King Lear: Symbolism

King Lear:

Symbolism

 

Symbolism is a frequent literary technique used by Shakespeare in his plays. Shakespeare uses various symbols in his literature to convey particular messages. Oftentimes symbols are representative of a deeper and more significant meaning, as well as their literal meaning. 

The Shakespearean tragedy of King Lear is littered throughout with carefully chosen symbolism which allows the audience to gain a deeper appreciation of the plays characters, for its themes and for its aspects of culture. Read the following bullet pointed list for a comprehensive overview of the popular symbols that appear in King Lear. (Examples of symbolism in King Lear are not limited to those on this list).

 

  • The Love Test:
    • The construction and practice of the Love Test symbolises and epitomises Lear’s gross misjudgements. 
    • It also symbolises Lear’s yearning for affection/flattery and love, and symbolises his inherent loneliness and sense of alienation.

 

  • The Feather on Dead Cordelia’s Lips:
    • ‘The feather stirs – she lives!’.
    • Lear apparently sees movement in a feather which is placed upon the lips of the dead Cordelia. 
    • The feather, in this instance, symbolises Lear’s feelings of denial/regret at what has happened to his daughter. The feather represents the idea that the mind can play tricks on oneself throughout the grieving process. Denial is a byproduct of deep grief.
    • ‘Maybe its not really true – this must be some terrible mistake’.

 

  • The Forged Letter:
    • Edmunds letter symbolises deceit in the play.
    • The forged letter, written by the deceitful Edmund, craftily employs deceptive language in order to hide its true objectives.
    • The use of deceptive words (written) links the character of Edmund to Lear’s daughters; Goneril and Regan as they too use deceptive words (oral) to trick their father.
    • ‘If this letter speed and my invitation thrive, Edmund base shall top th’ legitimate. I grow, I prosper’.

 

  • Man Deteriorating Overtime Towards Infancy:
    • The idea of man growing old and regressing back to a state of infancy is portrayed in this text
    • ‘…to shake all cares and business from our age, conferring them on younger students, while we unburdened crawl toward death.’
    • The image of the baby is symbolic of the ageing process, loss of responsibility. loss of power and inevitably; being vulnerable in old age.
    • Through this symbol Shakespeare is afforded the opportunity to convey Lear’s fears in relation to getting old and becoming like a child again. 
    • Its this infancy that Lear’s daughters use to exploit him.

 

  • Nothingness:
    • ‘Nothing will come of nothing’.
    • Once Lear abdicates the throne he becomes literally nothing in the eyes of many character within this play.
    • The idea of ‘nothing‘ that is present in this play is very much symbolic of Lear’s loss of respect with regards to his family, peers and subjects, and is also representative of the fact that as well as relinquishing the crown, he too has subsequently relinquished power and and respect. 

 

  • Animals:
    • Animals, to a large extent in this drama, symbolise man’s innate capability to behave in a beast/savage like way. 
    • ‘Allow not nature more than nature needs. Man’s life is cheap as beasts’.
    • Animals offer a spectacle that reinforces the message that men can cascade into brutal behaviours if put in a particular circumstance
    • Shakespeare emphasises the deceitful nature of Edmund, Regan and Goneril by explaining that animals naturally have savage and brutal tendencies. The aforementioned characters are beasts too in their regard, but attempt to hide it through deceitful language.  

 

  • Clothing and Being Nude:
    • In the text clothing represents man’s hollow attempts to disguise one’s true intentions.
    • Clothes, as Lear discovers, help the rich to hide their debaucheries and vices, thus enabling deceit amongst the wealthy. 
    • ‘Through tattered clothes small vices do appear. Riches and furred gowns hide all’ .
    • As Poor Tom, Edgar symbolises that put in the right situation, we are all nothing but ‘poor, bare forked animal[s]’
    • The nakedness that is evident in the drama serves as a symbolic reminder that underneath our clothes we are all the same; vulnerable and human.

 

  • The Literal/Metaphorical Storm:
    • The storm is one of the most obvious metaphors in King Lear. It represents both the political chaos and disorder within the kingdom and Lear’s psychological instability. 
    • The storm is also symbolic in the sense that serves to expose the scale of Lear’s alienation and vulnerability.
    • Shakespeare uses the storm as a reminder to his audience that even royalty are susceptible to natures wrath. 

 

  • Sight, or Lack Thereof:
    • Two kinds of blindness in King Lear – literal blindness and moral blindness
    • Both Lear and Gloucester are morally blinded by their children. Lear fails to see through Goneril and Regan’s deceitful language and Gloucester fails to see his son Edmund for the deceitful person he really is.
    • It is only when Gloucester has his eyes plucked out that he regains/establishes his moral sight – irony.

 

  • The Crown:
    • Lear’s crown on one hand symbolises power and on the other serves as a sobering reminder of the power and respect that he loses through his abdication.
    • The word crown can arguable be interpreted as either a royal crown (symbolising status and power) or as the human head, in which Lear has perhaps lost sense with. The removal of the crown therefore is symbolic on those two levels. 

 

  • Sun/Stars/Moon:
    • Symbolise an omniscient observer who ultimately controls order and chaos within the world of King Lear.
    • ‘The stars above us govern our conditions’.
    • This ideology is largely adopted by Gloucester in the text.

 

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