Foreshadowing in King Lear

Shakespeare uses imagery, metaphors, and allusions in King Lear to foreshadow the overwhelming tragedy that occurs. Disguises that characters wear are also often used to foreshadow a coming change in a character’s circumstances or values.

Foreshadowing Examples in King Lear:

Act I - Scene I 2

"Time shall unfold what plaited cunning hides..."   (Act I - Scene I)

The adjective here is actually “plighted” and it refers to a bad condition or state. So, Cordelia is suggesting that the sisters’ cunning, or plans to gain power from their father, are not as subtle or crafty as they believe. The word “hides” relates to the theme of blindness and insight: the truth of the sisters’ plans will be uncovered and the faults in their characters will be revealed.

"and with what poor judgment he hath now cast her off appears too grossly..."   (Act I - Scene I)

Even Lear’s daughters see that he has exhibited poor judgment in his treatment of Cordelia. However, note that they are less concerned with Cordelia’s fate and more interested in how their father’s actions have reaffirmed their belief in his instability—particularly how it will affect them and their interests. Like Kent, they saw the wrong of Lear’s actions, but unlike Kent, they plan to use it to their advantage, revealing their lust for power and foreshadowing conflict between the daughters and their father.

"thou wouldst make a good fool...."   (Act I - Scene V)

The Fool’s comment here recalls the conversation in the previous scene in which the Fool calls Lear a fool as well, suggesting that there is potential for role reversal in the tragedy. The comment should also be read in conjunction with Lear’s fear that he might go mad himself, losing his reason and becoming a fool. With this in mind, this can be viewed as potential foreshadowing for future events.

"That sir which serves and seeks for gain, And follows but for form,(80) Will pack when it begins to rain, And leave thee in the storm,..."   (Act II - Scene IV)

Since it’s been established that the Fool knows more about events happening in the play than the others, his rhymes warrant close scrutiny. In this case, he is saying that someone who serves Lear for appearances and personal gain will abandon Lear when the “storm” comes. Given the Fool’s insight, and the way things are going for Lear, this rhyme certainly foreshadows events to come.

"I will lay trust upon thee; and thou shalt find a dearer father in my love...."   (Act III - Scene V)

Note that in the previous line Edmund states that it pains him to turn his father in because he is of his own “blood.” Cornwall suggests that he can take on the role of father to Edmund both politically, as he can grant a title to Edmund that a father usually grants, and biologically, in that he will replace a father by “blood.” Considering that Edmund has just betrayed his own father and Cornwall has taken him in as a figurative “son,” this illustrates Cornwall’s blindness to the danger that Edmund presents.

"Lest it see more, prevent it. Out, vile jelly! Where is thy lustre now?..."   (Act III - Scene VII)

The theme of blindness and insight finds a physical manifestation in the blinding of Gloucester. He and Lear have not been able to see the cunning and ambition of their children; both are “blind” to these actions. Gloucester, for his loyalty to Lear, is physically blinded, paying with the loss of his sight for his blind trust of Edmund. This attack signals an increasingly literal violence taking place in the play, with the blind being punished for their mistakes but those who are doing the blinding becoming more monstrous and hateful.

"pluck..."   (Act IV - Scene II)

“Pluck” draws the reader’s mind back to Goneril’s command to “pluck out his [Gloucester’s] eyes,” rather than killing him instantly as Regan suggests. Here, Goneril subconsciously invokes the idea of divine justice: just as she had Gloucester’s eyes “plucked” out so will her objectives be “plucked” from her. “Pluck” and “hateful life” seem to be Goneril foreshadowing her own downfall.

"Yours in the ranks of death...."   (Act IV - Scene II)

Oaths of allegiance often include a pledge of service in life as well as death. That Edmund has pledged his service to Goneril in death only offers insight into the condition of Goneril’s plans for power. While life has positive associations and connotations, death largely has negative ones. That Edmund associates Goneril with the ranks of death suggests that she is on a destructive course with her plans for power, possibly foreshadowing more violence to come.

"These weeds are memories of those worser hours: I prithee, put them off...."   (Act IV - Scene VII)

Cordelia is asking Kent to take off his disguise, which she refers to both as weeds, to emphasize the low quality of his clothes, and as bad memories, to recall his and her banishment from the kingdom. Since clothes have served as a symbol of status in the play, Kent’s refusal to take them off illustrates that he does not yet feel comfortable resuming his position as earl quite yet; there is still the battle to be fought.

"Jesters do oft prove prophets...."   (Act V - Scene III)

Here, Regan states one of the main themes of this play: there is wisdom that comes from standing outside the constraints of society and acting a fool. There is also ominous foreshadowing within this line as Regan suggests that even things said in jest might actually happen. Foolery then becomes a type of omnipotent intuition that knows all by knowing nothing.