King Lear: Language and Imagery

King Lear

Animal Language and Imagery


1. Animals Used to Highlight Mankind’s Barbaric Propensities:

There are many images of animals, beasts and monsters throughout King Lear. Shakespeare often compares humans in the text to vicious beasts. Shakespeare does this to show how closely related humans and animals are in terms of how both species prey on often inferior or vulnerable victims. This comparison is used to emphasise how we as humans have the ability to be agents of cruelty and barbarity. Shakespeare interestingly uses various metaphors to describe how violent and ferocious humankind can be. A disguised Edgar (Poor Tom) likens humanity to a ‘…hog in sloth, fox in stealth, wolf in greediness, dog in madness. lion in prey.’ Through this metaphor we learn how destructive, tactful and fierce man has the potential to be. Is this still relevant today? Could we say the same about people who function in our society or other societies?


Another way in which Shakespeare highlights the idea that man is similar to beast is through the idea of clothing. Within the context of the play the notion of clothing operates as a guise for some characters (Kent/Edgar). The idea being presented here by Shakespeare is that we can alter peoples perception of ourselves through what we wear and how we appear (theme check: Appearance Versus Reality). In the midst of Lear’s development as a person he comes to a multitude of truths, insights and revelations. One such insight is in relation to man/humanity which arises in a key moment involving himself and Edgar. Lear explains that behind pomp and wealth lies vulnerability. Lear outlines that people may employ glamorous clothing/wealth/pomp in order to prevent the exposure of their beast like tendencies. Through his journey of self-discovery, Lear concludes that behind his pomp and wealth, that ‘…man is no more but such a poor, bare, forked animal…’. Can we relate to this idea? Do people hide their flaws behind certain types of clothes nowadays? Do people hide their flaws behind make up/money/friends in high places? 


2. Animals Used to Highlight Goneril and Regan’s Ferocious Propensities:

Goneril and Regan are both described using metaphors throughout the play. These descriptive metaphors are used to portray both characters’ brutal and harsh dispositions. The metaphors used by Shakespeare used for this purpose all possess a common denominator; each involve a beast, monster or animal of some sort. Within in this text, Lear is the often the character labelling his daughters, whom he feels are ungrateful, with these animal metaphors. Lear likens Goneril to a ‘…detested kite…’ (a bird which is know for its ability to hunt for prey) and explains her as having a ‘…wolvish visage.’, insinuating that she is dangerous, cunning and ruthless in attack. Do you know someone like this? Is this a fair description of Goneril? Is is an effective literary technique used by Shakespeare? Does it help you to gain an even deeper insight into the character of Goneril?


Lear’s journey of self-discovery provides him with another revelation. Lear, while in Edgar’s company, discusses that he can now see what ‘…those Pelican daughters…’ truly are. By referring to his daughters using the animal metaphor centred on a Pelican, Lear implies that his daughters have treated him horrendously. The Pelican birds are known to feed on the blood of their parents. Lear, through this insight, alludes to the idea that he is a victim to the brutal actions of his daughters. Do you agree that Lear is a victim? 


*It is important that you understand the imagery that is prevalent in King Lear. Shakespeare often draws on animal metaphors in an attempt to more clearly define and present certain characters’ personalities and propensities. This is considered a literary technique employed by Shakespeare and is very effective in serving the aforementioned purpose. 


*Knowing the texts language and imagery will help you to support your points/opinions when it comes to answering exam type questions. 


*If you have any questions please contact me via the Lee Tutorials Instagram page! 



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