Metaphor in King Lear

A metaphor is a comparison without using “like” or “as.” Metaphors are used in Shakespeare's works to describe certain characters and their motives. Much like how the characters in King Lear invoke the gods to restore balance to the chaotic social and political order, they also compare other characters to the gods to emphasize a specific character trait or tragic flaw. King Lear is rife with many other metaphors, but of note are those that compare Goneril and Regan to animals, suggesting their savage and brutal natures.

Metaphor Examples in King Lear:

Act I - Scene I 1

"The vines of France and milk of Burgundy Strive to be interest..."   (Act I - Scene I)

Lear is referring to the two lords Gloucester has brought to the room. Their mention here and earlier indicate that, unlike her sisters, Cordelia has not married and is being courted by the two men. France and Burgundy, a region of France, are known for their wines, cheese, and milk, which is why Lear chooses such a metaphor to refer to the lords.

"Dost thou know me, fellow? ..."   (Act I - Scene IV)

Kent’s decision to disguise himself in order to serve Lear demonstrates how loyal he is to Lear's authority. Lear's failure to see through Kent’s disguise emphasizes his lack of insight and how blind he is to actions around him, providing an insightful metaphor for Lear’s inability to see his daughters’ real motivations.

"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.

"Nature in you stands on the very verge Of her confine:..."   (Act II - Scene IV)

Regan’s inclusion of “Nature” in her response to Lear has additional meaning. She means that “Nature” represents a place beyond the realm of human rationality, and since it is “on the very verge / Of his confine,” then she means to say that madness is coming closer to Lear. Because Regan frames the human mind as something that can be breached by nature, she reinforces her assertion that age or emotional instability can weaken it and allow the wild forces of “Nature” to take over.

"Fie on this storm!..."   (Act III - Scene I)

Pronounced “figh,” “fie” is an interjection means to express distaste, anger, or outrage at someone or something that has occurred. When something is the target of the interjection, it is followed by the preposition “on.” In this context, Kent is expressing his anger at the physical storm happening in the area; however, we can also examine the storm as a metaphor for the disorder happening in the kingdom and the disintegration of the lawful order.

"The younger rises when the old doth fall...."   (Act III - Scene III)

As we’ve seen so far, the dichotomy between the fathers and their children in this play is pronounced: the fathers value fate, tradition, and order; the children (except Edgar and Cordelia) desire authority, power, and control of their own destinies. This tension works on the family level of those involved, but it also works metaphorically for the English state. If the young refuse to acknowledge and learn from the old, the social order will be thrown into disarray.

"plague..."   (Act IV - Scene I)

Because multiple devastating outbreaks of the bubonic plague ravaged England’s population in the 1590s, the word “plague” would have evoked connotations of chaos, death, and horror. Glocester uses the metaphor “time’s plague” to signal that this is the worst of times: his family, his body, and the country are in disarray and all of the systems that regulated civil life have devolved into chaos.

"I stumbled when I saw:..."   (Act IV - Scene I)

Now that he has lost his sight, Gloucester begins to despair that he has no purpose left beyond seeing his son Edgar again. This metaphor illustrates how Gloucester now realizes he was blind to Edmund’s betrayal, emphasizing how he couldn’t properly walk or “see” his way when he had eyes.

"How fearful And dizzy 'tis, to cast one's eyes so low!..."   (Act IV - Scene VI)

Edgard refers to “eyes” as a metaphor for mood, internal suffering, or a signal of one’s inner feelings. Rather than referring only to the physical body parts that Gloucester no longer has, Edgar expands the meaning of “eyes” to something that is accessible to his father.

"deficient sight..."   (Act IV - Scene VI)

Edgar refers to his ability to see as “deficient sight” that will cause his literal fall off the cliff. Metaphorically “deficient sight” caused his father’s downfall too, as Gloucester’s despair comes from his loss of sight and social position. Within this speech Edgar recasts “sight” as a negative quality. This is one of the ways in which Edgar tries to reverse his father’s despair.

"Through tattered clothes small vices do appear;(180) Robes and furred gowns hide all. Plate sin with gold, And the strong lance of justice hurtless breaks:..."   (Act IV - Scene VI)

Since clothing is a symbol of status, “tattered clothes” is a metaphor for the poor and “robes and furred gowns” is a metaphor for the rich. When Lear says, “Plate a sin with gold/ And the strong lance of justice hurtless breaks,” Lear is essentially saying that the corruptions and “sin[s]” of the rich are much more easily veiled than those of the poor due to their wealth and stature. Clothing again becomes a symbol of character. The rich can hide their ugly nature beneath jewels and gold, and not be forced to answer for their misdeeds—the poor cannot.