King Lear

by: William Shakespeare


Shakespeare uses language in King Lear to express a range of mostly negative emotions, including loss, deprivation, anger, and misery. Lear’s own speech undergoes a transformation in style over the course of the play. In the beginning, Lear speaks grandly and with confidence. He calls on cosmic imagery and alludes to figures in Greek myth to inflate his own sense of power and influence:

For by the sacred radiance of the sun
The mysteries of Hecate and the night
By all the operation of the orbs
From whom we do exist and cease to be,
Here I disclaim all my paternal care. (I.i.107–11)

After abdicating the throne, Lear’s speech reflects a weakening grip on reality, as well as an inability to come to terms with his diminished status. Despite no longer being king, he continues to issue orders, and he even commands the storm: “Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! Rage, blow!” (III.ii.1). As madness takes hold, Lear’s speech is reduced to mere strings of disconnected nouns, as when Gloucester tells him that the Duke of Cornwall will not see him and he screams, “Vengeance! Plague! Death! Confusion!” (II.iv.90). All of these examples are characterized by violence. Even in the first and most grandiloquent passage quoted above, Lear is in the midst of disowning Cordelia. The persistent violence in Lear’s language marks an overriding sense of loss and anger.

At several points in King Lear the play’s language becomes austere. This austerity sometimes indicates preoccupation, as when Edmund asks, “Why brand they us / With base? With baseness? Bastardy? Base, base?” (I.ii). His repetition of the word “base” demonstrates an obsession with his low social status, the very same obsession that inspires his nefarious scheming. More frequently the play’s stylistic austerity reflects the bleakness of the events that are playing out and the characters’ desperate responses to those events. This austerity often takes the form of repetition. When Edgar utters, “World, world, O world!” (IV.i.10), he does so in response to the misery of seeing his father, Gloucester, with his eyes gouged out. Lear cries out many similarly austere lines, particularly as the play nears its dreadful conclusion. When he enters carrying Cordelia’s dead body, his first words are “Howl, howl, howl” (V.iii.231), and just before he dies he utters a line of pure misery: “Never, never, never, never, never!” (V.iii.283). In these moments, the style becomes so austere it’s as if language has broken down, giving way to expressions of inexpressible anguish.

But the style of King Lear is not all “cheerless, dark, and deadly,” as Kent puts it in Act V. The Fool also brings a riddling element to the play with his topsy-turvy style of speech that proves whimsical, obscure, and prophetic—often all at once. Take a simple example from the Fool’s first scene, where he sings:

Fools had ne’er less grace in a year
For wise men are grown foppish
And know not how their wits to wear,
Their manners are so apish. (I.iv.139–42)

The basic sense of these lines is that professional fools (like the Fool himself) have become unpopular because wise men (like Lear) have become foolish. Although cast in the form of an entertaining song, the Fool’s words also criticize the king in a way that foreshadows Lear’s spell of madness. Elsewhere the Fool’s language engages in confusing inversions that make him more difficult to understand. Earlier in this same scene, the Fool says of Lear: “Why, this / fellow has banished two on ‘s daughters and did the / third a blessing against his will” (I.iv.94–96). Even though Cordelia is the one he actually banished, Lear did her a favor by forcing her out of an increasingly violent kingdom. In the Fool’s idiom, then, it’s Goneril and Regan who have been banished by being forced to stay and preside over Britain.

Prose and Verse

King Lear is written mostly in verse, but nearly one third of its lines are in prose, reflecting Lear’s descent into madness. As in Hamlet, the only tragedy with a greater proportion of prose, Shakespeare uses prose to mark that the protagonist is speaking in a confused or disordered way. Lear begins the play speaking verse. He has thought carefully about how he will divide his kingdom, so he expresses his intentions in a careful, ordered way. When Cordelia declares that she has “nothing” to say about her love for her father, Lear switches abruptly to prose. This switch shows us that he is no longer thinking clearly, and we understand that Cordelia has upset him. As Lear goes mad, his thinking becomes more and more confused, so he speaks more often in prose. Lear often boasts of being in control of both his kingdom and himself, but his abandonment of verse in favor of prose indicates the opposite. As he loses authority over his people, his family, and finally his mind, his speech reflects this loss of control.

In King Lear, Shakespeare switches between prose and verse to mark the difference between truthful speech and flattery. In all of Shakespeare’s plays, lower class characters speak prose while higher status characters speak verse, but here verse also seems to be the language of deception, while prose is the language of honesty. When Lear is talking to the Fool, Lear also uses prose, which shows that he is comfortable with the Fool and doesn’t feel the need to assert his noble status. Lear’s use of prose also shows that he trusts the fool enough to be honest with him. In the play’s opening scene, Goneril and Regan use verse to flatter Lear by telling him how much they love him. Once Lear has left, the sisters use prose to reveal their real opinion of Lear, which is much less complimentary. Kent uses verse to make fun of Oswald’s dishonest flattery, before switching into prose to explain that he refuses to speak in a flattering way himself. The more Lear’s status is reduced, the more often he speaks in prose. Prose shows us that Lear is going mad, but also that in his madness Lear is being more honest with himself.