King Lear is about fathers and their children–in particular, how two fathers misjudge their children, mistaking flattery and trickery for love, and push away those who sincerely love them. It is also about the responsibilities of power.
We all know the plot. King Lear has three daughters, Regan, Goneril, and Cordelia. As he is an old man, Lear wants to rid himself of the cares of governing while keeping the title and prerogatives of his office. So, he proposes to divide his property among his daughters but first sets them a silly test of telling him how much they love him to determine the sizes of their gifts. Regan and Goneril reply fulsomely, but Cordelia, who is not comfortable with expressing feelings, replies with restraint. Lear, who had planned to give her the biggest piece as she is his favorite, banishes her and splits his kingdom between the two other sisters.
In a parallel story, the Duke of Gloucester has two sons. His eldest, Edgar, is legitimate, while Edmund is not. Edmund, who is a lot like Iago but with more cause, decides to take all that Edgar has, so he forges a letter that makes it seem as though Edgar is trying to tempt Edmund into murdering their father. He also keeps Edgar away from Gloucester by making him think that he, Edmund, is on Edgar’s side and telling him that Gloucester is angry.
In both cases the fathers, without considering their own experiences of their children’s qualities, throw away the loving child and favor the conniving children.
One metaphor throughout the play is that of sight. Neither father can see what is plainly before him. Gloucester actually loses his sight during the course of the play, and Lear goes mad before he can see clearly.
Madness also factors heavily in the play. Lear is driven mad with grief when he sees his older daughters for what they are, while Edgar pretends to be a madman to hide from his brother and father. Of course, madness is exciting in the theatre because a mad character is allowed to say anything, but Lear’s lines seem very obscure to me, unlike Hamlet’s when he was pretending to be mad.
This play seems to me to be rather disorganized. A lot of time is spent wandering around on the moors, with different characters running into other characters. I confess to finding that part tedious. Cordelia, who in one way is so important to the play, spends most of it offstage, while the fool, who is a dominant character at the beginning of the play, is ruthlessly killed in the middle of it. I am not sure of the point of the scene where Edgar makes his father think he has committed suicide by leaping off a cliff. All in all, this play seems rather messy to me.