Examine the animal imagery that Shakespeare uses throughout King Lear. What purpose do these images serve? How do they relate to major themes in the play?
In King Lear, Shakespeare uses animal imagery to suggest that men have very little power over their own fates and to emphasize the vulnerability of some of his most regal-seeming characters. He further reinforces the idea of man’s helplessness through his recurring allusions to the gods, which imply that the gods don’t really care about helping or protecting people on earth. Shakespeare also emphasizes human frailty by repeatedly suggesting that man is “nothing,” a speck of dust that could blow away at any instant. The animal images therefore introduce a frightening, recurring theme of weakness: even a king can die as suddenly and pointlessly as an ant.
Shakespeare’s references to animals show that people are not as unique and powerful as they seem. Stripped of his fancy clothing, Edgar is just “a worm” to his father; only a few alterations to his status and appearance reveal him to be a weak, fragile creature endangered by a storm. Lear likens people to animals when he excuses Gloucester for the apparent sin of adultery, arguing that human beings are no better than the lusty wren and “the small gilded fly.” Mourning Cordelia’s death, Lear wonders why a rat or dog should have life while his own young, extraordinarily wise daughter should be murdered without warning. Each of these animal images suggests that humans do not enjoy special status on earth, for they fall prey to the same sudden twists of fate and the same base appetites that dominate the animal world.
Likewise, Shakespeare’s discussion of the gods suggests that people are extremely vulnerable, for he describes an alternately sadistic and uninterested set of divine “protectors” who are supposed to be watching over the human race. When Gloucester worries that storms are a sign of the gods’ disfavor, Edmund posits the much more frightening notion that there are no gods at all, and a trust in divine intervention is “the excellent foppery of the world.” Gloucester later makes the memorable observation that man is to god as fly is to man, again discouraging anyone who would believe in the presence of loving, compassionate deities who guide and protect mankind. Noting the absence of cosmic justice in the world, Albany concludes that “humanity must perforce prey on itself, like monsters of the deep.” Again and again, the gods are described as either cruel or nonexistent, leaving humans to behave as weak, predatory, and immoral animals.
Shakespeare drives home his ideas about man’s animal nature by repeatedly describing his characters as “nothing,” mere breaths of life that could expire at any moment. Without honorifics and luxuries, Lear observes, man’s life is nothing, “as cheap as a beast’s.” Homeless, stripped naked in a storm, Lear asks, “Is man no more than this?” and concludes that humans are nothing more than “poor, bare, fork’d animals.” In a split second, Edgar loses his title and family standing and observes, “Edgar I nothing am.” The Fool reinforces Lear’s sense of weakness by calling him “nothing” and suggesting that Lear was wrong to relinquish the few claims to power and wealth that made him unique. Repeatedly, Shakespeare likens his characters to “nothing,” implying that human life is extremely fragile and possibly no more valuable than the life of a fly or beast.
By including so many images of animals, from lustful wrens to filthy worms, Shakespeare calls into question the idea that humans have any sort of special status or invincibility on earth. His characters frequently doubt the motives of the gods, reinforcing the sense that humans lack unique protection from the cosmos as they stumble blindly through life. Over and over, Shakespeare likens man to “nothing” and implies that a single life is much cheaper and more fragile than its possessor would like to believe. In King Lear, men are no better than dogs and rats, prone to the same undignified behavior, powerless before the same constant and inexplicable twists of fate.