King Lear: The Destructive and Redemptive Power of Love

King Lear:

The Destructive and Redemptive Power of Love


‘Shakespeare explores both the destructive and redemptive power of love throughout the play King Lear.’

Discuss the statement above, supporting your answer with reference to the play.

Context: The following response to the above exam question would have been rewarded marks in particular for its level of Personal Response. Always try to include a decent level of analysis influenced by your own personal ideas/opinions. 

I fully agree with this statement. In my opinion Shakespeare makes excellent use of the characters in the play to explore both the destructive and redemptive powers of love. I personally feel that the characters that present love’s powers most visibly in this text are Gloucester, Lear, Kent, Edgar  and Cordelia.


At the beginning of the play the character of Gloucester exposes the audience to the destructive power of love, or more accurately; lustful love. While talking to Kent, Gloucester makes a passing comment stating that Edmund is an illegitimate child, but that there ‘…was good sport in his making’. This comment, in my opinion, reveals Gloucester’s egotistical nature as he almost boasts to Kent about the nature in which Edmund was conceived. I believe that Shakespeare uses the character of Gloucester to portray a message regarding the destructive power of lustful love in this text. Gloucester shamefully (in the context of the play) had an illegitimate child and evidentially committed adultery. This, for me, highlights how people can be morally blinded by a ‘lustful’ natured love. I found this particular scene very interesting as it provides us, the audience, with a deeper insight into how the proverbial chip on Edmunds shoulder was established, and perhaps offers us an explanation as to why the hatred he has for his father runs so deep. This aspect of the text presents us with the not so optimistic powers of love and encourages us to compare lustful love with pure love. I believe that the hatred Edmund posses for his father is an example of the destructive powers associated with lustful love.


Kent offers King Lear council in an expression of both love and loyalty at the beginning of the play. Kent warns Lear of his ‘hideous rashness’ in disowning Cordelia and questions his naivety in believing Goneril and Regan’s false flatteries. Despite Kent’s clear love and devotion for the King, Lear is induced into a rage. He refuses Kent’s council and  banishes him from the kingdom, even threatening to have home executed should he ever return. Lear, here, exercises the destructive powers of love. Even though Kent’s love for Lear is unwavering and pure in nature, he is still subjected to the dragon’s wrath (metaphor for Lear). The love being presented though this scene by Shakespeare is strongly built on loyalty. Shakespeare explores in this scene how a loyalty based love can often be taken for granted by its recipient. Lear refuses Kent’s loyal love and as a result destroys the longstanding friendship they once had. It is clear to me that Shakespeare presents us the audience with this idea of love through the relationship of Lear and Kent in order to emphasise that love, whether it is true false or based on material gain, can possess destructive powers.


Although the text, in my opinion, deals with the destructive powers of love throughout, there also some instances where the themes’ redemptive powers are explored too. One example of this involves the key moment when Edgar forgives his father Gloucester. Edgar takes pity on his father when he sees how broken and helpless he has become. In a selfless effort to help his father rid depression, Edgar cleverly dupes him. By saving his father from committing suicide, Edgar shows the audience that he still loves the man who treated him so badly ‘Why I do trifle thus with despair, is done to cure it’. In my opinion this scene plays an integral role in not only exploring love’s redeeming qualities but also highlights how different Edgar and Edmund are as characters. Through the character of Edgar, Shakespeare highlights to his audience how true familial love will withstand and endure any hardship. Edgar saving his father is testimony to love’s redemptive powers.


The reunion of Lear and Cordelia is another way in which Shakespeare explores loves redemptive powers. Although, like Edgar, Cordelia has every reason to hate her father, she instead forgives him. Upon seeing his youngest daughter, Lear falls to his knees and begs for her forgiveness. Cordelia responds to this gesture by stating that her father ‘…must not kneel’ and that there is ‘no cause, no cause’. This scene echoes that of Edgar and Gloucester’s rekindling relationship, which for me reinforces Shakespeare’s message that love is both redemptive and indeed durable. Its capacity to endure hardship and conflict is celebrated through the reunion of Lear and Cordelia.


The final scene, paradoxically, shows both the redemptive and destructive power of love. In the concluding moments of the play, Lear finds Cordelia’s dead body and exclaims ‘howl, howl, howl! she is gone forever!’. Lear is ultimately so overcome by grief, regret and guilt that he is driven mad and dies. I personally found the incredibly interesting. It is clear that Shakespeare uses this tragic key moment to display the destructive powers of love, but more I thought about the final moment of the play the more I realised that it also is a celebratory scene in the sense that it is actually Lear’s rediscovered love for Cordelia that leads him to die a better man. If Lear had never realised how poorly he mistreated his daughter he would have rediscovered his love for her, nor would he have sought forgiveness from her. Ultimately Lear dies a more virtuous character in my opinion and the inherent redemptive power of love helps him on this journey of self-improvement.


In conclusion I agree with the statement that Shakespeare explores both the destructive and redemptive powers of love in the play King Lear. Love is presented to the audience in a multitude of ways throughout the course of the play’s plot. Ultimately Shakespeare teaches his audience that love is a double edged sword; possessing both positive and negative powers for its donors and recipients.

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