King Lear Essay, Research Paper
Animal Imagery in King Lear
In the play King Lear by William Shakespeare, a collection of images are used to express different points Shakespeare is trying to relay to his audience. One reoccurring image is that of animal images. Shakespeare incorporates these animal images when King Lear and many of the other characters in the play talk about Goneril and Regan and the animals that Lear and the other characters compare the two sisters to are not very pretty. They are compared to animals such as tigers, serpents, and even monsters. These reoccurring images have an important idea behind them that Shakespeare hopes to communicate to his readers.
Shakespeare wastes no time in comparing Goneril and Regan to animals. When Lear parts from Goneril at the end of Act I, after she has sneered at him, he calls her a “Detested kite” (I. iv. 269.). He also compares her to “the sea-monster” (I. iv. 268.), by which he possibly means a mythological monster that would betray its own father. King Lear also comments on his daughters ingratitude using animal imagery when he exclaims,” How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is to have a thankless child” (I. iv. 295-296.). Lear comments once more on his daughter’s “monster ingratitude” (I. v. 40.). Lear is showing how he feels about how his daughters are treating him by comparing them to unpleasant animals.
Lear in scene IV has a quarrel with his other daughter, Regan, where again he uses animal images to show how his daughters are sinking below manhood to animals. Lear seeks out his daughter, Regan, at Gloucester’s castle, and finds out that her husband has put his faithful friend Kent in the stocks and that both husband and wife have retired to bed and do not wish to see him. When Regan finally comes down, she tells him “You should be ruled, and led by some discretion that discerns your state better than yourself” (II. iv. 147-149). Lear responds by saying “struck me with her tongue, most serpent-like, upon the very heart. (II. iv. 159-160). Lear here again is relating Regan to a serpent, which is a large poisonous snake.
Both daughters seem to him now like unusually cruel animals. They show this when they shut him out into the stormy night. In the storm scene, Lear’s hurt from his daughters affect his attitude to the mad Tom of Bedlam (Edgar). He thinks that his daughters must have abused Poor Tom. Nothing else could have brought him to such a pathetic state. This reminds Lear of his own “pelican daughters” (III. iv. 75). This is an allusion to the medieval belief that pelican young fed on the blood of the parent bird. This analogy compares to how Lear’s daughters are feeding on him giving them the control of the kingdom.
Shakespeare uses these animal images throughout his play to describe Goneril and Regan. It will be noticed that most of the animals used in these comparisons are unpleasant (kite, serpent, tigers, pelicans, foxes, and even monsters). Shakespeare is showing that the sisters are sinking from the level of man, who stood between the angels and the animals, to the level of the animals. They have become like some of the most unpleasant birds and animals of prey. In their cruelty and unnaturalness they are less than human.