Animal Imagery in Shakespeare’s King Lear

Animal imagery is developed to its fullest extent in Shakespeare’s King Lear. Shakespeare delves deeper into the philosophy of the theme here than he does in any other play. In Lear, a greater number of significant tragic characters degenerate into beasts than in any other play, and Shakespeare is aware of this degeneration.

At the play’s outset, Lear’s beastly strength and authority as a king are expressed in his words, “come not between the dragon and his wrath.” Shakespeare employs a variety of techniques to develop Goneril and Regan’s characters, but animal imagery and extended metaphors are particularly effective at conveying Goneril and Regan’s consuming desire for power. The Fool is the first to describe these two savage sisters using animal imagery.“For you know, nuncle, the hedge-sparrow fed the cuckoo so long, that it had its head bit off by it young. So out went the candle, and we were left darkling”. This comparison of Goneril to a cuckoo implies that, like the hedge-sparrow who was responsible for rearing the young cuckoo chick, Lear raised Goneril, and she is the ungrateful cuckoo who murders the one who raised her. This conjures up a strong mental image of a monstrous inhuman woman who turns on her own parent in order to prey on him. Shakespeare builds on this portrayal of Goneril by comparing her to a sea monster. “Ingratitude, thou marble-hearted fiend, more hideous, when thou showst thee in a child than the sea-monster”. This conjures up images of a stealthy watery Loch Ness monster, reinforcing Goneril’s “marble” heart and apathy. Lear continues by comparing her to other predatory animals, declaring “Detested kite, thou liest!” and wishing her a childless womb, saying “how sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is to have a thankless child!” This rapid succession of vivid animal images builds a wild savage collage, depicting Goneril as a greedy, ruthless woman.

Although Goneril and Regan are similar in their desire for absolute power and authority, Regan’s nature is sadistic, and there are numerous animal images associated with her. Painting a terrifying picture of “a thousand with red burning spirits come hizzing upon ’em” and “rash boarish fangs,” these “monsters of the deep” who are “tigers not daughters” eventually turn against one another when they both lust after the same man.

There are numerous references to animals in this section as Edgar describes himself. “Hog in sloth” indicates that he is as slothful as a pig, as “sloth” is one of the seven deadly sins and refers to laziness. He also refers to himself as a fox, which is renowned for its intelligence. “Wolf in greediness” is most likely a reference to wolves’ proclivity for attacking weaker or injured members of a herd rather than the stronger ones. “Lion in prey” also implies that nature is going in the opposite direction of what it should. Given that lions are frequently the ones who attack prey, nature must be the polar opposite if lions are prey. Edgar is most likely referring to the manner in which Edmund will receive his inheritance and how this is contrary to nature.

In Shakespeare’s King Lear 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).

To summarise, Shakespeare’s King Lear’s animal imagery leaves two strong impressions. The most obvious is that humanity appears to be reverting to a bestial state. Second, the animal images are inextricably linked to the suggestion of bodily pain, horror, and suffering. As a result, these beast images are critical for a thorough understanding of the play.