King Lear

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Fathers, Children, and Siblings Theme Analysis

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.
Fathers, Children, and Siblings Theme Icon

The personal drama of King Lear revolves around the destruction of family relationships. Tragedy emerges from bonds broken between parents and children—and, at a secondary level, from the loss of ties among siblings. Lear, misreading Cordelia's understated, but true, devotion to him renounces his "parental care" (1.1.127) of her. This rejection is twofold. Lear withdraws his "father's heart" (1.1.142); he also strips Cordelia of the financial and political support that formerly made her attractive to her suitors. Driven by greed and ambition, Goneril and Regan fail to show any solidarity with their sister in 1.1. And later, despite their strong professions of love for Lear, they both betray him in order to consolidate their political authority. In addition, although the two "tigers, not daughters" (4.2.49) initially ally with each other, their lustful desire for Edmund ultimately drive Goneril to murder Regan, before committing suicide when Edmund himself is killed, thus ensuring the complete annihilation of the Lear line.

Edmund's conspiracy to mislead Gloucester into disinheriting his legitimate son Edgar provides a foil to the Lear family situation throughout the play. Edmund—who is Gloucester's illegitimate or "natural" son from an affair outside marriage, rather than a legitimate or "legal" one—further highlights the question of where parent-child loyalty stems from: biology or socially acknowledged status. And, indeed, the private or familial sphere is inseparable from the public and political realm in King Lear. Fatherhood, in the play, serves as a model and metaphor for kingly leadership, while the narrative regarding the disintegration of families parallels the disintegration of the British state.

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Fathers, Children, and Siblings Quotes in King Lear

Below you will find the important quotes in King Lear related to the theme of Fathers, Children, and Siblings.
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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"Yet he hath ever but slenderly known himself."
Related Characters: Regan (speaker), King Lear
Page Number: 1.1.339-340
Explanation and Analysis:

As Scene One draws to a close, Regan and Goneril discuss their father’s dwindling mental capacities. Here, Regan comments that this is no new development, for Lear has historically lacked personal insight.

This conversation predicts the way Regan and Goneril will deny their father’s authority and install themselves with increasing power over him. To do so, however, they must justify their actions not only to others but also to themselves. One of their main strategies to do so is to take aim at Lear’s old age—and to argue that he is unfit to rule or even make personal decisions. Here, Regan takes an even more aggressive tactic, to note that Lear’s mental decline is in fact characteristic of his more general sensibility. That he has “but slenderly known himself” at any point in his life would imply that his commands cannot be trusted to conform to his actual wishes and desires.

More than a manipulative tactic, however, this sentence introduces the theme of introspection and self-knowledge. This question predominates King Lear, as many of the characters battle to harness their emotions and to make rational decisions that correlate with their actual needs. Regan’s point here is to take the example of aging and extrapolate it to a broader phenomenon: how many lack the thoughtfulness necessary to identify their wishes and inner nature.

Act 1, scene 2 Quotes
"Thou, Nature, art my goddess."
Related Characters: Edmund (speaker)
Related Symbols: The Stars, Heavens, and the Gods
Page Number: 1.2.1
Explanation and Analysis:

Edmund bemoans how his status as a bastard prevents him from having a claim to his father's title. As a result, he renounces the value of human laws and instead chooses to exalt the wonder of “Nature.”

Here we see Edmund turn away for the first time from the systems that organize human life. He reveals a wish to violate social norms and seize power for himself. Since “Nature” exists beyond the royal system that delineates between legitimate and illegitimate children, it offers a world in which Edmund could receive a proper inheritance. That Edmund selects nature to be his “goddess” also marks a subtle turn away from Christianity and toward paganism. Though religion is not a blatant theme in King Lear, it bubbles under the tragedy’s surface. Edmund’s embrace of Nature could be seen as somewhat heretical, which foreshadows the way he will sin both spiritually and politically in order to further his own ascent to power.

