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King Lear | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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King Lear | Quotes


Nothing will come of nothing. Speak again.

King Lear, Act 1, Scene 1

In the opening scene of King Lear, Lear asks his daughters to publicly declare their love for him. This is the final line in the exchange between Lear and Cordelia, in which Cordelia says she has nothing to say on the matter.

The exchange is marked by foreshadowing, irony, and sadness. Lear's two elder daughters have already pledged their love in the extreme. Cordelia, though, just says, "Nothing," because her father should know how much she loves him and because it is not right or dignified to make this sort of declaration. And Lear's right: nothing does come from nothing, but it is he who ends up with nothing. He starts with a kingdom and three daughters, and in the end, all four of them are dead and the kingdom is fragmented.


I am made of that self mettle as my sister/And prize me at her worth.

Regan, Act 1, Scene 1

Regan, Lear's middle daughter, starts her declaration of love after her elder sister, Goneril, has made her statement. Regan and Goneril are very much alike: they do share the same mettle and worth. Regan means to claim great love and stature when she says this, but in fact both she and Goneril are malicious traitors who don't seem to love anyone, including themselves.


Peace, Kent./Come not between the dragon and his wrath./I loved her most and thought to set my rest/On her kind nursery.

King Lear, Act 1, Scene 1

Lear says this to Kent when his loyal servant tries to tell him the truth (and Lear doesn't want to hear it). This line is important because it shows Lear's self-image and his understanding of the situation. He sees himself as mythically powerful, like a dragon, and openly declares he loved Cordelia best. No doubt his words would offend Goneril and Regan: their father loves their baby sister best! Even modern families can relate to this type of dysfunction, and indeed it is a hallmark of many popular, current stories.

In addition, this passage shows that part of the reason Lear is so upset is that things aren't going his way. This makes him seem less like a dragon or a king and more like a spoiled child.


Thou, Nature, art my goddess. To thy law/My services are bound. Wherefore should I/Stand in the plague of custom, and permit/The curiosity of nations to deprive me/For that I am some twelve or fourteen moonshines/Lag of a brother? why "bastard"? Wherefore "base"?

Edmund, Act 1, Scene 2

This declaration opens King Lear's second scene, and it sets the play's subplot in motion. Edmund, who is Gloucester's younger, illegitimate son, is here declaring that he's unwilling to let social conventions shape his destiny. He's only considered a "bastard" or illegitimate because of society's rules—that is, because his parents weren't married.

The audience might sympathize with Edmund, since he did not choose his situation, but there's a great deal of arrogance in thinking he can identify natural law on his own. Edmund is right that, according to the laws of nature, he is just as much Gloucester's son as is Edgar. His arrogance is in regarding himself as an exception to legal laws and in thinking he has a greater right to what Edgar stands to inherit under these laws.


How sharper than a serpent's tooth it is/To have a thankless child.—Away, away!

King Lear, Act 1, Scene 4

This line comes near the end of a scene in which Lear has to face for the first time the rupture he's created by dividing his kingdom (and trusting Goneril and Regan). The "thankless child" he refers to is his eldest daughter, who only recently publicly swore how much she loved him. But that was before the kingdom was divided. Now that she has half a kingdom, she shows no gratitude. The reference to a serpent conjures common biblical imagery (which certainly would have been impactful on an Elizabethan-era audience), and shows that Lear views his daughter as worse than a devil.


That such a slave as this should wear a sword,/Who wears no honesty.

Earl of Kent, Act 2, Scene 2

Kent delivers this line late in a scene in which he trots out some glorious insults for Oswald. Those earlier insults have a kind of crude poetry to them. This line, though, which Kent delivers after the Duke of Albany asks why he's angry, is clear and direct. It sums up one of the play's themes: disorder. A man who wears a sword should be a knight, worthy and ethical, but Oswald is only a tool for his scheming mistress. In his taking up a sword, the entire world is turned upside down. Swords also have phallic symbolism attached, and through being controlled by a woman implies that Oswald is unworthy of his "manhood."


Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! Rage, blow!/You cataracts and hurricanoes, spout/Till you have drenched our steeples, drowned the cocks./You sulph'rous and thought-executing fires,/Vaunt-couriers of oak-cleaving thunderbolts,/Singe my white head.

King Lear, Act 3, Scene 2

These lines open Scene 2, in which Lear is exposed to the elements. He ends up in the storm when his stubbornness clashes with that of his daughters. They want him to change his behavior, give up some of his knights, and apologize. He refuses and so gets cast out into the storm.

Here he meets nature as though he were a force of nature himself, like the dragon he claimed to be in Act 1, Scene 1. Lear challenges the storm to do its worst, personifying the winds as ancient Greek myths did. Lear is setting himself up as a challenger to Zeus (or Jove/Jupiter, since elsewhere in King Lear, Shakespeare uses the Roman names for the gods). In Greek mythology, challenging the gods always ends badly.

