Use of Animal Imagery in King Lear
"It is as if Shakespeare wished to portray a world in which most men and women are beasts, and only the exceptional few [are fully human]."–G.B. Harrison, ed. Shakespeare: The Complete Works. New York: Harcourt, 1952 (Page 1139)
In Shakespeare’s King Lear, animal imagery is pervasive throughout the play. The discussion of animal imagery in this play comes only second to the theme of Nature. The ‘animal imagery’ is so much profusely used in the play that there is too much to cover within a limited framework. Nearly all of the major characters have at least one instance where they are represented as an animal or having animal tendency. Interestingly enough, the animal images used, almost always have two major qualities: one, they are an accurate portrayal of the character; two, they are often used when the character is giving into their emotions. Thus, it has to be said that the animal images are used to give clear insight into the characters, much like how the final words of a character are always completely honest, the animal images give the audience a clear view into a play dominated by deception.
The first example of animal imagery in the play is quite early and is interesting because it is Lear describing himself. This is when Lear tells Kent “come not between the dragon and his wrath” (King Lear, I, I, 122). This actually has precedent later on when Lear tends to describe himself using animal terms several times. Line 122 comes in the context of Kent trying to defend Cordelia right after she essentially does the right thing and says that now that she is married, her love belongs with her husband. If anything, this means that in the context of her times, she has done the right thing. Notice the similarity of her argument with that of Desdemona in the first act of Othello. Lear should be pleased in having, in the context of the times, a well raised daughter. Yet, he gives in to emotion and becomes like a dragon, an old creature jealously guarding his treasure. In this case, one can say that Lear is sitting on his daughter's obeisance and the trappings of his power. If you notice, he is willing to give up his kingdom for his children, but he jealously guards the symbols of his power. He still wants to remain as the figurehead king and the source of his quarrel with his two daughters is his retinue of knights, a key symbol of his authority. Cordelia has defied him by saying that her loyalty now resides with her future husband, she has “stolen” from Lear's treasure of the obeisance of his progeny. Like the dragon, he has thus become consumed with rage and Kent is caught in between it.
The next major use of an animal to describe a character is in scene two of act I where Edmund states that his father, Gloucester has “a goatish disposition” (I, II, 130). This plays into the fact that Gloucester is blaming his sexual, escapades upon the star he was born under. If the play is representative of his relationships with his children before this time, it seems that he may even be closer to Edmund than Edgar. This is well represented by the goat, which was seen as an extremely lustful animal, which Gloucester seems to be. Much like the dragon, the goat is a rather accurate portrayal of the character at the time and even could be said to show him being consumed by his desires and emotions. Animals give into fornication without thought, humans were supposed to be able to resist the temptation and in the case of Edmund, Gloucester was more of an animal.
A significant portion of the animal images used in conjunction with Lear and his daughters are centered upon the theme of ungrateful children taking advantage of a weakened father. The first occurs in scene 4 of the first act, where the fool sagely says “the hedge sparrow fed the cuckoo so long that it had its head bitten off by its young” (I, IV, 212). Lear has brought his daughter up into a position of power now, and seeing him weakened...
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