One of the most apparent motifs in Shakespeare's King Lear is the use of animals. This paper attempts to understand the choice of animal motifs and the role it is intended to play in conveying the playwright's message.
The first reference to an animal in the play is right at the beginning, when King Lear says: "Peace, Kent! Come not between the dragon and his wrath" (1.1.125). Here, King Lear is referring to himself as the dragon, which myth paints as a fire breathing unfriendly animal. Thus, King Lear uses the metaphor of a dragon to describe his anger with his daughter Cordelia and advises the Earl of Kent against defending the subject of his wrath.
The dragon is used as a metaphor again by Edmund, the illegitimate son of the Duke of Gloucester, albeit in a different context and with a different meaning when he says: "My father compounded with my mother under the / dragon's tail; and my nativity was under Ursa/major" (1.2.137-140). The dragon's tail, as used here, is obviously a reference to an astrological term to signify the planetary influence that operated when Edmund was conceived.
Edmund is mocking the human belief in and habit of blaming the stars for their misdeeds when he excuses his: "so that it follows, I am rough and / lecherous. Tut, I should have been that I am / had the maidenliest star in the firmament / twinkled on my bastardizing" (1.2.140-143).
The next reference to an animal we come across is in Act 1, Scene 4 when King Lear asks his knight: "How now! where's that mongrel?" (38) King Lear is using the term 'mongrel' to describe Oswald, his daughter, Goneril's steward. The word is disparaging Oswald since the king is annoyed that Oswald has not answered him properly when he questions him about the whereabouts of his daughter.
Mongrel was and is a word that is often used to describe a person of uncertain background and breeding and therefore carries an implied insult. This is evident when the Earl of Kent abuses Oswald in Act 2, Scene 2: "... And art nothing but / the composition of a knave, beggar, coward, pandar / and the son and heir of a mongrel *****" (2.2.19-21).
The use of an animal to serve as an insult and curse occurs again in the very same scene by King Lear who, in his anger, abuses Oswald when he makes a re-appearance: "My lady's father'! my lord's knave: your / whoreson dog! you slave! you cur! (1.4.69-70) Twice in almost the same breath, various descriptions of a dog as in 'whoreson dog' and 'cur' are used to insult and display anger.
A dog is referred to a third time in the same scene but this time with a different meaning. The king's Fool retorts: "Truth's a dog must to kennel; he must be whipped out, when Lady the brach may stand by the fire and stink" (1.4.99-100). This is in response to the king's admonishment to him that he will get punished if he cheeks the king too much. Since the Fool has taken the liberty of chiding the king about his forsaking of Cordelia in favor of his two other, less than deserving, daughters, the animal metaphor of a dog in this case is a more positive one as it implies that the dog is a loyal creature. The positive connotation of a dog's loyalty is seen again when Kent tells Regan, "Why, madam, if I were your father's dog / You should not use me so" (2.2.137-138).
In his discourse with the king, the Fool refers to an animal again in the lines, "Fools had ne'er less wit in a year / For wise men are grown foppish / They know not how their wits to wear / Their manners are so apish" (1.4.152-155). Here, too, the fool is making fun of the king's paying heed to wrong advise and people by comparing his behaviour with that of an ape's propensity to imitate. In other words, the Fool is implying that the king is imitating other foolish people instead of retaining his own counsel.
The Fool, as is already evident, is very fond of drawing comparisons to animals to make his point. And so, again we hear him say, "For, you trow, nuncle / The hedge-sparrow fed the cuckoo so long" (1.4.207-208). The fool uses the analogy of the hedge-sparrow feeding the cuckoo too long to King Lear's decision to carve up his kingdom between his daughters, implying that the King was doing more for his children than he should.
A couple of lines later, the Fool says, "May not an ass know when the cart draws the horse? Whoop, Jug! I love thee" (1.4.213-214). This is an observation to the altercation that is taking place between King Lear and Goneril when each accuses the other of having changed beyond recognition. The word ass is used to signify foolish behaviour here.
We see the Fool make yet another similar observation in Scene 6 of Act 3 when he says, "He's mad that trusts in the tameness of a wolf / a horse's health, a boy's love, or a whore's oath" (17-18).
Next we see comparison drawn to an animal characteristic by King Lear when he curses his daughter, Goneril: "How sharper than a serpent's tooth it is/To have a thankless child! Away, away!" (1.4. 282) The serpent's tooth is used to describe the sting and the sharpness of the pain that Goneril has caused the king, as her father.
The king also compares Goneril to a wolf to describe her predatory nature: " She'll flay thy wolvish visage" (1.4.304). The king's Fool, too, refers to Goneril as a fox shortly after as a comment on her cunning and sly nature: " A fox, when one has caught her" (1.4.315).
In the next scene, the Fool draws a lot of analogy to animals to express his opinions to the king. "Canst tell how an oyster makes his shell... Nor I neither; but I can tell why a snail has a house... Why, to put his head in; not to give it away to his / daughters, and leave his horns without a case" (1.5.24-29)
The next animal we see used, as an example to express a strong sentiment is that of a rat when Kent explains to the Duke of Cornwall as to why he is on the warpath with Oswald:
That such a slave as this should wear a sword,
Who wears no honesty. Such smiling rogues as these,
Like rats, oft bite the holy cords a-twain
Which are too intrinse t' unloose; smooth every passion
That in the natures of their lords rebel;" (2.2.68-72).
In the next appearance that the Fool makes, we see him back in his role as an observer of nature - both human and animal: "Ha, ha! he wears cruel garters. Horses are tied / by the heads, dogs and bears by the neck, monkeys by/the loins, and men by the legs: when a man's over-lusty at legs, then he wears wooden/nether- stocks" (2.4.11-15). The Fool here compares King Lear's plight with that of 'bound' animals in captivity, implying that the king's hasty decision has led him to his current plight.
The Fool again compares the king's plight to that of animal behaviour when he remarks: "Winter's not gone yet, if the wild-geese fly that way / Fathers that wear rags
Do make their children blind / But fathers that bear bags / Shall see their children kind" (2.4.58-62).
King Lear, himself, makes a sweeping remark about humans being treated as animals when he tells his daughter, Regan, "O, reason not the need: our basest beggars / Are in the poorest thing superfluous / Allow not nature more than nature needs/Man's life's as cheap as beast's" (2.4.295-298).
The king himself is compared to a lion by the Gentleman to Kent: "This night, wherein the cub-drawn bear would couch / The lion and the belly-pinched wolf / Keep their fur dry, unbonneted he runs / And bids what will take all" (3.1.12-15). Interesting metaphors of animals taking shelter are used to explain that even in terrible weather, the king is out battling the elements and his fate.
We also come across a reference to a bear when King Lear says to Kent, "But where the greater malady is fix'd / The lesser is scarce felt. Thou'ldst shun a bear / But if thy flight lay toward the raging sea / Thou'ldst meet the bear i' the mouth" (3.4.10-13). The king uses the analogy to describe the behaviour of desperate men and the odds they'd be willing to fight to achieve their objective.
Edgar too uses animal analogies to describe his past to King Lear and his companions when he meets them disguised as a madman: "...false of heart, light of / ear, bloody of hand; hog in sloth, fox in stealth / wolf…