Ran and King Lear

Akira Kurosawa’s Ran is a really good adaptation of King Lear. Many film adaptations of Shakespeare’s work make the mistake of using his exact dialogue, even when recontextualizing the story in a different setting. Ran does not. Aside from being set in 1500s Japan, Kurosawa reworked the original story in multiple ways in order to translate it to the medium and genre he occupied.

The movie’s dialogue is simple but direct. There aren’t any poetic soliloquies, but the performances are still emotive and there are several particularly impactful lines throughout the film. There are also several silent moments where characters are developed through action rather than explanation. For example, in the first scene, Lord Ichimonji, the film’s analog for Lear, suddenly falls asleep during a meeting with his sons and advisors. As the attendants leave Ichimonji to rest, Saburo, the film’s analog for Cordelia, places some shrubbery so that it shades his aging father from the glaring sun. The scene perfectly establishes Saburo’s relationship with his father without a single word of dialogue.

Ran‘s storm is not a literal tempest but rather the storming of a castle, as Ichimonji’s last refuge is sieged by the armies of his treacherous sons (analogs of Regan and Goneril). The sequence is completely without dialogue and features a moving piece of score. The montage alternates focus between soldiers as they are slaughtered and Ichimonji as he looks on in horror at the desecration of his last semblance of power.

Ran clocks in at about two hours and thirty minutes, but even that sizable runtime isn’t enough to contain the totality of Lear. So, as with many Shakespeare adaptations, some elements of the original story are cut for time. However, Kurosawa purposefully reintegrates some of the cut elements in a different context. For instance, there is no clear analog for Gloucester and his sons in Ran. However, there is a character whose eyes were gouged out by Ichimonji himself during his days as a conquering warlord. There is also a character that reflects elements of Edmund. The eldest son’s wife, Lady Kaede, seduces the middle son and plots to dismantle the ruling family, but instead of being motivated by greed, Kaede seeks revenge on Ichimonji, who also slaughtered her family during his conquering days. These changes not only serve to make the play more concise by eliminating characters that are relatively peripheral to the central character, they also provide more depth to that character by directly tying the conflict to his own foolish actions as a leader.

Speak No Truth

Throughout The Tragedy of King Lear, truth is scarce and huge parts of the play are derived from deceiving people. The most deceived of them all was Lear of course with the corrupt power system of the family he grew up in. Everyone around him would say the things he wants to hear but not the hurtful truth that would enrage him. Over time Lear’s mind is always going have a king mindset of ruling his kingdom, but with no kingdom to run, he is left with this immense confusion of how if his daughters said they loved him so much then why are they treating his gift of his kingdom like it was there’s, to begin with. With this power in Lear’s head, he banished Cordelia and Kent who were some of the only people who spoke the hurtful truth that Lear needed. Also because this is a tragedy Lear was made to suffer through the storm as a torment for his own actions and it was only after the storm that Cordelia and the French army came back to try and restore what he had lost.

Besides Kent and Cordelia, the fool also gave the truth in a very confusing manner but it always made sense to the situation. Lear enjoyed the riddles and rhymes even though they speak of the very bad things that are happening right in front of him. And despite being a jester his words are meant to be taken as truth, but even then Lear just laughs and doesn’t see what’s causing all of his confusion. The riddles could only distract him for so long for then he needed to face what he feared most. The fool along with Kent and Cordelia are looked at as crazy for standing up against the king and saying nasty things. But it’s really these characters that affected Lear the most and without them speaking out their truth and not caring for the punishment is what helped Lear along his journey. It is ironic however that Lear should’ve been listening to Kent and Cordelia who were looked at as fools, but he looks up to an actual fool for good and truthful advice.

A Father’s Daughters

There are only three main female characters in King Lear, all of who are defined by their relationship to men. Each one has their own unique story and participates in their own play. Through Shakespeare’s lens powerful female characters are not seen this way. Instead, women with power are portrayed in Shakespeare’s tragedies as evil. If they are not evil their story is downplayed to fit in the male storylines.

Goneril and Regan are portrayed as distinctly evil and cutthroat throughout this play. They begin by immediately conning their father and pushing him out onto the street. They are constantly referred to as animals by Lear and other characters, dehumanizing them. They later both cheat on their husbands with the same man, becoming labeled as unpure, although Glouster has obviously also cheated on his wife due to the fact that he has a bastard son and is not labeled in that manner. I could personally appreciate their characters as villains if they had been fully fleshed out in that storyline. Although I can not do this because their villain stories simply exist to further the stories of male characters. Their outcasting and disrespect of Lear exist as a way to develop his madness and expedite his dissent. The audience never sees how they came to this decision, they are not complex characters but rather Shakespeare’s definition of two-dimensional evil women. We as readers or viewers very rarely see the behind-the-scenes of Goneril and Regan or their relationship with each other, making them seem even less like well-rounded characters.

