There are many works of literature that stand the test of time. King Lear is one of them. The themes in this play are as relevant today as it was when written.
The play King Lear is a tragedy written by William Shakespeare. It has been a grudge read for many high schoolers. It was the assigned play for English literature in my last year of high school. If you read this play today, it will seem familiar, because the themes are still relevant.
Quick Summary of King Lear
King Lear is the King of Britain who is at the sunset of his life. He wishes to split his kingdom and his power amongst his three daughters, Goneril, Regan, and Cordelia. He makes their inheritance dependent on their declarations of love for him. His youngest daughter Cordelia loves him but refuses to partake in the charade. Lear banishes her from the kingdom.
Lear then divides his kingdom between Goneril and Regan, understanding that he will take turns living with both of them. His experiences in their homes deeply wound him, and he leaves his daughters’ homes. As he slips into madness, he laments about his situation during a storm. He finally understands which daughter truly loves him.
Meanwhile, the Earl of Gloucester faces his own challenges with his sons, Edgar and the illegitimate Edmund. Edmund lies to his father, resulting in Edgar’s banishment. Like King Lear, the Earl of Gloucester chooses the child who will ultimately harm him. Edmund continues to sow seeds of lies and mistrust as he becomes the confidant of Goneril and Regan. Both sisters pursue him.
Themes From King Lear Which Are Still Relevant Today
Theme 1: Power and Greed
King Lear had absolute power. He used that power to dominate his kingdom and his daughters. He linked his value as a father and a human being to that power. When he handed his kingdom to his two eldest daughters, he discovered that he was no longer valuable to them.
Goneril and Regan understood the roles they had to play to gain power. They showed their greed once their father split his kingdom between them. They also revealed their true selves to their father once they became powerful. Their desire for power led them to fight their youngest sister, who challenged that power.
This is a classic example of how power and the quest for power can corrupt people. It leads people to believe that they are superior to others. They may use that power to harm and dominate others who challenge their authority.
You only have to turn back the pages of history to see how power corrupted world leaders and the atrocities to which it sometimes led. Today, this theme is equally relevant. If you listen to the news in any country, you will understand the impact of power in the wrong hands.
Theme 2: Fealty and Flattery
As king, Lear expected total loyalty from all his followers. This included his daughters. He did not accept challenges to his authority, and they could not question his decisions. However, the king did not show such fealty to his subjects. When he handed over his power, he split the kingdom and weakened it. He did not think about the consequences his decisions would have on his subjects.
King Lear used his weakness for flattery to decide how to split his power amongst his daughters. He associated flattery with love and popularity. It blinded him to people’s true intentions. He lost his mind before he realized that he had banished the daughter who loved him the most. Cordelia had been honest, and yet Lear placed a value on the spoken words of his daughters, rather than their actions.
This theme is so prevalent today. Leaders expect loyalty while showing none. They turn against those who challenge them, even if that challenge would have strengthened them. Instead, they honor those who have no honor, but who drown them in flattery. They weaken countries and systems within them because of their need for flattery and fealty.
Theme 3: Family Conflict
King Lear is rife with family conflict. There is a conflict between fathers and their children. There’s also major sibling rivalry within two families, which leads to death and destruction.
Lear’s relationship with his daughters is fraught with deception. His two eldest daughters feed their father’s need for flattery, feeling no love for him. They show how they really feel when he goes to live with them. Lear’s most genuine relationship was with his youngest daughter, Cordelia, who he banished for not feeding his ego. Yet Cordelia is the one who comes to his rescue. Regan and Goneril, once allies, vie with each other for the affections of Edmund, even though they are both married. Goneril even poisons her sister to win the love of Edmund.
The Earl of Gloucester also betrays his loyal son, Edgar, on the word of his illegitimate son, Edmund. Even though Gloucester knew the character of Edgar, he believed Edmund, who harbored great resentment towards his father. Edmund, angered by the circumstances of his birth, shows no love for his father, and he is jealous of his brother. He wreaks havoc by playing on the weaknesses of Regan and Goneril. Although he tries to repent before he dies, his actions have already resulted in destruction.
Sibling rivalry is as old as time. You can open most religious books and you will find some iteration of sibling rivalry and parental conflict. There are also popular movies and TV series such as Succession, which deal with this theme.
King Lear is one of Shakespeare’s most tragic and relevant play. The themes in this play still strike a major chord today. What other themes from King Lear resonate with you?