Psychoanalytic Interpretations of King Lear


Coppelia Kahn suggests that because there are no maternal figures in King Lear, neither in that of Lear’s Queen (she is nonexistent in the play) nor in that of his mother (he is over eighty so she is passed, likely long ago), that Lear, “now seeks for a love that is normally satisfied by a mothering woman.” *Quote taken from Wikipedia’s King Lear page.

The most basic functions of a mothering figure is two-fold. First to provide love and second to provide nourishment. Hence, Lear asks for the love protestations from his daughters. Note that by seeking a motherly figure he himself is playing the role of a child. Nothing a child loves more than to hear how much he or she is loved. But when a child is rebuked as Cordelia does to her child-father, note how the temper flares. What we see from Lear after Cordelia’s harsh words can be likened to a full on temper tantrem to that of a child going berserk after not getting his way. The sub-text of the play as well as the word that must linger in Lear’s conscience is that paradoxically all-encompassing word “nothing”. It must replay hauntingly in Lear’s conscience where he says, “What can you say to draw a third more opulent than your sisters,” and Cordelia retorts simply the word, “nothing.” This word dominates throughout the text in numerous instances. Its interesting that the word “nothing” can mean female privates (no thing) implying the lack of male genitalia and providing a womb; hence a maternal figure.

After the first act, Lear regains his compusure, but as soon as he gets wind that he isn’t welcome with his other two daughters in which he entrusted his care to, he trys to metamorphose back into the paternal role he was accustomed to, but it was too late now.

“To take ’t again perforce— Monster ingratitude!”

Lear’s temper tantrem in the first scene serves as a rehearsal to his madness on the heath, caused by a lack of what a mother should provide: love and care. In Cordelia’s case, it was what he perceived as a lack of love through rough words; in Gonerill and Regan’s case, it was the lack of care in denying him a place to live. The latter proves to be much more cruel; as it is a truth that different people express their love differently. Lear’s madness scenes on the heath are way more penetrating than his mere frustration aimed at Kent and Cordelia. Since he freely gave away his kingdom to whom he desired by his own recognizance, he is a rebel without a cause; much like a child might rebel if they aren’t loved and accepted. The madness scenes culminate in Lear and Gloucesters’ rantings in the fields of Dover. Lear is found spouting off almost non-sensically; but what we are told is a reminder of his frustration with the female gender. 

“Behold yond simp’ring dame…the fitchew nor the soiled horse goes to’t with a more riotous appetite.”

Regan and Gonerill provide him with worthless empty protestations of love, and a false promise of care as they abandon their father. After agreeing to let him sojourn with them till the end of his days, they leave him out to the raging storm. Cordelia lacks her sisters’ fancy words, but unlike her conniving sisters, returns loyally to her father’s side. She is the only sister who truly possesses love in her heart. We hear parents sometimes refer to their own rigidity as “tough love”, and we can term Cordelia’s love “tough” as well, although her love proved a  little too tough, as it cost both her and and her father their lives. Paradoxically, Cordelia’s love proves the most tender because it was sincere.


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