Christian Book Club: King Lear

King Lear illustration with loved ones

While many people may think there is a lack of good Christian content, nothing could be further from the truth. Many books have been published that can be viewed from a Christian lens or were made with that intent in mind.

One of Shakespeare’s many classics, the tragedy of King Lear has been one of the more overlooked titles. Writers like George Bernard Shaw have said “No man will ever write a better tragedy than Lear.”* Shakespeare, an adherent to the Church of England, had Christian themes throughout many of his plays. While it can be debated whether these were intentional or not doesn't change the complexity and brilliance of the work.

King Lear Summary: The Story

Set in the time of a legendary king of Britain, Lear is busy getting ready to divide his land among his three daughters. Stepping down from power, the king has decided to divide everything he has. The amount each daughter gets will be based on how much they declare they love him. However, the youngest daughter Cornelia believes the whole ordeal to be foolish and argues actions are more valuable than words. Enraged King Lear banishes her but is soon betrayed by his other daughters.

While this is going on, the illegitimate son of a nobleman, Edmund, sees an opportunity to claim for himself a better life through deceit and manipulation. This includes stealing everything from his loving brother Edgar and forces him to go into hiding. All these events begin a downward spiral that causes the whole country to suffer and break out into war.

King Lear Theme 1: Pride and Power

“One’s pride will bring him low, but he who is lowly in spirit will obtain honor.” (Proverbs 29:23, ESV) 

Some common themes throughout Shakespeare's play are the destructive nature of pride and how the desire for power can corrupt and harm others. The two oldest daughters and Edmund show these themes by being the antagonists of the story. They are all going to get less inheritance than their siblings and soon turn on their families.

Pride is shown as a blinding force throughout the play. All the characters believe they are deserving of more whether it is just or not. However, pride ends up being their downfall as the characters lose what power they had. The arrogance is not limited to just the antagonists, though.

The titular character is guilty of this at the start of the play. His pride is what fuels his actions when his youngest daughter refuses to provide self-congratulatory affection. Banishing the people who truly care for him, Lear is soon relegated to a traveling madman who regrets how he treated his loyal friends and family.

King Lear Theme 2: Reconciliation and Self-Knowledge

Who is it that can tell me who I am? – King Lear (Act 1, Scene 4)

Though King Lear is sent away and should be done for, blessings seem to come his way. The one character that stays by Lear’s side throughout the play is his jester. The Fool continually warns of the things to come and is the only character to point out the faults of the royal directly. This advice helps the former king realize his predicament and helps him make important choices.

The central relationship between Cornelia and Lear parallels Jesus’ parable of the Prodigal Son but with a few twists. First, the titular characters are frugal with their spending and are reduced to low-life status. Despite how much they believe they deserve their fate; they are received with open arms when reunited.

While characters suffer due to their pride and reap the consequences, through self-examination they come to eventually accept their faults. For example, Lear ends up losing all power, wealth, and even his sanity, but he soon comes to understand the predicament and admit his failures. In Galatians 6:3, “For if anyone thinks he is something, when he is nothing, he deceives himself.” This verse highlights people's tendency to build themselves up even when it is to our detriment, only to be beaten down by life. This makes faith in Jesus valuable because he can show us our flaws and the values of the Bible help us build up a Christ-like life.

King Lear Theme 3: Nihilism and Justice

Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” (Romans 12:19, ESV)

The bleak setting of the play has given the view that Shakespeare is saying life is meaningless. Nihilism is the philosophy that nothing in existence has weight or meaning. Therefore, many have equated it to the play being a commentary on Nihilism itself. However, this overlooks that all the character’s actions have consequences. A bleak world came out of people’s actions and their sins propel even more suffering. A lack of Godly men and women is what makes the play a tragedy. That not more good people were willing to stand up and the ones that do are too late.

Some characters reference “the gods” showing that this society does not have the same values that Christianity teaches. The setting of the play is based in England before the people had converted. This demonstrates that justice is always a desire for humanity. The problem is that characters try to deliver justice by themselves which causes the climactic end and resolution.

It is important to remember that God is the judge and redeemer in the Christian worldview. Although life will be unjust, we must not seek vengeance. God will correct everything in his own time and those who have faith will reap the benefits.

Conclusion of Shakespeare's Tragedy, King Lear

Although King Lear is not as widely talked about as Shakespeare’s other works, it remains a testament to his talent as a playwright. These themes are in many of his plays not as tragically displayed as in this script. An in-depth analysis shows the many layers of Christian thinking behind this work and communicates them to its audience fantastically.

Next Month’s Read

“One Day In The Life of Ivan Denisovich” by Alexander Solzhenitsyn

Grand Canyon University has been training Christians in ministry since its inception. If you are interested in pursuing a career in ministry, GCU's College of Theology has many degree programs, including Bachelor of Arts in Christian Ministry, Bachelor of Arts in Christian Studies and Master of Arts in Christian Ministry.

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* George Bernard Shaw, Three Plays for Puritans, in June 2021

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Grand Canyon University. Any sources cited were accurate as of the publish date.