King Lear

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King Lear Character Analysis

The aging king of Britain and tragic hero of the play. Lear, who is used to complete obedience from everyone around him, makes two related major errors: giving up of political responsibility by transferring power to his daughters; and trusting the flattering Goneril and Regan over the plainspoken, but true, Cordelia. Despite his flaws he is able to maintain the loyalty of certain subjects, particularly Kent and Gloucester. However, these will not be enough to save him from madness and death.

King Lear Quotes in King Lear

The King Lear quotes below are all either spoken by King Lear or refer to King Lear. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
Fathers, Children, and Siblings Theme Icon
). Note: all page and citation info for the quotes below refers to the Simon & Schuster edition of King Lear published in 2004.
Act 1, scene 1 Quotes
"Nothing will come of nothing."
Related Characters: King Lear (speaker)
Page Number: 1.1.99
Explanation and Analysis:

Lear asks each of his daughters to profess their love to him in order to receive their portion of his kingdom. When Cordelia has nothing to say in response, Lear makes this pithy statement denying her any property.

Plot-wise, Lear’s comment refers to the fact that Cordelia will receive no land if she does not express her adoration properly. Thus “nothing”—in terms of inheritance—will come of the linguistic “nothing” she offers him. We see Lear here make an incorrect association between language and property: He does not take into consideration his daughter’s actual affection or care, but considers a single sentence she speaks as reason to deny her all dowry access.

Thematically, Shakespeare establishes a pattern of superficial treatment between characters: they will often base their actions on appearances and speech instead of according to honest principles or sentiments. The very word “nothing” itself appears again and again in the play, consistently reminding the reader of the desolation caused by Cordelia’s simple inability to speak. Even Lear’s own speech mirrors this motif: he opts for a clever, epigrammatic sentence instead of selecting more careful positions that would ultimately better himself and his daughter.

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"Yet he hath ever but slenderly known himself."
Related Characters: Regan (speaker), King Lear
Page Number: 1.1.339-340
Explanation and Analysis:

As Scene One draws to a close, Regan and Goneril discuss their father’s dwindling mental capacities. Here, Regan comments that this is no new development, for Lear has historically lacked personal insight.

This conversation predicts the way Regan and Goneril will deny their father’s authority and install themselves with increasing power over him. To do so, however, they must justify their actions not only to others but also to themselves. One of their main strategies to do so is to take aim at Lear’s old age—and to argue that he is unfit to rule or even make personal decisions. Here, Regan takes an even more aggressive tactic, to note that Lear’s mental decline is in fact characteristic of his more general sensibility. That he has “but slenderly known himself” at any point in his life would imply that his commands cannot be trusted to conform to his actual wishes and desires.

More than a manipulative tactic, however, this sentence introduces the theme of introspection and self-knowledge. This question predominates King Lear, as many of the characters battle to harness their emotions and to make rational decisions that correlate with their actual needs. Regan’s point here is to take the example of aging and extrapolate it to a broader phenomenon: how many lack the thoughtfulness necessary to identify their wishes and inner nature.

Act 1, scene 3 Quotes
"Old fools are babes again."
Related Characters: Goneril (speaker), King Lear
Page Number: 1.3.20
Explanation and Analysis:

During Lear’s visit, Goneril becomes increasingly frustrated with her father. She complains about how elderly people regress to a stage of seeming infancy.

This passage corroborates the selfish qualities of Goneril’s character. As with her earlier observations on Lear’s aging, these comments are highly uncharitable considering Lear’s generosity—and they explicitly conflict with the kind words Goneril offered at the onset of the tragedy. Shakespeare presents her character as deeply opportunistic, motivated only by self-advancement as opposed to genuine love.

Her comment also clarifies the tragedy’s presentation of old age. Claiming that age makes men “babes again” defines a cyclical model of time, in which people revert back to their infancy—as opposed to, say, becoming wiser and more esteemed. This model helps justify Goneril’s command over her father. Furthermore, the phrase “old fools” implies that age brings a particular brand of madness that deviates from rational control and which thus mimics the behavior of children. The question of the fool will become increasingly important as Lear slowly looses his mind, and Goneril’s comment here prefaces the way age can intersect with and mimic insanity.

Act 1, scene 4 Quotes
"Thou hast pared thy wit o' both sides and left nothing in the middle."
Related Characters: Fool (speaker), King Lear
Page Number: 1.4.191-192
Explanation and Analysis:

As Lear prepares to depart from Goneril’s palace, he is chastised by his Fool (the jester who attends to him, offering entertainment and often wisdom) for his irrational actions. The Fool claims that Lear has lost his mind.