Cordelia is the one main female character who starts off strong, with an immediate test of power against her father. This is empowering until she promptly disappears for almost four acts and it becomes obvious that her rebellion was simply a part of Lear’s dissent into madness. Lear’s first questionable act seen in the play happens after Cordelia goes against his wishes. Lear immediately responds with a crazy decision and his description as mad begins. Cordelia finally returns at the end of act four, immediately forgiving her father and coming to his aid. We see none of Cordelia’s healing process or reasoning behind forgiving her father. In the end, her death is off-stage and Lear continues to talk about her appearance and insult women as he mourns her. Her death furthers the power structure between parent and child that Lear struggles with. Lear’s madness comes from his struggle with power and when he is able to release that obsession with the power it allows him to begin understanding the world in a more sane way. Cordelia’s, as well as Goneril and Regans’s deaths exist not as their own but as a way for Lear to release part of his obsession with power.

Turmoil in King Lear

One of the most notable characteristics of King Lear himself is the strong emotions, especially anger, that he expresses throughout the play. What makes the play tragic to me is that instead of realizing that his daughter Cordelia was right for the first 3/4 of the play, he struggles internally, too stubborn to realize that his daughter may have been right, not just some ‘unruly women’ for speaking up. In the end, Cordelia was simply trying to protect him by warning him that maybe dividing up a kingdom based on her sisters’ cheesy, exaggerated speeches would not end well for him.

His arrogance worsens his madness because after losing Cordelia, his daughters with their newly-gained power are trying to ‘dethrone’ him. He has no idea how to deal with his ongoing loss of power, and eventually, we see King Lear wandering through a storm and shouting in rage. If King Lear had Cordelia while Regan and Goneril were still trying to strip him of his power, he would not have gone as mad as he did. King Lear’s only support system was his court jester, and while he is someone who is honest with King Lear, he isn’t someone who can have a somewhat normal conversation with him. King Lear’s arrogance and his initial mistake leading to his downfall combined are what make him such a frustrating yet tragic character.

Powerful Women In King Lear and the American Political System

In Shakespeare’s King Lear, women gain power which upsets the men around them. Power is first gained when Lear’s youngest daughter, Cordelia, stands up to her father and says that she only loves him as much as is due. She uses her voice and stands up for what she believes. This also helps to strip Lear of his power because it reveals that he only has power because his subjects give it to him. It also shows that Cordelia has agency. Her sisters take power after Lear steps down by treating him poorly. After Lear steps down as king and gives his land to his daughters, they treat him badly and eventually throw him out. They become aggressive, needlessly harming Gloucester and pushing people out of their way to achieve power. The play essentially villainizes powerful women through its portrayal of them as aggressive and careless towards the well-being of others. Powerful women in politics are villainized in much the same way. For example, during Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign for the presidency his wife, Michelle Obama, was portrayed in many cartoons as the force behind Obama’s campaign; Shown in one cartoon as carrying a gun and a string of bullets as Obama sports more peaceful attire. Additionally, Hillary Clinton was shown in several cartoons looking both angry and crazed. Both the women in King Lear and American politics seem to be villainized once they receive power. Powerful women are made out to be crazy and careless towards others, taking power in any way that they can and stomping on anyone that gets in their way. This contributes to the thought that women shouldn’t be in power because they are too emotional and will let their emotions get the better of them. However, this is sexism disguised as American politics. 

Hot Take- We Need More Female Villains

Historically, books, especially children’s books, have been filled with female characters playing the damsel in distress. Think of all of the fairy tale stories that are traditionally read to children at bedtime- the Cinderellas and the Rapunzels, always the prey of an evil queen or wicked witch, and always saved by a handsome prince charming. As a result of these stories, little girls all around the world are taught that talking to birds and squirrels is normal, and that true love’s kiss is the ultimate salvation. Luckily, these traditional stories have largely been regarded as out-of-date, both because of the restrictive example they set for young girls and because of the villanization of powerful women as snarl-toothed, long-nosed wicked witches and evil queens.