The storm here is also a metaphor for Lear's deteriorating mind, and also for lapsing into control and destruction by women. Remember that the word "hysterical" has its roots in "female madness" or "female hysteria," an official condition included in medical literature as late as 1952, 350 years after King Lear was first performed. Lear is disintegrating and losing his identity, being pushed to this by women as well as his own poor choices. This is messaging that would have been popular to audiences of the day, who would have understood these double meanings.


I am a man/More sinned against than sinning.

King Lear, Act 3, Scene 2

This line is from the scene in which Lear is out in the storm. He and his fool have just been joined by Kent in disguise. Here Lear explains his situation, concluding with this line. It functions as both a summary and commentary: this is how Lear sees himself.

Is he more sinned against than sinning? Yes, in relation to Goneril and Cordelia. However, insisting on this interpretation absolves him of any responsibility. Lear refuses to see how he created and still contributes to his suffering, and so it continues.


Lest it see more, prevent it. Out, vile jelly!

Duke of Cornwall, Act 3, Scene 7

The Duke of Cornwall says this as he forces out Gloucester's second eye, rendering him fully blind. This is horrific in itself, of course, and seems more cruel, perhaps, than killing him. But what makes this line powerful and memorable is what it shows about Cornwall and his character.

His servant, who has served Cornwall his entire life, has just broken his oath of loyalty: first in trying to persuade Cornwall not to blind Gloucester, and then in attacking his master to prevent the torture. He wounds Cornwall, but he is himself slain. When the servant dies, he takes some satisfaction in knowing he's preserved one of Gloucester's eyes. That is when Cornwall delivers this the line mocking his dying servant and reducing Gloucester's eyes to "vile jelly."


As flies to wanton boys are we to th' gods;/They kill us for their sport.

Earl of Gloucester, Act 4, Scene 1

The blind Gloucester speaks this line to the old peasant who is guiding him through Britain. Edgar is watching the man guide his father, and he is horrified by his father's condition.

When Gloucester delivers this line, he's talking to his guide but speaking for the benefit of his son Edgar, and, through him, the audience. This line sums up the casual nature of violent suffering in King Lear; it is as if there are a host of pagan gods who choose to kill or maim people for fun.


O Goneril,/You are not worth the dust which the rude wind/Blows in your face. I fear your disposition.

Duke of Albany, Act 4, Scene 2

The Duke of Albany is speaking to Goneril, his wife. There is no subtle symbolism here. He is making a devastating comment on her character. Albany is flatly stating that he has come to fear his wife for her actions.


You do me wrong to take me out o' th' grave./Thou art a soul in bliss, but I am bound/Upon a wheel of fire, that mine own tears/Do scald like molten lead.

King Lear, Act 4, Scene 7

Reunited with Cordelia, Lear speaks metaphorically and symbolically here, but in ways that clearly state how far he has fallen and how badly he feels. By declaring that Cordelia is wrong to take him out of his grave, he's saying he is dead. He goes on to describe his torment, in what is clearly a kind of hell: tied to a "wheel of fire" and burning himself with his own tears. As for Cordelia, Lear now sees the daughter he discarded as "a soul in bliss" (heavenly, like an angel).


Jesters do oft prove prophets.

Regan, Act 5, Scene 3

Regan is speaking to her sister Goneril late in the play, when the two of them are openly fighting over Edmund's love. Regan means it as a sneer, something with which to taunt Goneril for her previous joke about Edmund becoming a husband to Regan.

However, this line also serves as a commentary on the play: Lear's fool may be the wisest man in the play. He certainly delivers more good advice than anyone else.


In wisdom I should ask thy name,/But since thy outside looks so fair and warlike,/And that thy tongue some say of breeding breathes,/What safe and nicely I might well delay/By rule of knighthood, I disdain and spurn.

Edmund, Act 5, Scene 3

Edmund delivers these lines to the unknown challenger who has come to prove Edmund's treachery through a trial by combat. In this speech the secondary plot of King Lear comes full circle, for in his first monologue (in Act 1, Scene 2), Edmund rejects social constraint and embraces nature. Here, though, Edmund says he can tell his challenger is noble by how he looks and speaks. (As indeed he is: the mysterious knight is Edmund's brother, Edgar.


Howl, howl, howl, howl! 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.

King Lear, Act 5, Scene 3

Lear delivers these lines while walking onstage holding Cordelia's dead body in his arms.

The opening "Howl, howl, howl!" echoes his call at the start of Act 3, Scene 2 for the winds to blow. In that earlier scene, Lear was defying the natural elements. In this one, he's trying to deny a broken heart and terrible pain: the death of his daughter Cordelia. He is so shaken by her loss he can't tell why others aren't howling with sadness, and he says he wants to use their voices to lament and crack heaven open.

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