The Fool’s point is not direct, here, but rather conveyed through an odd image. That Lear has “pared thy wit o’ both sides” means that he has sliced or cut off his intelligence—so the Fool imagines “wit” as a physical object that can be cut. Symbolically, the “both sides” could represent Goneril and Regan, to whom Lear has apportioned each half of his estate. For in doing so, he has indeed “left nothing in the middle”: he maintains no power or land of his own, and thus his action could be seen as the result of no “wit.”

This passage also plays with the idea of madness and role-playing in the tragedy. Though the Fool is supposed to be a jesting figure, he speaks here with remarkable insight. (That his words are lighthearted but his content weighty is an another example of how Shakespeare explores the difference between language and meaning.) Indeed, one would never expect him to be able to criticize a king in this way—so Shakespeare seems to have turned the Fool into a ruler at the very moment the King becomes a Fool. Thus even amidst the strict social roles that predominate the text, interactions like this speak to a fluidity in the identities of all the play's characters.

Act 2, scene 4 Quotes
"O sir, you are old.
Nature I you stands on the very verge
Of his confine."
Related Characters: Regan (speaker), King Lear
Page Number: 2.4.164-166
Explanation and Analysis:

Regan and Goneril argue with Lear about his behavior in their households. During the fight, Regan comments on his age and the way he approaches his mental and physical demise.

Her accusation returns to the question of how insanity and elderliness interplay: Regan firmly contends that the decline of Lear’s mental capacities is responsible for his erratic behaviors. Here, she offers a somewhat new take on the issue when she brings in the ever-present image of “Nature.” Here, “Nature” signifies a wild realm beyond a human, rational range of understanding. That this force is “on the very verge of his confine” means that the specter of madness approaches Lear. His “confine” would thus stand for the metaphorical borders of his sanity—which, if breached by Nature, would shatter his mind. In this way, Regan defines a very fragile conception of human intelligence and control, in which emotional instability or old age could potentially weaken one’s “confine.” For her, “Nature” is a set of wild forces waiting to burst in and take advantage of human weakness the moment social or mental stability fails.

"O, reason not the need! Our basest beggars
Are in the poorest thing superfluous.
Allow not nature more than nature needs,
Man's life is cheap as beast's."
Related Characters: King Lear (speaker)
Related Symbols: Animals
Page Number: 2.4.304-307
Explanation and Analysis:

Lear becomes increasingly deranged during his conversation with Goneril and Regan. He begins raving, here, about the meaninglessness of life and how all men are essentially equivalent to beggars.

As with many of Shakespeare’s supposedly mad characters, Lear chooses images that seem nonsensical at first but actually contain real philosophical significance. When he says that beggars “are in the poorest things superfluous,” he plays with the question of ownership and inheritance. Indeed, beggars have a great deal of “the poorest things”—the “nothing” so oft referenced in the play. In this way, they are weirdly superior to the rich. Lear continues to affirm the value of poverty when he continues, “allow not nature more than nature needs,” pointing to the way nature requires no human accessories or niceties to exist.

At this point, Lear could have still defined nature to be a separate space from human society, but when he adds, “Man’s life is cheap as beast’s” he brings the two together. That is to say, in this new worldview, men should not consider themselves superior to animals; their reason and things bring them no special existential merits. The choice of the economic term “cheap” stresses the foolishness inherent in how humans assess their lives in terms of money. Thus beneath Lear’s apparent madness, one can actually trace a complex critique of human society, one which has come from Lear’s experiences with his daughters greed and deceit. Indeed, saying “reason not the need” Lear seems to be aware of the value in his insanity. If he indeed finds “reason” empty or unnecessary, he is explicitly saying so. This passage thus brings into question the full extent of Lear’s insanity: has he actually lost his mind, or has he gained greater clarity into human folly?

Act 3, scene 2 Quotes
"The art of our necessities is strange
And can make vile things precious."
Related Characters: King Lear (speaker)
Page Number: 3.2.76-77
Explanation and Analysis:

Still amidst the storm, Lear reflects on the insignificance of physical possessions. He observes how little humans require in certain circumstances.

Once again, Shakespeare places philosophically significant statements in the mouth of a madman. That Lear considers “our necessities” to be an “art” is a subtle paradox, for arts are generally taken to be a supplement to human existence rather than a strict requirement. Being a “strange” art further muddles the definition of “necessities,” which we would expect to be clear-cut and self-evident rather than uncertain. When Lear adds that this art “can make vile things precious” he points to the power human psychology has in reshaping its relationship to external objects. Things that should seen disgusting can be made “precious” with sufficient art—indeed they may even come to be seen as necessities.

