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What does "laugh at gilded butterflies" mean in King Lear?What does "laugh at gilded...

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iago | eNotes Newbie

Posted July 8, 2007 at 3:24 PM via web

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What does "laugh at gilded butterflies" mean in King Lear?

What does "laugh at gilded butterflies" mean in King Lear?

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tthakkar | High School Teacher | Valedictorian

Posted July 8, 2007 at 4:25 PM (Answer #2)

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Lear and Cordelia are being sent to prison. But for a now wiser Lear, prison with Cordelia is heaven.

"We two alone will sing like birds i' the cage… …so we'll live, And pray, and sing, and tell old tales, and laugh At gilded butterflies, and hear poor rogues Talk of court news; and we'll talk with them too, Who loses and who wins; who's in, who's out; And take upon 's the mystery of things, As if we were God's spies…" --King Lear, Act V, Scene 3

"Gilded butterflies" refers to people who put on "false fronts" or superficial acts to impress others. It is more than likely a stab at the pompus upper class of courtly life and, in particular, his other two daughters.

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cmcqueeney | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Associate Educator

Posted July 8, 2007 at 11:30 PM (Answer #3)

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The word "gilded" can mean 'deceptively pleasing' or 'covered with blood'.  When both of these definitions are applied to the two other daughters, it shows that Lear is 'laughing' at them because of their 'false fronts', but it also holds the darker meaning that Lear's and Cornelia's blood is on the heads of the other two daugthers. 

 

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sagetrieb | College Teacher | (Level 3) Educator

Posted July 9, 2007 at 12:52 AM (Answer #4)

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 "gilded butterflies" refers to the courtiers, along with all the connotations that they suggest are contained in the metaphor.

It seems to me it's not just what they refer to but also Lear's attitude toward them: because he is with his daughter, Lear will "laugh" at the butterflies, doing so as the two of them pretend "they are God's spies." In prison, their position becomes privileged, not punitive. They will see more, know more, and live more deeply than they did before. And they will do so on the side of God. What before had been problematic--these courtiers--will now be inconsequential.

The "gilded butterflies" might indeed be free outside the cage of prison in which Lear and Cordelia will reside, but since prison will allow them "to sing," they will be more free than those insignificant, superficially beautiful insects (which is what butterflies are) flittering about aimlessly.  Of course we need to remember that Lear is quite mad in this final scene, but perhaps it is the kind of madness that Plato speaks of, the kind that permits special knowledge, a greater view of life.

 

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alexb2 | eNotes Employee

Posted October 25, 2007 at 8:25 AM (Answer #5)

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This question has been asked a lot, not because of King Lear, but because of actress Megan Fox who has the line from Lear tattooed on her back. :)

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wa2344 | Student | eNotes Newbie

Posted February 21, 2008 at 8:45 PM (Answer #6)

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who cares why the question has been asked a lot?

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anic | eNotes Newbie

Posted March 22, 2009 at 4:35 AM (Answer #7)

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Gilding is the ancient practice of gold leafing (coating objects in thin layers of gold). So in laughing at gilded butterflies, they could be referring to laughing at the extravagance and uselessness of the court much like a gilded butterfly as it is followed by "hear poor rogues talk of court news."

Or, a gilded butterfly is as much of a prisoner at they are as it obviously can not fly, so they may be laughing at their own similar situation.

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lsumner | High School Teacher | (Level 2) Senior Educator

Posted May 26, 2011 at 6:09 AM (Answer #8)

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It is truly glorious to be able to laugh at those who are overly ornamental. King Lear's two older daughters cover themselves with their regal adornment, but inside, they are full of poison, as just so happens to become a literal part of the play.

Imagine two birds in a cage laughing at the overly ornamental butterflies which fly around freely as if they are really special. It is what the two birds have really come to know and understand. Caged birds can sing, pray and laugh at gilded butterflies because the butterflies do not realize how fragile they are.

Sure, the butterflies are beautiful to the outward eye, but excessive show is ostentatious and quite unnecessary. Ironically, King Lear in his madness has learned much wisdom. He now knows who truly loves him and he wants to spend his days in prison with her, Cordelia, singing, praying, telling old tales and laughing at gilded butterflies. He has learned to laugh at those who are pompous in their royal positions.

It is possible to be free inside a cage. Laughing at gilded butterflies is a past time, something wonderful. Making fun of those who think they are prestigious and better than others is a truly healthy mental exercise.

Poor gilded butterflies. If only they could switch places with King Lear at this point in his life, they would perhaps have lived to a ripe old age and enjoyed every minute laughing at gilded butterflies.

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bo311xxx | College Teacher | eNotes Newbie

Posted June 27, 2011 at 4:38 PM (Answer #9)

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It's just too obvious, but, "Patience, Iago...".

