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Similes (comparisons using the words “like” or “as”) appear frequently in the first two acts of William Shakespeare’s King Lear and contribute in various ways to the effectiveness of those acts. Examples include the following:
- At one point the evil, cynical Edmund says that his virtuous brother Edgar comes
like the catastrophe of the old comedy. My
cue is villainous melancholy, with a sigh like Tom o' Bedlam.
The first simile here is typical of Edmund’s characteristic sarcasm, while the second is ironic since it will later be Edgar who will take on the role of Tom o’ Bedlam.
- When the Earl of Kent remarks that a passage spoken by the fool “is nothing,” the fool replies,
Then 'tis like the breath of an unfeed lawyer- you gave me
This response exemplifies the fool’s quick wit, linguistic playfulness, and sharp-edged humor.
- When Goneril complains about Lear’s followers and retainers, she says that her residence, now
infected with their manners,
Shows like a riotous inn. Epicurism and lust
Make it more like a tavern or a brothel
Than a grac'd palace.
Goneril’s complaints about the faults of others will later seem highly ironic in light of her own (far more severe) shortcomings.
- Later, Kent, when mocking the flattery typical of most courtiers, exclaims that Cornwall’s influence is
like the wreath of radiant fire
On flickering Phoebus' front . . .
By using such over-blown language here, he ridicules flattery by imitating it.
- Lear, complaining to Regan about Goneril’s mistreatment of him, complains that Goneril
Sharp-tooth'd unkindness, like a vulture, here! [indicating his heart]
This simile here reminds us of the many ways that characters in this play reduce themselves to the level of animals in the ways they treat other humans.
- Early in the play, Lear, angered by Cordelia’s refusal to flatter him, promises to treat her
as a stranger to my heart and me . . . .
This, of course, is a very fateful decision – one he will later come to regret when his other daughters treat him in precisely this way.
- In contrast to Lear’s treatment of Cordelia, Kent later tells Lear that he has always
Lov'd [Lear] as my father . . .
Kent will prove this love throughout the play, and his regard for Lear as a kind of father figure helps explain his utterly steadfast devotion to the king.
In short, Shakespeare uses many different similes in the first two acts of King Lear, and they all contribute to the larger significance and effectiveness of the play.
A simile is a comparison of two dissimilar things that share similar characteristics. The simile treats the two things as if they are the same. The language in a simile is not to be taken literally: it is figurative language, but it also provides clearly imagery in the written or spoken word to get the writer's point across more effectively.
The first simile I find in Shakespeare's King Lear is in Act One, scene four:
This is nothing, fool.
Then 'tis like the breath of an unfee'd lawyer; you
gave me nothing for't. (121-123)
The fool (jester) has just told King Lear a riddle, which makes no sense to the King. The King tells the fool that his words are meaningless. The fool then compares his words to the words ("breath") of an unpaid lawyer—without being paid, the lawyer will not speak any words of value, and the fool counts himself in the same situation, since the King has not paid him anything. (The fool is being insolent toward King Lear.)
In lines 234-236, Goneril compares the castle to a tavern or a house of prostitution because of the manner being practiced in the castle by "disordered" knights and squires:
That this our court, infected with their manners,
Shows like a riotous inn: epicurism and lust
Make it more like a tavern or a brothel
Than a graced palace.
(I feel it would be remiss not to mention one device that is a metaphor—please note—because it does not use the words "like" or "as," but compares two dissimilar things; and it is a very famous line that Lear speaks:
How sharper than a serpent's tooth it is
To have a thankless child! Away, away! (284-285)
In this metaphor, Lear says that a thankless child is more painful that the tooth of a snake.)
In Act Five, scene one, the Fool utters another simile. Here he says that Lear's daughters are as similar as two crab apples are to each other.
Shalt see thy other daughter will use thee kindly; for
though she's as like this as a crab's like an apple, yet I can
tell what I can tell. (13-15)
There is another in Act Two, scene two, lines 68-70:
Such smiling rogues as these,
Like rats, oft bite the holy cords a-twain
Which are too intrinse to unloose...
In this simile, Kent is saying that scoundrels like Oswald are like rats that chew through "holy cords" ("sacred bindings") that join people together; those relationships are too intricate to be untied by a simple man, but a rat "cheats" in the way he loosens "holy knots"—by breaking the bonds rather than loosening them.
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