Lear’s confrontation with the primal nature of the storm thus seems to have radically altered his sense of what is essential versus superfluous. Shakespeare shows how his earlier conceptions have been opened up by this poignant confrontation with environmental and internal madness—ironically giving him greater insight than he had while supposedly sane.

Act 3, scene 4 Quotes
"Poor naked wretches, wheresoe'er you are,
That bide the pelting of this pitiless storm,
How shall your houseless heads and unfed sides,
Your looped and windowed raggedness defend you
From seasons such as these? O I have taken
Too little care of this."
Related Characters: King Lear (speaker)
Page Number: 3.4.32-37
Explanation and Analysis:

Lear has finally escaped from the overwhelming storm. Shaken by the experience, he reflects on how little attention he devoted as King to his impoverished subjects.

This passage shows that Lear’s experience has granted him a new level of empathy to others. He imagines that common people “bide the pelting of this pitiless storm” just as he has—and that they must therefore be in need of resources and aid just as Lear was. Nature, here, serves as an equalizer between king and subject, allowing Lear to understand how desperately others would need aid “from seasons such as these.” He is able, then, to imagine the significance of not having a castle and only owning “looped and windowed raggedness”: the paltry huts that would be owned by peasants. Having redefined his idea of a necessity, he comes to see even mere shacks as precious.

Shakespeare develops, then, the argument that supposed madness can actually bring one great clarity and insight. Lear is seen by the other characters to be insane, but his ravings in the wilderness have actually brought him greater empathy for his subjects—the exact quality that would be necessary for any accomplished ruler. That he renounces his previous actions places Lear in a traditional moral arc of recognition and repentance, but Shakespeare plays on this formula by making insanity the route to that realization.

Act 3, scene 6 Quotes
"All the power of his wits have given way to his impatience."
Related Characters: Kent (speaker), King Lear
Page Number: 3.6.4-5
Explanation and Analysis:

Kent reports to Gloucester on Lear’s continual descent into insanity. He unexpectedly blames that decline on Lear’s restlessness.

This comment may catch the reader by surprise, considering that Lear’s behavior has been generally pegged to old age, anger, or illness. Kent, instead offers “his impatience” as the reason for Lear’s insanity, which seems to imply that Lear wishes to hasten some end. Perhaps Kent means an impatience for Lear’s daughters to serve him, which caused Lear to become increasingly frustrated to the point of insanity. Or perhaps “impatience” operates on a more metaphorical level—meaning an impatience for mental clarity or philosophical insight. Since Shakespeare has repeatedly likened that insight to madness, one could see that impatience in that domain would cause one’s “wits” to give way. In any case, Kent offers a model of “wits” that must maintain themselves with a consistent “power” against the threat of insanity, but which due a factor like impatience may fail and leave one privy to madness.

Act 4, scene 6 Quotes
"Gloucester: Oh let me kiss that hand!
Lear: Let me wipe it first; it smells of mortality."
Related Characters: King Lear (speaker), Gloucester (speaker)
Page Number: 4.6.147-148
Explanation and Analysis:

After Gloucester has survived his fake-suicide, Lear enters the scene. Gloucester asks to greet him royally, but the mad Lear rejects the offer due to an irrational comment on his impending death.

Shakespeare places in conversation here two figures who are crippled from proper communication: Gloucester and Lear have both been driven to different forms of disability, with the first being blind and the second being insane. Yet he cleverly inverts their roles in this moment of mis-recognition: this inversion comes through in the way that Gloucester is blind, yet he is able to recognize Lear and thus asks to kiss his hand. Lear, meanwhile, is the blind one in that he does not recognize Gloucester. Indeed, his senses are nonfunctional in that he “smells” his hand incorrectly.

The passage also reiterates the way madness is equivalent to philosophical insight. Lear is indeed correct to point out that his hand “smells of mortality,” for all human hands do in a sense. His insanity comes from that exact existential insight, for he applies it indiscriminately to every situation. Thus by staging an interaction between two forms of disability, Shakespeare burlesques the very nature of human interaction—for even when one man overcomes his disability and the other offers a poignant observation, they entirely fail to communicate.

Act 5, scene 3 Quotes
"No, no, no, no. Come, let's away to prison.
We two alone will sing like birds in the cage."
Related Characters: King Lear (speaker), Cordelia
Related Symbols: Animals
Page Number: 5.3.9-10
Explanation and Analysis:

When Lear and Cordelia are sentenced to prison, Cordelia wonders if they could find a way out of their fate. Lear instead chooses to idealize their time in prison. 

