Is King Lear Meaningless?

Throughout King Lear, Shakespeare writes with a very somber attitude towards life and even paints a picture that life may very well be meaningless. So far this play has shown no sort of patterns or morals about anything regarding peoples happiness, success, or lives. Whether evil or good, some characters die and others thrive.

This idea is shown through the injustices and randomness throughout the play. Karma doesn’t really exist in this play in the sense that bad actions are not met with bad repercussions and good actions are not met with good actions. An example of this is seen in one of the first scenes of the play. When all of Lear’s daughters are telling him how much they love him, in very exaggerated and untrue ways, Cordelia is the only one to be honest with Lear and with herself. Her actions result in Lear essentially kicking her out and saying he doesn’t love her anymore. On top of that, Cordelia randomly dies at the end of the play. I don’t know what lesson that could be showing other than that life makes no sense. Another example is the power imbalance that Lear has over the people. The play presents the ideas that people in power can be unintelligent, and corrupt and remain in power, and people that are honest get punished while people that lie get praised. All in all this play sticks strongly to an idea that life is unfair, unruly, and unpredictable.

“Like a Girl”

In King Lear, Shakespeare (unintentionally) explores gender roles, particularly women, and their pertinance to animals. I use the word unintentionally because I believe that Shakespeare, in this time period, was not even thinking about the excessive animal imagery in this play used to describe women. Gender roles and stereotypes were not on Shakespeare’s (or anyone’s) radar at this time. As much as we love to think of literature being a commentary on society, the use of animal imagery was not a commentary, but simply more of “how it be.” We also see a parallel between animal comparisons and power, a motif that was most definitely intentional. Men in the play are constantly putting these women down, dehumanizing and disrespecting them. As Lear states, “O Regan, she hath tied Sharp-toothed unkindness, like a vulture, here” (II.IV.150-151). Lear is comparing his daughter to a viscous bird, which in my opinion was completely unwarranted and only provoked by Lear’s power insecurities brought on by his daughters. 

Later in Act III, Gloucester is speaking with Regan, “Because I would not see thy cruel nails Pluck out his poor old eyes, nor thy fierce sister In his anointed flesh stick boarish fangs” (III.VII.69-71). Again, we see this animal imagery manifesting. Gloucester essentially calls Regam viscous by describing her “boarsih fangs.” 

Circling back to power relating to women, Shakespeare had a difficult time letting a woman in power live. Cordelia’s death seemed random when I first read the scene, however, after reflection, her death was not random at all. Our society now, and of course back then, has trouble with the idea of women in power and therefore the only way to rectify the issue is to kill them off. As a society, we have seemingly made strides in the right direction, but we still need to change the mindsets of people who believe that women are emotional and unstable monsters with a hidden agenda, and unfortunately reading King Lear enforced that idea.