As one of his greatest works, Shakespeare’s King Lear describes a world of deception, scheming, ambition, arrogance, humiliation, destruction, and, sometimes, redemption. Lear, who is an elderly king, partitions his kingdom among his sons. He asks his daughters to compete with their flattery to win his heart most, and is distraught when Cordelia decides that such flattery would cheapen the deep love and adoration she feels for her father. Over the course of the play, Cordelia’s love is shown to be genuine, whereas Goneril and Regan are revealed as mere flatterers without substance as they slowly work to undermine Lear. This theme of showy flatterers being exposed as traitors continues as Cornwall and others continue that work to undermine and usurp Lear’s power and authority. In the end, Lear is stripped of everything he once cherished, but Shakespeare strips him naked and in doing so, allows Lear to redeem himself and be reborn.
Throughout the play, clothing changes consistently reflect internal transformations. Individuals that are able to transform positively through reform are given the gift of humanity, while those who resist are degraded below humans to the kingdom of animals. With these recurring motifs of animalism and attire, King Lear allows fortune’s wheel to turn full circle as virtuous characters are initially stripped of status only to be redeemed by their humanity; whereas depraved individuals at first succeed, merely to face destruction as beasts.
This aura of imminent change is established immediately, as Lear’s world is clearly laced with the transient flaws of insincerity and superficiality. Love flattery sets the tone for an important theme in King Lear—that words and attire do not reflect substance. Regan and Goneril are ostentatiously insincere in their words of love for Lear, and they are rewarded; Cordelia is plainly sincere in her words of love for Lear, but she is punished.
Along with false and insincere words, Shakespeare draws attention to false external appearance throughout the early acts of King Lear. Ambitious villains hide their essence, which Shakespeare illustrates by drawing attention to their clothing. For example, Lear agonizes over Regan’s apparel: “Why, nature needs not what thou gorgeous wear’st, Which scarcely keeps thee warm” (2.4). Regan wears garments not for their substantive purpose of warmth but, rather, for their showy elegance. Thus, from the beginning, false glamour elicited by clothing is contrasted with genuine substance. In her essay, “The Clothing Motif in King Lear,” Thelma Nelson Greenfield concurs, arguing that in stage productions, “The costuming of Regan, Oswald, and others of their ilk made effective stage contrast with the quiet simplicity of Cordelia’s gowns, the rags of poor Tom, and finally the disarray of Lear himself (1954, 281).
To expose and deconstruct such superficiality, King Lear goes through a process of reduction, losing royal symbols, and in turn, losing status. He is stripped, figuratively, then literally. First, external symbols of power disappear, illustrated by the loss of his one hundred knights. As a result, his immense kingly shadow shrinks and then conforms to his natural body. Concurrently, his royal wisdom is degraded to such a degree that “Old fools are babes again…” (1.3). But, like a babe, and unlike an old fool, Lear can and does learn. He begins to take notice of others for the first time and proclaims:
“Poor naked wretches, whereso’er you are,
That bide the pelting of this pitiless storm,
How shall your houseless heads and unfed sides,
Yor looped and windowed raggedness, defend you
From seasons such as these? O, I have ta’en
Too little care of this…” (3.4).
Such recognition sparks both external and internal transformations of Lear. Shakespeare draws attention to these changes by returning to deceiving garments; when Lear encounters Edgar in his diminished state of Tom O’Bedlam, the former king frees himself from his clothing in sympathy. In doing so, Lear himself becomes a “poor naked wretch.” By removing his royal garments and entering the state of nakedness, Lear also strips away any vestiges of the man he was before. Transformed, he becomes empathetic, and liberates himself from his prior callousness just as surely as he liberates himself from his deceptive clothing. Lear learns, then teaches, a valuable lesson: “Thorough tatter’d clothes small vices do appear; Robes and furr’d gowns hide all” (4.6).
But now, instead of hiding behind clothing, in nakedness, Lear becomes “the thing itself” (3.4, 103). By doing so, he destroys his artificial detachment from humanity and casts himself into the pure, albeit mad and chaotic, realm of nature. This return to nature is emphasized as Lear encounters Cordelia while “Crown’d with rank fumiter and furrow-weeds…” (4.4). Throwing off the yoke of clothing’s deception and instead wearing nature’s pure apparel, Lear incites redemption; by slipping from power, he is reeducated in naked truth. Thus, though expelled from his own kingdom, he is able to join the natural kingdom of humanity.