To do so, he uses the provocative image of "birds in the cage." Lear romanticizes the experience of prison not as one that restricts freedom but as a way for him and Cordelia to be safe from external harm. They would be birds singing--performing enjoyable melodies instead of unhappily bemoaning their fate. Lear's earlier insistence that humans are no more special than wild beasts clarifies that he would see no particular issue in being treated as a bird. Indeed, that role would finally fulfill his hope at the play's onset to offload responsibilities to his daughters and live with little concern in his old age. 

This is a somewhat unconventional tactic in Shakespearian tragedy: we have a character who accepts his tragic fate instead of rebelling against it. Lear's acceptance comes from a combination of existential rumination and insanity, which allow him to reach that conclusion. Lunacy thus offers a weird psychological route to beautify and escape his fate. 

"Howl, howl, howl! O, you are men of stones!
Had I your tongues and eyes, I'd use them so
That heaven's vault should crack. She's gone forever."
Related Characters: King Lear (speaker), Cordelia
Related Symbols: The Stars, Heavens, and the Gods
Page Number: 5.3.308-310
Explanation and Analysis:

Just as Edmund sends a messenger to halt his plans to kill Cordelia and Lear, Lear enters with his daughter’s body. He exclaims these lines of intense remorse.

Though Lear’s language has become increasingly difficult to parse, it continues to hold meaning if examined carefully. Lear’s invocation—“Howl, Howl, Howl”—recalls his earlier expressions during the storm. Here, he mimics the environmental sounds, becoming himself an expression of natural catastrophe rather than of rational human logic. Calling others “men of stones” implies that he finds them emotionless and cold in the face of the catastrophe he has witnessed. As a result, Lear finds their verbal responses lacking.

In particular, he wishes he possessed their “tongues and eyes” because he could speak and see with greater vigor the horror of his daughter’s death. That Lear demands the senses of others is particularly evocative considering the role that blindness and insanity have played in the work: even as he descends into a lack of proper sensation, he demands the sensory capacities of others. His goal would be “that heaven’s vault should crack,” which develops the previous imagery of celestial bodies. Here Lear implies that something could “crack” or change course in the pre-destined role of the heavens were he given sufficient power—a point that notably deviates from his earlier adherence to fate and the heavens. Thus in Lear’s more remorseful moments, he both imitates and seeks to overcome the power of nature, all while demanding that the other unmoved humans grant him their sensations.

"No, no, no life?
Why should a dog, a horse, a rat have life,
And thou no breath at all? Thou'lt come no more,
Never, never, never, never, never."
Related Characters: King Lear (speaker), Cordelia
Related Symbols: Animals
Page Number: 5.3.369-372
Explanation and Analysis:

As Lear’s life draws to a close, he speaks these final lines. He ends with abject denial of himself and of human nature.

His tone in this passage is actually quite soft and surprised. The repetition of “No, no, no” combined with the phrasing as a question, cast Lear as quite hesitant, even infantile. His next line comparing the lives of animals to that of dead Cordelia is similarly innocent: Lear seems to not be able to make sense of basic human injustices, believing naively that his daughter simply deserves to be alive because other things are. In this way, he completes the narrative spelled out by Regan and Goneril earlier in which old age reverts him to an infantile state.

The obsessive repetition of negation words recalls his original rejection of Cordelia’s “nothing.” Here, then, we see how far that denial has carried the both of them—from one faulty sentence to a complete denial of life with three “no”s and five “never”s. Shakespeare ends this tragedy, then, not exactly with overwhelming bloodshed, but rather with a exploration of how one small bit of misplaced language multiplied into a broad and permanent nihilistic denial.

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King Lear Character Timeline in King Lear