Of course, I believe that the dreams of little girls around the world should not be limited to true love’s kiss and Prince Charming. I also believe that there are not merely two types of female in the world- the princesses and the wicked witches. However, while I am okay with decreasing the amount of books that revolve around princesses and princes, I have a hard time totally erasing evil queens and wicked witches from the narrative. My reasoning is as follows: Is it really always necessary for women to be altruistic in their endeavors? Why is it so taboo for a woman to be strong, independent, and powerful, if not a little cruel-hearted? It’s normal if men are, after all. If we are to totally eradicate female villains, then we are only reinforcing the gender norms of women to be selfless, and upholding the patriarchal mirroring of women focusing their existence on others, rather than themselves.

If we are to increase the amount of female villains in literature, there are a few caveats:

  1. We must begin to view female villains less as villains, and more as anti-heroes. Take Goneril and Regan from King Lear, for example: if we viewed these two sisters as villains, we’d be missing out on much of their characters’ substance. However, if we view them as anti-heroes, central characters who lack conventional heroic and altruistic attributes, we open doors to analyze them as developed and complex characters. Rather than merely viewing them as power-hungry and evil, we can see that they are extremely calculated and witty women who are able to unhinge (and rehinge) the social framework to flip the gender binary and gain power. They began the play with very limited power, but by understanding the weaknesses of those conforming to power binaries, they quickly became the puppet masters controlling those who had once been considered superior to them. If you can empathize with Cordelia, who is a much more conventional heroine than her sisters, you must also be open to empathizing with Goneril and Regan, who have just as complex of an arc.
  2. Furthermore, it is important to understand that when I call for more female villains, I do not necessarily mean that we need more of the traditional female villains, such as the wicked witch/evil queen stereotype, or the more recent addition to the list, the femme fatale. Female villains (anti-heroes) cannot be boxed into categories because of their appearances. Not all independent and powerful women are green with long noses and pointed caps. While some very possibly might be, most women with these characteristics are normal people. It isn’t a woman’s looks that make her who she is, it is her wits, confidence, drive, and values. In order to continue having a platform for non-altruistic women vying for power, we must separate the woman from her appearance.
  3. Finally, we need to have more female villains prevail! Why should so much potential go to waste, time and time again? Again drawing from Shakespeare’s King Lear, the play’s two primary female characters, Goneril and Regan, were killed off before they could even truly gain the power that they had won. Their fight to shatter the male dominance of society was wasted with their untimely deaths. While some might believe that Regan and Goneril would not have been any better in power than a man, due to their cruelty, and thus are better off dead, I find this argument hard to believe. Who is to say that the sisters wouldn’t have changed the system from the inside, once they acquired power? If they were smart enough to nearly overthrow the entire framework of a society, surely they could have been smart enough to merely use cruelty and savagery as a tool, knowing that it had worked in the hands of the men before them. Why root against women whose acquisition of power sets a new norm for girls and women everywhere, that it is possible for a woman to have power?

In my opinion, female villains are the best type of villains. This is because female villains are feminists working against the patriarchy, rather than with it. Beneath the seemingly cruel surface lies their motivation- a justified bitterness towards the patriarchal system which has time and time again oppressed independent and power-seeking women. While ultimately it is necessary to destroy the underpinnings of patriarchy, which lie in the core values of what it means to be a good leader, in the meantime it is vital for women to have leadership positions. It is impossible to put an end to male dominance, male centeredness, and male identification, the roots of patriarchy, if women are never in power. Therefore, it is important to celebrate and uplift the female villains who represent the driven and power-hungry women out there, unwilling to patiently wait their turn for the spotlight.

Succession & King Lear

When I found out that the most significant connection between the HBO Max show Succession and Shakespeare was King Lear, I knew that I had to start watching the show. But how does a play from 1606 directly influence a 21st century TV show? Both themes revolve around a central power figure who divides his wealth amongst his children. In Succession, Logan, a media tycoon, serves as this figure. The transfer of power is prominent throughout both King Lear and Succession.

In King Lear, his power is divided amongst his three daughters. Whereas in Succession, Logan’s power is divided amongst his three sons and one daughter. The gender-power dynamic should be noted. One might find Siobhan, Logan’s only daughter to be most similar to Cordelia in King Lear. Both Siobhan and Cordelia embody independent female figures that seek power through themselves. They both exert power on their own and without the approval of other men.

Additionally, Logan’s sons are most similar to Edmund and other male characters in King Lear. Logan’s sons, Roman and Kendall plot against their elders and ultimately dictate the downfall of Logan’s success. Logan is poised with the decision of who will take over the family businesses but he fails to delegate the role. This is similar to Lear’s struggle to pass over the power of the Kingdom. All in all, the family dynamic and power structure in Succession mirror that of Shakespeare’s King Lear.

