17 April 2013
Animal Imagery in King Lear A common misconception during the Elizabethan Era is that humans are superior to animals. Fudge shows this by stating: “where there is a fear of the collapse of difference, there is also an urgent need to reiterate human superiority” (Fudge 2). Throughout King Lear, Shakespeare challenges this boundary that has been desperately enforced by humans for so many years. The strict distinction between humans and animals is trivialized as Shakespeare continuously alludes to the relationships between his characters, animals, and other species. With this being said, the audience is able to see how the play King Lear, exposes a number of Shakespeare’s interesting literary choices. One that is used frequently within the play is animal imagery, where the characteristics of specific individuals relate to the qualities associated with a particular animal. Through the use of a dragon, serpent, and bird, Shakespeare utilizes animal imagery to relate common understandings and representations of animals to highlight both the characters’ true qualities and their relevance through a feminist lens. The juxtaposition of human and animal in King Lear is effective in establishing the idea that humans and animals are not as dissimilar as many believe, and in fact possess many of the same underlying qualities.
The image of a dragon is used by Shakespeare to portray King Lear’s emotions. Although dragons are traditionally mythological creatures, their possessive qualities and explosive personality are traits that humans also possess. For example, Lear refers to himself as a dragon when he states, “come not between the dragon and his wrath” (1.1.126). At this point in the play, it is evident that Lear possesses qualities of a dragon as he is very easily enraged, and views himself as a very powerful and important person. He becomes enraged at the fact that his prized possession or treasure, Cordelia, is being put in jeopardy by her response. Lear and a dragon both show how the concept of change can make one become very vulnerable. Although Lear’s inflexible personality causes him to banish Cordelia, the thought of losing his favourite daughter will become everlasting in his mind. Both a dragon and Lear have become so accustomed to their roles of protecting, that the idea of change may cause them to lash out. Furthermore, Lear shows how he feels superior to everyone below him in the hierarchy. His actions reveal that he sees himself as untouchable and is willing to pose threats to anyone he may feel uncomfortable or intimidated by. Even though Kent is giving Lear priceless advice, Lear’s current state of vulnerability causes him to usher threats and make idiotic decisions. Lear’s comments out of anger and his comparison to being a dragon shows how males have ultimate authority over women, and are able to speak their minds without consequences. In addition, men can be distinguished as the dominant gender since Lear parallel’s a dragon’s characteristics of being a very powerful creature and leader. Although Lear is willing to divide his kingdom up, he does not suggest that he is willing to give up any of his power. Lear still wants to remain as a leading figure and have full authority over everyone. There is no mention of a Queen being present, or the balance of power shifting to anyone else other than Lear. Therefore it is evident that Shakespeare uses animal imagery to show Lear’s fiery personality and male authority. Traditionally, snakes are seen as predatory animals that are feared by almost everyone. Being related to a snake is not normally a positive comparison, thus, one must commit a significantly evil action to be called one. The first reference to a snake is when Lear is ranting about Goneril to Regan. He states, “[Goneril] struck me with her tounge/ most...
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Shakespeare, William. King Lear. Toronto: International Thomson Publishing, 1998. Print.
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