Shakespeare’s King Lear -Animal Imagery

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Beast in King Lear

In Shakespeare’s King Lear animal imagery reaches its most complete development. Shakespeare is digging a little deeper here than in any other play as to the philosophy of the theme. In Lear a greater number of important tragic characters sink below the level of beasts than in any other play, and Shakespeare is conscious of the beast idea as they degenerate.

In the very beginning of the play the beastly power and authority of Lear as a king is expressed through his words, “come not between the dragon and his wrath”. Shakespeare uses various tools to build up Goneril and Regan’s character, but animal imagery and extended metaphors are the most effective in portraying Goneril and Regan’s consuming greed for power. The Fool is the first to use animal imagery to describe these two savage sisters. “For you know, nuncle, the hedge-sparrow fed the cuckoo so long, that it had its head bit off by it young. So out went the candle, and we were left darkling”. This comparison of Goneril to a cuckoo suggests that like the hedge-sparrow who had to rear the young cuckoo chick, Lear has brought up Goneril and she is the ungrateful cuckoo killing the one that raised her. This creates a strong visual image in our minds of a monstrous inhuman woman, who turns on her Own parent to prey on him Shakespeare continues to build on this characterisation of Goneril, likening her to a sea- monster “Ingratitude, thou marble-hearted fiend, more hideous, when thou showst thee in a child than the sea-monster.” This brings to mind connotations of a stealthy watery Loch Ness monster, re- enforcing Goneril’s “marble” heart and unfeeling nature. Lear goes on to compare her to other predatory animals, saying “Detested kite, thou liest!” and declaring a final curse on her, that she might have a childless womb, he says “how sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is to have a thankless child!” This quick succession of vivid animal images creates layer upon layer of a wild savage collage, portraying Goneril as a greedy ruthless woman.

Although Goneril and Regan are very similar in their greed for absolute power and authority, Regan also has a sadistic twist to her nature and there are a number of animal images that are related to Regan, painting a frightening picture of “a thousand with red burning spirits come hizzing upon ’em” and “rash boarish fangs”, eventually, these “monsters of the deep” who are “tigers not daughters” turn against each other when they both lust over the same man.

In this section there are many references to animals as Edgar describes himself. “Hog in sloth” means he is as lazy as a pig since “Sloth” is one of the seven deadly sins, which stands for laziness. He also calls himself a fox, which is known for being clever. “Wolf in greediness” is likely referencing how wolves will often attack weaker or wounded animals in a herd opposed to the stronger ones. “Lion in prey” further suggests nature is opposite than the way it should be going. Since lions are often the ones attacking prey, nature must be opposite if lions are being prey. Edgar is likely referencing the way Edmund will get his inheritance, and how that is opposite of nature.

In Shakespeare’s King Lear the heath, ‘unaccommodated man’ comes very close to the animal world – the wolf and owl, the cub-drawn bear, the lion and the belly-pinched wolf. Poor Tom brings with him the lower and more repulsive animals. Man no longer uses the animals – “thou owst the worm no silk, the beast no hide, the sheep no wool”. Man himself seems no more than an animal. His behaviour suggests this – he is likened either to the monsters of the deep that prey on each other, or to a “poor, bare, forked animal”. Tom has been “hog in sloth, fox in stealth, wolf in greediness…” (Act III, iv).

To conclude, the animal imagery in Shakespeare’s King Lear leave two strong impressions. The primary one is that humanity seems to be reverting to a bestial condition. Secondly, there is a close association between the animal images and the suggestion of bodily pain, horror and suffering. Hence these beast images are very important for the grave understanding of the play.

Animal Imagery- King Lear

Nature and Animal Imagery in Shakespeare’s King Lear

Animal Imagery in King Lear by William Shakespeare

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