And Then There Were Three

At the end of the play, the only characters who survived were Albany, Edgar, and Kent (though it can be inferred that he commits suicide not long after). The survivors share a common denominator; they are all men. Throughout the play, the desire for power is heavily discussed and displayed through the characters’ actions, which ultimately cause tragedies for many. Even though some women held positions of power, their demise sent the overarching message that power is not meant to be in the hands of women. Instead, men are the ones who are more capable, righteous, and suitable to have total authority and control.

Another similarity between the men was they disguised themselves throughout the play. Edgar and Kent both formed new identities to escape their deaths, while Albany created a facade in front of Goneril and rarely shared his genuine opinions. While they are not the only characters to use disguises and be deceptive, they are the only ones with moral and true intentions.

One might wonder why Cordelia did not survive, as she was virtuous and well-intentioned, which seems to be the requirement. However, Cordelia had a misstep. She defied Lear at the beginning of the play, reclaiming her power, which is not intended for women. Having men survive furthered the message that only they are capable of maintaining order and rising above the rest.

Did Shakespeare predict the future of US politics?

Short answer, yes.

“And in the end meet the old course of death, women will all turn monsters”


In King Lear, Shakespeare illustrates the idea that women in power are crazy – they won’t be able to control their emotions when making important decisions. When Goneril and Regan obtain power from Lear, they’re actions are portrayed as monstrous and they’re characterized as, “Unnatural hags” (II.iv.319) who seek to destroy the kingdom. In Act 3, when Regan kills the First Servant, she’s called a “villain” and a “naughty lady”, to reinforce that women showing this kind of assertiveness is dangerous to the men in power. 

The way Shakespeare portrayed women in King Lear was foreseeable to the future US political climate. Throughout the past 20 years, when women have stepped out of their “natural” roles, they’re depicted as dangerous, mad women. For example, Hillary Clinton was called ‘Crooked Hillary’ by Trump in hopes to portray her as a danger to society for her past. Similarly, AOC has been heavily criticized for her actions in the House of Representatives. People have called her “crazy” for doing the same things that a man in the House of Representatives would get applauded for.

Anita Hill was seen as a barrier to Justice Clarence Thomas’ trial to becoming approved by the Senate. People thought it was ploy to try to get Thomas rejected.

The political landscape of the US is very similar to the one in King Lear. When women reject the power structure put in place by society, they’re criticized. Also, one of the most important things in King Lear and to those in politics is power. When power is lost, chaos breaks loose in an attempt for someone else to regain it. If a women seeks this power, they are seen as a threat to a man’s power. Even during the 1600s, when King Lear was written, this was the societal norm, which is still very evident in US politics today.

King Lear: An Opponent to Class Supremacy

The wisdom of low-class characters in “King Lear” can be seen as a significant aspect of th play, serving as a foil to the foolishness and piousness of the upper-class characters. Through their words and actions, these lower-class characters offer a unique perspective into the events and themes of the play, displaying a level of wisdom that contrasts with the arrogance and pride of the higg-class characters. Through this point of making the least powerful of characters the wisest and intelligent, the story of King Lear makes an uncommon-at-the-time effort to disprove the idea of class supremacy.

One of the most prominent low-class characters in “King Lear” is the fool, who serves as a court jester and provides witty commentary on the actions of the characters throughout the play. In his role, he is seen as an outcast and is treated with disdain by many of the other characters. Despite this and his low social status, the fool is often the only character who speaks truth to power, daring to call out Lear and other nobel characters on their foolishness and offering sage advice. Through this role, it becomes clear that not only could Lear have avoided being betrayed by his daughters if he had listened to the fool but the fool would make a better, more intelligent ruler than Lear, consistently telling Lear to make the correct decision throughout the play.

This is also shown in King Lear’s descent into madness. As this descent begins to quicken, Lear’s madness is exemplified by him becoming delusional and confused, experiencing hallucinations and speaking in cryptic riddles. Throughout these changes, it is clear that he is beginning to mirror Poor Tom, Edgark’s disguise of a crazy beggar. Both speak and act oddly, like speaking in gibberish or singing at inappropriate times. At the same time, while Poor Tom is portrayed as already being mad, his madness is seen as a form of wisdom by the play. He is able to see the truth about society and the world, and his madness is a manifestation of his rejection of the false ideals that society upholds, unlike Lear who goes mad as a rejection of his loss of power over Britain and those around him. As the play progresses, King Lear begins to adopt some of Poor Tom’s attitudes and becomes more like him in his ability to see through society’s illusion. Cordelia best describes this change in Lear in her line “As mad as the vexed sea; singing aloud; / Crowned with rank furniture and furrow-weeds.”(IV. Iv. 2-3) Cordelia describes Lear to have replaced his crown with a crown of flowers. This symbolizes almost an ego death within Lear. He no longer sees himself as an all-powerful figure who would make his daughters fight over who loves him the most for land, he has become closer to nature and as a result, understands how small he is compared to it. While it could be argued that because Poor Tom is not an actual crazy beggar but rather Edgar in disguise, this wisdom would be coming from Edgar rather than his impoverished costume, this would not be entirely true. As is made clear at the end of King Lear as Edgar decides to help Albany continue the monarchy, an institution in opposition to the ideas Poor Tom preaches, he is his own character who not only symbolizes the poorest of Lear’s subjects but is vital in Lear’s transformation from a pious, power-hungry king into a good man weakened by madness.

