, Goneril and Regan strip their father of his "manhood."

    King Lear views female sexuality as horrific and terrifying and, since Lear believes that most women are promiscuous, he also believes that most women are monsters.

  • Society and Class

    (Click the themes infographic to download.)

    King Lear isn't just a family drama. Hardly. Our Billy Shakespeare wouldn't ever be so simplistic. This tragedy also picks apart some pretty meaty social issues.

    King Lear offers some pretty insightful social commentary on everything from class and politics, homelessness, mental illness, the tensions between youth and the older generation, and so on. For many, the play seems to challenge and critique some existing (sixteenth and seventeenth century) social and political structures while offering some radical solutions. For others, the play takes a good hard look at England's social ills but eventually winds up supporting the status quo.

    Questions About Society and Class

    1. Why is Edmund considered an "illegitimate" son? How does his position as a "bastard" impact his social position in the play?
    2. How is old age portrayed in the play? How does the younger generation view the older generation? Is there any tension? If so, why?
    3. Who is "Poor Tom"? What kind of role does this character play? How does he draw attention to the problem of homelessness in the play?
    4. What happens to King Lear's knights after they are dispersed? Why is their dispersal significant?

    Chew on This

    Edmund is one of Shakespeare's most complex villains because he has a strong motive for his evildoing—his status as an illegitimate son is always rubbed in his face.

    Lear himself might act pretty foolishly, but the real madness in this play comes from society.

  • Loyalty

    (Click the themes infographic to download.)

    Think of all the tough, out-for-#1-type antiheroes you know: Walter White, pre-Leia Han Solo, Littlefinger.  Yeah, all those guys would feel right at home in King Lear.

    In the harsh world of King Lear, loyalty is rare. Surviving in an unstable political situation means that many people focus on the bottom line: saving their own skins. But there are some characters in the play who demonstrate extraordinary loyalty, such as Kent and Cordelia. The play celebrates this virtue, but it also shows that it can be dangerous. Loyalty is not appreciated, but rather ignored. In some cases, loyalty means death, and in all cases, it means suffering.

    Questions About Loyalty

    1. Why does Kent remain loyal to Lear? Does he really love the King, or is serving him the only life he knows? What about the Fool? Is he just doing his job, or does he have some personal investment in King Lear?
    2. Are the characters in King Lear rewarded for their loyalty, or punished?

    Chew on This

    King Lear suggests that in a politically unstable country, the price of loyalty is too high to pay. When politics are at stake, those who act according to principle will be punished.

    In King Lear, even the most selfless acts of loyalty remain painfully unacknowledged. Yet, because loyalty is its own reward, loyal characters are happy in their choices.

  • Compassion and Forgiveness

    (Click the themes infographic to download.)

    A warning, Shmoopers: King Lear ain't going to make you feel great about people. Think of the warmest, fuzziest feel-good comedy... and then think of the opposite. Yup. That's King Lear.

    King Lear is an incredibly cruel play, and many of the characters are absolutely pitiless. Yet a few characters show extraordinary sympathy towards others' suffering. The human capacity to feel for others survives even the most desperate of moments. Yet what we see in Lear is that compassion is usually based on some sort of obligation—such as loyalty or family ties. Interestingly, these loyalties and these ties are the same causes of the extensive treachery displayed in King Lear.

    Questions About Compassion and Forgiveness

    1. Which characters in King Lear show pity? Which deserve pity?
    2. Does compassion serve any purpose in King Lear?

    Chew on This

    The existence of compassion in King Lear prevents the play from presenting a completely negative view of human nature.

    In King Lear, pity is a useless human emotion; it doesn't help any of the characters through their suffering.