His soliloquy also initiates a pattern in King Lear of characters seeking solace or support in the natural environment. The tragedy often juxtaposes the banality and social cruelty of the human realm with a more egalitarian and open natural world. Shakespeare positions nature as an open psychological and physical space on which characters can project their ideal worlds, beyond the constraints of normative human society.

Act 2, scene 1 Quotes
"My old heart is cracked; it's cracked."
Related Characters: Gloucester (speaker), Edgar
Page Number: 2.1.106
Explanation and Analysis:

Edgar has now fled Gloucester’s castle, causing his father to become convinced that Edgar is indeed guilty. Gloucester bemoans the events and their effect on his emotions.

That Gloucester draws attention to his “old heart” returns the text to the ever-present question of aging. He implies that the emotional pain is particularly damaging due to his age, for he has been abandoned by his son after having invested so deeply in their relationship. Having lost his heart, Gloucester begins to follow actions reminiscent of Lear’s: irrationally aiding his deceitful child and lashing out against the honest one. “Cracked” thus speaks not only to sadness but also to the misdirected emotion that causes him to condemn Edmund to death.

One should note that the image of being “cracked” appears often in this text. Characters use it to refer to emotional stress and to betrayal as Gloucester does here, but the term is also employed to signify insanity. By bringing these two meanings together in one word, Shakespeare shows how pain and betrayal function alongside insanity: the first can induce the second or visa versa, and the line between the two is never particularly clear.

Act 2, scene 4 Quotes
"O sir, you are old.
Nature I you stands on the very verge
Of his confine."
Related Characters: Regan (speaker), King Lear
Page Number: 2.4.164-166
Explanation and Analysis:

Regan and Goneril argue with Lear about his behavior in their households. During the fight, Regan comments on his age and the way he approaches his mental and physical demise.

Her accusation returns to the question of how insanity and elderliness interplay: Regan firmly contends that the decline of Lear’s mental capacities is responsible for his erratic behaviors. Here, she offers a somewhat new take on the issue when she brings in the ever-present image of “Nature.” Here, “Nature” signifies a wild realm beyond a human, rational range of understanding. That this force is “on the very verge of his confine” means that the specter of madness approaches Lear. His “confine” would thus stand for the metaphorical borders of his sanity—which, if breached by Nature, would shatter his mind. In this way, Regan defines a very fragile conception of human intelligence and control, in which emotional instability or old age could potentially weaken one’s “confine.” For her, “Nature” is a set of wild forces waiting to burst in and take advantage of human weakness the moment social or mental stability fails.

Act 4, scene 2 Quotes
"The nature which contemns its origin
Cannot be bordered certain in itself."
Related Characters: Albany (speaker), Goneril
Page Number: 4.2.41-42
Explanation and Analysis:

Albany has realized the deceitful way Regan and Goneril treated Lear. He condemns them, here, for turning against their own father.

Shakespeare plays once more with the complex term “nature,” here used to refer to both Goneril’s disposition and to her blood-linked relationship to her father. In the first sense, Goneril’s “nature” means her cruel personality that has acted independently of any filial compassion and thus lashed out brutally against her father. But by selecting the possessive pronoun “its” for “its origin,” Albany implies that nature is inherently linked to the “origin” of one’s parents. Goneril’s actions against her father have thus both been characteristic of her nature but also have betrayed that nature because she “contemns”—sees with contempt—her father.

Albany brings these two meanings of nature together in the second line. That something cannot “be bordered certain in itself” means that it cannot have a secure sense of its identity or disposition. That is to say, it is a nature that cannot be sure of its borders and thus can never know just how it will react. Albany implies that turning against one’s heritage is a kind of self-abnegation—a violation of one’s own nature. Thus Shakespeare plays with the dual meaning of nature as identity and origin to differentiate between those who value heritage and those who belittle it.

