The word theme comes from the Ancient Greek word théma, which means “proposition or thesis,” and this definition essentially holds true to this very day: theme is thesis; theme is meaning.
In literature, theme is the meaning to which the lines of a poem or the events of a story add up. For instance, the theme of the Dostoevsky novel which translators now term Demons (but formerly The Possessed) is this: the way in which philosophical ideas shape human action.
The theme of Kurt Vonnegut’s short story “Harrison Bergeron” is the injustice (and absurdity) of forced equality.
The theme of the J.D. Salinger short story “For Esme, With Love and Squalor” is the power of goodness combined with the healing power of lovingkindness.
The theme of the movie Quiz Show is honesty.
The theme of the movie Miller’s Crossing is order and ethics in an orderless, ethics-less society.
The theme of Othello is jealousy.
The theme of the movie Bladerunner is human life and the constant struggle against death, which is what gives life meaning.
Lord of the Rings — like Star Wars — is a theme of good-versus-evil, and that is why these stories are sometimes called morality tales.
It’s important to note that not all stories necessarily have a theme.
Theme comes from an explicit emphasis and effort on the writer’s part to project abstract meaning — to infuse with deeper meaning, or principle, the events of the story or the lines of a poem, and this is why metaphor and symbol are frequently the handmaidens of theme.
The movie Pulp Fiction is an example of a (fairly) well-plotted yet themeless story.
Most soap operas possess plenty of plot but have no real themes to speak of.
In fiction, a well-done story blends theme and plot — it synthesizes them — so that the events of the story dramatize the theme, as the characters also embody the theme’s characteristics. Plots are the vehicle by means of which some abstract idea or principle about human existence and the human experience is dramatized and objectified. That idea or principle when focused upon and developed becomes the theme — i.e. the calculatedly evil actions of Iago, and Othello’s reaction to them, dramatize the theme of jealousy.
Two similar plots in the hands of two different writers will invariably be about two different things, even if the events of the story are the same or essentially the same, and even if they have a similar style. The reason this is so is that their themes will be different.
The theme of the movie Rocky, for example, is the triumph of the human spirit, even in the face of overwhelming odds. Compare the movie Rocky with the more recent movie called The Wrestler — a well-acted and well-made drama directed by Darren Aronofsky and starring Marisa Tomei and Mickey Rourke, both of whom were nominated for academy awards. It’s my opinion that The Wrestler was strongly influenced by Rocky, and yet, despite being similar in plot and subject matter, they are totally dissimilar in terms of theme:
The Wrestler is a theme of pure fatalism, even nihilism, as Darren Aronofsky’s movies usually are, whereas Rocky is a theme of pure triumph.
Every artist’s theme is a mirror and an extension of the convictions she or he holds.
The creator of Rocky, whoever it was, upheld an exalted view of humankind and, whether implicitly or explicitly, believed in the strength of the human spirit and the human will, even in the face of great odds.
Themes ultimately come from ideas — specifically, the ideas that the artist holds with enough conviction to take the time and expend the energy required to create an entire work of art around — and this is why all themes are not created equal: because all ideas are not equal.
In many ways, themes are ideas.
An artist’s explicit emphasis on theme is one of the primary things that distinguishes serious art from less serious.
It’s common, as well, among skillful writers — in poetry perhaps most especially — to project themes in an ambiguous way. But when it becomes too ambiguous or impenetrable, it crosses over into obscurantism.
King Lear by William Shakespeare walks the tightrope here.
King Lear may be thematically about madness, or death and nothingness, or it may, after all, be about something else — something bigger: “Too big for the stage,” as T.S. Eliot once described it.
Shakespeare was as much a thinker as he was a poet — highly influenced by Lucretius’s verses of unparalleled lyricism, in particular Lucretius’s famous and philosophical poem On the Nature of Things, which, in turn, is directly descended from the great Greek philosopher Epicurus, who believed in and with incredible clarity and philosophical sophistication defended human reason, rationality, free-will, human excellence, and perhaps most especially human virtue while alive on this earth, without reference to the divine or any sort of afterlife.
Nowhere in Shakespeare are Lucretius and Epicurus more evident than in King Lear, where we also see, not coincidentally, in my opinion, a curious concern with numbers and mathematics. (Note the zero-like crown framing Sir Ian McKellen’s face in the King Lear photo above.)
King Lear is a play preoccupied with mental disintegration, and for this reason many commentators regard it as Shakespeare’s most “humane play.” Yet interwoven among all this flesh-and-blood perishability and fear of madness lurks the absolute and elegant and bloodless world of math, which serves as a sort of anchor holding down the unshakable sense that Lear’s brains are busting loose from their moorings.
Some excellent readers have noted how frequently the words “nothing” and “all” resound throughout the entirety of the play, and that both of those words can be represented by the symbol zero: 0
The round world, the globe, the Globe Theatre, Shakespeare’s obvious punning on “hole” and “whole” — these are all as well represented in the play by 0.
In King Lear, Shakespeare is clearly concerned with the idea of nothingness and the finality of death, as, for example, when in Act 1, Scene iv, the Fool says to Lear:
“Thou are an O without a figure. Thou are nothing.”
In that same scene, the same fools says the following:
Fool: Nuncle, give me an egg, and I’ll give thee two crowns.
Lear: What two crowns shall they be?
Fool: Why, after I have cut the egg i’ the middle, and eat
up the meat, the two crowns of the egg. When thou
clovest thy crown i’ the middle, and gavest away
both parts, thou borest thy ass on thy back o’er
the dirt: thou hadst little wit in thy bald crown,
when thou gavest thy golden one away.
A crown is one kind of circle, and so is an egg.
The egg is nothing, as the fool recognizes: eat the golden center of the hardboiled egg, and you have two empty rounds. (These empty rounds later become the gouged-out eye sockets of Gloucester, which Shakespeare unforgettably describes as “bleeding rings.” Shakespeare also deliberately deepens the description by having a servant say he will fetch egg-white to treat Gloucester’s maimed face [III.vii.106], and by having Edgar say that if Gloucester were to throw himself from Dover Cliff, he’d be crushed “like an egg.”)
Thus the bald head of King Lear suddenly takes on a newer and more complex meaning — an abstract, mathematical symbol: not only a crown but a kind of circle as well.
In this way, Lear’s nothingness — his decline and mental disintegration— becomes a universal nothingness, with a chilling finality, and that is why when the blind Gloucester meets Lear, now legitimately mad, he says to him and about him:
“O ruined piece of nature! This great world
Shall wear out to nought.”
— King Lear, Act 4, vi, 134–135
Bleak but beautiful — and unbelievably smart. Yet what brought Lear to that point?
We must never forget, I think, the true star of the play — the calm and compassionate and Christlike Cordelia, Lear’s only loving daughter. And what will Cordelia say?
“Love, and be silent.”
I believe the ultimate theme of King Lear is not madness or nothingness but the fear of madness and nothingness, and more importantly yet: the redemptive power of love and caritas as the purpose of it all and a foil against it all.
That, I believe, is the densely buried and the profound and power-packed theme of King Lear, by William Shakespeare, who never once, to my knowledge, wore his heart upon his sleeve.
I’m the author of ten books and counting. I’ve been both traditionally published and also self-published. I write fiction and non-fiction. My latest book is a novel called Neck Between Two Heads: a story of civilization and superstition and it tells the story of a modern-day Apache man named Jon Silverthorne who uncovers something extraordinary deep within the network of caves that lace the earth beneath the Baboquivari Wilderness, some fifty miles south of Tucson.