Areas of study

Areas of study

King Lear is full of animal imagery, mostly related to the evil characters who are compared to beasts because their brutality makes them inhuman. They lack the compassion and moral conscience possessed by human beings. Goneril and Regan in particular are associated with monsters or fiends with savage appetites; they are described as "tigers not daughters" and "dog-hearted", with "boarish fangs". Goneril has a "wolfish visage" and is "sharp-toothed, like a vulture", while Regan is "serpent like" towards her father. They "prey" on their father like "monsters of the deep". Like animals, they compete for dominance and survival with a cruel self-interest. Their bestial appetites also relate to their sexuality and lust.

What examples can you find of animals or birds being used in attractive images?

Why does Edmund describe Goneril and Regan as "each jealous of the other as the stung are of the adder"?

The ability to 'see' the truth plays a major part in the play. Both Lear and Gloucester act blindly and foolishly. Kent tells Lear that he must "see better", but the king rejects this suggestion by ordering Kent to flee "out of my sight". Lear's fool mocks his folly by chanting "out went the candle and we were left darkling". Of course, the most striking image is portrayed by the blinding of Gloucester in Act III.

Trace the imagery of light and darkness, tears, sight and eyes throughout the play.

Early in the play, Lear states that tears are "women's weapons", but he cries when he is finally reunited with Cordelia - what has Lear learnt about compassion?

Lear's insanity is the result of his suffering and torment. He cries "Oh let me not be mad, not mad, sweet heaven!". Shakespeare's audience would have been accustomed to visiting Bethlehem Hospital to be entertained by lunatic beggars. Nevertheless, they would probably have found scenes in this play as disturbing as we do today.

How sympathetic are we to Lear's suffering?

Which other characters exhibit signs of madness?

Other areas to look at in the same way:

The role of the Fool


Family relationships


Cruelty and Suffering

The Gods