King Lear Quotes

Unhappy that I am, I cannot heaveMy heart into my mouth. I love your majestyAccording to my bond; no more nor less. Cordelia speaks these words when she address her father, King Lear, who has demanded that his daughters tell him how much they love him before he divides his kingdom among them (1.1.90-92). In contrast to the empty flattery of Goneril and Regan, Cordelia offers her father a truthful evaluation of her love for him: she loves him “according to my bond”; that is, she understands and accepts without question her duty to love him as a father and king. Although Cordelia loves Lear better than her sisters do, she is unable to “heave” her heart into her mouth, as her integrity prevents her from making a false declaration in order to gain his wealth. Lear’s rage at what he perceives to be her lack of affection sets the tragedy in motion. Cordelia’s refusal to flatter Lear, then, establishes her virtue and the authenticity of her love, while bringing about Lear’s dreadful error of judgment
Thou, nature, art my goddess; to thy lawMy services are bound. Wherefore should IStand in the plague of custom, and permitThe curiosity of nations to deprive me,For that I am some twelve or fourteen moonshinesLag of a brother? Why bastard? wherefore base?… Legitimate Edgar, I must have your land.Our father’s love is to the bastard EdmundAs to the legitimate. Fine word—”legitimate”! Well, my legitimate, if this letter speed,And my invention thrive, Edmund the base Shall top the legitimate. I grow; I prosper.Now, gods, stand up for bastards! Edmund delivers this soliloquy just before he tricks his father, Gloucester, into believing that Gloucester’s legitimate son, Edgar, is plotting against him (1.2.1-22). “I grow; I prosper,” he says, and these words define his character throughout the play. Deprived by his bastard birth of the respect and rank that he believes to be rightfully his, Edmund sets about raising himself by his own efforts, forging personal prosperity through treachery and betrayals. The repeated use of the epithet “legitimate” in reference to Edgar reveals Edmund’s obsession with his brother’s enviable status as their father’s rightful heir. With its attack on the “plague of custom,” this quotation embodies Edmund’s resentment of the social order of the world and his accompanying craving for respect and power. He invokes “nature” because only in the unregulated, anarchic scheme of the natural world can one of such low birth achieve his goals. He wants recognition more than anything else—perhaps, it is suggested later, because of the familial love that has been denied him—and he sets about getting that recognition by any means necessary.
O, reason not the need! Our basest beggarsAre in the poorest thing superfluous.Allow not nature more than nature needs,Man’s life’s as cheap as beast’s . . . … You heavens, give me that patience, patience I need! … If it be you that stir these daughters’ hearts Against their father, fool me not so much To bear it tamely; touch me with noble anger, And let not women’s weapons, water-drops, Stain my man’s cheeks! No, you unnatural hags, … No, I’ll not weep.I have full cause of weeping, but this heart Shall break into a hundred thousand flaws, Or ere I’ll weep. O fool, I shall go mad! Lear delivers these lines after he has been driven to the end of his rope by the cruelties of Goneril and Regan (2.4.259-281). He rages against them, explaining that their attempts to take away his knights and servants strike at his heart. “O, reason not the need!” he cries, explaining that humans would be no different from the animals if they did not need more than the fundamental necessities of life to be happy. Clearly, Lear needs knights and attendants not only because of the service that they provide him but because of what their presence represents: namely, his identity, both as a king and as a human being. Goneril and Regan, in stripping Lear of the trappings of power, are reducing him to the level of an animal. They are also driving him mad, as the close of this quotation indicates, since he is unable to bear the realization of his daughters’ terrible betrayal. Despite his attempt to assert his authority, Lear finds himself powerless; all he can do is vent his rage.