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azil11 | High School Teacher | eNotes Newbie

Posted July 15, 2011 at 1:52 PM (Answer #10)

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They can't fly deary, if they are gilded they are too heavy or too serious about themselves to be able to get off the ground.

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mfrison | High School Teacher | eNoter

Posted July 22, 2011 at 2:53 AM (Answer #11)

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Butterflies are in themselves beautiful things so the act of
"gilding" or covering in gold means to cover the butterflies in excessive decoration when they are already beautiful.  Lear see the ridiculous nature of this and finds it comical.  It can be directed at just his daughters or at his court in general where everyone adorns themselves in layers of decoration to make themselves beautiful when in reality they are covering their true beauty and becoming fake.  It is also important to note that one covered in gold cannot function due to being formed or gilded in the gold, making them useless beings.  Their only function becoming a simple pretty thing to look at, no longer a human being with a brain and purpose.  Lear sees these individuals as idiots and knows that their beauty is superficial and worthless.  He laughs at how ridiculous these people are.

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hkabir08 | Student | eNotes Newbie

Posted July 26, 2011 at 8:15 PM (Answer #12)

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It means the cleverest laugh of king Lear.

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jrosenberg | High School Teacher | eNotes Newbie

Posted August 10, 2011 at 9:32 AM (Answer #13)

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Reread it:

Lear. No, no, no, no! Come, let's away to
prison;                                             (Give in dears, it is our lot)
We two alone will sing like birds i' the cage: (I am holding you back)
When thou dost ask me blessing, I'll kneel
down,                                        (You have replaced my in sature)
And ask of thee forgiveness: so we'll live,
And pray, and sing, and tell old tales, and   (Together, we will be like
laugh                                                       beautiful, singing birds
At gilded butterflies, and hear poor rogues   trapped in time)
Talk of court news; and we'll talk with them  (We will eavesdrop on
too,                                                          other's lives having
Who loses and who wins; who's in, who's out;     lost our own
And take upon's the mystery of things,               ability to live.)
As if we were God's spies: and we'll wear out,
In a wall'd prison, packs and sets of great ones
That ebb and flow by the moon.

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gcarden498 | Teacher | (Level 1) Adjunct Educator

Posted August 25, 2011 at 3:16 AM (Answer #14)

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I tend to agree with the previous post by mfrison.  The line implies that it is foolish to gild a butterfly since it is already naturally beautiful and does not need artificial enhancement.  It suggests the way that Lear has come to view life:  it is inately beautiful and does not need to be clothed in beautiful garments.  What Lear sees around him is a court that is striving to attract attention by being richly attired, but by doing so, they are hiding the real beauty of life.

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pororohandy | Student | Valedictorian

Posted June 21, 2012 at 4:23 AM (Answer #15)

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 I would actually think that the reason we would be laughing is because a butterfly covered in gold most likely will not be able to fly. This could be a reference to the pursuit of wealth, in the sense that it destroys true nature...
"gild" in in Shakespeare's time (dictionary 1300-50; ME gilden, OE -gyldan; akin to gold) meant something that was gold. Something gilded was something dipped in gold, or accented with gold. Butterflies in most of the world, as well as in England during Shakespeare's time, represented the human soul, especially those human souls waiting to pass through purgatory. If a butterfly is gilded, it is beautiful; but it is also weighed down by the gold since butterflies are very light. Therefore, it will not be able to fly, and we, the ungilded will laugh since they will not be able to fly to the world beyond (or heaven). Gold either represents evil and corruption, or success. This could mean that the people who are consumed by their want for money and their obsession with it, aka the rich, will be weighed down by the same thing that makes them "beautiful" to others.
Their gold will weigh them down spiritually, leaving the downtrodden on top come judgment day.


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pororohandy | Student | Valedictorian

Posted June 21, 2012 at 4:24 AM (Answer #16)

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 I would actually think that the reason we would be laughing is because a butterfly covered in gold most likely will not be able to fly. This could be a reference to the pursuit of wealth, in the sense that it destroys true nature...
"gild" in in Shakespeare's time (dictionary 1300-50; ME gilden, OE -gyldan; akin to gold) meant something that was gold. Something gilded was something dipped in gold, or accented with gold. Butterflies in most of the world, as well as in England during Shakespeare's time, represented the human soul, especially those human souls waiting to pass through purgatory. If a butterfly is gilded, it is beautiful; but it is also weighed down by the gold since butterflies are very light. Therefore, it will not be able to fly, and we, the ungilded will laugh since they will not be able to fly to the world beyond (or heaven). Gold either represents evil and corruption, or success. This could mean that the people who are consumed by their want for money and their obsession with it, aka the rich, will be weighed down by the same thing that makes them "beautiful" to others.
Their gold will weigh them down spiritually, leaving the downtrodden on top come judgment day.


it was a good answer

 

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