Conflict in drama is not so much a theme as a fact. The word ‘drama’ is a Greek word, meaning ‘action,’ and it is the action of a play that constitutes the drama. Conflict is at the centre of all dramas: without conflict there can be no drama. The interesting thing about conflict in Shakespeare’s plays is, not that it is his major theme, but how he uses it to create an integrated dramatic text.

Conflict takes innumerable forms in Shakespeare’s plays: it would be impossible to list them all. Several plays tell the story of rivals in love or war; others of quarrels in families – brother against brother, parent against child – or between families. There are international conflicts (wars against foreign people) and domestic conflicts (civil wars). But conflict in Shakespeare’s plays goes deeper than that: there is conflict between the generations; conflict between different philosophies and ideologies; class conflict; racial conflict; and at the heart of it all, conflict between light and darkness, good and evil.

Conflict in Shakespeare is not only an external thing but often a process within one individual. Macbeth and Hamlet are good examples of that. An internal drama takes place in the minds of both: there are choices to be made and the conflict is between and among those choices. The question is always, what to do. As the action of the play progresses the inner conflict becomes more intense. At the same time the various conflicts in the action continue: for example, the thanes moving against Macbeth in rebellion, and the plotting against Hamlet’s life.

If ‘conflict’ is what drama is then Shakespeare is the consummate dramatist. Drama has come to mean ‘a play,’ or a play’s action. So a play’s one most necessary ingredient is conflict and it is that that keeps the audience engaged. Shakespeare provides that on multiple levels in every play. Let us take one, King Lear, and see how conflict functions in its text.

King Lear is often described by commentators as Shakespeare’s ‘greatest’ play. Several suggest that the play does not fully work in performance but that it is the overwhelming winner intellectually and poetically. They argue that because, unlike other plays with a main plot and one or more subplots, Lear has two major plots, and for that reason, neither can fully engage the audience, whose attention and involvement is fragmented. That may be so but, on the other hand, at the same time it is probably Shakespeare’s most integrated play, with the characters, the action, the ideas and the imagery all working in harmony as a single unit.

Once again, conflict is at the heart of the drama. In this play the various conflicts are unified and multi-layered. On the surface King Lear is a domestic, family story – the story of two connected families. The central conflict is generational – the conflict between Lear and his daughters in the one story and between Gloucester and his sons in the other. So what we have here, beyond the personal, is the more universal generational conflict – the older versus the younger generation.

But it goes deeper. King Lear is a Renaissance play, written at a time when the mediaeval world and the new spirit of humanism were in artistic, religious, political, cultural and artistic conflict. The old world had become old fashioned and the new spirit was sweeping through Europe.

King Lear not only reflects that conflict but illustrates it. Gloucester has two sons – Edgar the legitimate son, heir to his father’s lands and titles, and Edmund the illegitimate son, entitled to nothing more than his father’s natural love, if his father is inclined to offer that. Which Gloucester does. Gloucester’s relationship with the two mothers of his sons illuminates two different worlds. Edgar was conceived between the stale sheets of an arranged marriage, with tired, obligatory sex whereas Gloucester boasts about the good sex and fun he had when conceiving the ‘bastard’ Edmund. While today we would regard a child conceived out of wedlock as a ‘natural’ child in the mediaeval view the child born in wedlock would be the natural thing and a ‘bastard’ would be an unnatural child.

Edmund, the ‘bastard,’ on the other hand, does not see it in that way. He plots to kill his father and steal his brother’s birthright. As far as he is concerned his illegitimacy is not an issue and it is, in fact unfair to discriminate against him on that ground.  He has a Renaissance, humanistic view of the world and his place in it. In one of Shakespeare’s most extraordinary soliloquies Edmund questions the conventional view. What’s wrong with being illegitimate? he asks. Why do they stigmatise him with the word ‘bastard’?  Then he presents himself as a Renaissance sculpture like Michelangelo’s David: ‘my dimensions are as well compact, my mind as generous, my shape as true, as honest madam’s issue.’

Edmund is so out of step with his time, and so in tune with modern Western cultural thinking that most readers or audience members find themselves in sympathy with his world view and identify with him – the villain of the play – rather than with the ‘good’ characters whose feet are firmly rooted in the mediaeval world, whose values Western culture has long since rejected.

The humanist view, and the opposite – that legitimacy, representing the unchangeable order of society, is more important than the personal qualities of the individual – form the base of the conflict in this play.

It goes even deeper. Much of the imagery of the play is natural imagery, in the modern sense of the word ‘nature,’ ie. plants and animals, weather etc. The poetry is full of imagery of animals, particularly wild, predatory animals, and more particularly their sharp weapons –claws, teeth, (‘how sharper than the serpent’s tooth it is to have a thankless child’) etc.

Shakespeare is drawing attention to the kind of behaviour we regard as natural, centuries after that notion began to emerge. Seen in that light, Edmund’s attitude is natural and his famous soliloquy strikes the modern ear as entirely reasonable – a cry for equality. In conflict with that, the other world view presented in this play contains no notion of equality. Animal behaviour is seen as unnatural whereas the medieval values of legitimacy, a stratified social order, obedience, and so on, are natural. When Lear’s daughters regard him as a foolish old man and fail to treat him with the respect that he feels is due to him as their father he calls them ‘unnatural hags’. These two irreconcilable views provide the deeper tension of the play.Throughout the play there is conflict between the brothers and conflict between the sisters. Added to that, they are at war with the King of France, who is the husband of Lear’s youngest daughter. Gloucester is conflicted by his attempts to understand the world as it has become. His one son is disguised as a beggar and the other is secretly plotting against him. Lear’s mind is in turmoil – it is a tempest of conflict and he goes mad. All this conflict is tied up in in a tight, tense, unified story and a great stage entertainment.

This is only one way in which Shakespeare uses conflict to tell a story but King Lear is a miracle of construction and probably the most masterly of all his stories.

Read more of Shakespeare’s themes: