Power and Identity in King Lear

“King Lear” is a tragedy written by William Shakespeare that explores the themes of power, gender, identity, and performance. Through the characters and their actions, the play examines how these themes interrelate and affect the lives of the people around them.

Power is a central theme in “King Lear.” The play illustrates how power can corrupt even the most virtuous individuals. At the beginning of the play, King Lear is a powerful monarch with three daughters. He demands that they profess their love for him, and he plans to divide his kingdom among them based on their responses. However, he becomes increasingly irrational and paranoid as he loses his power. His daughters Goneril and Regan also become corrupted by power, mistreating their father and each other in their quest for control.

The theme of gender is also explored in “King Lear.” Women are portrayed as powerful and influential figures who can manipulate men to achieve their goals. Goneril and Regan use their sexuality to manipulate their husbands and gain power over their father. However, the play also highlights the limitations placed on women in society. Cordelia, Lear’s daughter who refuses to play along with her sisters’ games, is punished and ultimately killed.

Identity is another central theme in “King Lear.” The play explores the idea that identity can be fluid and changeable. Lear’s identity is tied up in his role as king, and he struggles to adjust to life without power. His journey throughout the play is a struggle to find his identity outside of his role as king. The Fool also represents an ambiguous identity, as he uses humor and wit to mask his true thoughts and feelings. The character of Edgar also embodies the idea of fluid identity. He disguises himself as Poor Tom to escape persecution and assumes different identities throughout the play.

The theme of performance is also explored in “King Lear.” The play features a number of instances where characters are performing or putting on a show. Lear’s demand for his daughters to profess their love for him is one example, as is the performance of Edgar as Poor Tom. These instances highlight the idea that people often play a role in society and may not reveal their true selves to others.

In conclusion, “King Lear” explores the complexities of power, gender, identity, and performance. The play illustrates how these themes interrelate and how they affect the lives of the characters in the play. The play provides insights into the human condition and how these themes are still relevant today. Shakespeare’s masterpiece challenges us to consider the relationship between power, gender, identity, and performance, and how we can use these concepts to understand ourselves and our place in society. The characters in the play are not simply figures from a bygone era but embody struggles and issues that continue to exist in our contemporary society. By engaging with these themes, “King Lear” encourages us to reflect on our own experiences and the complexities of the world we inhabit.

Edmund and Edgar: How Two Brothers Drove The Plot of King Lear

The feud between Edmund and Edgar was one of the key subplots in King Lear. It told a story of betrayal, trust, and manipulation, and much of what happened in the play was due to either of the brothers. In the play’s second act, the rivalry begins when Edmund cuts himself with a sword and frames Edgar. The dominos fall soon after as Gloucester and the kingdom turn on Edgar. It’s later revealed that destroying Edgar’s reputation was the first step in Edmund’s attempt to overthrow the system and take over the power. Edgar realizes this and chooses to fake his death and run away. He takes on the new identity of Poor Tom and does everything in his power (or lack thereof) to hide who he really is. Throughout the play, Edmund sees his plan come to life and is close to getting what he wants. As Regan and Goneril enter the picture and fight over Edmund, Edgar guides a lost King Lear and helps him see a new side of the world. The brothers remain vital characters throughout the play and even have a standoff at the end. The play ends with the long-lost Edgar finally defeating the person who ruined his life and becoming the kingdom’s next ruler.

Edmund and Edgar having their own subplots helped the entire flow of King Lear. Without the two of them, there would be a lot of holes in the plot, especially toward the end. Edmund was manipulating what happened in the kingdom and was part of many decisions that would be significant to the story. On the other hand, Edgar was with a broken Lear and a blind Gloucester. The two played incredible parts in the play and connected the puzzle together. Without the conflict between Edgar and Edmund, the events in King Lear would not have happened. They are the two most important characters in the entire play, and because of them, the Tragedy of King Lear is a legend in literature and one of the greatest plays ever.

