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Andie Hayhurst

Ms. Rucurean
December 24, 2017

Order vs. Chaos in the Betrayal of King Lear

The saddest thing about betrayal is that it never comes from your enemies. In William

Shakespeare’s play, King Lear, betrayal plays a huge role in the tragedies that occur. Daughters

of King Lear, Goneril and Regan betray their father for his wealth, status and authority. They

take advantage of their father and use his weaknesses to their own personal gain. Due to King

Lear’s false interpretation of his daughter’s love for him, tragedy occurs throughout the play

depicting the future of his character and his overall descent into madness. Through the contrast

between order and chaos, within nature, social status, and character relationships, Shakespeare's

King Lear, suggests that descending into madness is simple when a person closest to an

individual betrays them.

The differences between order and chaos within nature is a relevant theme to King Lear

because the emotions of the characters in the play are reflected through the atmosphere.

According to Karen Kay (2000) Lear, Kent, Gloucester and Edgar are cast out from the civilized

world into the natural world, to wander through storm and wilderness. These ideas are aspects of

nature in themselves, yet also represent the chaos that results from violations of an order that

exists in the human world. Throughout the play the foul weather is depicted as mocking the

world of mankind, but also echoes the human world reflecting the division in the kingdom. “Spit,

fire. Spout, rain. / Nor rain, wind, thunder, fire are my daughters. / I tax not you, you elements,

with unkindness. / I never gave you kingdom, called you children; / You owe me no
subscription. / Then let fall Your horrible pleasure. Here I stand your slave, / A poor, infirm,

weak, and despised old man.” (3.2.14) The storming atmosphere depicts King Lear’s descent

into madness as his rage and fury is reflected by the fiery, hateful and raging storms, these

aspects representing what he feels toward his two daughters that abandon and betray him. Nature

in King Lear represents both good and bad qualities, in the beginning of the play, the weather is

calm and settled through the atmosphere and generally represents good qualities of nature but as

the story progresses the weather in the atmosphere changes and gets cold and stormy thus

representing all the bad qualities in nature. The nature and weather in the play represent King

Lear's mind as the story develops his mind gets more and more scrambled and he begins to go

mad because his heart cannot take the betraying acts of his daughters.

Social status plays a key role in the plot of King Lear as it is due to this element that

Goneril and Regan decide to betray their father. In the beginning of the play the two daughters

act with grace and order, to display their false and over exaggerated love for their father because

they both know it is what he wants to hear. The third sister however, acts with honesty and

displays her affection appropriately. When King Lear hears his first two daughters lies of love he

decides to split the kingdom between them giving those daughters his wealth, status and power.

“let him to my sister, / Whose mind and mine I know in that are one, / Not to be overruled. Idle

old man, / That still would manage those authorities / That he hath given away. Now, by my life,

/ Old fools are babes again, and must be used / With checks as flatteries, when they are seen

abused. (1.3.14) This is spoken by Goneril after she gains half of her father's kingdom, which

proves she was only giving him false flattery so that she could gain power and as soon as it was
given to her she betrayed her father. Goneril also speaks “my sister, whose mind and mine I

know in that are one” meaning that her sister, Regan, feels the same way towards her father as

Goneril, which is why it was both of them that were involved in this betrayal. One of King

Lear’s biggest downfalls throughout the play is that he couldn’t realize who truly loved him

compared to who didn't love him. After he gives Goneril and Regan his kingdom, which comes

along with his wealth and status, he realizes that he has made a terrible mistake because the two

sisters act with pure chaos and throw their father out of the kingdom, leaving him homeless,

poor, and in a fury of rage. This action filled with betrayal in particular sets off the bomb in King

Lear’s mind and leads to his madness.

In this play King Lear thinks that the relationships between his daughters were strong and

loving but through the contrast of order and chaos his daughters betray him in multiple scenarios

which overall lead to King Lear’s madness and the tragedy of his death. King Lear originally

thinks that all three of his daughters love him an outrageous amount, he wants the daughters to

display this affection and love so he knows he is leaving the kingdom in the right hands. It just so

happens that Cordelia, who betrays her father in the beginning of the story, by not displaying her

love to a great enough extent is there for him in the end. The two daughters that show him what

he is looking for, however, ruin his life, by breaking his heart and being a huge contributor to his

death. King Lear believes that his relationship with all three of his daughters are strong and

loving, so, when he is betrayed first by Cordelia who doesn’t over exaggerate her love for him

and then by Goneril and Regan who throw him out of the kingdom, abandon and disown him

father, his heart shatters into a million pieces. “The hedge-sparrow fed the cuckoo so long / That

it's had it head bit off by it young.” (1.4.210). The stability and order that Lear thought was
present within his relationships with his daughters was shattered when they betrayed him, thus

resulting in chaos. “I’ll tell thee. Life and death I am ashamed / That thou hast power to shake

my manhood thus! / That these hot tears, which break from me perforce, / Should make thee

worth them. Blasts and fogs upon thee! / Th’untented woundings of a father’s curse / Pierce

every sense about thee! Old fond eyes, / Beweep this cause again Ill pluck ye out / And cast you,

with the waters that you loose, / To temper clay.” (1.4.293). The dissolution of order into chaos

in the family relationships parallels King Lear’s descent into Madness.

With a psychoanalytic view, it is clear that King Lear tries to suppress his pain

throughout the story, making everything worse as it takes him further into madness, “

...repression doesn't eliminate our painful experiences and emotions...we unconsciously behave

in ways that will allow us to 'play out'...our conflicted feelings about the painful experiences and

emotions we repress" (Tyson, 2013). Human’s darkest desires, secrets, doubts, and fears can

interfere with their ability to think and respond rationally. King Lear is an example of a man who

is affected by these factors, due to his fatal flaws. These flaws lead to the tragic downfall of a

man who was once a hero, king and leader. Sigmund Freud, an Austrian neurologist and the

founder of psychoanalysis suggested theorems associated with human’s culture and how their

environment can affect a person’s actions. Every culture around the world has standards and

beliefs, which dictates how people act and think in society. People are labeled with identities

within communities. People are judged based on standards, values, and norms but King Lear’s

inability to think and act according to his kingdom’s standards ultimately lead to his downfall

and toward his madness.

Through nature, social status, and character relationships, order and chaos is reflective of

King Lear’s descent into madness and how it culminates in the tragic death of his broken heart.

As social, ethical and family bonds between the king and other characters are severed, he loses

his sense of self and goes mad. Due to the various actions of betrayal in the play, King Lear loses

everything, including his kingdom, his daughters and his mind. Norman Cousins once said, “The

tragedy of life is not death but what we let die inside of us while we still live.”

Study Tools,

“King Lear: madness, the fool and poor Tom.” The British Library, The British Library, 9 Nov.


Shakespeare, William. King Lear. Edited by Stephen Orgel, Penguin Group, 1999.

“Welcome to the Purdue OWL.” Purdue OWL: Literary Theory and Schools of Criticism,