Motifs King Lear Unifying Motifs

Traditional Approaches to King Lear #

A play this old, builds up a variety of interpretations; layers of cultural varnishes; reflecting the immediate era’s ethos. For variant interpretations use the side menus, especially Christianity vs Nihilism or Critical approaches.

Meaning can be derived from recurring Motifs or threads which unify the plot and provide clues to the composer’s underlying concerns in creating meaning through patterns of design.

Shakespeare’s plays are a rich minefield of layers and layers of meaning and we can often find recurring concerns developed in similar or differing ways. Variations upon a theme will reinforce the message.

Motifs help to foster textual integrity. King Lear is full of recurring references, allusions, images and language that provide a pattern of meaning, including Providence are we the masters of our own identity?) Power Justice, Self-recognition, Deception, Betrayal, Loyalty……

An Aristotelian approach to the play has usually been the most orthodox, preferred or dominant view. Aristotle emphasised emotive responses, a beginning middle and end, unity and closure affirming order. Assuming a naturalist, illusionist performance with identity, empathy, Pathos, arousing pity and fear and leading to Catharsis; a purgation of the soul, Aristotle asserted that Drama allowed the spectator or audience to participate in great events vicariously resulting in a Cathartic cleansing or purging of the soul/spirit.

Aristotle focussed on aesthetics; structure, unity, cause and effect, order and an assumption of a rational universe. However the hero, due to hubris or an error in judgement (tragic flaw) suffers a reversal from good to bad fortune. The universe is rational and just . Through the pathos caused, the hero (and the responder vicariously) goes through a process of self-discovery or an identity crisis, where, recognising the reality of their predicament and learning to accept their destiny with equanimity. In this way suffering can be ennobling.

A Platonic approach evokes an opposing response, of distancing or alienating emotionally us from the characters and appeals to our minds. Jan Kott, a Polish critic from the 1930’s argued for this method and influenced directors such as Peter Brooks and others.

More @:

In King Lear, I believe Shakespeare plays on our perceptions by alternating the Aristotelian identifying and Platonic distancing approach.

As always, it is Shakespeare’s ability to capture the subtlest nuances of human emotions, the slightest variations of the mind and the soul of his characters through the power of expressive language.

Unifying Motifs in Lear: #

Motifs are recurring images, ideas or variations on themes that emphasise or reinforce overriding concerns of the composer. They also help to provide unity to a large scale work.

Lear’s Identity crisis: #

Aristotle defines Tragedy as:

“an imitation of an action that is serious, complete and of a certain magnitude involving the affliction of a good character who makes a bad mistake. The good character suffers from harmatia - a tragic flaw.

The bare facts of alone should make us shudder so the dramatist must elevate the audience’s fear, terror and pity into a higher level of creating

Katharsis, transforming and cleansing us so that we feel emotionally purged. The hero’s suffering leads to Disclosure, (Anagnorisis) or self-recognition as they become aware of their true predicament, puncturing all their illusions of themselves. Self- knowledge leads to understanding - an apotheosis.

Pain is inherent in the human condition, leading man to a noble form of dignity. Suffering is depicted as ennobling.

To live is to suffer; to survive is to find meaning in your suffering. Nietzsche

At the end, order is restored, god is on his throne and all is right with the world. Fate is controlled by Nemesis; divine retribution – poetic justice.

Once Lear abdicates the throne he must redefine himself. Not only does he face a reluctant disintegration of himself; he must face his mortality.

  • Lear:

Who is it that can tell me who that I am I.iv.226

  • Goneril: “He hath ever but slenderly known himself” I.i.293
  • Oswald: “my lady’s father” I. ii. 84
  • The Fool “Lear’s shadow”. I iv. 201
  • Lear: “You see me here , you gods, a poor old man
  • As full of grief as age, wretched in both” II.iv.264-5
    • Lear:

They told me I was everything… tis a lie….I am not ague proof”.

  • Lear to Cordelia:
  • “Pray do not mock me. I am a very foolish fond old man….” 4.7.59-60.

