King Lear

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Themes and Colors
Fathers, Children, and Siblings Theme Icon
Authority and Order Theme Icon
Disintegration, Chaos, Nothingness Theme Icon
Old Age Theme Icon
Fooling and Madness Theme Icon
Blindness and Insight Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in King Lear, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Authority and Order Theme Icon

At the beginning of the play, Lear is an authority figure, embodying order in his own person and commanding it from his family and followers. (This is how he is able to compel his elder two daughters to participate in the dramatic ceremony dividing the kingdom by professing their absolute love on cue, precisely when he demands it; this is why Gloucester, Kent, and others respectfully watch the ceremony unfold, despite thinking that Lear's plan to give up power is a bad idea.) Just as the father-child bonds discussed above encompass both a private and a public dimension, authority and order in this play exist at both the level of the family and the level of the nation.

Throughout the tragedy, Lear and other characters also repeatedly invoke the ideas of natural and divine order. Lear appeals to the idea of divine justice when his children treat him unjustly (e.g. after his final quarrel with Goneril and Regan: "O heavens,/ If you do love old men […] Send down and take my part" [2.4.218-221]). Gloucester similarly calls out to the gods after he has been betrayed and blinded in 3.7. Meanwhile, nature in the play seems to mirror the political chaos of the play, particularly in the form of the brutal storm that rages even as Lear himself, the former embodiment of order in the kingdom, rages in his own madness.

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Authority and Order Quotes in King Lear

Below you will find the important quotes in King Lear related to the theme of Authority and Order.
Act 1, scene 1 Quotes
"I want that glib and oily art
To speak and purpose not."
Related Characters: Cordelia (speaker)
Page Number: 1.1.258-259
Explanation and Analysis:

Lear announces to France and Burgundy that Cordelia has lost her dowry. Pleading, she observes that she is unskilled at the flattery practiced by her sisters.

Though contemporary readers might interpret “I want” here to mean that Cordelia desires the art of speech, in Shakespearean English it means something closer to “I lack.” This distinction is relevant to making sense of Cordelia’s character: she does not wish to abandon her principles, but rather affirms that she cannot deviate from them. Describing speech as “glib” highlights how it is superficial and insincere, while “oily” connotes a slimy or over-flattering type of language. Though she does not directly criticize her sisters, Cordelia implies that their language is “glib and oily” in a way that hers cannot be. Intriguingly, Cordelia’s words are themselves quite eloquent here. They may not be obsequious, but they are concise and effective—thus showing that she possesses linguistic skill, but simply not the art of flattery.

More broadly, Cordelia differentiates between speech and intention when she juxtaposes “to speak” with “purpose not.” Unlike Lear, who assumes that the “nothing” of her speech implies a “nothing” of emotional attachment, Cordelia is able to recognize the difference between words and things. This insight, however, does not necessarily aid her in the play—for while it may grant her an effective moral compass, it also denies her inheritance and leaves her open to others’ manipulative behaviors.

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Act 1, scene 2 Quotes
"These late eclipses in the sun and moon portend no good to us."
Related Characters: Gloucester (speaker)
Related Symbols: The Stars, Heavens, and the Gods
Page Number: 1.2.109-110
Explanation and Analysis:

Edmund has just falsely informed Gloucester that Edgar is plotting against his father. Gloucester notes, as he wonders how to proceed, that the movements in the heavenly bodies foreshadow negative events to come.

This passage speaks to the important role of omens for the characters of King Lear. Various characters refer to the way the heavens ordain human events, and thus examining their movements offers a way to guess at the future. Gloucester believes, here, that he can interpret “late eclipses”—moments when light is blocked from the sun or moon—as signs of “no good” to come. (Symbolically, we could say that the light of royalty and stability will be eclipsed by deceit and eventually murder.) Shakespeare thus presents Gloucester as adhering to the value of fate—believing the the heavens determine his life more than individual human action.

It is intriguing that Gloucester brings up the idea of heavenly bodies just after Edmund has sworn allegiance to nature. Though they both seem to be appealing to the same force, their ways of doing so are vastly different. If Edmund sees in nature a space beyond the moral and social constraints of humanity, Gloucester instead sees a divine power that rules over and intersects human affairs. The first sees it as a space apart; the second as deeply integrated. In this way, Shakespeare treats nature and the heavens as a complex symbolic system—a site that various characters interpret differently based on their own beliefs and ends.

"As if we were villains on necessity; fools by heavenly compulsion."
Related Characters: Edmund (speaker)
Related Symbols: The Stars, Heavens, and the Gods
Page Number: 1.2.128-129
Explanation and Analysis:

After Gloucester departs, Edmund mocks his father’s comments on the heavens. He believes that the motion of the planets do nothing to ordain human action.

