Allusion in King Lear

An allusion is a figure of speech in which the author refers to a person, place, thing, or a literary work. Characters in King Lear repeatedly allude to Greek and Roman mythology, asking gods and goddesses to restore order to a kingdom in chaos. These allusions often help to further characterize the motives and intent of different characters.

Allusion Examples in King Lear:

Act I - Scene I 1

"Now, by Apollo, king, Thou swear'st thy gods in vain...."   (Act I - Scene I)

The greek god Apollo is associated with knowledge and sight. King Lear’s invocation of Apollo is ironic in that he is suggesting that the Earl of Kent is being unreasonable in assuming Cordelia’s honesty. Ironically, King Lear’s invocation actually illustrates his own refusal to see reason.

"Ajax..."   (Act II - Scene II)

Ajax is a hero in Greek mythology that was known for his prowess in battle, much like Achilles. However, Ajax lacked the kind of intricate knowledge of battle and strategy that Achilles had.

"Juno..."   (Act II - Scene IV)

In Roman mythology, Juno, Jupiter’s wife, is the goddess of marriage and the protector of the state. Juno is often thought to be the equivalent of the Greek goddess Hera.

" worth the whistle...."   (Act IV - Scene II)

“Worth the whistle” refers to the proverb “It is a poor dog that is not worth the whistling.” Goneril uses this allusion to chastise her husband for not welcoming her when she came home; in other words, there was a time when you thought I was worth the whistle. Since she was just claiming that her husband was a “fool” unworthy of her body, it is odd that she would care that he did not welcome her home.

"deficient sight Topple down headlong...."   (Act IV - Scene VI)

Edgar’s argument, that sight is a corrupting influence that leads to one’s downfall, could be an allusion to multiple stories from antiquity. In the story of Tiresias, the prophet is blinded by Athena for watching her bathe naked; Oedipus stabs out his own eyes after he realizes that he has fulfilled a prophecy to marry his mother and murder his father. Both men lose their physical sight and gain insight into the lives of others and their own lives. Within this allusion, blindness is recast as the only way to truly see.