Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, and literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.


Insanity occupies a central place in the play and is associated with both disorder and hidden wisdom. The Fool, who offers Lear insight in the early sections of the play, offers his counsel in a seemingly mad babble. Later, when Lear himself goes mad, the turmoil in his mind mirrors the chaos that has descended upon his kingdom. At the same time, however, it also provides him with important wisdom by reducing him to his bare humanity, stripped of all royal pretensions. Lear thus learns humility. He is joined in his real madness by Edgar’s feigned insanity, which also contains nuggets of wisdom for the king to mine. Meanwhile, Edgar’s time as a supposedly insane beggar hardens him and prepares him to defeat Edmund at the close of the play.

Read more about madness in Shakespeare’s Hamlet.


Betrayals play a critical role in the play and show the workings of wickedness in both the familial and political realms—here, brothers betray brothers and children betray fathers. Goneril and Regan’s betrayal of Lear raises them to power in Britain, where Edmund, who has betrayed both Edgar and Gloucester, joins them. However, the play suggests that betrayers inevitably turn on one another, showing how Goneril and Regan fall out when they both become attracted to Edmund, and how their jealousies of one another ultimately lead to mutual destruction. Additionally, it is important to remember that the entire play is set in motion by Lear’s blind, foolish betrayal of Cordelia’s love for him, which reinforces that at the heart of every betrayal lies a skewed set of values.

Clothing and Nakedness

The play makes consistent use of clothing imagery, often to highlight the shallowness of appearances. Characters who have shown loyalty, like Edgar and Kent, are forced to disguise themselves in poorer clothing or go naked. This mismatch between inner and outer value reveals the skewed priorities and judgments of Lear and Gloucester.

From Acts 1 to 4, King Lear slowly removes his clothes, beginning with his crown. To describe giving up his role as king, Lear uses the word “divest,” which comes from the Old French desvestir, meaning “to undress.” When he faces the storm in Act 3, he shouts, “Off, off, you lendings.” The word “lendings” to refer to his clothes emphasizes that his clothes are not inherently a part of him. He can put them on and cast them off at will. Lear faces the storm naked as if to discover who he is beneath the trappings of power. As he notes in Act 4.6, “robes and furred gowns hide all.” In other words, fancy garments can conceal true intentions. After Lear is rescued by Cordelia, she asks that he be put in proper clothes, symbolizing a partial return to sanity and status.