King Lear

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Animals Symbol Icon
From start to finish, King Lear is full of references to animals, usually incorporated into insults and curses or used to describe states of maximum human degradation. (The Fool also frequently tells jokes or sings songs involving non-human creatures.) Lear himself observes, in his rage at Goneril and Regan: "Allow not nature more than nature needs,/ Man's life is cheap as beast's" (2.4.307-8). Throughout the play, animals present a vision of brutal nature to which men can descend, and yet the animals are also held up as less corrupt than men. After all the beasts are just beasts, and are naturally brutal, while the finely dressed Goneril and Regan, along with the other disloyal members of Lear's court, can spout beautiful language about love and honor, and then stab their father in the back.

Animals Quotes in King Lear

The King Lear quotes below all refer to the symbol of Animals. 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 2, scene 3 Quotes
"I will preserve myself, and am bethought
To take the basest and most poorest shape
That ever penury in contempt of man
Brought near to beast."
Related Characters: Edgar (speaker)
Related Symbols: Animals, Clothing and Costumes
Page Number: 2.3.6-9
Explanation and Analysis:

Having fled his father’s castle, Edgar finds himself alone in the wilderness. He decides to take on the disguise of a fool called “Poor Tom” in order protect himself from being recognized and killed.

Edgar begins, first, by declaring this intention to “preserve” himself, marking basic survival as his primary intention. Saying, “bethought to take the basest and most poorest shape” declares that the best way to protect himself will be to take on an alternative identity and costume of lowliness. That his “penury” or poverty will be “in contempt of men” implies that his false identity will inherently criticize the morally-empty pomp and circumstance of those from which he hides. Thus he will take on the role of the “beast” primarily for self-protection, but also with an inherent skepticism of others, particularly the morally-bankrupt "nobility."

This passage takes the theme of man’s relationship to the wilderness in an intriguing direction: in order to best protect himself from the human world of deceit, Edgar must approximate the wilderness as much as possible—becoming “the basest and most poorest shape” that he can. In an odd way, this recourse to nature follows in Edmund’s footsteps: not only is he locating in wilderness something that was lacking in the human world, but he even invokes the tropes of baseness associated with Edmund illegitimacy. Yet whereas Edmund sought a reprieve from legal and moral justice, Edgar is seeking protection only from a misapplication of that justice. Thus Shakespeare presents nature as a repository of both productive and counter-productive divergences from human society.

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Act 2, scene 4 Quotes
"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 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. 

"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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