As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods;They kill us for their sport. Gloucester speaks these words as he wanders on the heath after being blinded by Cornwall and Regan (4.1.37-38). They reflect the profound despair that grips him and drives him to desire his own death. More important, they emphasize one of the play’s chief themes—namely, the question of whether there is justice in the universe. Gloucester’s philosophical musing here offers an outlook of stark despair: he suggests that there is no order—or at least no good order—in the universe, and that man is incapable of imposing his own moral ideas upon the harsh and inflexible laws of the world. Instead of divine justice, there is only the “sport” of vicious, inscrutable gods, who reward cruelty and delight in suffering. In many ways, the events of the play bear out Gloucester’s understanding of the world, as the good die along with the wicked, and no reason is offered for the unbearable suffering that permeates the play.
Howl, howl, howl, howl! O, you are men of stones:Had I your tongues and eyes, I’d use them soThat heaven’s vault should crack. She’s gone forever!I know when one is dead, and when one lives;She’s dead as earth. Lear utters these words as he emerges from prison carrying Cordelia’s body in his arms (5.3.256-260). His howl of despair returns us again to the theme of justice, as he suggests that “heaven’s vault should crack” at his daughter’s death—but it does not, and no answers are offered to explain Cordelia’s unnecessary end. It is this final twist of the knife that makes King Lear such a powerful, unbearable play. We have seen Cordelia and Lear reunited in Act 4, and, at this point, all of the play’s villains have been killed off, leaving the audience to anticipate a happy ending. Instead, we have a corpse and a howling, ready-for-death old man. Indeed, the tension between Lear as powerful figure and Lear as animalistic madman explodes to the surface in Lear’s “Howl, howl, howl, howl,” a spoken rather than sounded vocalization of his primal instinct.
But I have, sir, a son by order of law, some yearelder than this, who yet is no dearer in my account:though this knave came something saucily into theworld before he was sent for, yet was his motherfair; there was good sport at his making, and thewhoreson must be acknowledged. Do you know thisnoble gentleman, Edmund? (1.1.4) Here, Gloucester reveals that, in addition to his illegitimate son, Edmund, he also has another son “by order of law.” (“By order of law” just means Gloucester’s other son is legally recognized as a legitimate heir. In other words, this other son isn’t a “bastard” like Edmund.)What’s interesting about this passage is that Gloucester says he doesn’t favor his legitimate son over Edmund. Gloucester’s legitimate son, he says, “is no dearer in [his] account.” We can’t help but notice that the play is full of speculation about which children are most beloved by their fathers. Recall from a previous passage (1.1.1), Kent and Gloucester wondered which son-in-law King Lear liked best. And we know that Lear favors Cordelia over Goneril and Regan.We should also point out that the more general question of “who loves who the most” turn up again when King Lear stages a love test, demanding to know which daughter can say she loves her father more than everyone else. Seems like Shakespeare is raising the following question: Is love (especially family love) quantifiable?
Tell me, my daughters,–Since now we will divest us both of rule,Interest of territory, cares of state,–Which of you shall we say doth love us most?That we our largest bounty may extendWhere nature doth with merit challenge. Goneril,Our eldest-born, speak first. (1.1.2) Here, King Lear demands to know which one of his daughters loves him “most” before he announces the division of his kingdom. When Lear asks “which of you shall we say doth love us the most?” he’s operating under the assumption that 1) love is quantifiable and 2) that language is capable of expressing his daughters’ love.
CORDELIAGood my lord,You have begot me, bred me, loved me: IReturn those duties back as are right fit,Obey you, love you, and most honour you.Why have my sisters husbands, if they sayThey love you all? Haply, when I shall wed,That lord whose hand must take my plight shall carryHalf my love with him, half my care and duty:Sure, I shall never marry like my sisters,To love my father all. (1.1.5) Cordelia, as we know, refuses to play King Lear’s game of “who loves daddy the most.” Here, she says that she loves her father “according to [her] bond,” which means that she loves him just as much a daughter should love her father, “no more nor less.” It turns out that Cordelia is about to be married and insists that she reserves half her love for her future husband and half for her father. She also points out that her sisters, Goneril and Regan, dishonor their husbands when they claim to love their father more than their spouses. Is this the reason Lear flips out and banishes Cordelia, depriving her of a dowry? Is Lear jealous of Cordelia’s future husband?
