King Lear | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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Symbols

Professor Regina Buccola of Roosevelt University explains the symbols in William Shakespeare's play King Lear.

King Lear | Symbols

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Certain objects, events, and states of being have both a literal and symbolic significance in King Lear. Characters directly address the meaning of these items, often repeatedly.

Crown

Lear divides his kingdom and sets aside his crown. In Act 1, Scene 4, the Fool shares an extended joke with Lear about crowns. The Fool splits an egg in half, producing two "crowns" (the two halves of the eggshell), which, when considered separately, constitute nothing of great value. The Fool tells Lear that this is what Lear has accomplished by dividing his royal crown between his elder daughters—and that he was an idiot for doing so.

The Storm and Wind

Some scenes in King Lear take place during a powerful storm, but that storm is also deeply symbolic of the savage disorder in the kingdom. Lear equates the storm's violence and destructiveness with his daughters' treatment of him. The storm is also symbolic of the ravaging of Lear's mind and his near constant-state of confusion.

Wind is also mentioned frequently in the play. The concept of wind has held symbolic meaning for centuries: "winds of change," "it came on the wind," etc. are common sayings that speak to how the physical environment can result in personal or societal upheaval.

Blindness

The inability to see is a motif that appears throughout King Lear. The disability is sometimes literal and temporary—for example, Lear's inability to see through Kent's disguise. Blindness is sometimes literal and permanent, as when the Earl of Gloucester's eyes are gouged out. But these instances of literal blindness are also symbolic, and other instances of blindness are completely symbolic. These include Lear's inability to see Cordelia's love or Gloucester's inability to see his son Edmund's treachery.

Letters

Letters are frequently used in the play. These are missives that fill in important gaps in the story without needing to be acted out, which could be difficult to do on stage with limited space, money, and time. But they also have symbolic meaning because writing was, and still is, seen as more "official" or "trustworthy" than verbal communications. Literacy rates were quite low during Shakespeare's time, and thus the ability to read and write would've shown a person to be in a relatively important station. People relied on letters to be true and factual, and this carries weight and meaning when presented in the various scenes.

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