Throughout King Lear, loyalty is symbolized in peace and betrayal in chaos, and the audience sees these two forces at work from the play’s opening scenes. When Lear asks his daughters to profess how much they love him, he invites the ensuing chaos by testing their loyalty. Goneril and Regan, who have no loyalty to their father, and only seek to further their own greed, heap cheap flattery onto their father and are rewarded with power over England. Cordelia, who is the only daughter to love her father, refuses, as is banished. Immediately, the court erupts in chaos as Kent, Lear’s faithful friend, tries to intervene on Cordelia’s behalf and is also banished. The chaos continues as Lear schleps from home to home searching for respite and is eventually forced onto the heath in the middle of a terrible thunderstorm. Meanwhile, French forces have threatened to invade England, ending the peace that had existed during Lear’s rule and threatening war.
Paralleling Lear’s story is Gloucester’s. Gloucester has two sons – one loyal and one manipulative – with the younger betraying his father for power. Gloucester faces his own fair share of chaos when his elder son must don a disguise and go into hiding, and his younger son lies and manipulates his way into power at any cost. Gloucester’s eyes are plucked out in one of the play’s goriest scenes, and Gloucester’s emotional turmoil reaches fever pitch when he attempts suicide on the cliffs of Dover.
Once the evil characters have turned against the heroic characters, there is nothing left for them to do but turn against each other as they jockey against each other to grasp what little power is left in Britain. Goneril and Regan go down in a ball of flames as they betray each other’s loyalty over the affections of a man. Goneril ends up stabbing herself after poisoning Regan, and both die. Albany turns against his wife in a change of heart that eventually becomes King of England. At the end of the play, nearly all of the heroic characters are dead as a result of the betrayals that have befallen them. It is interesting to note, thought, that despite the betrayals he has faced, Lear still experiences true happiness in the moments before his death. After being reunited with his beloved Cordelia, Lear realizes true happiness and even claims that he would rather spend the rest of his life in prison with Cordelia than have to face his wicked daughters again to be restored as king. The plot events send a clear message to the reader that only chaos comes from betrayal, and that loyalty should be valued above all else.