King Lear Sample Answer: Imagery, Characters and Themes

“The vivid imagery throughout King Lear enhances Shakespeare’s characterisation and reveals key themes.”

As a Shakespearean tragedy, King Lear is full of dramatic imagery. While it is memorable and captivating, keeping the reader on the edge of his seat, it also serves a purpose in developing the characters and granting an insight into the playwright’s wisdom. He explores fundamental themes: good versus evil, appearance versus reality, strength and vulnerability – to name but a few. I will focus on animal imagery, that of sight and blindness, a kaleidoscope of imagery relating to appearance versus reality and, finally, natural imagery, as they are used to enhance the play. 

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Speaking of animal imagery. Image credit: Susan Herbert
Animal imagery is used to reveal the key theme of ruthless power. The association of Goneril and Regan with beasts of prey reflects on their ferocious animal nature, their lack of humanity and their unnatural cruelty. Lear’s language when speaking about his “pelican daughters” reflects their power over him. He is joined by Albany, who regards the cruelty of the two daughters as inhumane, calling them “tigers, not daughters”. Animal imagery suggests the law of the jungle, where law and order is disregarded and only the strongest and most ruthless will survive. Man in his weakness is compared to animals in their strength. This is conveyed by Lear as he battles the elements during the storm: “The night wherein the cub drawn bear would crouch, the lion and the belly pinched wolf keep their fur dry.”

Animal imagery is used to effectively enhance the abhorrently cruel character of Goneril. She is associated with animal imagery throughout the play. She is referred to as a “detested kite,” a “sea monster” and a “gilded serpent.” Her cruelty is summed up in animal terms as “sharper than a serpents tooth”.  Goneril’s character also succumbs to the earlier animal-termed prophecy: “Humanity must perforce prey on itself like monsters of the deep.” Goneril is responsible for his sister’s death as she poisons her former ally out of jealously. Later she commits suicide when she realises she has lost all power. It is no coincidence that Goneril, the greatest evil in the play, is the character most associated with animal imagery, enhancing her lack of humanity and inhumane cruelty.

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Images of light and darkness reveal the theme of sight and blindness. The blindness of Lear in relation to his act of gross irresponsibility is balanced by the vision that emerges after his suffering. This is mirrored in the sub-plot as Gloucester, too, suffers from blindness and ultimately gains another level of vision.

During the “love test,” Goneril’s flattery is filled with references to light and eyesight “dearer than eyesight, space, and liberty.” Lear is blind here to her true nature and the true love of his one loving daughter Cordelia. Lear swears by light and darkness when banishing her “by the sacred radiance of the sun… I hereby disclaim all paternal care.” At the same time, Kent realises Lear’s blindness to the virtues and vices of those around him and pleads with him to “see better”.

Imagery of sight and blindness also help develop the characterisation of Gloucester who is a weak and morally blind character early in the play. He is crude in his bragging of the “good sport” in conceiving his bastard son Edmund and “credulous” when manipulated by that same son. Through his suffering of blindness at the hands of Cornwall and Regan, Gloucester receives moral vision and can now clearly see his past failings: “I stumbled when I saw”.

The contrast between appearance and reality is striking to the reader as we are presented with the image of Goneril and Regan passing remarks about Lear after confessing their love to him: “'Tis the infirmity of his age. Yet he hath ever but slenderly known himself.” Lear and Gloucester are painfully oblivious to the deception they are facing them. The reader gains a better understanding of these realistic characters  through Shakespeare’s play on appearance versus reality. Lear is deceived by the apparent affection of Goneril and Regan and the seeming coldness of Cordelia: “I love your Majesty According to my bond; no more nor less”. Gloucester is deceived by Edmund and believes the treachery of the good Edgar. This creates the sub plot and the main plot. The imagery of clothing is used to suggest the contrast between appearance and reality. Lear grows in wisdom and learns that robes and gowns in high offices can hide injustice: “Through tattered clothes, small vices do appear. Robes and furr’d gowns hide all.” Without his mask of clothing, Lear attains self-knowledge. Lear’s “fresh garments” of Act 5 symbolise the changed Lear.
Edgar’s character disguises himself as Poor Tom, while the loyal Kent disguises himself as Caius. These disguises continue the theme of deception, as does the cliff, from which Edgar convinces his father he has thrown himself. Edgar’s words in the finale of the play sum up Shakespeare’s attitude to this dichotomy: “Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.”

Imagery of the natural world is used to convey the theme of right and wrong throughout the play. Lear has offended the natural world by disowning Cordelia and by calling on nature to make Goneril sterile: “Into her womb convey sterility”. The storm in Act 3 is a powerful symbol of nature. It suggests that the natural world is in sympathy with Lear. Internally, the storm conveys the disorder in Lear's mind and externally, the disorder in the kingdom. After his abdication, Lear has destroyed the natural bonds that hold society together. As a king, he has damaged the kingdom by dividing it between his two evil daughters. As a father, he has destroyed the natural order by disowning Cordelia. The unnatural intensity of the storm symbolises the unnatural treatment of Lear by Goneril and Regan. “Blow winds and cracks you cheeks! Rage! Blow!”

During his opening soliloquay, the evil Edmund dedicates his cause to nature and disowns the natural order of inheritance: “Thou nature art my goddess.” Gloucester’s character is viewed as “credulous” by Edmund as he believes nature is in control of mankind “as flies to wanton noisy are we to the gods. They kill us for their sport”. In fact, Shakespeare describes a pagan world where imagery of the sky is closely associated with religion: “Things that love night love not such nights as these; the wrathful skies Gallow the very wanderers of the dark”… For by the sacred radiance of the sun.” Thus, images of the sky are closely related to morality. Perhaps, Shakespeare is hinting at a warped perception of nature by a pagan people: the skies don’t seem to help the characters a whole lot.

In conclusion, the vivid imagery of animals, sight and blindness, appearance and reality and nature are used throughout the play to develop the key themes and ideas of deception, justice, power and the natural world. The reader gains a whole new level of understanding through Shakespeare’s vivid metaphors. The images of the two helpless men, two vicious animal daughters and the Pieta-like image of Cordelia and Lear will haunt the reader reminding him of the tragic consequences of poor judgement.

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