King Lear Themes, Symbols, and Motifs

This Storyboard That activity is part of the lesson plans for King Lear


Themes, Symbols, and Motifs in King Lear

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Activity Overview


Themes, symbols, and motifs come alive when you use a storyboard. In this activity, students will identify themes and symbols from the play, and support their choices with details from the text.


King Lear Themes to Look For and Discuss

Foolishness and Manipulation

Both King Lear and Gloucester are foolish in their haste to believe their deceitful children, which allows them to be easily manipulated. Lear’s daughters manipulate him with their words to gain the kingdom. Cordelia, for her refusal to participate in such a trivial exercise, is disinherited and banished by Lear because he was too foolish to see sincerity in refusing to placate him with flattery. King Lear allows the Fool to be one of his closest confidantes and allies during his struggle, and the Fool constantly reminds and berates the king for his foolishness. Gloucester is fooled by Edmund with the false letter from Edgar and the imaginary sword fight and wound that Edmund stages. His refusal to follow his instincts lead him to trust the wrong son.


Moral Instruction for Nobility

Shakespeare is known for utilizing his plays to send important morals or warnings to the monarchy in veiled ways. King Lear delivers two important moral instructions for the nobility that are worth noting. King Lear, while out in the storm, muses that as king, he never really took time to understand the hardship of the impoverished people. He suggests that the nobility should go out and learn what it is to be a “wretch” and then share their wealth to create a more “just” world. The second instance of moral instruction comes when Gloucester pays “Tom” for taking him to the edge of the “cliff.” He tells Tom that a rich man should feel grief and agony so he will be compelled to distribute his “excess wealth” until every man has enough wealth.


The Consequences of Greed

While it initially seems like all the nice characters finish last, Goneril, Regan, Cornwall, Oswald, and Edmund all meet their most untimely deaths as a result of their pursuit of power and riches. Goneril, Regan, and Cornwall’s lust for power reveals their absolute cruelty, which they direct at King Lear and Gloucester. Edmund’s greed for his father’s inheritance reveals his despicable betrayal of his only brother. Oswald’s actions go beyond merely following his master’s orders: he sees opportunity in apprehending Gloucester, and in turn, envisions many honors and thanks and an escalation in standing in the house once Goneril becomes Queen.


Reconciliation and Redemption

While Lear and Gloucester allow their flaws to get in the way of their reason and make a grave error in deciding which children they trust, they are eventually able to reconcile with Cordelia and Edgar and find forgiveness with them. This redemption for their sins from two very selfless characters does not absolve their guilt and grief, but it does provide some rectification for their mistakes before they die.



King Lear Motifs & Symbols to Look For and Discuss

Lear and Gloucester’s Blindness

Both King Lear and the Earl of Gloucester experience a metaphorical blindness that makes them miss the obvious devotion and love of their honest children in favor of the flattery and lies of their other children. This blindness eventually leads to their ruin, and then their deaths. Both men are also blind to the true identities of Kent and Edgar. Gloucester suffers a physical blindness as well at the hands of Cornwall, who at the same time reveals Gloucester’s blunder in trusting Edmund. Gloucester is left to wander off without physical sight, but truly seeing for the first time, the error of his decision.


The Storm

At the exact time that King Lear realizes the true character of his daughters Goneril and Regan, along with his mistake of disinheriting Cordelia, a great storm begins to rage. It mirrors his own inner turmoil, along with the imbalance of power in the Great Chain of Being. Other characters remark that it is one of the worst storms they’ve ever witnessed, which further substantiates the idea that because the Crown is in crisis, the heavens are revolting violently.


Disguises

Both Edgar and Kent have to utilize disguises to hide in plain sight while they complete their goals. For Kent, he wants to preserve the king’s sanity and kingdom, and protect him from his evil daughters. He disguises himself and becomes the king’s faithful servant, while maintaining an open line of communication with Cordelia. Likewise, Edgar has to disguise himself as a beggar in order to escape his father’s wrath caused by Edmund. He maintains his disguise until he is able to defeat Edmund in a proper fight, although his revelation of his identity to his father causes him to die of grief and joy.


Classical Cultures

Throughout the play, characters make reference to various Greek and Roman gods and ideas. King Lear often calls out to the gods for patience or in anger, and throughout the play, Apollo, Jupiter, Jove, Juno, and Cupid are all mentioned. Edgar, as “Tom” references Nero. King Lear calls Edgar a “Greek philosopher” and finds kinship with Edgar, who rambles on in third person as “Tom”, because Lear himself is beginning to slip into a certain kind of rambling madness.



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Template and Class Instructions

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Student Instructions

Create a storyboard that identifies recurring themes in King Lear. Illustrate instances of each theme and write a short description below each cell.


  1. Identify the theme(s) from King Lear you wish to include and replace the "Theme 1" text.
  2. Create an image for examples that represents this theme.
  3. Write a description of each of the examples.

Template: Theme

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