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Humanistic Themes Resolve in King Lear

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Like all Shakespearean tragedies, “King Lear” has several prevailing humanistic themes. Certainly, the plot revolves around the obvious themes of parent-child relationships, sibling rivalries and pride as the downfall of man. However, one common theme incorporates all of these elements: A quest for love. In each respective plot, the characters are pushed forward by a need for recognition and acceptance. Lear’s desire for flattery from his daughters, Edmund’s desire to usurp his brother’s position as heir, and Goneril and Regan’s argument over Edmund’s love all point to the common theme of a thirst for love. By analyzing each plot, one can fnd that the characters’ searches for unrequited love are the central moving force behind the tragedy of Shakespeare’s “King Lear.”

Lear’s Need For Flattery:

King Lear’s is a sad character from the very start of the play. Lear’s search for love is shown in his insistence for flattery from his daughters. His lack of confidence in the love of his three daughters is introduced in the first scene. By demanding that his daughters flatter him for their dowries, Lear shows that he is in need of constant reassurance of his importance. “Which of you shall we say doth love us most?” asks Lear of his daughters (1.1 line 52). Unfortunately for Lear, his favorite daughter Cordelia refuses to let her father’s vanity humble her in such a way, while Regan and Goneril take advantage of the old man’s bargain for wealth in return for flattery. Cordelia’s refusal enrages Lear and he says, “Nothing will come of nothing” and banishes her from the kingdom (1.1 line 95). The other two daughters conspire against Lear, discredit his sanity and the tragedy begins.

Had Lear only realized that genuine love could not be found in flattery, his end would not have been so quick or so terrible. Lear’s insistence for flattery caused his downfall from a proud king to a naked madman. Also, because of Lear’s willingness to rely on Regan and Goneril’s flattery, he never did receive the acceptance he sought, as both of the evil daughters banished him from his former kingdom. At the beginning, he insists that the daughters’ love is spoken, but by the end of the play, his experience has taught Lear not to have any hope for love from his daughters. He screams, “Do thy worst, blind Cupid, I’ll not love” (4.4 line 153). Love has eluded the old man once again, making the play even more tragic.

Edmund’s Need for Recognition:

Edmund’s tragedy is his status as the bastard son of Gloucester. As a bastard, his lot is basically to be second to his legitimate brother, Edgar. Edmund truly desires to be the favorite of the boys’ father, but he recognizes his illegitimacy saying, “Well, then legitimate Edgar, I must have your land” (1.2 line 15). Edmund is marked by a heartless ambition, however, and creates a plot to be first in his father’s kingdom, even if he can’t be first in his father’s heart. The audience can plainly see that Edmund desires his father’s love. Edmund’s plan to disinherit Edgar follows directly the scene in which Gloucester reluctantly tells Kent that Edmund is a “whoreson” who “must be acknowledged” (1.1 line 22). Certainly with a father who would rather disavow his existence, Edmund has reason to strive for acceptance. Because his father ignores him, Edmund vows, “if not by birth, have lands by wit” (1.3 line 177). He cries out for vengeance: “Now, gods, stand up for bastards!” and hatches his plot to gain Gloucester’s land (1.2 line 22). Edmund takes great pains to gain the recognition of his father. He goes so far to obtain his father’s affection that he draws blood to get attention: “Some blood drawn on me would beget opinion” (2.1 line 34). As a villain, Edmund is extremely devious, but his actions suggest that he has lived a life filled with a desperate need for the recognition of his father.

Edmund’s villainy is at its worst during the scene where Cornwall gouges out the eyes of Gloucester. Throughout the play, Edmund had feigned love and respect for the man who had given him life but denied him any inheritance. By befriending his father, Edmund’s eventual betrayal is made all the more diabolical. Edmund not only tells the secrets of his father to the Duke of Cornwall, but he also watches the plucking out of Gloucester’s eyes as his father calls to him for help: “All dark and comfortless! Where’s my son Edmund? Edmund, enkindle all the sparks of nature to quit this horrid act” (3.7 lines 100-103). Edmund’s villainy shows the audience that his personal search for love has gone awry and turned a boy yearning for affection into a man willing to betray his father in revenge.

Goneril Versus Regan: Struggle for Love:

Another tragic element of “King Lear” is Goneril’s unrequited love for Gloucester’s bastard son, Edmund, and the aftermath of her desire for him. Goneril’s marriage to the Duke of Albany is a failure because of obvious personality conflicts; Goneril is evil and self-serving, while Albany has a well-meaning and loyal nature. Goneril turns to Edmund because he is as strong-willed as she is. When Goneril realizes that her widowed sister also has feelings for Edmund, she vows to keep him away from Regan at any cost saying, “I had rather lose the battle than that such a sister should loosen him and me” (5.1 line 23-24). Goneril goes so far for love that she poisons her sister to keep her from taking Edmund. Also, though the audience is never told the reason for Goneril’s suicide at the end of the play, it is clear that her suicide was pushed forth either directly or indirectly by her relationship for Edmund. She may have wanted to die because her affair was discovered by her husband, or in remorse for killing her sister for jealousy. Either motive shows Goneril’s unrequited love for the bastard Edmund is her ultimate downfall.

“King Lear” is a difficult play to understand because of all of the implied themes that run through the course of action. The feeling behind the play is so complex that one can argue for many prevailing themes. Scholars often wrongfully overlook the theme of a search for love, acceptance and recognition. The theme is a very important one to consider if one wants to understand the driving force behind the character’s emotions and actions. “King Lear” is also a play plagued by what is an ugliness in humanity. Every character in the play is driven to a bad end by a need for someone else. In this, Shakespeare has accurately captured the human complexities that surround emotions such as love, need and devotion, and for this reason “King Lear” remains one of the most powerful, emotional, and popular plays written during the Renaissance.

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Humanistic Themes Resolve in King Lear. (2018, May 01). GradesFixer. Retrieved May 16, 2022, from
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