KING LEAR THEMES, MOTIFS & SYMBOLS

THEMES Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
JUSTICE King Lear is a brutal play, filled with human cruelty and awful, seemingly meaningless disasters. The play’s succession of terrible events raises an obvious question for the characters—namely, whether there is any possibility of justice in the world, or whether the world is fundamentally indifferent or even hostile to humankind.
AUTHORITY VS CHAOS King Lear is about political authority as much as it is about family dynamics. Lear is not only a father but also a king, and when he gives away his authority to the unworthy and evil Goneril and Regan, he delivers not only himself and his family but all of Britain into chaos and cruelty.
RECONCILIATION Darkness and unhappiness pervade King Lear, and the devastating Act 5 represents one of the most tragic endings in all of literature. Nevertheless, the play presents the central relationship—that between Lear and Cordelia—as a dramatic embodiment of true, self-sacrificing love. Rather than despising Lear for banishing her, Cordelia remains devoted, even from afar, and eventually brings an army from a foreign country to rescue him from his tormentors.
MOTIFS Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, and literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.
MADNESS Insanity occupies a central place in the play and is associated with both disorder and hidden wisdom. The Fool, who offers Lear insight in the early sections of the play, offers his counsel in a seemingly mad babble.
BETRAYAL Betrayals play a critical role in the play and show the workings of wickedness in both the familial and political realms—here, brothers betray brothers and children betray fathers. Goneril and Regan’s betrayal of Lear raises them to power in Britain, where Edmund, who has betrayed both Edgar and Gloucester, joins them.
SYMBOLS Symbols are objects, characters, figures, and colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts.
THE STORM As Lear wanders about a desolate heath in Act 3, a terrible storm, strongly but ambiguously symbolic, rages overhead. In part, the storm echoes Lear’s inner turmoil and mounting madness: it is a physical, turbulent natural reflection of Lear’s internal confusion.
BLINDNESS Gloucester’s physical blindness symbolizes the metaphorical blindness that grips both Gloucester and the play’s other father figure, Lear. The parallels between the two men are clear: both have loyal children and disloyal children, both are blind to the truth, and both end up banishing the loyal children and making the wicked one(s) their heir(s).

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