We Will All Laugh At Gilded Butterflies

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

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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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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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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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 "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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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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