The timeline below shows where the character King Lear appears in King Lear. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Act 1, scene 1
Fathers, Children, and Siblings Theme Icon
Authority and Order Theme Icon
Disintegration, Chaos, Nothingness Theme Icon
Old Age Theme Icon
Lear enters with Albany, Cornwall, Goneril, Regan, Cordelia, and their attendants. Having sent Gloucester to fetch... (full context)
Act 1, scene 3
Fathers, Children, and Siblings Theme Icon
Authority and Order Theme Icon
Disintegration, Chaos, Nothingness Theme Icon
At Goneril's palace, where Lear has been spending his first month after giving up power, Goneril complains to her steward,... (full context)
Act 1, scene 4
Authority and Order Theme Icon
Fooling and Madness Theme Icon
Blindness and Insight Theme Icon
Kent returns in the disguise of Caius, a commoner, to offer his services to Lear. Lear accepts. He sends Kent to fetch his Fool. (full context)
Act 1, scene 5
Authority and Order Theme Icon
Lear explains what happened with Goneril to Kent (who is still disguised as Cauis), and then... (full context)
Act 2, scene 4
Fathers, Children, and Siblings Theme Icon
Authority and Order Theme Icon
Disintegration, Chaos, Nothingness Theme Icon
Fooling and Madness Theme Icon
Lear, his Fool, a Gentleman, and his other followers arrive at Gloucester's castle. Confused not to... (full context)
Act 3, scene 1
Fathers, Children, and Siblings Theme Icon
Authority and Order Theme Icon
Disintegration, Chaos, Nothingness Theme Icon
Fooling and Madness Theme Icon
Kent, out looking for Lear, runs into a Gentleman. The Gentleman describes seeing Lear out in the storm, from which... (full context)
Act 3, scene 2
Authority and Order Theme Icon
Disintegration, Chaos, Nothingness Theme Icon
Old Age Theme Icon
Fooling and Madness Theme Icon
Blindness and Insight Theme Icon
Lear rages out in the storm, calling upon it to "crack nature's molds" and destroy everything... (full context)
Act 3, scene 3
Fathers, Children, and Siblings Theme Icon
Authority and Order Theme Icon
Disintegration, Chaos, Nothingness Theme Icon
Blindness and Insight Theme Icon
...received a letter with further information, too dangerous to be spoken, which will eventually bring Lear revenge. Gloucester asks Edmund to distract Cornwall while he sneaks off to aid Lear. (full context)
Act 3, scene 4
Fathers, Children, and Siblings Theme Icon
Authority and Order Theme Icon
Disintegration, Chaos, Nothingness Theme Icon
Fooling and Madness Theme Icon
Blindness and Insight Theme Icon
Lear, Kent and the Fool arrive at the hovel. Lear still insists that the "tempest in... (full context)
Act 3, scene 6
Fathers, Children, and Siblings Theme Icon
Authority and Order Theme Icon
Fooling and Madness Theme Icon
Blindness and Insight Theme Icon
...the house to which he has shown them, Kent thanks Gloucester, and then reports that Lear has gone entirely mad. Gloucester exits as Lear, the Fool, and Edgar enter, raving together.... (full context)
Act 3, scene 7
Fathers, Children, and Siblings Theme Icon
Authority and Order Theme Icon
Disintegration, Chaos, Nothingness Theme Icon
...too brutal for a son to behold. Oswald arrives to report that, thanks to Gloucester, Lear has been carried away to Dover. (full context)
Act 4, scene 1
Fathers, Children, and Siblings Theme Icon
Authority and Order Theme Icon
Disintegration, Chaos, Nothingness Theme Icon
...saw such a mad beggar who "made [him] think man a worm" (37). He has learned, he says, about human lowliness: "As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods;/... (full context)
Act 4, scene 2
Authority and Order Theme Icon
Disintegration, Chaos, Nothingness Theme Icon
...who informed against him. Albany vows that he will thank Gloucester for his love toward Lear and will revenge his lost eyes. He summons the Messenger to give him more information. (full context)
Act 4, scene 3
Fathers, Children, and Siblings Theme Icon
Fooling and Madness Theme Icon
Blindness and Insight Theme Icon
Kent then explains that Lear is in the camp and is occasionally sane. However, he adds, Lear refuses to see... (full context)
Act 4, scene 4
Fathers, Children, and Siblings Theme Icon
Authority and Order Theme Icon
...raving "mad as the vexed sea" (4.4.2). She then promises the doctor that whoever cures Lear can have everything she owns. The doctor responds that, in order to be cured, the... (full context)
Act 4, scene 7
Fathers, Children, and Siblings Theme Icon
Authority and Order Theme Icon
Blindness and Insight Theme Icon
...nature" (16-7). The Doctor says that they will wake him up. Two servants enter, carrying Lear on a chair. The Doctor cues for music to be played. Cordelia kisses her father... (full context)
Act 5, scene 1
Fathers, Children, and Siblings Theme Icon
Authority and Order Theme Icon
Disintegration, Chaos, Nothingness Theme Icon
...against their common enemy of the French, not because he approves of their treatment of Lear and Gloucester, he and Goneril join Edmund and Regan. Edmund says he will join Albany... (full context)
Act 5, scene 2
Fathers, Children, and Siblings Theme Icon
Blindness and Insight Theme Icon
...a retreat, Edgar appears onstage again. He reports that the French forces have lost and Lear and Cordelia have been taken prisoner. Gloucester says that he would like to die and... (full context)
Act 5, scene 3
Authority and Order Theme Icon
Disintegration, Chaos, Nothingness Theme Icon
Edmund orders that the captured Lear and Cordelia be taken away to prison. Cordelia, speaking with Lear, wonders if they should... (full context)