KING LEARLet it be so; thy truth, then, be thy dower:For, by the sacred radiance of the sun,The mysteries of Hecate, and the night;By all the operation of the orbsFrom whom we do exist, and cease to be;Here I disclaim all my paternal care,Propinquity and property of blood,And as a stranger to my heart and meHold thee, from this, for ever. The barbarous Scythian,Or he that makes his generation messesTo gorge his appetite, shall to my bosomBe as well neighbour’d, pitied, and relieved,As thou my sometime daughter. (1.1.10) When King Lear disowns Cordelia, who refuses to say she loves her father the most, he “disclaim[s] all [his] paternal care” and insists that Cordelia is no more to Lear than a “barbarous Scythian” or a man that eats his parents and/or his children (“makes his generation messes to gorge his appetite”). In other words, Lear equates Cordelia’s so-called betrayal of her father with a kind of barbarous cannibalism. (Compare this passage to 3.4.7 below.)According to literary critic Stephen Greenblatt, this is Lear’s biggest “folly.” Cordelia is the one daughter that actually does love King Lear. Lear’s banishment of Cordelia, as we see, sets the play’s tragic events in motion.
[…] ever since thou madest thydaughters thy mothers: for when thou gavest themthe rod, and put’st down thine own breeches, (1.4.15) Lear’s Fool (Lear’s personal comedian) seems pretty smart when he points out that Lear’s daughters became more like his “mother” when Lear gave up his power and his kingdom to them. The Fool notes that Lear might as well have pulled down his “breeches” (pants) and given his daughters a “rod” to spank him with.Speaking of mothers, we also want to point out that, even though there’s a lot of talk about moms in this play, there aren’t actually any mothers present in King Lear. What’s up with that?
KING LEARNow, all the plagues that in the pendulous airHang fated o’er men’s faults light on thy daughters!KENTHe hath no daughters, sir.KING LEARDeath, traitor! nothing could have subdued natureTo such a lowness but his unkind daughters.Is it the fashion, that discarded fathersShould have thus little mercy on their flesh?Judicious punishment! ’twas this flesh begotThose pelican daughters. (3.4.7) After Goneril and Regan betray Lear (who has given them all his land and power), he’s quick to condemn all women as he attempts to blame the troubles of the world on “unkind daughters.” What’s particularly interesting about this passage is the way Lear compares his daughters to “pelicans.” In Shakespeare’s day, mother pelicans were thought to have wounded their breasts so their young could feed off their blood. King Lear’s being a bit of a martyr here, as he suggests that he is like a mother pelican who has been sacrificed so his greedy daughters can thrive. Lear is pretty fond of using this kind of imagery – earlier in the play, he compared Cordelia to a man who eats his parents (or children). Compare this passage to 1. 1.10 above.
KING LEARDoth any here know me? This is not Lear:Doth Lear walk thus? speak thus? Where are his eyes?Either his notion weakens, his discerningsAre lethargied–Ha! waking? ’tis not so.Who is it that can tell me who I am?FOOLLear’s shadow. (1.4.34) King Lear can hardly believe his daughter’s insolence after she insults him by complaining about his retinue of 100 rowdy knights. (Having enjoyed the power and authority of kingship for so long, Lear isn’t used to being treated shabbily by his subjects or his children.) Here, an incredulous Lear asks, “Who is it that can tell me who I am?” This question suggests that Lear doesn’t quite know how to define himself now that he’s lost all the power that comes with active kingship. In other words, Lear’s retirement results in a kind of identity crisis.The Fool’s response is equally interesting. We can read the Fool’s answer (“Lear’s shadow”) in a couple of ways. On the one hand, it could mean that the Fool, who is thought of as Lear’s shadow (he follows or shadows Lear around the countryside) is the person who can tell Lear who he is. The Fool, after all, is the only person who ever tells it like it is and he knows Lear pretty well. Alternatively, we can read the line thus: Lear is nothing but a shadow, which suggests that Lear is merely a shadow of his former self. In other words, the Fool is saying that Lear (whose status has changed since retirement) is nothing without his former power and title.
