In Act 2, Scene 2, as Cornwall and Kent verbally spar, Cornwall accuses Kent of being too blunt with his words. Kent responds in flowery language, embellishing his point with an elaborate simile to mock Cornwall:
Kent: Sir, in good faith, or in sincere verity,
Under th' allowance of your great aspect,
Whose influence, like the wreath of radiant fire
On flickering Phoebus' front—
Cornwall: What mean’st by this?
Kent: To go out of my dialect, which you discommend so much.
I know, sir, I am no flatterer. He that beguiled you in
A plain accent was a plain knave, which for my part I
Will not be, though I should win your displeasure to
Entreat me to ‘t.
Kent’s simile compares Cornwall's face, which Kent terms his “great aspect,” to the glowing forehead of Phoebus—also known as Apollo—the Greek god of the sun. Kent’s use of a classical allusion and a simile throws Cornwall off, as Kent has spent the first part of the conversation speaking in rude and direct observations. Despite himself, his sarcasm drips through what might otherwise seem like an elaborate compliment; “great aspect” may also be taken to refer to the size of Cornwall’s forehead. Only a “plain knave” would try to trick Cornwall in a “plain accent,” Kent assures, as he switches to a more sophisticated register and continues his insults.
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.
In Act 5, Scene 3, in the horrible moments after Cordelia’s death, Lear cradles the body of his daughter as he sees and feels for himself that she has perished. Wracked with grief, he struggles to come to terms with reality:
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.
I know when one is dead and when one lives.
She's dead as earth. Lend me a looking-glass.
If that her breath will mist or stain the stone,
Why then, she lives.
Lear uses a simile to compare the permanence of Cordelia’s state with the lifelessness of dirt; likewise, his opening accusation to his surrounding men also conflates their inaction with still earth.
There is some ritual significance to Lear’s observation; in comparing Cordelia to soil, he alludes to burial rites and the inevitable fusion of bodies and earth that occurs in the process of decomposition. This comparison also fits within the constant struggle between earth and sky present in King Lear. Where the winter storms that rage over the heath are violent, tumultuous, and ever changing, the earth is a quiet and unmoving certainty: this tension comes to represent the struggle between ever-changing life and the unending stillness of death.