King Lear – Ego, Pride and Greed

The Tragedy of King Lear – written by Shakespeare- is riddled with greed, despair, betrayal and suffering. There is no shortage of passages detailing the pain Lear or any of the other characters go through. However there is one point that while not overlooked, isn’t given enough attention. It is obvious from the very first act that King Lear is an egotistical ruler, especially when he forces his daughters to tell him how much they love him in exchange for a portion of the kingdom’s land, only to banish the youngest after she refuses to be untruthful when telling him how much she loves him. King Lear pride holds him back from being the best possible king for his kingdom, even when his loyal servant tries to show him the error of his ways, Lear tells him to leave too. The issue is that Lear allows his ego as king overshadow his understanding of his situations and the actions of those around him. His pride makes him think that he is untouchable, despite the fact that he willingly gave away his power. Making him nothing but a King on the words of the wind.

Greed, another major plot point of King Lear, has a few characters that encapsulate its violent methods. From Edmund, who destroyed his entire family to become heir, to the sisters Goneril and Regan, who tried so desperately to outdo one another that they end up killing themselves in the process. Greed, in Shakespeare’s plays, has never had a happy ending for those who pursue it so readily. In Hamlet, it was the king’s brother, Hamlet’s Uncle, who suffered after killing his brother in greed for the throne. In Romeo and Juliet, it was the greed of the two families and their feud, and while they may not have been the ones who died in the end, they were still the ones who suffered the consequences, losing their children. All those who indulged in greed in King Lear suffer, Edmund, Goneril, Regan, Oswald (the servant), even King Lear himself suffer because of their eventual greediness. Lear plays into the idea of karma in that regard, by making those who we see change still suffer even after they have– at least somewhat– mended their ways.

That is what makes King Lear especially tragic, because when a character finally changes their ways and better understands the world, the rug is pulled out from under them and they suffer to an even further extent before eventually falling into the cold hands of death too. It’s tragedy also plays into the idea of family, by having this family destroyed by the seams for some land or the love of another. Most people fear the betrayal of a close loved one, especially if in your mind they can do you now harm or they are less powerful than you. It is for that reason that King Lear is a tragedy caused not only by fear, greed, and ego, but also by the betrayal of family.

King Lear and King Richard

I’d like to preface that although I’m interested in medieval history, I’m not at all a medieval historian, so I’ll probably get at least a few things wrong.

Reading King Lear reminded me of the story of King Richard I of England, as it shares a couple parallels with the one told in Lear‘s. I’ll give a brief summary here.

Richard was the son of Henry II, and brother to Henry the Young King (his elder), and Geoffrey II. He grew up like a son of the king, in wealth and luxury, and received a good education. Though, being a younger son of King Henry II, he was not expected to take the throne.

When Henry II fell seriously ill in 1170, he began planning to divide his kingdom among his sons, but wanted to retain overall authority over his sons and their territories, as they were not yet old enough to rule by themselves (starting to see the similarities?). Richard’s brother, Young Henry, was crowned as the heir apparent in June.

A few years later, the three brothers, Richard, Geoffrey, and most of all the eldest Henry the Young, began to grow unsatisfied. Their father still controlled their territories officially, and his power over them was still intact. For this reason, Henry the Young instigated a revolt. It also should be mentioned that it was rumored their mother pushed them to take this action, though for what reason I’m not sure. The brothers all joined Henry the Young against their father, Henry II, and took refuge under the protection of the French King Louis VII while they mounted their forces. Jordan Fantosme, a poet of the time, described the rebellion as a “war without love.”

The French forces were very successful in their advances, but the English were biding their time. An army was growing in Brittany.
The brothers were getting more confident in their victory, and made promises to French barons for land and gold. This would soon turn on them, though, and the English began rapidly retaking territory with a massive force of 20,000 mercenaries. Eventually, Louis VII would seek peace with Henry II, and leave the brothers out of the treaty.