Throughout “King Lear” the characters that hold the most power in the kingdom are consistently shown to be the ones who make the wrong decisions because of their hunger for more power and fear of losing it. On the other hand, the poor characters who interact with the nobility of the story are consistently shown to hold great wisdom and intelligence as a result of their ability to look past societal roles and norms. For a play set at a time of monarchs with absolute power, this idea is rather revolutionary and surprising in a Shakespearean play.

Goneril and Regan: The Nasty Women of King Lear

The portrayal of powerful women in “King Lear” is undoubtedly problematic; however, initially, the insults hurled at Goneril and Regan by Lear and other powerful men seem almost justified in the context of the play. I mean, they are stealing Lear’s money and land, and ruining his life for seemingly no reason at all. They are irrational and emotional, callous and cold; the perfect villains of any story.

Look deeper, though, and you’ll see just how far back our societal disdain for powerful women goes. Claire Cain Miller states in her New York Times article “‘Nasty Women’: Why Men Insult Powerful Women,”

Insults of powerful women by men perform a particular role: cutting them down to size, and playing into discomfort with women in power.

Lear, and all of the powerful men who came after him are bothered when men and women don’t fit stereotypes as they expect. In fact, Lear is so disgusted, disturbed even, at seeing his daughters in power that he outright calls them “unnatural hags.” The insult serves two purposes as any insult does that attacks a woman for her appearance. Calling them witches or ugly old women debases them and brings to the forefront that we as a society hold a woman’s exterior appearance above all else. Lear is not even insulting his daughters behavior (which would be justified). He is insulting their looks so that he can disparage them and appearance is what he believes is held in high esteem. Calling them unnatural, though, opens up an entirely different discussion and it is clear that Lear believes having women in power is so utterly inconceivable that it is, in fact ,against the natural order of the universe. This is where it is truly revealed just how uncomfortable Lear is with women in power.

And he isn’t the only one. To this day, women in power experience the same treatment, especially women in politics. The villainization of Goneril and Regan is all too familiar for these women who are criticized daily and whose every action is scrutinized. Men and the media will attack a woman who shows no emotion by calling her “unlikable” but the second she shows any emotion she is “too weak” and unfit to lead. Or the idea that a woman that has children will be too distracted or incapacitated by her mothering to be successful, but if they don’t have children, they aren’t living up to the societal expectation of women. The discomfort that men have with women in powerful positions ensures that they will always be villainized and that they will never find a way to win.

Powerful Men and Nasty Women

I am sure that a lot of us in AP Lit felt the same way while reading King Lear. I too found myself trying to decipher the language and at times it felt as if the play wasn’t in english at all. Despite my confusion, as I gained more and more confidence while reading I felt the story starting to make sense. And as the story made sense, I recognized parts of it in our current time.

Throughout the play, insults are hurled at the female characters. Throughout my lifetime, insults have been similarly hurled at women in power.

“Down from the waist they are Centaurs,
Though women all above.
But to the girdle do the gods inherit.
Beneath is all the fiends’; there’s hell, there’s darkness,
There’s the sulphurous pit, burning, scalding,
Stench, consumption! Fie, fie, fie! Pah! pah!”


In this scene, when Lear is excusing Gloucester’s adultery, he conveys women’s sexuality as a sort of hell. Men’s view of women solely as an object of desire, obedience, and childbearing completely blocks any attempt to understand that women have the same capacity for leadership as men. In our current world, powerful men have expressed similar opinions about women in power and how they look.

“Look at that face. Would anybody vote for that? Can you imagine that, the face of our next president? I mean, she’s a woman, and I’m not supposed to say bad things, but really, folks, come on. Are we serious?”

