One of the possible questions on your Leaving Cert Higher Level Paper 2 in June may well demand a good knowledge of the imagery in this great tragedy. As in all the great Shakespearean tragedies, imagery is very effectively used in King Lear to highlight and illustrate the major themes of the play.
These notes will focus on some of the most important image patterns such as
- Animal Imagery
- Images of Violent Suffering and Violent Action
- Clothes Imagery: Appearance V’s Reality
- Imagery of Sight and Blindness
- The Fool’s use of Rich Imagery
Animal imagery is dominant in the play. For many people, these are the images that leave the most lasting impression. We notice that the animals named are predatory: monsters of the deep, the wolf, the boar, the tiger, the vulture, the serpent, the dragon. This pattern of vicious animal imagery underlines the theme of predatory humans who feed off one another in Lear’s degenerate kingdom. The critic A.C. Bradley suggested that as we read the play, ‘the souls of all the beasts in turn seem to have entered the bodies of these mortals, horrible in their venom, savagery, lust, deceitfulness, sloth, cruelty, filthiness’ (Shakespearian Tragedy). Goneril and Regan, in particular, are seen as all-devouring creatures. The Fool describes their behaviour towards Lear in terms of the cuckoo and its young:
“The hedge-sparrow fed the cuckoo so long,
That it had its head bit off by its young.”
Goneril and Regan are persistently seen as beasts of prey, or as monsters:
- “More hideous … than the sea-monster” – Act I, iv.
- “detested kite”, “a serpent’s tooth”, “wolfish visage”, “like a vulture” –Act II, iv
- “boorish fangs” – Act III, Sc vii
- “tigers, not daughters” – Act IV, ii
This type of imagery underlines the viciousness of the two characters. They are seen as creatures that operate by the law of the jungle. They are very dangerous. They can devour all that is human and prey on those who are weaker than themselves.
On the heath, ‘unaccommodated man’ comes very close to the animal world – the wolf and owl, the cub-drawn bear, the lion and the belly-pinched wolf. Poor Tom brings with him the lower and more repulsive animals. Man no longer uses the animals – “thou owst the worm no silk, the beast no hide, the sheep no wool”. Man himself seems no more than an animal. His behaviour suggests this – he is likened either to the monsters of the deep that prey on each other, or to a “poor, bare, forked animal”. Tom has been “hog in sloth, fox in stealth, wolf in greediness…” (Act III, iv).
In the terrible world of Lear’s vision, man is a beast. Yet, something may come out of this elemental existence on the heath. We notice that the animal imagery changes as Lear’s recovery gets underway. The animals mentioned now are those which convey feelings of pleasure. In Act V, iii a much-chastened Lear tells Cordelia:
“We too alone will sing like birds i’ the cage, …”
“We’ll live and pray, and sing, and tell old tales, and laugh
At gilded butterflies…..”
These animal images leave two strong impressions. The primary one is that humanity seems to be reverting to a bestial condition. Secondly, there is a close association between the animal images and the suggestion of bodily pain, horror and suffering. As well as savage wolves, tigers and other predators there are ‘darting’ serpents, a ‘sharp-toothed’ vulture, stinging adders, gnawing rats, and whipped, whining, mad and biting dogs.
Therefore, the animal imagery throughout King Lear is a powerful and imaginative expression of the play’s major themes – how predatory human beings destroy decent values by operating the law of the jungle, and how the inevitable result is pain and suffering.
Images of Violent Suffering and Violent Action
King Lear is the most painful and harrowing of the tragedies. All through we are conscious of strife, buffeting, strain and bodily suffering to the point of agony. The images involving the human body are particularly grim. We have, as Caroline Spurgeon has remarked, the repeated image of the body in ‘anguished movement, tugged, wrenched, beaten, pierced, stung, scourged, scalded, dislocated, flayed, tortured, and finally broken on the rack’ (Shakespeare’s Imagery and What it Tells Us).
Even death is seen by Kent as a welcome release from torture, which is almost the permanent condition of those who live in the Lear universe. As Lear is dying, Kent makes the appeal:
O, let him pass! He hates him
That would upon the rack of this tough world
Stretch him out longer … (V, iii, 312).
Elsewhere he sees himself wrenched and tortured by an ‘engine’, and his heart about to break ‘into a hundred thousand flaws’. Gloucester’s ‘flawed heart’ is ‘cracked’ and finally is said to ‘burst smilingly’. Gloucester’s response to Edmund’s ‘revelations’ about Edgar is full of violent and agitated images. Within the space of ten lines, Gloucester uses the following: scourged, falls off, cracked, mutinies, machinations, ruinous disorders, discord. Gloucester himself is subjected to cruel and violent treatment: bound to a chair, plucked by the beard, his beard ‘ravished’ from his chin, ‘tied to a stake’, like a bear ‘to stand the course’. He has his eyes gouged out, and is ‘thrust out of’ the gates.