The brothers had no other option than to ask for mercy from their father, who gave it to them. Though the terms they were given from their father had taken away most of their lands, and they were not again able to challenge their father. Richard, though, seemingly got off easier than his brothers, and was left with enough land for him to amass his power again. He again scuffled with his father and brothers a while longer, until Henry the Young died suddenly, leaving Richard next in line to be heir to the throne. His father commanded him to cede his territory to his mother (who had formerly been imprisoned by Henry II, for some reason?), to which he refused. Henry II later died, and it was suspected that Richard had somehow caused his death, though this has never been proved either way. Richard then was crowned King of England.

I hope you enjoyed my summary of that very short period of King Richard “Cœur de Lion”‘s life, and I’m sure you can see how it has some similarities with the Tragedy of King Lear, especially relating to the father/child power relationships, though I wouldn’t call it either a tragedy or a comedy. It may seem more like a tragedy from Richard’s perspective, as he tried to get power over his over-controlling father with his two brothers, lost, and was removed from much of his power, though this still is an imperfect comparison. It is interesting how in this example (from which Shakespeare may have taken inspiration?), Henry II, the father, retains his power and authority over his sons, and manages to win a war against them, while in Lear, he loses all power. This may cause this story to be seen more as a moral lesson, saying “don’t rebel against your father,” while in Lear, it’s a tragedy from the father’s perspective. I can also see this as being compared to Edmund’s story, though here the son’s treachery didn’t succeed, and wasn’t quite as morally bankrupt. There can also be some comparisons between Richard’s mother and the women in power in Lear. It’s quite interesting how she was rumored to have done many things to influence the brothers, when none of it could have been proven.

Overall, I think this story and Lear’s are an interesting comparison to make, when it’s possible Shakespeare took inspiration from this story, or any number of other monarchical dramas.

The Fool and The King: The Role of The Fool in King Lear

The character of the Fool in King Lear plays an inherently critical role in both the development of Lear’s character and the progression of the story as a whole. From the very beginning of the play, the Fool’s position is unique in that he is the one person in the kingdom who can talk back to the king, as long as he does it through jokes and rhymes. As a result of this unique position, the Fool is the first character to tell Lear he made a mistake in banishing Cordelia and giving his power to Goneril and Regan. He acts as an unofficial advisor and conscience for Lear, while adding an element of comic relief to the play. As the story continues, the Fool leaves with Lear when he runs out into the storm at the end of Act II, and he continues to act as a physical manifestation of Lear’s internal self-criticism via color commentary throughout Act III. But then, in the middle of Act III, The Fool disappears and the audience doesn’t see him for the rest of the play. That could represent Lear’s madness—he no longer needs an advisor once he reaches the point of no return—or it could be a sign of Lear accepting his daughter’s betrayal and thus no longer needing the Fool to narrate his mistakes. Either way, The Fool seems to act entirely in relation to Lear. He has no visible agenda of his own; he acts almost as more of a symbol than a character. That detachment allows him to act as reflection of Lear’s character development throughout the play, giving the audience insight into the King that wouldn’t be possible without the addition of the Fool. 

The Many Tragedies of King Lear

King Lear is a unique tragedy insofar as it tells the tragic story not only of King Lear, but also several others characters in layers of baked narrative. Like a fugue with several different lines of melody, King Lear is inlaid with several stories of tragedy–and the complex relationships and themes explored in them can leave you in a fugue state. I’ve noticed several tragedies within the tragedy (tragedyception), and I’m sure there’s an argument to include more. For example, the story of Gloucester can be seen as a self-contained tragedy; stemming from his fatal flaw of ignorance, in short succession, Gloucester betrays his faithful son, loses his eyes, and dies a miserable death. He checks all the boxes: he is of noble stature, his downfall is tragic but not pathetic, and his end is not fully just. The main themes and motifs explored and used in this mini-tragedy are some of the most pervasive and powerful throughout the tragedy. Edgar’s clever usage of societal binaries between unnatural and natural and supposed links of family make one of the the broader play’s most pervasive themes that those who trust blindly in power binaries are often betrayed, manipulated, and discarded as more savvy and aware actors ruthlessly dispose of them. And Gloucester’s arc reflects the most clearly in the entire play the motif of sight vs blindness. Furthermore, the conflict within a supposedly happy family clearly reflects the broader thematic dynamic of familial conflict and the ultimate subjectivity of the family concept. Gloucester’s tragedy is a small tragedy enclosed in a larger whole: and the combination of his tragedy with that of others (Lear, Albany, arguably France too) is perhaps one of the reasons for the powerful catharsis that the play yields and the profound themes explored.

