King Lear: Themes


Many themes are evident in King Lear, but perhaps one of the most prevalent
relates to the theme of justice. Shakespeare has developed a tragedy that
allows us to see man\'s decent into chaos. Although Lear is perceived as "a man
more sinned against than sinning" (p.62), the treatment of the main characters
encourages the reader to reflect on the presence or lack of justice in this
world. The characters also vary in their inclination to view the world from
either a fatalistic or moralistic point of view, depending on their beliefs
about the presence or absence of a higher power. The theme of justice in
relation to higher powers can be illustrated from the perspective of King Lear,
Gloucester, and Edgar.
When reading King Lear, it is helpful to understand the Elizabethan "Chain
of Being" in which nature is viewed as order. Rosenblatt (1984) states that
there was a belief in an established hierarchy within the universe. Everything
had its own relative position beginning with Heaven, the Divine Being, and the
stars and planets which are all above. On earth the king is next, then the
nobles, on down to the peasantry. Holding the lowest position were the beggars
and lunatics and finally, the animals. Interrupting this order is unnatural.
King Lear\'s sin was that he disrupted this chain of being by relinquishing
his throne. By allowing his daughters and their husbands to rule the kingdom,
the natural order of things was disturbed. His notion that he can still be in
control after dividing the kingdom is a delusion. According to Elizabethan
philosophy, it would seem that this is the beginning of his mistakes and is also
the cause of much of the misfortune that occurs later on in the play. Chaos
rules the unnatural.
As well, King Lear makes another devastating mistake which affects his
relationship with his daughters by asking them to tell him how much they love
him in order that he may divide his kingdom according to the strength of their
love. Cordelia, the youngest daughter, states that she loves her father
"according to her bond" (p.4). She is saying that she loves him as much as any
child could love a father. On the other hand, Goneril and Reagan easily speak
the words that their father wants to hear, rather than the truth.
Because Lear is not satisfied with Cordelia\'s response, he turns his back
on Cordelia and on her love. By doing this he is destroying the natural family
unit and lacks the insight to know this. He unjustly punishes Cordelia by
banishing her from the kingdom. He casts out his daughter in an unfatherly
fashion, yet is gravely upset by the ingratitude of his other two daughters,
Goneril and Reagan. Once again, due to Lear\'s lack of wisdom, he fails to
recognize the sincerity of Cordelia\'s words. Thus, he puts his relationship
with his daughters in jeopardy which results in a constant source of grief for
King Lear.
King Lear holds firm to his belief that the world is governed by the gods
and in justice. Therefore he does not question the will of the gods in letting
him suffer from his daughter\'s unkindness, but prays

If it be you that stirs these daughters\' hearts
Against their father, fool me not with so much
To bear it tamely; touch me with noble anger (p.50).
Greer (1986) reminds us that Shakespeare uses the word

"nature" often, but rarely with the same meaning. For instance, Lear
personifies nature when he calls Cordelia "a wretch whom Nature is
ashamed/Almost to acknowledge hers" (p.9). Here, it seems as though Lear thinks
himself to be particularly special and close to nature because he is
presumptuous in believing that he can read Nature\'s mind. On the same note,
Lear also seems to order his goddess, Nature, as though he is in control. He
commands Nature to follow his orders,

Hear, Nature, hear! dear goddess, hear!
Suspend thy purpose, if thou didst intend
To make this creature fruitful (p.29).

Therefore, Lear is once again disturbing the order of things by putting himself
above the gods.
Lear disturbs the Chain of Being, unjustly punishes Cordelia and
misinterprets his role in life by assuming himself to be the lord of creation.
For these "sins" he is punished when Goneril and Reagan turn on him and Cordelia
dies. Thus, it would seem that justice is served.
However, Holloway (1961) suggests that Lear suffers more for his "sins"
than seems reasonable. Holloway sums up this concept as follows: "the world
can be to mankind,