The idea that human beings can easily lapse into the condition and behaviour of wild animals is often held out as a possibility in King Lear. Lear is certain that Regan, in his defence, will with her nails, ‘flay that wolfish visage’ of Goneril. The most striking example of this violent, bestial imagery is Gloucester’s explanation to Regan for sending Lear to Dover:
I would not see thy cruel nails
Pluck out his poor old eyes, nor thy fierce sister
In his anointed flesh stick boarish fangs. (III,vii, 56)
Even the generally mild Albany declares that if he were to follow his natural instincts, he would ‘dislocate’ and ‘tear the flesh and bones’ of Goneril. The generally violenmt tendency of the language and imagery of the play is summed up in Lear’s ironic promise to Cordelia:
He that parts us shall bring a brand from heaven
And fire us hence like foxes. Wipe those eyes;
The good years shall devour them, flesh and fell
Ere they shall make us weep. We’ll see ‘em starved first. (V, iii, 22)
Clothing Imagery: Appearance and Reality
From first to last, there is a steady emphasis in the play on the contrast between man and his clothes. At the centre of the play, Lear stresses the function of clothing as a symbol of class and wealth, and as a means of hiding perversions of justice:
Through tattered clothes small vices do appear
Robes and furred gowns hide all. Plate sin with gold
And the strong lance of justice hurtless breaks;
Arm it in rags, a pygmy’s straw doth pierce it. (IV, vi, 164)
Lear is the first to mention clothing imagery when he declares in his opening speech that he will “divest (us) both of rule, interest of territory, cares of state…”.
Clothes become a symbol of luxury – “Thou art a lady…” a desperate Lear tells an obstinate Regan in Act II, iv:
“If only to go warm were gorgeous,
Why, nature needs not what thou gorgeous wears’t
Which scarcely keeps thee warm…”
In the Storm Scene, there is much significance in Lear’s tearing off his clothes and his joining “poor Tom” in the naked state. This gesture allows Lear to become “unaccommodated man … a poor, bare, forked animal”. It is only when he experiences this reduced state that Lear can truly identify with the poorest of his subjects. Naked to the elements, he now knows what it is like to “bide the pelting of the pitiless storm”.
The theme of appearance versus reality is a common one in Shakespearean plays. In King Lear, the image of clothing and its opposite, nakedness, is the imaginative expression of this theme. Clothes are seen as a camouflage to hide injustice and to symbolise power and privilege. It is a much wiser Lear who tells us in Act IV, vi, that things – and people – are not always what they seem. The outward trappings of wealth and privilege can sometimes conceal corruption. Likewise, poverty in one’s personal appearance can adversely affect the attitude of others towards us:
“Through tattered clothes small vices do appear.
Robes and furr’d gowns hide all.
Plate sin with gold
And the strong lance of justice hurtles breaks:
Arm it in rags, a pigmy’s straw doth pierce it.”
Lear has travelled a long way along the road to wisdom since he was fooled by Goneril’s and Regan’s flattery in Act I.
The imagery of clothing in King Lear is closely linked to the theme of disguise. Just as “robes and furr’d gowns hide all”, Goneril’s and Regan’s hypocrisy is disguised by their honey’d words at the beginning of the play. Those who do not resort to disguising their true feelings must suffer – i.e. Cordelia and Kent. In fact, Kent quickly finds that unless he disguises his appearance, his survival is at risk. Edgar too must assume a new identity if he is to stay alive – he becomes the naked “poor Tom” who is at the mercy of the elements on the heath.
The image of clothing is, therefore, a central one in King Lear. It is used most effectively to bring out the theme of appearance versus reality. The notion of disguise is also linked to the clothes imagery in the play. A key element in the tragedy is that virtue can only survive if disguised, while vice can parade openly and be rewarded. And we wonder if Shakespeare is still relevant in today’s world!
Imagery of Sight and Blindness
The frequent allusions to eyes, sight, and seeing are significant throughout the play. They begin as early as the first scene when Lear expels the sincere and loyal Kent: “Out of my sight!” Notice Kent’s emotional plea in reply:
“See better, Lear and let me still remain
The true blank of thine eye.”
These words underline Lear’s lack of insight, i.e. mental sight. The theme will be developed from this point onwards. Before long, Lear is forced to acknowledge his lack of insight. In Act I, iv, he is beginning to see Goneril in her true colours. The truth about his “thankless child” is painful for him: his “eyes” have deceived him, and in bitterness he wants to cast them out:
“… Old fond eyes,
Beweep this cause again, I’ll pluck ye out,
And cast you, with the waters that you loose,
To temper clay…. “
The anguished king returns to this theme again later:
“Does Lear walk thus? Speak thus?
Where are his eyes?”
Lear’s redemption is linked to his painful acquisition of the personal insight to himself and to others which he so blatantly lacks at the beginning of the play. His frequent references to sight, eyes, seeing, illustrate and highlight this theme.