What is the identity of a king who has voluntarily and foolishly given away his titles?

Lear’s development towards self-recognition: Anagnorisis #

Our Initial impression is of a man of unchallengeable authority; regal, absolute, decisive and in control, this gradually disintegrates into an authoritarian, pompous, rash, impulsive, capricious, arbitrary and egotistical – self absorbed crotchety old man.

I did her wrong” 1.v.21

True need speech #

  • some of his past assumptions and illusions begin to break. 2.4.259 – 280

O, reason not the need! Our basest beggars
Are in the poorest things superfluous. Allow not nature more than nature needs,
Man’s life is cheap as beast’s. Thou art a lady:
If only to go warm were gorgeous
Why, nature needs not what thou gorgeous wearest,
Which scarcely keeps thee warm. But, for true need-
You heavens, give me that patience, patience I need!

Pity for the poor wretches Speech: #

.3.4.25-35. no longer so self obsessed

Poor naked wretches, wheresoe’er you are,
That bide the pelting of this pitiless storm,
How shall your houseless heads and unfed sides,
Your looped and windowed raggedness, defend you
From season such as these? O, I have ta’en > Too little care of this! Take physic, pomp; > Expose thyself to feel what wretches feel, > *That thou may’st shake the superflux to them * > And show the heavens more just.

Universal Man: #

Aristotle questions whether man is a god or a beast, while the Medieval Chain of Being places man between the Angels and the animals.

“unaccommodated man is nor more but such a poor, bare, forked animal…”

KING LEAR after meeting Cordelia again is quite penitent:

Be your tears wet? yes, ‘faith. I pray, weep not:
If you have poison for me, I will drink it.
I know you do not love me; for your sisters
Have, as I do remember, done me wrong:
You have some cause, they have not.

CORDELIA full of generosity and love:

No cause, no cause.

After the battle:

CORDELIA, captured and held by EDMUND tries to comfort Lear.

We are not the first
Who, with best meaning, have incurr’d the worst.
For thee, oppressed king, am I cast down;
Myself could else out-frown false fortune’s frown.
Shall we not see these daughters and these sisters?

KING LEAR accepts his fate:

No, no, no, no! Come, let’s away to prison:
We two alone will sing like birds i’ the cage:
When thou dost ask me blessing, I’ll kneel down,
And ask of thee forgiveness: so we’ll live,
And pray, and sing, and tell old tales, and laugh
At gilded butterflies, and hear poor rogues
Talk of court news; and we’ll talk with them too,
Who loses and who wins; who’s in, who’s out;
And take upon’s the mystery of things,
As if we were God’s spies: and we’ll wear out,
In a wall’d prison, packs and sects of great ones,
That ebb and flow by the moon.

Re-enter KING LEAR, with CORDELIA dead in his arms; EDGAR, Captain, and others following


Howl, howl, howl, howl! O, you are men of stones:
Had I your tongues and eyes, I’ld use them so
That heaven’s vault should crack. She’s gone for ever!
I know when one is dead, and when one lives;
She’s dead as earth. Lend me a looking-glass;
If that her breath will mist or stain the stone,
Why, then she lives.

As the play is based on legendary England, 800 BCE, Shakespeare could have used the Norse gods, Tyr and Forseti responsible for honour and justice, rather than Greek and Roman ones. Trivial!

Anger #

With each loss of power, Lear becomes more angry.

Anger has words, but rage does not. When we become violent, we have moved into this wordless territory that so often becomes confused with simple anger. Unless rage is assuaged it becomes destructive. When language is inadequate we resort to violence. When destructive people have nothing else to destroy, they become self-destructive.

Marcus Aurelis counsels: “The best revenge, is not to become like the wrongdoer”.

Nietzsche advises: “He who fights with monsters might take care lest he thereby become a monster.”

In our wars in Korea, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan, did we became worse than our enemy?