-Donald Trump on Carly Fiorina

In the play and in real life, women who speak up, act, and take what they want are demonized and called “pushy”, “nasty”, and “manipulative”. This is similar to how Goneril and Regan are treated in the story, despite some of their actions being truly problematic. Cordelia, however, is respected for her virtues and beauty for being kind and not speaking up. Men are respected for the bare minimum. Lear starts the story off as a true narcissist and gains respect because he becomes slightly aware of his actions. We often glaze over the treatment and words used against women in stories because they are fiction, but the same thing is happening in 2023 that was being written about in 1605.

The Conservative Side of King Lear

Looking at who was left standing at the end of King Lear, it’s pretty evident that Shakespeare was trying to convey a rather conservative message. The most notable characters that were still alive were Kent, Edgar, and Albany, all of whom never tried to take power away from others. Characters like Goneril, Regan, or Edmund, who tried to take away power from where it naturally resided, all died horrible deaths. I feel Shakespeare is arguing that the power of balance should not be upset, which is a conservative note to an otherwise free-thinking play. In addition, none of the central characters are those of a poor class, and though some of them pretend to be of lower class, like Edgar disguised as Poor Tom, they all return to their original status of having power at the end of the play (that is if they are not dead). In the entire play, there is not a single instance of anybody gaining power and keeping it. 

There is also Cordelia. I personally thought she would have had a better ending seeing how she stood up to Lear when he was being unreasonable with his division of the Kingdom. France’s speech about respecting women also made her out to be a fiery figure in an otherwise dreary play. However, with her death, I feel Shakespeare was trying to emphasize that women do not belong in places of power. Goneril and Regan are also examples of this, seeing how they turn monstrous when given power, but Cordelia’s death truly pounds the message home. If Cordelia did not die, she would undoubtedly have inherited Lear’s power and have been a good ruler as well. I think Shakespeare killed her off to avoid having a woman in a position of power, which runs in parallel with the flawed public opinions of that time period. 

Corruption, Cruelty, and Karma

In King Lear, many present day issues and rooted problems in society are addressed in the play. These ideas and issues relate to corruption, social class, power, and karma. Specifically focusing on the socioeconomic gap which is still tremendously present in our society today.

From the start, Goneril and Regan present very two-faced speeches telling their father how much they love him, all in hopes to persuade him to give them the most material possessions, and ultimately benefit their own self interest. Yet, it doesn’t take time for them to disregard everything they said and completely betray their father. As a result, the sisters end up completely blinded by their own cruelty. Although Goneril and Regan aren’t the only characters in the play that did anything and were willing to harm anyone to be on top, it is clear that all they cared about was their dignity and perceived status. 

Another person that reflects similar qualities was Lear. Throughout the play, his behavior demonstrates his pride in power and status, and overwhelming passion for wealth. In our society, most individuals have to climb either the social or political ladder, meanwhile Lear began at the top. For Lear, everything just came easy to him from the start. However once Lear fell from his status he finally understood his apathetic, and especially selfish nature. It is when both Gloucester and Lear are at their lowest, that they recognize the struggles of those lower and less fortunate than themselves. During this time, they admit that those that are rich are unlikely to help when they don’t know how it feels to be at the bottom. Lear realized that he was doing nothing to help or even acknowledge the gap between social classes. Whereas, if Lear fairly distributed his wealth, it would’ve been less costly to him at the end. 

Karma was one of the biggest roles in the play, that directly tied into the idea of wealth and social class. The daughters play the utmost impact in Lear’s downfall, but also their own. From the beginning, Lear’s unjust distribution of land foreshadowed a dramatic downfall that would eventually take place. King Lear suggests that jealousy and greed will always lead to deserving consequences– that will come back to you. 

The Wild Side of Lear

So one line that stood out to me reading “King Lear” is from Act I, Scene IV when the Fool is consulting Lear at Goneril’s castle:

“For you know, nuncle,/The hedge-sparrow fed the cuckoo so long,/That it’s had it head bit off by it young”.

(Act 1, Scene 4, line 220-22)

I think most readers probably understand this as the Fool telling Lear that he has basically spoiled his kids too much, which is true in this situation. However, as a bit of a bird/nature nerd, I instantly recognized this quote as something more. I think diving a little more deeply and literally into this metaphor reveals some very cool science and perhaps some interesting insight about the characters of Lear themselves.

The Fool is referencing a very real naturally occurring phenomena called brood parasitism. Brood parasitism is a behavior in birds where a parasitic species lays its own eggs in a different species’ nest. The bird who has been parasitized raises the foreign chick like it is one of its own while the foreign chick usually outcompetes the victim’s chicks. In ecology, this is an obvious parasitic relationship because one species is benefited while the other is harmed; the victimized mother has wasted an entire nesting season raising a chick that is not her own while the parasitic mother hardly did any work and still passed on her genes. 

