King Lear Questions and Answers
by William Shakespeare

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"As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods."  Please give background to this quote in King Lear.

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These words are spoken by Gloucester, unknowingly, to his son Edgar. At this point, Gloucester has hit a very low ebb; his eyes have been gouged out by Lear's daughter, Regan, and he is thinking of his son, not realizing that it is to his son that he is speaking. He says that he saw a man abroad in the storm the previous night which made him think "man a worm"that is, the sight of Lear being buffeted by the winds and rain made him think that people are absolutely helpless before the hands of the forces of nature, or "gods." He is, we can assume, referring to himself here, too—we can picture what "wanton boys" might do to flies. Boys kill flies simply because they can—"for their sport." Their lives mean absolutely nothing to the boys, who are larger and more intelligent creatures. In the same way, then, Gloucester is saying that he feels like a fly in the hands of the gods—as if his life, and the life of the man he saw in the storm, are ultimately very puny, and that the gods can toy with them in the worst possible ways. This statement is made all the more heavy to the audience, who know that the man who has been brought low in the storm was in fact King Lear himself, fallen from a position of kingship to one of poverty.

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Gloucester speaks this line in Shakespeare's King Lear.  It is a fairly profound line in a drama that is filled with many of them.  The sum total of the line represents the relationship between individuals and the gods.  It reveals how the forces of fate and predestination can be cruel, and how individuals have little say, if any, about it.  In the end, the statement reflects the futility of human freedom in the face of overwhelming odds and contexts.  Gloucester says these lines after revelation about many elements. He understands his own folly, in supporting one son over another, and grasps his own poor decision making, in believing the good one was bad and the bad one was good.  He speaks from a position of having been blinded physically, but possessing a restored sense of sight subjectively.  In the end, the comparison of human beings to flies and the gods as impetuous, young boys helps to bring out the dynamic of a world order where there is little structure or guidance.  There is only a condition of servitude and lack of justice which governs it.

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