Controlled or measured anger, resulting from a slight, wounded psyches or gross injustice, can be transformative leading to shifting cultures as in civil rights, suffragettes and Black Lives Matter. If you seek to constructively avenge, rather than destructively revenge, rage can lead to change for collective good, like the cleansing of a thunderstorm.

Christ, Tolstoy, Ghandi, Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela and many others have demonstrated that passive, assertive resistance is more effective in the long run.

Rage can be accompanied by inexpressible grief and feelings of abandonment and disempowerment. Synonymous with: Ineffable, inexpressible, indescribable, unspeakable, beyond words..

Rage is passion; passion finds solutions, however at times we can suffer a paralysis of rage. We careen from outrage to outrage in a rollicking attention-deficit society that most perpetrators are able to outwait or outshout.


You heavens, give me that patience, patience I need!
You see me here, you gods, a poor old man,
As full of grief as age; wretched in both!
If it be you that stir these daughters’ hearts
Against their father, fool me not so much
To bear it tamely; touch me with noble anger,


All blest secrets,
All you unpublish’d virtues of the earth,
Spring with my tears! be aidant and remediate
In the good man’s distress! Seek, seek for him;
Lest his ungovern’d rage dissolve the life
That wants the means to lead it.

Lear’s royal rage finally becomes subdued as the Doctor tells Cordelia at the end:


Be comforted, good madam: the great rage,
You see, is kill’d in him:

Authority - Power #

All legitimate authority is defined by its limits. It can only be sustained by respect, faith and trust. Many leaders enjoy the trappings of power without glory, respect or authority. Real power does not require force.

During Medieval times Kings were considered demi-gods and assumed to have almost divine absolute power as representatives of God in the natural order of men. CANUTE (CNUT THE GREAT) THE DANE 1016 – 1035, gained favour by sending most of his army back to Denmark. The people idolised and deified him. Legend has it that in order to demonstrate to his subjects that as merely a king he was not a god, he ordered the tide not to come in, knowing this would fail.

By abdicating his authority, Lear destroys the natural harmony of state, family and personal.

  • The Play opens with two nobles speculating on King’s preferences to Dukes Albany and Cornwall. They show abject deference to the King’s authority.

  • Map Scene is where Lear dispenses his authority in imperious and imperative manners. The map is a symbol of power and authority.

  • The authority of language is threatened and subverted by Goneril and Regan’s empty flattery and Cordelia’s refusal to play the game bu

“Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.”

  • To maintain order and authority, Lear ironically abdicates “that future strife may be prevented now” and holds a love auction to “confer authority to younger strength”

  • The authority of language is threatened and subverted by Goneril and Regan’s empty flattery and Cordelia’s refusal to play the game but:

“Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.”

  • “words, empty as the wind, should be left unsaid” Homer – The Iliad

  • A favourite Biblical quote “Therefore write the things which you have seen, and the things which are…– Revelation 1:19. And as with all things Bible, it can be interpreted in different ways.

Good journalists, which is mainly political reporting:

Write what you see, what is, and what you think will come from it.

Authority is challenged: #

Kent defies Lear’s banishment as he regards loyalty as a higher order.

Oswald obeys any order; servile, sycophant, a lackey

  • Gloucester is prepared to defy the new authority “If I die for it” to revert his allegiance to “the king my old master” III. 3 18

  • Paternal authority is threatened by Goneril and Regan and by Edmond.

  • Nature is appealed to by Lear to reverse its course and,

“Strike flat the thick rotundity o’th’world, crack nature’s moulds, all germens spill at once.”

And earlier:

Hear Nature hear Dear Goddess hear!
Suspend thy purpose, if thou didst intend
To make this creature fruitful.
Into her womb convey sterility;
Dry up in her the organs of increase;

* If she must teem
Create her child of spleen, that it may live
and be thwart disnatured torment to her…..” I. .iv.230 – 238.

Perceptions on Justice #

Justice sides with money. 4.6. 150 – 175

”Plate sin with gold,
And the strong lance of justice hurtless breaks;
Arm it in rags, a pygmy’s straw does pierce it.”

