The symbolism of Shakespeare’s King Lear

The drama King Lear by the famous classic author Shakespeare is a brutal play. King Lear is not just about family dynamics, but also about political authority. Lear is also a king, not just a father. He delivers himself, his family as well as his entire kingdom into cruelty and chaos when he passes his authority to the evil Goneril and Regan.

The kingdom of Britain descends into civil unrest as Edmund begins his ascension while the two wicked sisters indulge their appetite for power. Lear has destroyed all authority in Britain while destroying his own authority. The hierarchal order represented initially by Lear falls apart, being replaced by chaos and disorder.

During the storm, Lear’s wanderings on the heath represent the failure of authority in the face of chaos. Lear understands how insignificant he is in the world when he is witnessing the powerful forces of nature. This is proved to be a much more important understanding than the realization of his loss of political control. Lear is compelled to become caring and humble and to re-prioritize his values. He hopes to confront the chaos in the political realm with this newfound understanding of himself.

Unhappiness and darkness pervade King Lear in the devastating Act 5. The play presents the central relationship between the king and Cordelia. This is a dramatic show of self-sacrificing, true love. Even from afar, Cordelia remains devoted, rather than despising Lear for banishing her. She eventually returns with an army to rescue the king.

Meanwhile, Lear reaches the point where he can reunite joyfully with Cordelia after learning a cruel lesson in humility. Eventually, the king experiences the balm of Cordelia’s forgiving love. An important ingredient to reconciliation with Cordelia is Lear’s recognition of the error of his ways. The king has finally understood the depth and sincerity of her love. Cordelia comes back to Lear due to his maturation. This can be seen as a testament to love’s ability to flourish amid the chaos and horror.

Madness is associated with both hidden wisdom and disorder. This motif occupies a central place in the play. In the early sections of the play, the Fool gives Lear insight despite the fact that he is offering his counsel in an apparently mad babble. When Lear goes mad himself, the chaos descended upon his kingdom mirrors the turmoil in his mind. However, by stripping him of all royal pretensions and reducing him to his bare humanity, Lear’s insanity also provides him with important wisdom. The circumstances force Lear to learn humility. In his real madness, the king is joined by Edgar’s feigned insanity.

The entire play is set in motion by Lear’s betrayal of Cordelia’s love for him. Playing an important role in the play, betrayals show the workings of wickedness in both the political and familial realms. Children betray fathers and brothers betray brothers. Regan and Goneril rise to power in Britain through their betrayal of Lear. Edmund joins them after betraying both Gloucester and Edgar. However, betrayers inevitably turn on one another. Regan and Goneril become both attracted to Edmund and their jealousy lead to mutual destruction.

The story is filled with seemingly meaningless disasters and awful human cruelty. However, behind the scene, some powerful symbols emerge.

The storm

A terrible storm, strongly symbolic, rages overhead in Act 3, as Lear wanders about a desolate heath. The storm echoes, in part, the mounting madness and the inner turmoil tormenting. Lear’s internal confusion is reflected in this turbulent natural phenomenon. The storm embodies, at the same time, the awesome power of nature. This natural force pushes the powerless king to recognize his own human frailty and mortality and, for the first time, to cultivate a sense of humility. As if nature itself is angry about the events at play in the realm, the storm symbolism may also represent some kind of divine justice. Finally, the chaotic weather also symbolizes the political disarray engulfing Lear’s kingdom.


The physical blindness affecting Gloucester symbolizes the metaphorical blindness of both Gloucester and Lear. The play shows clear parallels between the two men. Both are blind to the truth, both have loyal and also disloyal children, and both end up making the wicked ones their heirs and banishing the loyal children.

Animal imagery

Frequent use of animal imagery is to be found in Shakespeare’s King Lear. The author is often attributing to the characters various animal behaviors. We can also find, in contrast, numerous references to astronomical events and the gods. The juxtaposition of the images of the heavens of the beast world further the development of the character’s personalities, add interest to the play and help define two distinct worlds where humans live their lives.


The self-serving villain “Machiavelli” is a key image in King Lear. Shakespeare and his contemporaries were interested in the philosophy contained in The Prince, written by Niccolo Machiavelli. According to Machiavelli, a person should use every means at his disposal in order to become a strong ruler and maintain control. The illegitimate son of Gloucester, Edmund, is often described in Machiavellian terms.

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