Act 5, scene 3 Quotes
"No, no, no, no. Come, let's away to prison.
We two alone will sing like birds in the cage."
Related Characters: King Lear (speaker), Cordelia
Related Symbols: Animals
Page Number: 5.3.9-10
Explanation and Analysis:

When Lear and Cordelia are sentenced to prison, Cordelia wonders if they could find a way out of their fate. Lear instead chooses to idealize their time in prison. 

To do so, he uses the provocative image of "birds in the cage." Lear romanticizes the experience of prison not as one that restricts freedom but as a way for him and Cordelia to be safe from external harm. They would be birds singing--performing enjoyable melodies instead of unhappily bemoaning their fate. Lear's earlier insistence that humans are no more special than wild beasts clarifies that he would see no particular issue in being treated as a bird. Indeed, that role would finally fulfill his hope at the play's onset to offload responsibilities to his daughters and live with little concern in his old age. 

This is a somewhat unconventional tactic in Shakespearian tragedy: we have a character who accepts his tragic fate instead of rebelling against it. Lear's acceptance comes from a combination of existential rumination and insanity, which allow him to reach that conclusion. Lunacy thus offers a weird psychological route to beautify and escape his fate. 

"Howl, howl, howl! O, you are men of stones!
Had I your tongues and eyes, I'd use them so
That heaven's vault should crack. She's gone forever."
Related Characters: King Lear (speaker), Cordelia
Related Symbols: The Stars, Heavens, and the Gods
Page Number: 5.3.308-310
Explanation and Analysis:

Just as Edmund sends a messenger to halt his plans to kill Cordelia and Lear, Lear enters with his daughter’s body. He exclaims these lines of intense remorse.

Though Lear’s language has become increasingly difficult to parse, it continues to hold meaning if examined carefully. Lear’s invocation—“Howl, Howl, Howl”—recalls his earlier expressions during the storm. Here, he mimics the environmental sounds, becoming himself an expression of natural catastrophe rather than of rational human logic. Calling others “men of stones” implies that he finds them emotionless and cold in the face of the catastrophe he has witnessed. As a result, Lear finds their verbal responses lacking.

In particular, he wishes he possessed their “tongues and eyes” because he could speak and see with greater vigor the horror of his daughter’s death. That Lear demands the senses of others is particularly evocative considering the role that blindness and insanity have played in the work: even as he descends into a lack of proper sensation, he demands the sensory capacities of others. His goal would be “that heaven’s vault should crack,” which develops the previous imagery of celestial bodies. Here Lear implies that something could “crack” or change course in the pre-destined role of the heavens were he given sufficient power—a point that notably deviates from his earlier adherence to fate and the heavens. Thus in Lear’s more remorseful moments, he both imitates and seeks to overcome the power of nature, all while demanding that the other unmoved humans grant him their sensations.

"No, no, no life?
Why should a dog, a horse, a rat have life,
And thou no breath at all? Thou'lt come no more,
Never, never, never, never, never."
Related Characters: King Lear (speaker), Cordelia
Related Symbols: Animals
Page Number: 5.3.369-372
Explanation and Analysis:

As Lear’s life draws to a close, he speaks these final lines. He ends with abject denial of himself and of human nature.

His tone in this passage is actually quite soft and surprised. The repetition of “No, no, no” combined with the phrasing as a question, cast Lear as quite hesitant, even infantile. His next line comparing the lives of animals to that of dead Cordelia is similarly innocent: Lear seems to not be able to make sense of basic human injustices, believing naively that his daughter simply deserves to be alive because other things are. In this way, he completes the narrative spelled out by Regan and Goneril earlier in which old age reverts him to an infantile state.

The obsessive repetition of negation words recalls his original rejection of Cordelia’s “nothing.” Here, then, we see how far that denial has carried the both of them—from one faulty sentence to a complete denial of life with three “no”s and five “never”s. Shakespeare ends this tragedy, then, not exactly with overwhelming bloodshed, but rather with a exploration of how one small bit of misplaced language multiplied into a broad and permanent nihilistic denial.