His vulnerability:

Gloucester offers to kiss hand –

Let me wipe it first; it smells of mortality” 4.6.133.

Overcoming pride: #

kneels to Cordelia

”I am a very foolish fond old man’ 4.7 and 5.2. 8 – 18

Rejection of vengeance (or opting out?) 5.3. 7 – 13

Lear becomes wiser in his madness than in his initial state of authority.


O, matter and impertinency mixed! Reason in madness! 4.6. 173

What are the incidents in the play that arouse pity and fear (Pathos) and how would you have them enacted on stage to create catharsis or a purging of the emotions? Some argue that we fail to connect or identify with Lear because his situation is not general or universal.

Providence – divine retribution – man’s place in the cosmos. #

Is the universe:

  • rational, moral and deterministic or
  • random, indifferent and radically open?

Fintan O" Toole claims Hamlet and Macbeth, Othello and Lear are distinguished in these dramas by the illusion that they can determine events by their own actions. They have, they believe, the power to say what will happen next. But no amount of power can ever be great enough in an irrational world. The universe does not follow orders.

KING LEAR swears by the universe when he curses:

Let it be so; thy truth, then, be thy dower:
For, by the sacred radiance of the sun,
The mysteries of Hecate, and the night;
By all the operation of the orbs
From whom we do exist, and cease to be;
Here I disclaim all my paternal care,
Propinquity and property of blood,
And as a stranger to my heart and me
Hold thee, from this, for ever.

Later he demands of nature to seek his revenge:

Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! rage! blow!
You cataracts and hurricanoes, spout
Till you have drench’d our steeples, drown’d the cocks!
You sulphurous and thought-executing fires,
Vaunt-couriers to oak-cleaving thunderbolts,
Singe my white head! And thou, all-shaking thunder,
Smite flat the thick rotundity o’ the world!
Crack nature’s moulds, an germens spill at once,
That make ingrateful man!

The storm scene can be seen as part of Lear’s self destructive (masochistic) antics, illustrating further his attention seeking, childish tantrums or the legitimate noble anger at the lowest point of an heroic former revered King.

When the mind’s free,
The body’s delicate: the tempest in my mind
Doth from my senses take all feeling else

The fact that he recognises the suffering of others supports a redemptive view.

When Lear is reconciled to Cordelia, the Doctor assures her that:

The great rage is killed in him.

Gloucester believes in portents, the stars:

“These late eclipses in the sun and moon portend no good to us” I.2.103

But in despair he resorts to cynicism and at worst to nihilism:

As flies to wanton boys, are we to the gods, they kill us for their sport” IV.1.35.

Edmund disagrees: We are free agents, self-sufficient – responsible for our destiny.

“This is excellent foppery of the world,
that when we are sick in fortune,…..
we make guilty of our disasters the sun, the moon
and stars; as if we were villains on necessity; fools by heavenly compulsion….”

Kent in protesting the disinheritance of Cordelia tells Lear:

thou dost evil.

Albany is one of those who ponders the cause of evil, the root of unnatural conduct:

“Now the gods that we adore, whereof comes this?” (Lear’s anger) I.4.287.

Lear also questions the cause of evil:

During a mock trial of his daughters, Lear pretends to be the prosecutor:

Let us anatomise Regan. See what breeds about her heart.
Is there a cause in nature that makes these hard hearts?”

Hannah Arendt contemplates the seedbeds of evil with her signiture phrase, The banality of evil.

Arendt concluded that Eichmann was so morally vacant in his eager adherence – indeed narcissistic devotion – to regulatory order that he was an almost comic figure. For her he was neither symbol nor symptom nor scapegoat. Yet he also represented and embodied something more terrifying through his vacuous compliance.

Her phrase for this vacuity, the “banality of evil”, did not trivialise the evil to which he contributed.

Edgar makes some of the most profound observations:

The gods are just and of our pleasant vices
Make instruments to plaque us.”
The dark and vicious place where thee he got
Cost him his eyes. V.3.170

And Edmund replies:

“Tis true. The wheel has come full circle” V.3 174.

