The Major Themes of Appearance and Reality in King Lear, a Play by William Shakespeare

Topics: Appearance

Looks are deceiving and in King Lear, appearance and reality are one of the major themes presented. From beginning to end, King Lear has appearances confused with realities. King Lear does not even truly know the real nature of his daughters Goneril, Regan and Cordelia. Strangely, during his period of madness and delirium, he obtains some clarity. He equates material possessions with love, brave statements to allegiance, gratifying confessions with love, and unspoken love with treachery and indifference. Another character who is cause in the labyrinth of the illusion of appearance and reality is the Earl of Gloucester where the apparent good son is evil and the seemingly bad son is genuinely good.

Pride, madness and blindness all prevent both men from seeing clearly the true nature of their children.

Flattery and high-flown speeches avowing love and allegiance are not true tokens of love as King Lear thinks; instead, they are a means to an end, used by his conniving daughters Goneril and Regan to acquire a portion of his kingdom.

Blind to the true pretensions of his daughters, Lear is terribly deceived in them. Because he is unable to penetrate beneath the surface smiles, obeisance, and pompous discourse, he is repaid by the treachery and ingratitude of his two false daughters. Cordelia, the truly good daughter suffers the humiliation of parental disownment and exile because she refuses to embellish her true love with flowery untruths. In the same manner, the Earl of Gloucester believes that Edmund has a good character because of his outward demonstrations of love while the authentic good nature of Edgar is a disgrace in his eyes.

Disguise and clothing play an important role in cloaking the truth and hiding identities. One cannot deal with the major theme of Appearance and Reality without the mention of clothing as an item which conceals the nakedness and truth. Invested as a monarch, Lear is entitled to prestige and honour but he soon recognizes that when he strips himself of his kingship and gives way to his daughters, in effect, he relinquishes all claims to majestic honour, pre- eminence and parental respect. Goneril and Regan are women who ought to manifest typical feminine traits such as softness, mildness, gentleness and affection, instead, they turn out to be mannish monsters clothed in the human flesh for they do not characterize humanity, mercy or compassion: heartless, unkind, despotic and cruel, their outer appearances deceive. Hence, one observes that it is not accidental that clothing motif is effective in representing usurpation or legitimate authority, vice or virtue.

King Lear also suffers another optical illusion for his fool speaks words of wisdom and profundity while he, a former king, rants like a maniac. Here are roles are completely switched. The fool articulates like a philosophic and wise king, whereas the king degrades to a ranting fool. What is ironic is that when Lear is exposed to the elements of the storm, his eyes are briefly opened and he comes to the harsh realization that his supposedly “good” daughters do not genuinely love or care for him; hence their true characters are revealed and he becomes undeceived concerning their real motives for their kind treatment at the beginning of the play – to secure their own prestige and inheritance from him Toward the closing scenes of the play, the delusional Lear has the dead corpse of Cordelia enfolded in his arms, thinking that she is still alive.

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The Major Themes of Appearance and Reality in King Lear, a Play by William Shakespeare. (2023, Jan 16). Retrieved from

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