Lear’s rage knows no bounds in King Lear, and the first glimpse of the king’s capacity for anger comes in the very first scene of the play. In Act 1, Scene 1, when Cordelia refuses to issue a flowery proclamation of her love for her father, Lear’s anger turns first to his daughter and then to his servant Kent, who attempts to intervene:
Come not between the dragon and his wrath.
I loved her most and thought to set my rest
On her kind nursery.
Throughout the play, humans are compared to animals and human behavior is portrayed in terms of its similarity to the brutish behavior of wild beasts. Here, Shakespeare expands this theme to include even the animals of mythology: as Lear warns Kent not to interfere with his family affair, he uses a metaphor to compare himself to a wrathful dragon. Lear’s anger has a violent, explosive edge, and thus this metaphor suggests that Lear’s anger can hit like a column of flame. Even more interesting, though, is the fact that Lear's use of this metaphor suggests that he is—to a certain degree—aware of his own intense, vindictive rage. By warning Kent not to come "between the dragon and his wrath," Lear shows a certain self-awareness that makes him a rather complex character. Although he's often seen as a ranting, raving, unreasonable man, this early moment in the play hints that there's more to him than his rage.
King Lear is an especially brutal tragedy because the damage done to Lear and his kingdom is largely, if indirectly, self-inflicted. The seeds of his eventual destruction are sown in the very first scene of the play, as the audience witnesses Lear’s fateful division of his kingdom between his two deceitful daughters and his abandonment of his only loyal daughter. A few characters in the play are able to see the folly in Lear’s decisions, most notably the Fool—who can speak truth to power on account of his status as a jester—and Kent. Although Lear rebukes Kent and eventually casts him out for his impudence, Kent nonetheless attempts to show the king the error of his ways, using a metaphor in which he presents himself as Lear's doctor:
Kent: Now, by Apollo, King,
Thou swears't thy gods in vain.
Lear: O vassal! Miscreant!
Albany, Cornwall: Dear sir, forbear.
Kent: Kill thy physician, and thy fee bestow
Upon the foul disease. Revoke thy gift,
Or whilst I can vent clamor from my throat,
I'll tell thee thou dost evil.
As Kent confronts King Lear, he uses an apt metaphor to characterize the foolish misdirection of Lear's own anger. In keeping with Shakespeare's characterization of foul personality traits as "diseases" in the play, Kent positions himself as a physician, or doctor, capable of calling attention to and helping Lear with his disease of foolhardiness. To banish him, Kent asserts, would be as stupid a thing to do as killing one's own physician in the midst of a terrible illness.
At the heart of King Lear is a proper family drama, and Lear’s family is dysfunctional on an epic—and, of course, tragic—scale. Once he is aware of their machinations, the king’s duplicitous daughters, Regan and Goneril, draw quite a bit of ire from their father. He makes his discontent known in Act 2, Scene 4:
I prithee, daughter, do not make me mad.
I will not trouble thee, my child. Farewell.
We'll no more meet, no more see one another:
But yet thou art my flesh, my blood, my daughter;
Or rather a disease that's in my flesh,
Which I must needs call mine: thou art a boil,
A plague-sore, an embossed carbuncle,
In my corrupted blood. But I'll not chide thee.
The king's daughters are so toxic to him that they elicit a metaphor in which he compares them to a disease plaguing his body. Shakespeare subverts the cliché that a child is the "flesh" of their parents—their physical embodiment—and describes the daughters instead as a disease of Lear's flesh. This metaphor fits with Kent's warning at the beginning of the play that to banish him would be like killing one's own physician: sure enough, Lear is riddled with the disease of his daughters, and he has driven away his only allies in this cause.
In Act 3, Scene 4, as Lear finds himself caught in a terrible storm, he reflects on his plight and the nature of the threat he now faces, using a storm-related metaphor to portray the way he's feeling:
Thou thinks't 'tis much that this contentious storm
Invades us to the skin. So 'tis to thee.
But where the greater malady is fixed
The lesser is scarce felt. Thou'dst shun a bear,
But if thy flight lay toward the roaring sea,
Thou'dst meet the bear i' th' mouth. When the
The body's delicate. This tempest in my mind
Doth from my senses take all feeling else
Save what beats there. Filial ingratitude!
Through metaphor, Lear compares his inner emotional torment to a physical storm that “invades [him] to the skin.” In fact, he even goes one step further and asserts that the inner tempest is that much worse than the physical storm; the extent of his anguish makes the actual storm “scarce felt.” To make his point clearer, he weaves a second metaphor: you would run from a bear, but if you found yourself stuck between a stormy sea and that bear, you would run straight back to it. Stuck on the heath with a raging “tempest” in his mind, Lear is likewise able to confront—and even shrug off—the pelting rain.
To the compatriots and servants of Lear who remain loyal throughout the bloody ordeal with his family, the emotional wounds that Regan and Goneril inflict on their father—notwithstanding the actual threat of physical harm—feel especially violent. When Gloucester admits to his attempts to aid the king and confronts Regan over her betrayal, in Act 3, Scene 7, he says as much through the use of a metaphor:
Gloucester: I am tied to th’ stake, and I must stand the course.
Regan: Wherefore to Dover, sir?
Gloucester: Because I would not see thy cruèl nails
Pluck out his poor old eyes, nor thy fierce sister
In his anointed flesh stick boarish fangs.
Gloucester casts the brutality of Goneril and Regan’s quest for dominance in terms of animalistic aggression. Through metaphor, he observes that he is caught like an animal, and he compares Goneril’s plans to oust her father to a boar goring its enemy with its tusk. Boars are notorious for the brutality with which they fight their rivals for mates, and this is yet another example of the conflation of animal and human that occurs throughout King Lear. By crafting metaphors such as these, Shakespeare draws upon the violence of the animal kingdom to dehumanize the ambitions of his human characters and thereby reveal their depravity.
Once Edmund discovers that Gloucester has knowledge of the coming French invasion, it is clear that the Earl has sided with Lear and therefore against Cornwall, Regan, and Gloucester. Newly informed of this treachery, Cornwall and Regan arrive at Gloucester’s castle and eagerly await an opportunity to ambush the Earl, speaking about him using both a smile and a metaphor:
Cornwall: Go seek the traitor Gloucester
Pinion him like a thief; bring him before us.
Though well we may not pass upon his life
Without the form of justice, yet our power
Shall do a court’sy to our wrath, which men
May blame but not control.
Enter Gloucester and servants
Who’s there? The traitor?
Regan: Ungrateful fox! 'Tis he.
Cornwall: Bind fast his corky arms.
Gloucester: What you mean your graces? Good my friends, consider
You are my guests. Do me no foul play, friends.
First, Cornwall uses a simile to compare Gloucester—deemed a criminal due to his treachery against Lear’s daughters—to a common thief. This, in a way, helps Cornwall justify his decision to tie ("pinion") Gloucester. Next, Regan takes things just a bit further and calls Gloucester an “ungrateful fox.” The metaphorical comparison between Gloucester and a fox presents Gloucester’s capture and eventual torture as if it's nothing more than a fox hunt, in keeping with the conflation of animal and human behavior that recurs throughout the play.