EDGAR’s advice to his father after his thwarts his suicide attempt:

What, in ill thoughts again? Men must endure
Their going hence, even as their coming hither;
Ripeness is all: come on.

GLOUCESTER acquieses:

I do remember now: henceforth I’ll bear
Affliction till it do cry out itself
‘Enough, enough,’ and die.

Albany, beginning to comprehend what is happening concludes:

Humanity must perforce prey on itself IV. 2. 46 – 50.

This shows you are above,
You justicers, that these our nether crimes
So speedily can venge!“ IV. 3. 78 – 80.

Kent: It is the stars, The stars above us, govern our conditions. IV. 3.32.

ALBANY , after he hears that Goneril has poisoned Regan and then killed herself:

Produce their bodies, be they alive or dead:
This judgment of the heavens, that makes us tremble,
Touches us not with pity.

(the final word) Albany (Quarto) / Edgar (Folio) :

“All friends shall taste
The wages of their virtue, and all foes
The cup of their deservings.. V.3 . 276

The Family: #

King Lear explores the nature of the family through a number of means. The word “kind” is short for kindred, and people who violate the bonds of kindred transgress a natural law and are punished.

For many people, Lear’s family is a dysfunctional one; there is no mother and his avowed favorite is disinherited in a capricious impulsive moment of rage, by a man who must feel omnipotent - the head of the family is also the head of state.

Yet Shakespeare uses the metaphor of family throughout the play to illustrate his concerns.

Albany talks about husbandry, in terms of a family being a family tree:

She that herself will sliver and disbranch
From her material sap, perforce must wither
And come to deadly use. IV. 2.. 34 – 36

Lear rants against filial ingratitude:

“But yet thou art my flesh, my blood, my daughter,
Or rather a disease that’s in my flesh” II. 4 213 – 214.

\ ‘twas this flesh begot
Those pelican daughters III. 4. 74

He questions whether:

*It be you (the Heavens) * that stirs these daughters’ hearts
Against their father” II . 267 - 8

Cordelia cannot vow devoted unqualified and boundless love for her father but does declare a duteous love:

Obey you, love you, and most honour you” I.i. 100.

Furthermore she translates her filial love into action and pays the ultimate price in an attempt to rescue her father.

Reconciliation comes in two families:

  1. “Be your tears wet?” Act IV.7. 71 Lear, coming out of madness, recognises Cordelia still loves him and has forgiven everything.

  2. “The ripeness is all” Act V.3.11 Edgar, Gloucester’s good son, makes another attempt to comfort his despairing father.

Both quotes concern children and ageing fathers in the act of reconciliation.

Lear’s admission, “I have taken too little care of this,” can also be an acknowledgement that he did not fulfil his role as a good father.

Fortuna: #

One cannot trust Fortuna; she is fickle, constant only in her inconstancy. She is referred to derogatively:

The fool:

Fortune, that arrant whore,
Ne’re turns the key to the poor. II :4 52.


Fortune, good night; smile once more, turn thy wheel. II.2. 169.


…………..To be worst,
The lowest and most dejected thing of fortune,
Stands still in Esperance, lives not in fear.
The lamentable change is from the best;
The worst returns to laughter. IV. 1. 2 – 6.


…………..I am cast down;
Myself could else outfrown false Fortune’s frown V.3.5-6

Authority of Good over Evil? #

Perhaps the most controversial of the issues raised by the play is whether the play supports a positive, purposeful morally ordered universe or a capricious, indifferent and non deterministic one.

Those who argue for the cause of good, talk of redemption and regeneration. They use the analogy of the refining of metals in fire and that it is only through suffering that Lear becomes a better man; signalled by the unwonted care he bestows on the poor naked wretches and his transformed views on justice.