Rumble thy bellyful! Spit, fire! spout, rain!Nor rain, wind, thunder, fire, are my daughters:I tax not you, you elements, with unkindness;I never gave you kingdom, call’d you children,You owe me no subscription: then let fallYour horrible pleasure: here I stand, your slave,A poor, infirm, weak, and despised old man:But yet I call you servile ministers,That have with two pernicious daughters join’dYour high engender’d battles ‘gainst a headSo old and white as this. O! O! ’tis foul! (3.2.2) Lear sees himself as a victim of injustice – his daughters have betrayed him and now he’s caught out on the heath during a terrible storm. What’s interesting about this passage is the way Lear literally accuses the storm of being his daughters’ agent (“servile minister”). For Lear, it seems the whole world is against him.
Poor naked wretches, whereso’er you are,That bide the pelting of this pitiless storm,How shall your houseless heads and unfed sides,Your loop’d and window’d raggedness, defend youFrom seasons such as these? O, I have ta’enToo little care of this! Take physic, pomp;Expose thyself to feel what wretches feel,That thou mayst shake the superflux to them,And show the heavens more just (3.4.4) This is an important moment for King Lear, who has never before contemplated the plight of homelessness. Here, he realizes that he hasn’t done enough to solve the homeless problem in his kingdom as he acknowledges that, as king, he had the power and authority to do something about it. This is pretty extraordinary because it suggests that the acts of human beings are the things that prove “the heavens [to be] more just.” In other words, there can only be justice in the world when human beings behave justly toward each other.
GLOUCESTERAs flies to wanton boys are we to the godsThey kill us for their sport. (4.1.4) This is one of the most famous lines in the play. For Gloucester, the gods are not only indifferent to human suffering but they’re excessively cruel, causing human misery just as easily and thoughtlessly as “wanton boys” might swat at “flies.”
I’ll tell thee:Life and death! I am ashamedThat thou hast power to shake my manhood thus;That these hot tears, which break from me perforce,Should make thee worth them. Blasts and fogs upon thee!The untented woundings of a father’s cursePierce every sense about thee! (1.4.42) When Goneril reduces Lear’s retinue of knights (thus, reducing any power Lear had left after he divided his kingdom), Lear accuses Goneril of “shaking [his] manhood.” Without the kind of power and authority Lear once enjoyed as active king and family patriarch, he feels as though he’s been stripped of his masculinity.
Fool[…] I can tell why a snail has a house.KING LEARWhy?FoolWhy, to put his head in; not to give it away to hisdaughters, and leave his horns without a case. (1.5.7) After King Lear gives his kingdom away to his daughters, the Fool chastises him for giving away all his land and power. (After all, Goneril has just kicked Lear out of her palace and Lear is about to become homeless.) Here, the Fool cracks a joke, comparing Lear to a snail that has given away his shell and has no home.What’s most interesting to us about this passage, however, is the Fool’s suggestion that Lear is a cuckold. A “cuckold” is a common Elizabethan term for a man who has been cheated on by his wife and, in Shakespeare’s plays, horns are a pretty common sign that a man has been cuckolded. So, why does the Fool imply that Lear has “horns”? (Lear’s wife is dead.) The Fool seems to equate the betrayal by Lear’s daughters with like sexual infidelity – it’s as though Lear’s daughters, Goneril and Regan, are no better than a cheating wife. That’s a pretty odd thing to imply, don’t you think?
The gods are just, and of our pleasant vicesMake instruments to plague us.The dark and vicious place where thee he gotCost him his eyes. (5.3.4) Here, Edgar has mortally wounded his evil brother Edmund. As if to explain, Edgar says “the gods are just” because they punish humans for their wrong doings. This seems to suggest that Edmund deserved what he got (a stab to the guts) and it also suggests that Gloucester, Edmund’s father, got what he deserved for having an affair with Edmund’s mother. (Gloucester’s eyes were plucked out after he was accused of treason and, he fathered a wicked child, Edmund, who betrayed him.)What’s significant about this passage is the way Edgar refers to the body of Edmund’s mother as a “dark and vicious place where” Edmund was begot. It seems to imply that all the bad things in the world (like the wicked Edmund, for example), spring from the loins of women. Gloucester implies something similar at the play’s beginning, which we discuss in the following passage (1.1.3).
