By Lauryn W.
Shakespeare uses animal comparisons in King Lear to explore how Lear’s daughters, Regan and Goneril, “sink below the level of beasts” in their actions toward their father (Taylor 532-533). Lear breaks the law of primogeniture when he divides his kingdom between his two eldest daughters, who claim to love him most. As a result, Regan and Goneril are able to function beyond the laws of coverture, performing injustices upon their father.
After Goneril, Lear’s eldest daughter, denies her father of his wishes, Lear compares her to a creature of prey, hoping to receive more compassion from her younger sister: “O, Regan, she hath tied Sharp-toothed unkindness like a vulture, here” as he indicates his heart (Shakespeare 2.4.134). According to Alan Dent, “the Vulture […] hates us living and loves us dead”, thus Lear’s reference to Goneril as a vulture not only serves to implicate her as bestial, but also indicates her ill feelings for Lear (149). Feelings that she allows to show only after she has married and been given her part of the kingdom.
Regan is also implicated as inhuman, though since few direct animal references are made toward her, inferences must be drawn from her actions to denote her bestial nature. In Act 3 Scene 7, as Cornwall attempts to pluck a second eye from Gloucester’s head, one of his servants interferes: “Hold your hand, my lord!” (Shakespeare 3.7.72). For this outburst of defiance against Cornwall, Regan kills the servant, stabbing him from behind with a sword. In this instance, Regan uses the element of surprise in order to commit the murder, just as a cat would in attacking its prey. However, Regan’s motives for attacking are not defensive or used as a survival tactic as an animal’s attack would be. Instead, Regan is motivated purely by her brash anger toward the situation.
Prior to his misfortunes at the hand of Cornwall, Gloucester, like Lear, also alludes to Regan and Goneril’s animalism, foreshadowing his fate. In speaking to Regan he says, “I would not see thy cruel nails / Pluck out [Lear’s] poor old eyes, nor thy fierce sister / In his anointed flesh stick boarish fangs” (3.7.55-57). Regan’s nails are referred to as “cruel”, meaning, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, “destitute of kindness or compassion.” As both kindness and compassion are traits of humanness, calling Regan’s nails “cruel” strips her of her humanity. Gloucester’s more blatant reference to Goneril’s “boarish fangs” depicts Lear’s eldest daughter as a vicious animal unwilling to be merciful toward anyone, even her own family. This passage denotes both sisters, as Taylor states, “are the diabolically evil beasts of Shakespeare” (533).
Shakespeare’s King Lear is driven greatly by the idea of bestial man, particularly when the actions of Lear’s two elder daughters, Regan and Goneril, are called into question. Both daughters turn their father away, denying him the rights a former king and father are entitled to. Regan and Goneril’s denial of Lear goes against the laws of primogeniture and coverture, as both women were given halves of their father’s kingdom and took majority control. As each one of Lear’s requests are denied by his fiendish daughters, his patriarchal position depletes, and he too is stripped of his humanness as he descends into madness.
Lauryn. is currently a senior at Ball State University in Indiana, majoring in Creative Writing and double minoring in Literature and Women’s and Gender Studies.
Image: Earlom, Richard. King Lear, act I, scene I. 1792. Folger Shakespeare Library Digital Image Collection.Folger Shakespeare Library. Web. 26 April 2014.
“cruel, adj.” OED Online. Oxford University Press, March 2014. Web. 20 April 2014.
Dent, Alan. World of Shakespeare: Animals & Monsters. New York: Taplinger Pub. Co., 1972. Print.
Shakespeare, William. King Lear. Ed. Grace Ioppolo. New York: W. W. Norton Company, 2008. Print.
Taylor, George Coffin. “Shakespeare’s Use of the Idea of the Beast in Man.” Studies in Philology 42.3 (1945): 530-543. JSTOR. Web. 5 Feb 2014.