Juggling Power and Chaos

King Lear is a story of authority and familial roles and dynamics. Lear is a king where is power and authority make up his identity, so when he gives away his kingdom to his daughters, who have nothing but evil intentions. By doing this, this sends himself and all his kingdom into chaos, we are able to see how seeking control is able to destroy a person as well as those around them. In the beginning Lear represents the hierarchy found within society, however, when Lear loses all of his authority it warps all the binaries known in the play. This allows disorder and madness to become leading themes of this play.

These themes come to a head when Lear is put out into the storm by his daughters, he is able to reflect and all his power yet how little he had done for others who did not have much. Being in the force of the storm Lear is humbled and now understands how insignificant himself and the power he had was. This is a revelation not only of his loss of social control but also the need to re-evaluate the things valued and found significant, this then allows for the character development of becoming more compassionate and sympathetic. Once Lear fully understands this he is able to understand himself, after confronting the chaos and letting go of the need for power he allows himself to find peace and sanity amidst what is continued to go on around him.

Age & Power in King Lear

Age and old age play an important role in Shakespeare’s play, King Lear, as it acts as a framework for a character’s power. The main character, King Lear, is an aging monarch who has to come to terms with his own mortality and the end of his reign. Throughout the play, Shakespeare emphasizes Lear’s old age to display his lack of wisdom and to create more emotion as he suffers. 

Goneril and Regan, Lear’s eldest daughters, respect his old age, but view it as a way to manipulate his power. Regan and Goneril consistently use Lear’s age and lost sanity as an excuse to keep him away from any power they were given. Lear’s age and the ambition of his daughters lead them to become enemies, rather than work together. 

His youngest daughter, Cordelia, does the opposite of Regan and Goneril. Throughout the play, Cordelia offers the truth to Lear. From the very beginning, when she would not accept the land, Cordelia has been trying to protect Lear from his downfall. The contrast between Lear and Cordelia’s age and the fact that it was Cordelia with the power to help fix Lear’s poor judgment further illuminates the significance of age in the play. 

In both instances, age directly correlates with power. From this, the play highlights the fleeting nature of both one’s age and power.

Edmond in ‘King Lear’: The Perfect Villain?

Shakespeare’s ‘King Lear’ has been replayed, reread, and studied for centuries, and one of its most infamous characters is the troublemaker behind much of the conflict, Edmond. Born illegitimately to the Earl of Glouster, Edmond lives his whole life under the shadow of his brother, Edgar. Until the events that transpire in the play, Edmond perfectly plays the role of an obedient and subjugated bastard child, gaining the trust of his father and brother. This is until he spends the whole play manipulating those around him, resulting in the deaths of Regan, Gonoril, and his father Glouster. This is what makes Edmond such a cunning and well-crafted villain. His struggle against societal expectations allows the audience to initially empathize with his struggle, only for him to gain their distaste slowly throughout the play as he cunningly turns family members against each other. Edmond is the perfect villain because he contrasts well with the Shakespearian idea of a flawed hero; he uses the way society treated him and his role as the illegitimate son to motivate his villainous rise and fall from power. The role of Edmond as the ideal villain is only enhanced more by his death when his antagonisms come full circle as he is slain by his brother Edgar, allowing good to triumph over evil while also using the conflict of family members against each other to develop the narrative of a tragedy.

