Symbols in King Lear
Gods and Heavens: The gods and the heavens in King Lear are often invoked when characters are seeking divine intervention for justice and order. They become symbols throughout the entire play, specifically in times of great tragedy to further emphasize the descent into chaos or madness that has occurred.
Clothing and Costumes: Shakespeare uses clothing and costumes as symbols in many of his plays, and King Lear is no exception. Characters’ changing their clothing and appearance symbolizes their change in attitudes, awareness, and values. Costumes symbolize deception and treachery, but good characters use costumes as a means for protection rather than scheming.
Symbols Examples in King Lear:
Act I - Scene II 1
"These late eclipses in the sun and moon(100) portend no good to us..." See in text (Act I - Scene II)
Gloucester, believing Edmund's deception, claims that the movements in the heavens foreshadow bad things to come. It is notable here that Gloucester invokes the sun and moon shortly after Edmund's swearing allegiance to nature. Both appear to be appealing to the same force(s), but their methods are distinctly different. Edmund looks to nature as a way to circumvent the constraints of society while Gloucester sees it as a divine power that rules over humanity. These views provide readers with a complex symbolic system, one in which the characters will interpret differently based on their beliefs and desires.
Act I - Scene IV 3
"She'll flay thy wolvish visage...." See in text (Act I - Scene IV)
“Visage” means “face.” Lear curses Goneril by comparing her to an animal; in this case, her face to a wolf. In doing this, Lear states that Goneril is no better than an animal in her disposition and behavior—she does not have the respect for family ties that a human should.
"your whoreson dog! you slave! you cur!..." See in text (Act I - Scene IV)
A “whoreson” is a bastard son, and a “cur” is a low-bred dog. Lear uses references to various animals to insult and degrade others. Throughout the play, Shakespeare will use animals to symbolize the lowest status to which humans can descend.
"Sirrah, you were best take my coxcomb...." See in text (Act I - Scene IV)
A “coxcomb” is a fool’s hat, which has a red crest resembling a cock’s comb. As the Fool attempts to place his coxcomb on the Earl of Kent’s head, the coxcomb becomes a symbol of Kent’s foolishness for following King Lear despite Lear’s irrational political choices.
Act I - Scene V 1
"She will taste as like this as a crab does to a crab...." See in text (Act I - Scene V)
Shakespeare again uses animals to symbolize the natures of different characters. The Fool cleverly points out that Goneril and Regan are both similar in their cruel and savage character, and Lear’s assumption that Regan will be any different from Goneril is somewhat comical. Once again, the Fool shows himself as one of the most insightful characters, which leads us to question who the real “fool” is.
Act II - Scene III 1
"I will preserve myself: and am bethought To take the basest and most poorest shape That ever penury, in contempt of man, Brought near to beast: my face I'll grime with filth;..." See in text (Act II - Scene III)
Edgar’s disguise transforms his appearance into one that is almost animal-like. Edgar’s removal of his fine clothes symbolizes his being stripped down in power and status.
Act II - Scene IV 5
"wilt thou take her by the hand?..." See in text (Act II - Scene IV)
Lear draws attention to how Regan and Goneril take each other’s hands when Goneril enters the area. This physical act serves as a symbolic blow to Lear, who sees that his daughter Regan stands with, and supports, Goneril instead of him.
"No, rather I abjure all roofs, and choose..." See in text (Act II - Scene IV)
Having both his daughters show him such disrespect, Lear has just invoked the heavens to keep him sane. However, now he threatens to live as an animal in the woods, a claim that suggests nature values justice and family bonds more than Lear’s present company. Since comparing people to animals has been used for insults, this sentiment complicates the symbol because it suggests that while beasts, animals are still less corrupt than humans.
"O, reason not the need: our basest beggars Are in the poorest thing superfluous: Allow not nature more than nature needs, Man's life's as cheap as beast's: thou art a lady;..." See in text (Act II - Scene IV)
While Lear’s speech appears nonsensical, he makes a salient argument here. Lear complicates the notion that humans and animals are not really very different, stating “Man’s life is cheap as beast’s.” This means that humans really require no more to live on than animals. The use of the word “cheap” also suggests that even the poorest people have things that the rich may deem unnecessary, leading us to wonder what truly makes a person rich.
