Critical Essays Major Themes


Explore the different themes within William Shakespeare's tragic play, King Lear. Themes are central to understanding King Lear as a play and identifying Shakespeare's social and political commentary.


Important is the notion of power — who has it, how one obtains it, how one defines it, and how it plays into King Lear. With this look at power should also come an investigation of issues such as age and gender. Consider, for example, the treatment of the elderly by their offspring. And think about the power and placement of women in Shakespeare's time as compared with the position of women in society and the home today.

Nature's Law

Nature, in varying forms, is another theme prevalent in King Lear. Lear's view of nature is one that holds certain values, such as respect for one's parents and loyalty to one's king, to be important regardless of circumstance.

Edmund, however, believes it's natural to be a repository of sensuality and self-advancement. To Edmund, as well as to several other characters in the play, the natural impulse of humanity is to better oneself at the expense of others.


Doubling (to create either oppositions or parallels) adds tremendously to the King Lear experience. At various times, fools are contrasted with wise men, reason is set opposite to nature, the upper class is set apart from the beggar, and the family is paralleled with by society.

False service, as in the case of Oswald, is contrasted with true service, represented by Kent. The selfish and false love of Regan and Goneril is a foil for the honest devotion of Cordelia.

Parent-Child Relationship

Throughout the audience is privy to the conflicts between father and child, and to fathers easily fooled by their children. Each father demonstrates poor judgment by rejecting a good child and trusting a dishonest child(ren).

The actions that follow Act I, Scene I illustrate how correct Regan's words will prove to be. It will soon be obvious to the characters and audience alike how little Lear knows and understands his daughters as Goneril and Regan move to restrict both the size of his retinue and power.