King Lear



Throughout King Lear, Shakespeare uses images of animals and nature to illustrate his ideas. For instance, In Act 4, Scene 2, Albany compares humanity to ‘monsters’ of the sea:

Humanity must perforce prey on itself
Like monsters of the deep.

Albany, Act 4 Scene 2

Animal imagery serves to make comparison between human behaviour and what is inhumane – beastly, cruel, and base. King Lear explores blurring of these lines between the animal and the human. Within a Christian worldview (Christianity was the dominant religion in Shakespeare’s context), human beings were created superior to animals, and were expected to act accordingly. In this context, comparing humans to animals was a way of demonstrating that their behaviours were undignified and unnatural.

In Act 1 Scene 4 Lear compares Goneril to a “detested kite” and his middle daughter, Regan to a vulture, both images conjuring carrion eaters (those that feed on others). In ancient fables, pelicans would feed their young with their own blood. In Act 3, Scene 4, Lear refers to his two daughters as “pelican daughters”, implying that they are feeding off his lifeblood with their greed and cruelty.

Goneril is described in Act 1 Scene 4 as having a “wolvish visage” and Albany compares both Goneril and Regan as “Tigers, not daughters” (Act 4 Scene 2).

But perhaps one of the most famous uses of animal imagery comes from Lear himself, when referring to his eldest daughters, grieving ‘How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is / To have a thankless child’ (Act 1 Scene 4).


Crowns are symbols both of power and the loss of power in King Lear. In Act 1, Scene 1, when Lear divides Cordelia’s share of her inheritance between Goneril and Regan, he literally gives their husbands each half of the coronet originally intended for Cordelia, saying, “This coronet part between you”. Commenting on this action, the Fool later says to Lear:

When thou clovest thy crown i’the middle and gav’st away both parts, thou bor’st thine ass on thy back o’er the dirt. Thou hadst little wit in thy bald crown when thou gav’st thy golden one away.
(Fool, Act 1, Scene 4.)

Here, the Fool plays on the word ‘crown’, using it to refer not only to the coronet that Lear parted between his sons-in-law, but also to the ‘crown’ or top of his head, implying that when he gave away his power by dividing the crown, he revealed his own lack of wisdom.

Later, when Lear’s grief has driven him mad, he enters wearing a crown of weeds and wildflowers:

[W]hy, he was met even now
As mad as the vex'd sea; singing aloud;
Crown'd with rank fumiter and furrow-weeds,
With bur-docks, hemlock, nettles, cuckoo-flowers,
Darnel, and all the idle weeds that grow
In our sustaining corn.

Cordelia, Act 4, Scene 4

Most of the flowers described in this speech are noxious weeds. Here, Shakespeare demonstrates that Lear’s former power (demonstrated by the crown he wears in Act 1, Scene 1) has been replaced with an empty and torturous madness.


In the opening scene of the play, when Cordelia displeases her father, he responds by saying “Hence and avoid my sight” (Act 1, Scene 1). When Kent tries to intervene, Lear tells him to get “Out of my sight” (Act 1, Scene 1). In response, Kent implores, “See better, Lear, and let me still remain / The true blank of thine eye.” (Act 1, Scene 1). In these first moments, Shakespeare establishes sight and blindness as a powerful metaphor that will resonate throughout the play. Lear is metaphorically blinded by his pride and vanity and cannot see that his daughter Cordelia is the only one of his children who can truly love him with deeds. Gloucester, too, is both metaphorically and literally blinded; he falls for his son Edmund’s deception, and later has his eyes gauged out by the Duke of Cornwall. Both Lear and Gloucester learn to ‘see better’ over the course of the play, and eventually come to understand and regret their former blindness.


In the following famous interaction between Lear and Cordelia, Lear tries to cajole his daughter into telling him how much she loves him:

... what can you say to draw
A third more opulent than your sisters? Speak.

Nothing, my lord.



How, nothing will come of nothing. Speak again.

Act 1, Scene 1

The concept of ‘nothingness’ has powerful reverberations in King Lear. Cordelia, because she says ‘nothing’ in response to her father’s request, is in fact reduced to ‘nothing’ in his eyes – she is banished from his sight and loses her inheritance. King Lear, too, willingly sacrifices his power and status by handing over his crown and kingdom, and subsequently is reduced to ‘nothing’ when his grief sends him mad and he is rejected by his daughters. Prior to the betrayal of his daughters, King Lear dialogues with his Fool about the concept of nothingness. In the course of this conversation, the Fool says to him, “I am better than thou art now. I am a fool, thou art nothing” (Act 1, Scene 4). Lear physicalises this nothingness by attempting to remove his clothes when he first encounters Edgar/Poor Tom.

These representations of nothingness prompt a question: does nothing come of nothing? Cordelia, Lear, Kent, and Edgar are some of the characters who are reduced to wretched states during the action of the play – they fall from positions of power and influence, to positions of insignificance. However, from these positions, each character learns important lessons, achieves a degree of growth, and some are restored to their former status. Is this enough, though, to constitute ‘something’? This is a question that it is up to the audience to answer: What does come of nothing?

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