"You heavens, give me that patience, patience I need! You see me here, you gods, a poor old man,..." See in text (Act II - Scene IV)
Lear’s daughters have systematically stripped him of his remaining knights, removing nearly all of his remaining power and authority in the process. In response to this, Lear again invokes the heavens to intervene; however this time, Lear asks for patience and sanity, fearing that he’s losing both. Goneril and Regan’s cold and unjust treatment of their father has severed the family ties, and has left Lear on the brink of madness.
"Ha, ha! he wears cruel garters..." See in text (Act II - Scene IV)
Upon seeing Kent, the Fool immediately starts to ridicule him. He calls the stocks Kent’s “cruel garters” (garters being a band worn to keep socks or stockings up one’s leg) and his “wooden nether-socks.” Since clothes often represent station in Shakespeare’s plays, the Fool uses such language to portray Kent’s pitiful position.
Act III - Scene I 1
"This night, wherein the cub-drawn bear would couch, The lion and the belly-pinched wolf..." See in text (Act III - Scene I)
The verb “couch” means to lie down. The Gentleman uses language that associates Lear’s state of mind with nature and animals. Lear’s wild shouts parallel the raging storm, and even the fiercest animals would not dare to make themselves vulnerable to natural forces as Lear does. Lear’s savage fury at the storm emphasizes how his daughter’s betrayal and cruelty has caused him to lash out against nature, an irrational action that reveals his growing madness.
Act III - Scene IV 2
"Those pelican daughters...." See in text (Act III - Scene IV)
During Shakespeare's time it was commonly believed that pelican young fed off of their mother’s own blood. Lear is suggesting that he has been a good father, charitable and kind, and Goneril and Regan have been incredibly ungrateful. Notice again, the use of animals to symbolize Goneril and Regan’s lack of basic compassion and humanity.
"Is man no more than this? Consider him well. Thou owest(105) the worm no silk, the beast no hide, the sheep no wool, the cat no perfume. Ha! here's three on 's are sophisticated! Thou art the thing itself: unaccommodated man is no more but such a poor bare, forked animal as thou art...." See in text (Act III - Scene IV)
Notice that Lear describes his clothes as “lendings” before stripping them off, reminding the audience that they are not an essential part of him. His nakedness underscores the theme of disintegration; the stripping away of excess and returning to nature. Lear then describes Poor Tom’s madness as being the nature of “unaccommodated man,” suggesting that the human being in this state is more natural than those deemed “sane” in civilization.
Act III - Scene VI 1
"It shall be done; I will arraign them straight...." See in text (Act III - Scene VI)
Revealing just how far he has descended into his madness, Lear begins to carry out an imaginary trial against Goneril and Regan for their betrayal of what Lear considers his gratitude. There are some parallels between the way Lear goes about this imaginary trial and the ceremony in Act I, scene i. However, one noticeable difference is that he refers to his daughters as “she-foxes,” bringing in more animal symbolism and revealing how he is now more aware of their cunning and heartlessness.
Act III - Scene VII 1
"Pluck out his eyes...." See in text (Act III - Scene VII)
Notice that while Regan calls for Gloucester’s death, Goneril instead states that they should remove his sight. While blindness and insight largely have been figurative and metaphorical in the play to this point, this call for physically blinding Gloucester raises the stakes of the political climate, emphasizing the cruelty of Lear’s daughters and their boundless ambition.
Act IV - Scene II 3
"If that the heavens do not their visible spirits(50) Send quickly down to tame these vile offences,..." See in text (Act IV - Scene II)
Albany’s greater insight into Goneril and Regan’s complete disregard for social order, familial bonds, and basic human compassion, provokes him to look to the gods and heavens above for divine justice. This parallels Lear and Gloucester’s invocation of the gods, and underscores Britain’s descent into chaos and disorder.
"Tigers, not daughters, what have you performed? A father, and a gracious aged man,(45)..." See in text (Act IV - Scene II)
Albany now sees Goneril and Regan’s true colors and compares them to animals to characterize them as vicious and barbarous. Note that he states that not even a bear would hurt their “gracious” and kindly father in the way that they do, suggesting that Goneril and Regan’s cruelty is even more brutal than animal life. Goneril and Regan’s greed and senseless violence brings them down to a level of savagery that even the most lawless beasts would not descend to.