Servitude by Serve-a-tude

While King Lear houses many characters and motifs to delve into conveying some serious themes around identity, power, and family, one of the most notable moments of the play exists early on in the play during the fight between Oswald and Kent within Act 2 Scene 2.

While the fight itself serves as a fun and intense moment in the play as Kent curses Goneril’s servant in Shakespearean tongue, what makes the moment profound is the distinction between Kent and Oswald as characters throughout the play, and the overall question of what makes a good servant?

Upon Kent choosing to attack Oswald initially, the surrounding characters along with the audience are under the misconception that he is in the wrong for doing so, when in reality his aggression towards Oswald can be dissected far further. Kent, as seen in Act I, is a loyal subject of Lear. His servitude extends beyond simply doing what the King asks, as we see him challenging Lear banishing Cordelia, and harboring his best interests in mind. Upon being banished, Kent still chooses to serve the Lear in disguise in order to carry out his duties but also to try and help support his status as his power remains in limbo between him and his daughters. Finally, we see the greatest extent of Kent’s loyalty at the end of the play when upon Lear’s death, Kent takes his own life in a noble fashion, exclaiming that his journey as a subject of Lear is far from over and that his master calls upon him in the afterlife.

Oswald on the other hand represents a different type of servitude which conjures a conflict between the two characters. While, similar to Kent, Oswald is the right hand man of the Kings eldest daughter Goneril his servitude revolves around the ideology that by obeying every command given, he will later be able to position himself in a higher power. This type of “servitude” so to speak is seen upon Oswald attempting to end Gloucesters life in Act IV in hopes of being recognized for his loyalty and valeince in doing so.

Understanding these two personas of a servant helps to better contextualize the reason for Kent and Oswald brawling it out during the second act. Oswald willingly chooses to deceive the king by carrying out Goneril’s will, attempting to deliver letters that would be used against the king in order to gain himself a promotion. Kent’s response to this is taking on Oswald in order to maintain his morality and loyalty to the king. In the end, despite his short-coming in Act I serving a ‘tude to the King, Kent can be understood as the definition of pure servitude, with no other motives or outside interests than to serve Lear throughout the story, while Oswald can be perceived as a yes-man to most of the characters in the play, while in reality he uses his servitude as a tool for subliminally gaining power.

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.

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. 

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.

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.

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 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.

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.

Albany and what he represents

The duke of Albany, husband of Goneril is one of the few characters standing at the end of the play. Why of all characters is he standing. Albany starts off the play as much more of a weak character. He can be seen being basically ordered around by his wife. He can be seen as being meek as he does not stand up for what he believes. This can be observed early on in the play when he says

My lord, I am guiltless as I am ignorant

Of what hath moved you.

This quote shows a number of important things about Albany. This is after his wife his just treated her father king Lear horribly. He seems genuinely confused as to why she treated the king this way, which shows mainly that he is not part of her plans and has no idea what her goal is but also he does not approve and has better morals than his wife. We understand he is a better character morally and does not approve. He loves his wife as he states later but has a hard time looking over what she has done but he does for now. He continues to get pushed around by his wife for the next few acts. Goneril complains she is acting like the man in the relationship because she wants to act quickly but Albany understands they should think it through. 

Albany represents good in the story. He discusses later how he feels bad for Lear and even if he must fight against them he supports the ideas of Cordelia. While Albany might be good he represents how bad can overcome evil. His much more evil wife is able to manipulate him and do what she wants. However Albany grows throughout the play and by the end he is a strong character. He leads an army and wins the battle. Defeat the plot against him set forward by his wife and her new man. He is able to survive the turmoil of the time and the battle because he sticks with his. He stays true to good ideals and this allows him to live at the end and he could even become the king if he wants but he declines it. Albany represents a good character who becomes stronger and stands up for himself. He shows how people can stick to good even when confronted and pushed by lots of evil and manipulation. While he might not seem like the deepest character over the play he goes through great change and represents an important character with many layers.