Warren King ¹, the author of the very excellent website No Sweat Shakespeare, has been kind enough to write a guest post for us. And an excellent one it is. Thank’s Warren:
Shakespeare’s Layered Use of Imagery in King Lear
King Lear is probably the most difficult of Shakespeare’s plays to write anything about, simply because one wouldn’t know where to start. The text explores a multitude of ideas and themes in great depth, and the remarkable thing is that Shakespeare does that in a play that takes under four hours to perform. So how does he manage to make so much meaning within that frame?
A possible answer lies in the fact that, in addition to actually bringing themes to their climax by dramatising them, he packs the King Lear text with images that are repeated and developed, giving additional substance to the theme they are associated with. Not only that, he combines each image group with images associated with the other themes. All that has the effect of creating a rich texture from which a wealth of meanings emerges.
We can illustrate that by looking at some of the themes. Let us take a central idea in King Lear. On the dramatic level the play presents two generations, the older Lear, Gloucester and Kent, and the younger Edmund Goneril and Regan. Edmund is a remarkable character in that, villain as he is, in the twenty-first century we find ourselves agreeing with his philosophy because he appears to reject the world of privilege, social precedence and class, and the way he articulates it makes sense in our time. He asks himself why it is that his legitimate brother should have preferential treatment. He points out that if you remove the context of Edgar’s legitimacy, making him the heir to high office and great wealth, he is Edgar’s equal: he is as well formed and intelligent. The only difference is that Edgar’s mother was married to their father.
That is essentially a humanist attitude, the redirection from the mediaeval emphasis on God’s plan to the focus on the human mind and body that we see in Renaissance art, typified by the work of Michelangelo and the other masters. Lear and Gloucester represent a world in which the social order, handed down to human beings by God, is the natural order. In their world view, the animal world is unnatural – wild and unregulated. That Lear is a king and Gloucester is a high ranking duke is important to them: their position places them near the top of God’s order, the ‘natural’ order. But with their humanist attitude, that is meaningless to Edmund, Goneril and Regan. Like animals, they take what they want without regard to the social order. That is dramatised on several levels in the text and the dramatisations are supported by the imagery.
There are fifty-seven different animals mentioned in the King Lear play. The animal imagery paints a picture of the disintegration of the social order and opens a window on the savage instincts of the younger generation. So, for example, in Act I Scene 4, we see Lear referring to Goneril as having a ‘wolvish visage.’ In King Lear we see unimaginable cruelty inflicted on old men by their children. There are multiple images of beasts of prey associated with that theme. We encounter images of wolves, tigers, wild boars, serpents and sea monsters, ripping, piercing and tearing their victims. There are images of the sharpness of their teeth, their claws, their talons. All those images build up to a huge canvas of torture and pain. One of these strands climaxes in a breathless dramatisation – Regan tearing out Gloucester’s eyes with her hands.
One of the reasons it is so difficult to write about this play is because that thematic strand, for example, is also deeply embedded in the major theme of ‘seeing’: the text is full of images of sight, and the word ‘eye’ or ‘eyes’ is repeated throughout. Both Lear and Gloucester are morally blind and it is only when Gloucester has lost his eyes that he is able to ‘see’ the truth. In turn, the eye imagery is also part of the vast range of images of body parts. Lear repeatedly refers to his breaking heart, his ‘sides’ that can’t contain his emotions: the text is full of body parts and dimensions. There is more than one thing going on here. Those images express the pain that’s being felt and also present the humanist picture that represents the emergence of a new, post Renaissance world. Moreover, a major preoccupation of the text is the question of what a man is. The question is asked directly several times, and Shakespeare has Lear stripped down to a poor forked, naked being without position, family or home – a basic, bare, man without any of the trappings that divide human beings. In that naked condition it is impossible to distinguish between a king and a beggar. And that idea of what a man is is also expressed in the images of body parts, as well as in the questions Edmund poses about what a man is.
It’s clear that any attempt to unravel the text leads one to a host of interconnecting elements and, whatever one has to say is made difficult by their complexity. All one can do is take one strand and try and look at just one of the ways in which it works.
Part of this complicated weave of body imagery is the frequent mention of ‘hand’ or ‘hands.’ The cruelty in this play finds a balance in the equally abundant imagery of tenderness and care. That wide range of human sentiment and action is played out in the hand imagery. The human hand is symbolic of what human beings are capable of. The good and the evil they do are performed with the same tool, the hand. And so, not only do we see hands with talons and claws that pluck eyes out but we also see hands that bless and raise people up. The phrase ‘give me your hand’ is the most repeated phrase in the text. It expresses friendship, support, assistance and reassurance. The two worlds of established mediaeval values and the emerging world of Renaissance preoccupations that is replacing the old world, and the battle between them, are summed up in the text by Shakespeare’s use of hand imagery.
However, everything else in the action and the language of this text also reflects and illustrates the shifting values of Shakespeare’s age. The tightness of it all, the complexity of its resonances and the connectivity of its elements, are what makes this play so rich in meaning, but also impossible to write about.
Do I know how to pick guest posters or what? That was outstanding, wasn’t it?
Tell Warren what you think by leaving a comment.
¹ Warren King runs NoSweatShakespeare.com, and has taught English literature for the past 35 years. During the 1980s he was seconded to the national Shakespeare and Schools Project, and subsequently worked as a Shakespeare consultant at the London Education Authority, where his focus was working with teachers to make Shakespeare lively, comprehensible and enjoyable for their students.