The country gives me proof and precedentOf Bedlam beggars, who, with roaring voices,Strike in their numb’d and mortified bare armsPins, wooden pricks, nails, sprigs of rosemary;And with this horrible object, from low farms,Poor pelting villages, sheep-cotes, and mills,Sometime with lunatic bans, sometime with prayers,Enforce their charity. Poor Turlygod! poor Tom!That’s something yet: Edgar I nothing am. (2.3.1) When Edgar disguises himself as “Poor Tom,” an inmate of Bedlam hospital and the kind of guy who roams about the country “roaring” like a madman and begging for charity, his plight draws our attention to the homelessness in the play and in Shakespeare’s England. By the time Shakespeare wrote King Lear, Bedlam (a.k.a. Bethlehem Hospital) was an asylum notorious for its appalling conditions and brutal treatment of its patients, some of whom were given licenses to beg outside the hospital. Here, Edgar strips himself down to the skin with only a “blanket” to cover his “loins,” ties his hair in knots, and smears his face with mud so that he cannot be recognized. “Edgar I nothing am” he announces, meaning, 1) he’s no longer Edgar and 2) now that he’s a homeless wanderer, he is nothing.
GONERILHear me, my lord;What need you five and twenty, ten, or five,To follow in a house where twice so manyHave a command to tend you?REGANWhat need one? (2.4.5) King Lear begins his retirement with retinue of 100 knights. Eventually, Goneril and Regan demand he get rid of his men and decrease Lear’s knights to a number of 75, then 50, then 25, then 1, and then, finally, 0. What happens to all those men who were once employed in Lear’s service? They simply disperse, becoming part of a growing population of what historian A.L. Beier referred to as “masterless men,” homeless wanderers that roamed the countryside. As Beier notes, vagrants were called “masterless” because they were unemployed and landless in a period when the able-bodied poor were supposed to have masters” (Masterless Men: The Vagrancy Problem in England 1560-1640, p. xix). The dispersal of King Lear’s knights not only speaks to Lear’s dramatic loss of power but also offers a bit of social commentary in the play.
O, reason not the need: our basest beggarsAre in the poorest thing superfluous:Allow not nature more than nature needs,Man’s life’s as cheap as beast’s: thou art a lady;If only to go warm were gorgeous,Why, nature needs not what thou gorgeous wear’st,Which scarcely keeps thee warm. But, for true need, (2.4.35) When Goneril and Regan strip Lear of all his knights and say he has no “need” for so many men, Lear proclaims that “need” is not the point. Lear acknowledges he doesn’t “need” a retinue of knights but, he says, even the lowliest “beggars / are in the poorest thing superfluous.” Translation: even beggars have something more than the bare minimum, so Lear should be able to keep his retinue of knights. If all men were allowed only to have the bare essentials, he would be no better than an animal or, “beast.” As an example, Lear points out that Goneril and Regan wear gorgeous clothes that can hardly be said to keep them warm – Goneril and Regan wear such outfits not because they need them for warmth but because they’re fashionable. So, is Lear right? When man only has the bare essentials, is he no better than an animal?
KING LEARBe your tears wet? yes, ‘faith. I pray, weep not:If you have poison for me, I will drink it.I know you do not love me; for your sistersHave, as I do remember, done me wrong:You have some cause, they have not.CORDELIANo cause, no cause. (4.7.5) This is, perhaps, the most tender of moments in the play. When Lear awakens and finds his daughter at his bedside, he acknowledges the way he’s hurt Cordelia and admits that she has “some cause” to wish him harm. Yet, despite everything, Cordelia finds it within herself to utter “no cause, no cause.”