From an evolutionary standpoint, this makes sense, as raising babies takes weeks or months during the summer and takes an enormous energy cost from the parent. Of course, that energy is well spent if a bird can pass its own genes down to the next generation, but for birds who have been parasitized, this often won’t happen. Meanwhile, the parasitical mother has saved a tremendous amount of time and energy which she can use to parasitize more nests, ultimately increasing the number of babies she can have in one nesting season while never raising any of her young herself: a smashing success from an evolutionary perspective. There are dozens of unrelated species around the world that do this, (one of them is a native species around here, the Brown-headed Cowbird) and you could go on for hours analyzing the ins and outs of brood parasitism.

For the purpose of King Lear though, it’s just important to know that the Common Cuckoo is a parasitical species native to Europe. The Common Cuckoo parasitizes the nests of dozens of smaller songbird species across its range (such as the “hedge-sparrow”) and has even evolved adaptations such as superficial resemblances to birds of prey (to scare away the victim species’ mother in order to lay eggs in the nest) and the ability to lay eggs the same color as the host species’ eggs to better disguise them. (Like I said above, there is way more you could dive into within brood parasitism or even within just cuckoos). 

If the cuckoo is successful and lays its eggs inside a nest, its young will hatch before the host species’ young and will naturally grow faster than the host species’ chicks, outcompeting them for food. It’s important to realize that when a mother feeds her chicks in a nest, she is programmed to give food to the biggest, healthiest chick, who will also be the chick that is the loudest and most effectively begs for food. The identity of the biggest chick is usually just a matter of who hatches first, and so the first hatched egg has a huge advantage over their siblings, as they are able to start growing first, even if the difference is only by a few hours or days.

Parasitical chicks take advantage of this, and as soon as they are born they will instinctually push other eggs out of the nest, attack their siblings, and outcompete them for food, doing whatever it takes to survive. The result of a successful parasitism can often look very strange; the parasite’s offspring become much larger than their “mother”, and the mother works tirelessly to continue feeding the enormous appetite of her “chick”. The parasitical chicks have completely “won” the exchange, as the host mother has raised no true offspring, raised her own species’ parasite, and has probably exhausted herself feeding huge parasite babies. (This does not happen in every case of brood parasitism, as many species have evolved defenses against parasitical parents and chicks, sparking an evolutionary “arms race” between the parasites and the parasitized.)

So how does all this scientific exposition tie into King Lear? As I went through this process in my head, a lot of interesting parallels made themselves apparent to me. The comparison between the older, bigger, begging, attention-seeking chicks and Goneril and Regan almost seems too clear. Regan and Goneril were firstborn to Lear, and their pleas for attention and practical begging in front of Lear ensured their survival, at least in the context of receiving wealth and power. Cordelia is not loud and (metaphorically) large, and she doesn’t beg in front of Lear. Like an instinctual mother, Lear instantly rewards Goneril and Regan while carelessly tossing Cordelia away. In other words, Lear raised two cuckoos and he and Cordelia lost out because of it. Considering the lack of references to maternity in Lear, you could speculate if Cordelia even has the same mother as Regan and Goneril, a revelation which would make the cuckoo metaphor even more telling.

I think the theme of bad, wicked, or cunning people getting power by being manipulative and telling people what they want to hear is evident in real life whether we look at something as seemingly benign as spoiling children or destructive, like brutal dictators only promoting those who praise them. This is supported by who we see accumulate power in “King Lear” versus who is banished and stripped of it. However, it is very intriguing to see how this is a theme that occurs in nature as well; clearly, the begging, prostrating, “yes-man” trope is an (oftentimes effective) strategy employed beyond just the world of humans.

Gender Roles in King Lear

In Shakespeare’s King Lear, the theme of gender roles is clear. In some ways, he brings power to women through his characters by putting them in powerful roles. Specifically, Regan, and Goneril are put in powerful positions because they have been given kingdoms of their own. On the other hand, he implements the idea that women aren’t deserving of power. Although they are in powerful positions, the women are also made out to seem evil and crazy in positions of power. At points in the play, Cordelia and Regan become angry, loud, and violent. For example, Goneril wants Gloucester’s eyes plucked out. The sisters also turn on each other. The women of King Lear can be compared to stories like Snow White, where the Queen is powerful, but evil. In these types of stories there is usually also a more “feminine” character who helps to accentuate the evilness of the one in power. In Snow White, this character would be Snow White. In King Lear, this character is Cordelia. Cordelia is a more ideal feminine character in traditional gender roles. She is calmer than her sisters and not as power hungry. Overall, Cordelia’s “feminine” presence makes her sisters look bad in comparison and helps to push this idea of how women should act.

