King Lear


Symbols and Themes

The question of justice

Throughout King Lear, good characters are often punished while evil characters thrive. The wrongful banishments of Cordelia, Kent and Edgar, for example, counterpoint the rewards of wealth and power given to Edmund, Goneril and Regan as the result of deception and scheming. While the evildoers do eventually end up dead, the stage is also littered with the bodies of the innocent as the curtain closes. Even if there is some form of justice in the deaths of Cornwall, Edmund, Goneril and Regan, what justice is there in Cordelia’s death, or in Gloucester’s? The senselessness of Cordelia’s murder—a murder which even Edmund, who had ordered it in the first place, tries to stop—is the most tragic event in the entire play. As Lear cries out, “Why should a dog, a horse, a rat, have life,/And thou no breath at all?” (V.iii.304-05), we are forced to question the existence of divine justice. It is a question the play asks us to consider, but does not really provide an answer to.

Sibling rivalry

King Lear is filled with competition and resentment among siblings. Lear’s test of his daughters plays them against one another in the beginning of the play, and Goneril and Regan try to outdo one another in their vows of love in order to gain better shares of the kingdom. It is important to note that both Goneril and Regan are well aware that Cordelia was Lear’s favorite daughter. Goneril even says to Regan, “He always loved our sister most” (I.i.393), and it is likely that Lear’s favoritism has something to do with his elder daughters’ resentment of him. Similarly, the illegitimate Edmund envies and plots to destroy his brother because of Edgar’s favored status as Gloucester’s heir. Even though Regan and Goneril are at first united in their efforts to destroy Lear, sibling rivalry eventually gets the better of them as they vie for Edmund’s affections. Goneril actually pursues her envy to the furthest...

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Essays About King Lear