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.

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.

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.

Aristotle’s criteria for tragedy involves 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.

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: #

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

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?

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….” I.2.118-120

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.

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.

(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.

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 - the origins #

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. 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 but “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.

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.

Dogs or curs: #

`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?

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

Edgar: 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,

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