With these characters, Shakespeare establishes two poles on the question of human agency in the context of heavenly predestination. Whereas Gloucester believes that eclipses in the sky predict negative events in the human world, Edmund finds this perspective ridiculous. This debate speaks to a philosophical question on free will, but it also expresses a generational difference. Just as Lear values ceremonial behavior and adherence to tradition, Gloucester finds deference the heavens to be important. Friction arises with both sets of children because the younger generations seek increased personal control.

To substantiate his claim on the heavens, Edmund gives two examples of where human identities should not reasonably conform to fate: “villains” and “fools.” Shakespeare has not arbitrarily selected these terms. Being himself a villain (as he has just decided), Edmund is implicitly claiming that he acts according to his own will as opposed to the effect of any celestial body. Yet we could take his exploits as proof that Gloucester was correct that eclipses foretold negative events. “Fools” will play an important role later in the tragedy, when both actual and artificial fools render unclear whether the heavens or human action lead to madness. Thus even as Edmund disparages his father’s belief in destiny, Shakespeare subtly designs the structure of the tragedy to reiterate the ever-present role of fate.

Act 3, scene 2 Quotes
"The art of our necessities is strange
And can make vile things precious."
Related Characters: King Lear (speaker)
Page Number: 3.2.76-77
Explanation and Analysis:

Still amidst the storm, Lear reflects on the insignificance of physical possessions. He observes how little humans require in certain circumstances.

Once again, Shakespeare places philosophically significant statements in the mouth of a madman. That Lear considers “our necessities” to be an “art” is a subtle paradox, for arts are generally taken to be a supplement to human existence rather than a strict requirement. Being a “strange” art further muddles the definition of “necessities,” which we would expect to be clear-cut and self-evident rather than uncertain. When Lear adds that this art “can make vile things precious” he points to the power human psychology has in reshaping its relationship to external objects. Things that should seen disgusting can be made “precious” with sufficient art—indeed they may even come to be seen as necessities.

Lear’s confrontation with the primal nature of the storm thus seems to have radically altered his sense of what is essential versus superfluous. Shakespeare shows how his earlier conceptions have been opened up by this poignant confrontation with environmental and internal madness—ironically giving him greater insight than he had while supposedly sane.

Act 3, scene 4 Quotes
"Poor naked wretches, wheresoe'er you are,
That bide the pelting of this pitiless storm,
How shall your houseless heads and unfed sides,
Your looped and windowed raggedness defend you
From seasons such as these? O I have taken
Too little care of this."
Related Characters: King Lear (speaker)
Page Number: 3.4.32-37
Explanation and Analysis:

Lear has finally escaped from the overwhelming storm. Shaken by the experience, he reflects on how little attention he devoted as King to his impoverished subjects.

This passage shows that Lear’s experience has granted him a new level of empathy to others. He imagines that common people “bide the pelting of this pitiless storm” just as he has—and that they must therefore be in need of resources and aid just as Lear was. Nature, here, serves as an equalizer between king and subject, allowing Lear to understand how desperately others would need aid “from seasons such as these.” He is able, then, to imagine the significance of not having a castle and only owning “looped and windowed raggedness”: the paltry huts that would be owned by peasants. Having redefined his idea of a necessity, he comes to see even mere shacks as precious.

Shakespeare develops, then, the argument that supposed madness can actually bring one great clarity and insight. Lear is seen by the other characters to be insane, but his ravings in the wilderness have actually brought him greater empathy for his subjects—the exact quality that would be necessary for any accomplished ruler. That he renounces his previous actions places Lear in a traditional moral arc of recognition and repentance, but Shakespeare plays on this formula by making insanity the route to that realization.

Act 4, scene 1 Quotes
"The worst is not
So long as we can say 'This is the worst.'"
Related Characters: Edgar (speaker)
Page Number: 4.1.30-31
Explanation and Analysis:

Edgar is reflecting on his lowly position when he sees the blind Gloucester led by an Old Man. He revises his earlier beliefs, pointing out that many are far worse off than himself and that, indeed, the ability to observe how bad things are must mean they are not at the absolute bottom.

That Edgar’s observations are induced by seeing the Old Man and Gloucester reiterates how the tragic action offers perspective on one’s own misfortune. Edgar may have pitied himself, but once he sees others in even more dire straights, he realizes that he was being ridiculous all along. His very ability to reflect on his state of affairs is juxtaposed with their lack of composure.

This passage also returns to the question of how language can often deviate from reality. One would assume that saying “This is the worst” would imply that things are indeed at their most terrible, but Edgar points out that it is just the opposite. The very ability to speak those words implies a level of composure and reflection—indeed an ability to speak!—that must mean the state of affairs could be even worse. Thus not only can language misrepresent reality, in this case, the statement itself must misrepresent reality.