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.
Old Age Theme Icon

Originally, Lear wishes to free himself of the burdens of ruling his kingdom because he is aware of his old age and wishes to "crawl unburdened toward death" (1.1.42). As his choice of the verb "crawl" suggests, Lear has a sense that old age forces the individual to remember his or her animal aspect—that is, the fact that human beings, like animals, are subjected to the forces of physical nature and have physical needs.

Age as Goneril and Regan unkindly observe at various points, brings a kind of weakness with it. Regan mocks Lear: "O, sir, you are old […] You should be ruled and led/ By some discretion that discerns your state/ Better than you yourself" [2.4.165-9]. Yet, together with the father-child bond, the play also suggests at various points that age should command respect. The fact that Lear's daughters abuse him for being old makes their cruelty seem all the worse and also indicates that all they care about is power, without any thought for wisdom. Cornwall and Regan's brutality to Gloucester is similarly heightened by our awareness of his age—for instance, when Regan plucks Gloucester's white beard in 3.7.

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Old Age Quotes in King Lear

Below you will find the important quotes in King Lear related to the theme of Old Age.
Act 1, scene 1 Quotes
"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.

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Act 1, scene 3 Quotes
"Old fools are babes again."
Related Characters: Goneril (speaker), King Lear
Page Number: 1.3.20
Explanation and Analysis:

During Lear’s visit, Goneril becomes increasingly frustrated with her father. She complains about how elderly people regress to a stage of seeming infancy.

This passage corroborates the selfish qualities of Goneril’s character. As with her earlier observations on Lear’s aging, these comments are highly uncharitable considering Lear’s generosity—and they explicitly conflict with the kind words Goneril offered at the onset of the tragedy. Shakespeare presents her character as deeply opportunistic, motivated only by self-advancement as opposed to genuine love.

Her comment also clarifies the tragedy’s presentation of old age. Claiming that age makes men “babes again” defines a cyclical model of time, in which people revert back to their infancy—as opposed to, say, becoming wiser and more esteemed. This model helps justify Goneril’s command over her father. Furthermore, the phrase “old fools” implies that age brings a particular brand of madness that deviates from rational control and which thus mimics the behavior of children. The question of the fool will become increasingly important as Lear slowly looses his mind, and Goneril’s comment here prefaces the way age can intersect with and mimic insanity.

Act 1, scene 4 Quotes
"Thou hast pared thy wit o' both sides and left nothing in the middle."
Related Characters: Fool (speaker), King Lear
Page Number: 1.4.191-192
Explanation and Analysis:

As Lear prepares to depart from Goneril’s palace, he is chastised by his Fool (the jester who attends to him, offering entertainment and often wisdom) for his irrational actions. The Fool claims that Lear has lost his mind.

The Fool’s point is not direct, here, but rather conveyed through an odd image. That Lear has “pared thy wit o’ both sides” means that he has sliced or cut off his intelligence—so the Fool imagines “wit” as a physical object that can be cut. Symbolically, the “both sides” could represent Goneril and Regan, to whom Lear has apportioned each half of his estate. For in doing so, he has indeed “left nothing in the middle”: he maintains no power or land of his own, and thus his action could be seen as the result of no “wit.”

This passage also plays with the idea of madness and role-playing in the tragedy. Though the Fool is supposed to be a jesting figure, he speaks here with remarkable insight. (That his words are lighthearted but his content weighty is an another example of how Shakespeare explores the difference between language and meaning.) Indeed, one would never expect him to be able to criticize a king in this way—so Shakespeare seems to have turned the Fool into a ruler at the very moment the King becomes a Fool. Thus even amidst the strict social roles that predominate the text, interactions like this speak to a fluidity in the identities of all the play's characters.

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 3, scene 6 Quotes
"All the power of his wits have given way to his impatience."
Related Characters: Kent (speaker), King Lear
Page Number: 3.6.4-5
Explanation and Analysis:

Kent reports to Gloucester on Lear’s continual descent into insanity. He unexpectedly blames that decline on Lear’s restlessness.

This comment may catch the reader by surprise, considering that Lear’s behavior has been generally pegged to old age, anger, or illness. Kent, instead offers “his impatience” as the reason for Lear’s insanity, which seems to imply that Lear wishes to hasten some end. Perhaps Kent means an impatience for Lear’s daughters to serve him, which caused Lear to become increasingly frustrated to the point of insanity. Or perhaps “impatience” operates on a more metaphorical level—meaning an impatience for mental clarity or philosophical insight. Since Shakespeare has repeatedly likened that insight to madness, one could see that impatience in that domain would cause one’s “wits” to give way. In any case, Kent offers a model of “wits” that must maintain themselves with a consistent “power” against the threat of insanity, but which due a factor like impatience may fail and leave one privy to madness.

Act 4, scene 6 Quotes
"Gloucester: Oh let me kiss that hand!
Lear: Let me wipe it first; it smells of mortality."
Related Characters: King Lear (speaker), Gloucester (speaker)
Page Number: 4.6.147-148
Explanation and Analysis:

After Gloucester has survived his fake-suicide, Lear enters the scene. Gloucester asks to greet him royally, but the mad Lear rejects the offer due to an irrational comment on his impending death.

Shakespeare places in conversation here two figures who are crippled from proper communication: Gloucester and Lear have both been driven to different forms of disability, with the first being blind and the second being insane. Yet he cleverly inverts their roles in this moment of mis-recognition: this inversion comes through in the way that Gloucester is blind, yet he is able to recognize Lear and thus asks to kiss his hand. Lear, meanwhile, is the blind one in that he does not recognize Gloucester. Indeed, his senses are nonfunctional in that he “smells” his hand incorrectly.

The passage also reiterates the way madness is equivalent to philosophical insight. Lear is indeed correct to point out that his hand “smells of mortality,” for all human hands do in a sense. His insanity comes from that exact existential insight, for he applies it indiscriminately to every situation. Thus by staging an interaction between two forms of disability, Shakespeare burlesques the very nature of human interaction—for even when one man overcomes his disability and the other offers a poignant observation, they entirely fail to communicate.

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.