Shakespeare also uses the sight/blindness imagery for another purpose. Through it he merges the main plot and sub-plot of the play, i.e. Lear’s betrayal by his daughters and Gloucester’s betrayal by Edmund. Gloucester, like Lear, does not know his children. He is fooled by Edmund and mistakes Edgar’s honesty for deception. This truth is brutally conveyed to him by Regan in Act III, vii, as Cornwall plucks out the old man’s eyes. Paradoxically, Gloucester only begins to acquire insight when his physical sight is taken from him. Within seconds of his becoming physically blind, in Act III, vii, he sees that Edmund truly “hates” him. Gloucester’s realisation of his foolishness is poignant:
“O my follies! Then Edgar was abused.
Kind gods, forgive me that and prosper him!”
Gloucester may now be “an eyeless villain” according to Cornwall, but in reality he is a much more “seeing” man than before. His reply to the Old Man who tells him in Act IV, i, “you cannot see your way” is, therefore, highly symbolic.
“I have no way, and therefore want no eyes;
I stumbled when I saw”
Gloucester has acquired knowledge and wisdom. The loss of his physical sight is meant to be understood in that context.
The parallel between Lear’s predicament and Gloucester’s, between main plot and sub-plot, is highlighted in Lear’s words to the blind Gloucester in Act IV, i,:
“A man may see how this world goes with no eyes.
Look with thine ears…”
Edgar sums up the paradox later in the same scene: “Reason in madness!”
Through the imagery of sight/blindness in King Lear, Shakespeare parallels the main plot and sub-plot, and this highlights the paradox at the very centre of the play.
Richness in the Imagery used by the Fool
The Fool in King Lear is one of the most interesting comic characters in all of Shakespeare’s plays. His language is rich, his thoughts at times profound. It is worth looking more closely at some of the imagery which he uses.
From the first moment of his appearance in the play, the Fool begins his commentary on Lear’s foolish behaviour. His first action is to offer Kent his “coxcomb” – his foolish cap. He explains that Kent has a right to the coxcomb “for taking one’s part that’s out of favour”. The Fool then goes on to compare the Truth to a dog that must be whipped out of sight and confined to its kennel. In the universe of hypocrisy and deception which Lear has now created, Truth, as always, will be the first casualty.
As Act I, iv, progresses, the Fool is relentless in pursuit of Lear and his folly. Although disguised in the form of nonsense rhymes, the Fool’s message is consistent: the real Fool is Lear himself. In one of these rhymes, the Fool distinguishes between the Fool who wears “motley”, i.e. the Fool’s uniform, and the real Fool who wears ordinary clothes, i.e. Lear.
At times the Fool is more direct: “thou hadst little wit in thy bald crown, when thou gavest thy golden one away”. He keeps up this piercing banter until Lear threatens to have him whipped. The Fool’s response is sharp:
“I marvel what kin thou and thy daughters are: they’ll have me whipped for speaking true, thou’lt have me whipped for lying…. I had rather be any kind o’ thing than a fool: and yet I would not be thee, nuncle; thou hast pared thy wit o’ both sides, and left nothing ‘i the middle”.
As Act I is drawing to a close, Lear is beginning to question his own wisdom in giving everything to his daughters. Goneril has already complained about the size of his retinue of followers, and the Fool’s premonitions look like becoming a reality. Lear is troubled, and his appeal to the fool now is urgent:
“Keep me in temper; I would not be mad!”
From now on, the Fool will also be mindful of his master’s suffering as well as his folly.
In Act II, iv, the Fool’s language is dense with significant imagery. He keeps up the meaningful rhymes which take the edge off his poignant commentary:
“Fathers that wear rags
Do make their children blind,
But fathers that wear bags
Shall see their children kind”.
He also uses the imagery of a wheel careering down a hill and out of control to depict Lear’s fate for Kent. He warns Kent that he will be crushed if he doesn’t release his hold on the “wheel”:
“Let go thy hold when a great wheel runs down a hill, lest it break thy neck with following; …”
When Lear comes to the verge of emotional collapse in this scene, the Fool switches to nonsense to try and retrieve the situation:
Lear: “O me, my heart, my rising heart! But, down
Fool: Cry to it, nuncle, as the cockney did to the eels when she put ‘em i’ the paste alive; she knapped ‘em o’ the coxcombs with a stick, and cried “Down, wantons, down!” ‘Twas her brother that, in pure kindness to his horse, buttered his hay.”
As the climax of the play approaches, there is poignancy in the Fool’s attempts to save his master from total despair. He relents in his torture of Lear and concentrates instead on urging him to take care of himself:
“O nuncle, court holy-water in a dry house is better than this rain-water out o’ door” …
But the caustic note is not completely gone. When Kent asks “Who’s there?”, the fool’s reply is deliberately ambiguous:
“Marry, here’s grace and a codpiece,
That’s a wise man and a fool”.
One is in no doubt that he means to convey how these roles have been reversed.
Through the imagery of his speech, the Fool acts as a kind of intelligent chorus in King Lear. He never lets us forget the tragedy of what is happening on the stage. His loyalty to, and concern for, his master is touching. He is, perhaps, the play’s most endearing character.
Bradley, A.C., Shakespearean Tragedy. New York: Meridian Books, 1955.
Spurgeon, Caroline F. E., Shakespeare’s Imagery and What It Tells Us, Cambridge Univesity Press, 1935.