Those who see the play negatively as disintegration or dissolution cite his eventual treatment of Cordelia not as a mature woman, rather as a child, a granddaughter in a nursery rhyme. The “Sing like birds i’th’ cage” passage is used by both sides to mount their case, the redemptives to indicate Lear’s lack of vindictiveness while the other side sees it as Lear moving from one stage of delusion to another, his inability to face reality and comprehend people as they are and opting out into a fantasy rather than engaging in constructive action. To them the ending is a disturbing, shocking and depressing one.

Anarchy and Order: #

There are serious breaches – anarchy reigns.

  • Parent and Child
  • Lear and his daughters, Gloucester and Edgar and Edmund
  • Husband and wife – disputes especially between Goneril and Albany
  • Master and Servant - Kent and Lear and Oswald to Goneril and Regan
  • Health and sickness - Madness a usurpation of reason
  • Custom and breach - Kings should not abdicate /Children should honour parents.
  • Natural and perverse - “Blow Wind ….
  • Power and Misuse - Regan and Goneril and their attempts to abuse their power.
  • Loyalty and sycophancy - Respectable loyal Kent as opposed to the fawning Oswald
  • Chaos and Order - Disarray of Goneril, Regan and Edmund as to original Lear

Reason and Will #

  • Passion and reason -
  • Cordelia : passion most rebel-like sought to be king o’er her
  • Lear’s impetuous and rash decision making in the first scene lacks reason.

Lear’s claim to have 100 retainers to hunt with and banquet every night, does appear a tad excessive.

Dogs or curs: #

William Empson tracks “Dog” through its different appearances in Shakespeare and finds that “he never once allows the word a simple hearty use between equals”; it’s always shaded by irony or used to mark a social difference. And sometimes both at once.

And even though Shakespeare undoubtedly started King Lear as a fable on the dangers of splitting up the kingdom, he lets it run off into the most devastating mockery of all arbitrary political power.

Lear tells Gloucester that the “great image of authority is a cur biting the heels of a beggar".

It is perhaps not surprising that someone who thought Lear’s declaration that “a dog’s obeyed in office” is Shakespeare supporting the established order proved to be such a dog in office himself.

`My lady’s father’ my lord’s knave!
You whoreson dog! You slave, you cur!


Truth’s a dog must to kennel;
he must be whipped out when
the Lady Brach may stand by th’fire and stink.


Knowing naught, like dogs, but following.
A plague upon your epileptic visage!


Why, madam, if I were your father’s dog
You should not use me so.


Ha, ha, he wears cruel garters!
Horses are tied by the heads,
dogs and bears by th’neck, monkeys by th’loins,
and men by th’legs:


false of heart, light of ear, bloody of hand; hog in sloth, fox in stealth,
wolf in greediness, dog in madness, lion in prey.


Poor Tom, that eats the swimming frog, the toad, the todpole, the wall-newt and the water; that in the fury of his heart, when the foul fiend rages, eats cow-dung for sallets, swallows the old rat and the ditch-dog,

drinks the green mantle of the standing pool; who is whipped from tithing to tithing, and stock-punished and imprisoned; who hath had three suits to his back, six shirts to his body,


The little dogs and all,
Tray, Blanch, and Sweetheart, see, they bark at me.


Mastiff, greyhound, mongrel grim,
Hound or spaniel, brach or lym,
Or bobtail tike or trundle-tail,
Tom will make him weep and wail;
For, with throwing thus my head,
Dogs leapt the hatch, and all are fled.


How now, you dog! (to servant refusing to put out Gloucester’s eyes.

Kent: To his dog-hearted daughters. These things sting


Ha, Goneril with a white beard!
They flattered me like a dog,
and told me I had the white hairs in my beard
ere the black ones were there.

Lear: Thou hast seen a farmer’s dog bark at a beggar?


Mine enemy’s dog,
Though he had bit me, should have stood that night


Rather than die at once! -taught me to shift
Into a madman’s rags, t’assume a semblance
That very dogs disdained; and in this habit
Met I my father with his bleeding rings,


And my poor fool is hanged! No, no, no life?
Why should a dog, a rat, have life,