A consistent motif found in King Lear is loyalty. Many characters exercise varying degrees of loyalty, and their decision to stay loyal to their sides of the conflict acts as a deciding factor in their deaths. Albany, Edgar, and Kent the three notable survivors, are all loyal to Lear’s side. Despite remaining on the side of Regan, Goneril, and Cornwall for the majority of the play, he denounces his loyalty to them and gains empathy for Lear, ultimately earning his survival despite not recognizing the deception of his superiors sooner. Likewise, Edgar, through both his legitimacy and innocence, assists Gloucester and Lear, ultimately killing his brother Edmund, avenging his trickery and misdeeds. While not completely loyal to Lear, the sheer force of his actions is what spares his life.
Kent is the most loyal of Lear’s aides. Although Lear “fires” him in Act I, Kent refuses to give up, and continues to serve him under disguise. However, Kent is not simply loyal out of blind trust, he understands Lear on a personal level, and knows when to call him out. This honesty may be to his detriment, but it shows the strength of his character.
Let it fall, though the fork invade
The region of my heart. Be Kent unmannerly
When Lear is mad What wouldst thou do, old man?
Think’st thou that duty shall have dread to speak
When power to flattery bows? To plainness honor’s bound
When majesty falls to folly. Reserve thy state,
And in thy best consideration check
This hideous rashness. Answer my life my judgement,
Thy youngest daughter does not love thee least,
Nor are those empty-hearted whose low sounds
Reverb no hollowness.-Kent (Act 1, Scene 1)
If Kent was not truly loyal, he would not call Lear out on his tendency to cave to flattery, and despite being banished for his outspokenness, he continues to serve him. Kent’s loyalty is not hollow, he is loyal to Lear on a level unmatched by any other character. This exhibition of powerful loyalty is what earns him his survival.
On the contrary, Edmund, Goneril, and Regan end up dead due to their lack of loyalty to Lear. Goneril and Regan outright defy their father and act as the opposing force against his power. Their deaths are products of their own failures and spite, driven by their own villainy. Edmund is killed by his brother Edgar, who is a servant of loyalty. His death is largely symbolic in that he represents a lack of faith in the play’s “force of good”. While he shows a bit of self-awareness for his actions, it is too late, and he is already bleeding out by the time he recognizes his failures.