The Good and Evil of the Baseborn

Throughout King Lear, I found Edmunds character to be the most enjoyable throughout the play. His cunning nature and ever evolving plans to rise in a society where birth means everything is extremely enjoyable. Additionally, his reasoning for his course of action isn’t justified, but it is understandable to the viewers as to why he choses his path. I’m sure most people would be angry a if they heard their father say he had ‘good sport in his making’. Since Edmund desires his fathers power and has no honorable way to attain it, his path in the play is the only way for him to gain that power. Unlike Regan and Goneril, who will eventually attain their fathers power when he dies, Edmund will never receive anything from Gloucester, which means that unlike the daughters, if he wants power, he must seize it for himself, which is exactly what he did. While I hate how he nearly caused the downfall of the kingdom and nearly kills his brother, I admire how he tries to pave a way for himself to be successful no matter what. medieval society is one where your birth determines that station you will fulfill for the rest of your life, and because he is baseborn, his station won’t allow him to amount to anything. Along with many other characters, motifs and themes, in the play Edmund rebelling against this society shows and critiques that flawed system set in place that nearly causes Britain’s downfall.

The Fool and Jester’s Privilege

Throughout the play, the character of the fool always interested me. Lear banished both Cordelia and Kent for defying him at the beginning of the play, however in every scene the Fool is present, he openly mocks and ridicules Lear, and faces no repercussions at all. The Fool is the first to tell Lear that his decision to give his lands to Goneril and Regan, and repeatedly calls Lear an old idiot. Despite threatening to punish the Fool for this, he never does, and for the first half of the play, the Fool is the only person who can be honest with Lear. I believe this is due to the idea of jester’s privilege. Jester’s privilege was a right given to court jesters in medieval times that allowed them to say anything without fear of reprisal under the idea that they are simply a fool, and nothing they said matters. This allowed the jester to make whatever rude jokes they wanted about the king without worrying about their head getting lopped off. The fool also makes use of this privilege to be honest with Lear and give him a reality check, but ironically, Lear makes the foolish decision of not listening to the fool.

The Voice of Reason in King Lear

Kent is the dedicated and loyal servant in this story. He is loyal to the King above all else. Not only this but he is firmly blunt the entire play saying things like, “What wouldst thou do, old man?” (I.1.145) to the King himself, offering one of the only voices of reason in the story. He is pretty likable throughout the entire play, giving clear advice that, as the audience, we can see is ultimately justified. Even after he is banished for only trying to do right by the King, he remains loyal, going out of his way to disguise himself in order to still support Lear. Kent is one of the most passionate characters in the play, he is fiercely dedicated to Lear and defends his name with deep devotion. In act 2, we see how passionately affected Kent is by the prospect of others undermining Lear. He goes so far as to attack Oswald when he suspects him of plotting against Lear, he becomes enraged on an extreme level as if he himself was being betrayed. In act 3, when he is out in the storm, he is only concerned about Lear’s well-being. In act 4, he undermines Lear to save him by communicating with Cordelia, one of the only other respectable characters in the play. Kent’s conflict is external, he never once doubts his love and respect for Lear himself but those around him are suspicious of his obsessive behavior which tends to costs him as the rest of the kingdom shifts away from loyalty to the king and towards a new system of power (both in the beginning when he is banished and later in the story). Kent’s conflict is also connected to the Lear’s conflict as he is ostensibly an extension of Lear. When Lear’s authority is threatened, Kent sees it his duty to remain honest and supportive of his king, despite the controversy and conflict it creates among the daughters and other members of the kingdom. His decision to remain loyal to Lear and his persistent fight for him to regain his power suggests he (like Lear) is also obsessed with the hierarchy of power within the kingdom. In the final scene in act 5, Kent eludes to killing himself after Lear’s death, a depressing yet fitting ending for the loyal servant in the story. Now that Lear is dead and the old hierarchy of power can no longer be restored, Kent’s purpose is lost and there seems to be no place for him in a kingdom without Lear.

Life is Unpredictable and Meaningless

Throughout King Lear, Shakespeare writes with a very dark attitude towards life and even paints a picture that life may very well be meaningless. This play has shown no sort of patterns about anything regarding peoples happiness or success. 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 kicking her out and saying he doesn’t love her anymore. On top of that, Cordelia randomly dies at the end of the play after seemingly being the ¨hero¨ or ¨good guy¨. The lesson that could be showing is 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.