Critical Essays Major Symbols


Explore the different symbols and motifs within William Shakespeare's tragic play, King Lear. Symbols and motifs are key to understanding King Lear as a play and identifying Shakespeare's social and political commentary.

Animal Imagery

Shakespeare makes frequent use of animal imagery, often attributing various animal behaviors to the characters. In contrast, you also find numerous references to the gods and to astronomical events. The juxtaposition of these images — those of the beast world and those of the heavens — add interest to the play, further the development of the character's personalities, and help define two distinct worlds between which humans general live their lives.


A key image in King Lear is the "Machiavelli" — the self-serving villain. The Prince, written by Niccolo Machiavelli, contains a philosophy that tended to preoccupy Shakespeare and his contemporaries. Machiavelli wrote that in order to become a ruler and maintain that position, a person should use every means at his or her disposal to gain control.

Murder of the family of a deposed ruler was but one of the ways Machiavelli suggested that a new ruler ensure that his authority was not questioned or overthrown. Edmund, the illegitimate son of Gloucester, is often described in Machiavellian terms, and his methods and actions are as deliberate and self-serving as any described in The Prince.