"This shows you are above, You justicers, that these our nether crimes So speedily can venge!..." See in text (Act IV - Scene II)
Having just heard the account of how Gloucester lost his eyes and Cornwall perished, Albany calls out to the heavens and praises them for how quickly they exacted retribution against Cornwall for his treatment of Gloucester. Albany now makes restoring the land to just authority and political order his purpose, much like Kent and Gloucester have. His belief in divine order and justice parallels the beliefs of Lear and Gloucester.
Act IV - Scene III 2
"gave her dear rights To his dog-hearted daughters, ..." See in text (Act IV - Scene III)
Kent has revealed that while Lear is experiencing moments of clarity, he refuses to see Cordelia because he is so ashamed of how he treated her. Note the language here and how it represents Lear’s view of his children: Cordelia has “dear rights,” with “dear” not only meaning cherished or beloved, like a father might feel for his daughter, but also “treasured” or “valuable,” like the value of the estate she was owed. In contrast, the other daughters are described with animal imagery, emphasizing their base desires and lack of filial commitment.
"It is the stars, The stars above us, govern our conditions;..." See in text (Act IV - Scene III)
Like many of the older characters in the play, Kent has faith in fate and the divine power of the heavens. In this scene, he uses this faith to explain the difference between Cordelia and her sisters rather than call for divine retribution. The idea is that the stars were in a different alignment than her sisters when Cordelia was conceived, making her into such a kind-hearted person. Many used to believe that being born under particular signs and constellations in the sky gave people their particular characters.
Act IV - Scene IV 1
"Crowned with rank fumiter and furrow-weeds, With hardocks, hemlock, nettles, cuckoo-flowers, Darnel, and all the idle weeds that grow..." See in text (Act IV - Scene IV)
Cordelia is not only describing what the crown on Lear’s head is composed of, but also she is telling the group where Lear can be found. Of these plants mentioned, many of them are weeds (fumiter, furrow-weeds, hardocks), several are poisonous (hemlock, nettles), and others are benign (darnel is a type of grass, for example, but the ancient Romans and Greeks used the cuckoo-flowers as a cure for mental illness). While making wreaths out of flowers is fairly innocent, it’s worth noting that Lear has made a wreath crown of plants that are largely poisonous and not commonly picked. This threat of the natural world on his head perhaps provides a visual indication of the chaos that has caused him to largely lose his wits.
Act IV - Scene VI 2
"You ever-gentle gods, take my breath from me: Let not my worser spirit tempt me again To die before you please!..." See in text (Act IV - Scene VI)
With these words, Gloucester asks the gods to forgive him for his attempted suicide and for them to watch and guide over his actions in the future, reaffirming the belief that Gloucester has had in the gods and fate. This declaration proves to be a pivotal moment for Edgar, who after hearing this approaches his father and addresses him as his son.
"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:..." See in text (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.
Act IV - Scene VII 1
"These weeds are memories of those worser hours: I prithee, put them off...." See in text (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.
Act V - Scene III 2
"No, no, no life!(365) Why should a dog, a horse, a rat, have life, And thou no breath at all?..." See in text (Act V - Scene III)
The repetition of “no” at the start of this passage along with the question marks convey Lear’s tone as soft and surprised. His words should be read as being hesitant and slow, asking these confused questions much as an innocent child would. He compares the innocent lives of animals to Cordelia, which shows how he cannot make sense of human injustice, believing that his daughter deserves to be alive simply because other creatures are allowed to live. This infantile questioning recall’s Goneril and Regan’s earlier assumption that as one ages, one reverts to a child-like state.
"No, no, no, no! Come, let's away to prison: We two alone will sing like birds i' the cage:..." See in text (Act V - Scene III)
Lear evokes an image of an animal in this moment that portrays a more romantic vision of their prison experience that will keep them safe from harm. The connection to animals is appropriate, as Lear has insisted earlier that humans are no more special than animals, so being a caged bird would not be a problem for him. Lear’s desire for this also reflects his hope of fulfilling his initial desire to give away his responsibilities and live without concerns in his old age.