Linguistic variety

King Lear Title page 1608 editionThe language of King Lear covers a very wide variety of styles and demonstrates Shakespeare’s ability to create exactly the right linguistic texture to suit the context, whether it be:

  • a set-piece like the opening love-test
  • the evocation of a violent storm
  • madnes
  • the intimate reconciliation of a guilty father and a loving child
to mention just a few of the dramatic situations portrayed in the play.
Throughout the play there is a total fusion of dramatic effect and poetic technique. 

Shakespeare’s verbal energy

Lear's speech at the beginning of the storm in Act 3 Scene 2 is justifiably famous:
      Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! rage! blow!
You cataracts and hurricanoes, spout
Till you have drenched the steeples, drowned the cocks!
You sulphurous and thought-executing fires,
Vaunt-couriers to oak-cleaving thunderbolts,
Singe my white head! And thou, all-shaking thunder,
Smite flat the thick rotundity o'the world!
Crack Nature's moulds, all germens spill at once,
That make ingrateful man!     

Action and sound effect

The scene crackles with energy. It is full of noisy verbs, beginning with the explosive 'blow' and continuing with 'crack', 'rage', a repeated 'blow', 'spout', 'drenched', 'drowned', 'singe', 'smite', crack' and 'spill'. The words are not only violent in meaning but the clusters of harsh consonants within concentrated, entirely monosyllabic verbs gives an impression of words bursting open to release the elements which they invoke.

Elements personified

The elements of nature are also endowed with living force. These winds, thunderbolts etc. are personified and are addressed by second-person pronouns 'you' and 'thou'. They are capable not only of 'drenching' but also of drowning. The weathercocks (typically found on church steeples) are suddenly animated: they become real farmyard fowl facing extinction by drowning by the downpours of rain. 
The winds are similarly animated in the first line. Commonly depicted on contemporary maps as cherubs with puffed-out cheeks, blowing in the direction of the winds they represent, Lear's winds have become monstrous, endowed with the capacity to blow so hard that they can 'crack' their cheeks with the further violent suggestion of tearing flesh. The word 'oak-cleaving' is also infused with this animating energy, the image suggesting not only that the thunderbolts can strike oak trees but are like axe-wielding giants, splitting great oak trees from top to bottom.

Biblical imagery

Many of the images in this speech echo a Psalm with which Shakespeare’s contemporary audience would have been familiar. Psalms 29:3-9 includes mighty thunder, flood and lightening, smashed trees, earthquake and writhing oaks. 

Verse structure

The movement of the verse also captures Lear's rage and the energy he wishes to harness. Six of the eight monosyllabic words in the first line carry strong stresses, the pauses indicated by the five punctuation marks allowing each idea (and each sound) to make its mark. Shakespeare works against the iambic rhythms of blank verse to suggest strain and stress, with many lines carrying extra syllables whilst others are shorter and more punchy. For example, the phrase 'Crack nature's moulds' has three strong stresses which sound as hammer-blows, suggestive of utter destruction. Lear is calling for no less than the destruction by thunder of all human life on earth once and for all. If a mould is cracked, there is no hope of creating any more objects from it. Continuity is lost forever.
For a speech which begins in such an explosively arresting manner, there is a risk of anti-climax. However, Shakespeare makes his final words the whole purpose of Lear's rage. 'Ingrateful man' does not deserve to survive and the words hang exposed to Lear's anger and to the destructive power of the elements.

The language of ritual

Much of the opening scene sounds as if some pre-prepared ritual were being enacted. The style Shakespeare adopts here is one of concision and precision, with balanced phrases and a formality suggested by the end-stopping of lines (i.e. lines of verse which end with punctuation marks, rather than being allowed to ‘run on’ into the next line). An example of this formal, ritualistic tone can be found in lines like:
      The princes, France and Burgundy,
Great rivals in our youngest daughter’s love,
Long in our court have made their amorous sojourn,
And here are to be answer’d. (Act 1 Scene 1)     
The ritualistic part of the scene concludes with the departure of Cordelia and France from the stage and Shakespeare’s use of rhyme imparts an air of finality to the proceedings, as well as displaying Cordelia’s presence of mind and ability to see through pretence:
      Time shall unfold what plighted cunning hides;
Who covers faults, at last shame them derides. (Act 1 Scene 1)     

Verse and prose

About one third of King Lear is in prose. As a general rule Shakespeare employs prose to convey the casualness of everyday speech, whilst verse is used to convey formality, precision and complexity. Verse is often used to suggest ideas that have been carefully formulated, whereas prose often suggests relative spontaneity and informality.
Act 1 Scene 1 opens with a covert prose conversation between Gloucester and Kent and it ends in prose too, creating a personal frame around the stateliness of the verse. The earthy bawdiness of the opening conversation (e.g. ‘There was good sport at his making, and the whoreson must be acknowledged’) contrasts with the public grandeur of the ceremony which follows. The same scene ends with the coldly calculating comments of Goneril and Regan. Their speech is stripped back to self-serving essentials (e.g. ‘We must do something, and i’the heat.’) which contrasts sharply with the extravagance of their earlier protestations of love for their father.
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