Animals and monsters

Images of degradation

Shakespeare was writing long before Darwin and his theory of evolution. His contemporaries would have accepted the biblical teaching that human beings were created separately from animals and were expected to prove their superiority by exercising their reason rather than succumbing to base instincts. (See What is a human.) 
The animal imagery in King Lear emphasises that human beings often fall short of their God-given role and too often display characteristics (cruelty, carnal desires etc) entirely natural in animals but considered inappropriate in humans. This is particularly seen in the characters of Goneril and Regan:
  • Lear calls Goneril a ‘detestable kite’ and Regan a ‘vulture’, both being birds which eat the flesh of dead creatures
  • He refers to them as ‘pelican daughters’ who feed off the blood of their father
  • Goneril is said to have a ‘wolvish visage’ and to have struck her father ‘most serpent-like, upon the very heart’. Indeed he says ‘How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is / To have a thankless child.’
  • In Act 4 Albany compares Goneril and Regan to tigers for the way they have cruelly treated their father.
When he is cast out, Lear says that he would rather live in the wild and spend his time with wolves and owls, as their wild company would be better than staying with the unnatural daughters who treat him so selfishly. Similarly negative animal images include references to: a baited bear, venomous snakes, mistreated dogs, caged birds and mongrel bitches.

Monsters and appetite

More extreme than beasts are images that reflect the monstrous appetite of a humanity unleashed from moral constraint:
  • Early in Act 1 Scene 1 Lear refers to ‘he who makes his generation messes to gorge his appetite’, a description which could well refer to the narrative arc of Edmund
  • Lear refers to himself as a wrathful ‘dragon’ as he castigates Kent
  • In Act 1 Scene 2 Gloucester can only think of his elder son as a ‘brutish villain’ or ‘monster’, which Lear echoes in Act 1 Scene 5 when he refers to Goneril’s ‘monster ingratitude’
  • Lear develops the idea in Act 3 Scene 4 as he reflects on his daughters’ rejection of him being like ‘this mouth should tear this hand / For lifting food to’t’ (adapting the English proverb about ‘biting the hand that feeds you’). 
Women are particularly associated with cruel monster images:
  • In Act 3 Scene 5 Gloucester defends his king so as never to witness Regan’s ‘cruel nails pluck out his poor old eyes; Nor [her] fierce sister in his anointed flesh / Rash boarish fangs.’
  • The servants who witness Gloucester’s blinding are struck by Regan’s role in it, which, if unpunished, may incite all women to ‘turn monsters.’
  • Albany eventually recognises his wife’s cruel intent in Act 4 Scene 2 when he refers to her as a deformed ‘devil’, asking her not to ‘be-monster’ her appearance further, although when her duplicitous letter to Edmund is uncovered, it is ‘Most monstrous!’ (Act 5 Scene 3).    
In a ‘dog eat dog’ world, even the previously gentle Albany is caught up in the desire for blood-letting. His (quashed) desire to ‘dislocate and tear’ Goneril’s ‘flesh and bones’ in Act 4 Scene 2 reflects his awareness that, if there is no divine retribution: 
      Humanity must perforce prey on itself,
Like monsters of the deep.      
Albany is right to describe the world of Lear by Act 5 Scene 3 as a ‘gor’d state’.


In a play that is so concerned with truth versus superficial appearance it is not surprising that there is a cluster of images concerned with clothing and nakedness.
Examples include: 
  • Poor naked wretches, whereso'er you are, / That bide the pelting of this pitiless storm (Act 3 Scene 4)
  • Let not the creaking of shoes nor the rustling of silks betray thy poor heart to woman (Act 3 Scene 4)
  • You, sir - I entertain you for one of my hundred; only I do not like the fashion of your garments (Act 3 Scene 6)
  • And bring some covering for this naked soul (Act 4 Scene 1)
  • Robes and furr'd gowns hide all (Act 4 Scene 6)
Clothing also confers dignity however. Edgar and Lear’s degrading nakedness is symbolic not only of their actual destitution but also of their loss of identity and significance. In the Elizabethan and Jacobean court, clothing was always a representation of wealth and status. In Act 4 Scene 7 Cordelia is concerned that Kent is ‘better suited’, since his ‘weeds are memories of those worser hours’. It is significant that a factor in Lear’s restoration by his youngest daughter involves him being once more ‘arrayed’ in ‘fresh garments’.


Torture in the 16th centuryThe extreme physical and mental suffering in the play is accompanied by imagery which suggests violence and torture. Images of the human body being wrenched, beaten, scalded, tortured and broken on the rack occur throughout the play:
  • Lear cries that his heart will ‘break into a hundred thousand flaws’ and he tells Cordelia that he is bound
      Upon a wheel of fire, that my own tears 
Do scald like molten lead.’      
  • Gloucester, the character who sees the truth only after his eyes are gouged out, sums up the gratuitous violence that pervades the play with his aphorism:
      As flies to wanton boys, are we to the gods.
They kill us for their sport.  
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