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Good vs. Evil
The major theme of the play is the fight of Good vs. Evil. Although evil, the characters of Edmund, Goneril, and Regan, have the upper hand for most of the plot and cause the deaths of Cordelia, Lear, and Gloucester. At the end of the play though, there is hope that good will prevail. The evil characters have been removed and the worthy Edgar has been made the new ruler of the kingdom. As a result, there is hope that a new order will replace the chaos that has been fully explored in the play.
The traditional values that make the parent-child relationship natural and wholesome are distorted and destroyed in this play. The order and harmony that usually characterize a stable family are disrupted by the evil designs of the greedy Edmund, Goneril, and Regan. Lear and Gloucester are both trusting fathers. They foolishly believe the words of their evil children and banish the offspring that truly love them. As a result of their lack of judgement, both fathers are made destitute by their unappreciative children. The filial greed and ingratitude shown by Edmund, Regan, and Goneril bring immense suffering to all.
Unfortunately, Lear is the cause of his own problems. He has decided to abdicate the throne and divide the kingdom between his three daughters based on a "love-test." The test takes into account the words used to profess love but not the deeds themselves. As a result, the flattery used by his elder daughters, Goneril and Regan, pleases the King's vanity and massages his ego. In contrast, his ire is roused by the brief but truthful words of his youngest daughter, Cordelia. Lear proves that he is too vain and self-centered to understand his own children and he pays dearly for the mistake, eventually losing his self-respect, his power, and his sanity. In the subplot, Gloucester is guilty of the same misjudgment, blessing Edmund and banishing Edgar.
Goneril and Regan, filled with greed and jealousy, take pleasure in plotting the demise of Lear. They enjoy deliberately humiliating the King without a trace of pity or sympathy. Devoid of love for him, the two sisters show that they are ungrateful, insulting, and threatening to the father who gave them both land and power. They then become jealous of the power of each other and plot the other's death. In a similar manner, Edmund, the treasonous son of Gloucester, denounces his father and paves the way for his blinding by Cornwall. Their filial ingratitude of the three characters leads to total chaos and destruction in the play. At the end, however, nature takes its revenge when Lear's daughters and Edmund receive the retribution due to them for their filial ingratitude.
In the beginning of the play, Lear is depicted as an absolute monarch, used to having exactly what he desires. Unfortunately, he does not always act in a wise manner. Afflicted by rapid changes of mood, his actions are often a result of his whims and fancies. His self-centeredness and his vanity prevent him from judging his own children correctly and his false ego blinds him to their true natures. His pride allows him to see only that which he wishes to acknowledge. As a result, when Cordelia, his youngest and favorite daughter, gives her father a truthful answer that does not flatter him, he is infuriated. Accustomed to implicit obedience from everyone, especially his daughters, he loses all self-control and banishes her. The King's poor judgement and his own reaction to it show that Lear can be a violent and unrestrained man.
His elder daughters, to whom he had so rashly given away his wealth and powers, strip Lear of everything, leaving him emotionally and physically destitute. He reaches the depths of his despair when he is left exposed to the furies of nature without shelter. As he reaches a wretched hovel to find protection, his earlier defiance and anger fade away. Growing philosophic, he thinks that the fury of the storm is more bearable than the cruelties shown by his daughters. The pain that he feels over their humiliation of him drives him to the verge of madness. Amazingly, Lear's great suffering leads to a gradual change in his basic nature. He slowly and painfully begins to accept the errors of his ways and change his perspective of life. He is moved to compassion at the sight of the poor and defenseless souls with whom he now empathizes. He laments the injustice of the rich enjoying comfort and luxury while the poor and helpless creatures of the world struggle against the cruelties of life. By the end of the play, Lear's self-realization has made him more patient and wise. He proves that he has been chastened and mellowed, no longer tyrannical in power or violent in temper as he was in the beginning of the play.
The play also centers on the theme of redemption, both to individuals and to society. Lear and Gloucester begin the play as selfish, proud and self-centered men. Their misjudgment of their own children opens the doors to evil. During the process of the play, however, they both undergo a transformation from spiritual blindness to wisdom and insight. The new knowledge about themselves and the world around them leads them to an acknowledgement of their own errors, an understanding of humanity, and an identification with the less fortunate people in society. As a result, both men redeem themselves and die in peace, after reconciling with their banished children. The evil released by Lear and Gloucester, in the personages of Edmund, Goneril, and Regan, is subdued with their deaths of all of them. With the evil forces conquered, society can redeem itself and return to order instead of chaos.
Insanity in "King Lear" is presented as a trio, consisting of Lear's descent into insanity due to the external circumstances of his life, Edgar's faked madness as a survival strategy, and the Fool's apparent madness that in actuality harbors a wit and intelligence. Lear's madness is most clearly depicted in the play; it develops in four stages. First, he is seen as an all-powerful, egotistic monarch, filled with wrath and fury when he does not get his way. When he suffers humiliation at the hands of Goneril and Regan, his chosen heirs, he is enraged and pushed to the point of madness. During the third stage, Lear is clearly unstable, as he hallucinates and stages an imaginary trial of his two elder daughters. The lunacy continues for Lear until Cordelia's loving care brings him partially back to sanity and the real world. Cordelia's hanging, however, is too much for the King to bear, and he dies beside her lifeless body.
Unlike Lear's real, intense madness, Edgar's lunacy is feigned. When he decides to disobey his banishment and stay in England, he disguises himself for protection. He pretends to be a poor, insane beggar named Tom. In his disguise, he undergoes mistreatment and begins to understand the plight of those who are truly insane; therefore, when he see the pathetic King, ranting, raving, and hallucinating, he identifies with him and has great pity for his pathetic state. The Fool is a character who is meant to portray insanity, but underneath his foolery and meaningless sentences are found a great wisdom.