Other scholars believe that this descent into nakedness has moral implications especially in the era of Shakespeare. Judy Kronenfeld in King Lear and the Naked Truth: Rethinking the Language of Religion and Resistance suggests that this nakedness may have an ambivalent meaning. On one hand, she points out, “nakedness was linked with the disorder of social life, the failure of the family and of charity, with debasement and shame.” In that sense—the sense that is used to portray naked Tom, nakedness was a synonymous with baseness in Victorian culture (82). Yet, as Kronenfeld is quick to point out that to view nakedness so simply would be to miss the broader point, especially in regards to the Christian overtones present in this motif. As she claims,
“Cordelia obliquely and more positively associates herself with the naked truth that is the daughter of time, and associates her sisters with the corruption and menace hidden behind voluminous or many-folded garments such as are worn by the Whore of Babylon, or the bedeckled harlot exemplifying the false church…the pity and humiliation of a fall from high to low estate, from reverence and dignity to scorn and misery, from gorgeous or fresh to vile and ragged apparel sounds strongly in these descriptions, even if, at the same time, one recognizes the martyr’s implicit glory in his service to God, and in his emblematizing the truth about the frailty of worldly pomp” (114).
Many other characters follow Lear’s pattern of descent to humanity. They too are stripped of their nobility and then taught humility. Shakespeare again uses attire to illustrate these conversions. Edgar and Kent are forced to trade their courtly garb and wealthy appearances for symbols of poverty and servitude. Edgar takes on the aforementioned disheveled look of Tom O’ Bedlam, the wayward beggar. Kent descends from courtier to common servant. Likewise, Gloucester’s blinding encounter with Cornwall leaves him “parti-eyed” (4.1), a reference to a fool’s costume, and therefore just one step above being nothing.
But, in yet another deception, along with Lear, these loyal characters seem to be destroyed. Instead, their humbling garb reflects an ongoing purge of self-indulgent flaws. Free from the artificial confines of courtly life, all three characters enter a more natural state, preparing them for renewal. Thus, despite their seemingly tragic degradation, the exterior facades forced on Edgar, Kent, and Gloucester cultivate inward transformations toward humanity that allow the possibility of rebirth.
However, such an opportunity is not granted to stubbornly depraved characters. They are diminished without any prospect for recovery. Due to their steadfast resistance to reform, they do not become naked humans; rather, they sink below humanity and become animals, “monsters of the deep” (4.2). Similar animal imagery saturates King Lear. Although used for all types of characters, overwhelmingly, references to animals are used to emphasize the base inhumanity of the plotting daughters and Edmund. Together, the daughters become “Tigers, not daughters” (4.2); Goneril becomes a “detested kite” (1.4), and a “gilded serpent” (5.3); Edmund is deemed a “toad-spotted traitor” (5.3). Thus, whereas Edgar, Kent, Gloucester and Lear become human, wicked characters lose human dignity and become beasts.
To reinforce the implications of this contrast, in the play’s resolution, those evil beasts are destroyed while reformed humans are reborn. Foremost, Lear experiences a substantial rebirth, again symbolized by clothing. For instance, “in the heaviness of sleep,” induced by Lear’s collapse, a gentleman “put[s] fresh garments on him” (4.7). This new garb symbolizes a complete change in Lear, so much so that he “remembers not these garments” (4.7). He is initially unable to recognize or accept his transformed self. Yet, soon he does, and with this acceptance, he is reborn. This renewal is evidenced by Lear’s newfound humility, apology to Cordelia, and desire for pure love above worldly standing. Finally human himself, Lear is able to recognize the humanity of others. He highlights Cordelia’s humanity by contrasting her life to that of “a dog, a horse, [and] a rat” (5.3). This inverse use of animal imagery strengthens Cordelia’s place among humans, as well as the bond between Cordelia and Lear. Yet, since this recognition of love occurs after Cordelia’s death, the scene becomes even more tragic.
Burdened by insurmountable grief and tragedy, Lear’s reformation is still not sufficient to save him from a similar fate. In spite of his drastic rebirth symbolized by the stripping, and then replacement of clothing, Lear is unable to escape the confines of garments even in death, and utters among his last words: “Pray you, undo this button” (5.3). Clearly, by replacing arrogance and ostentatious clothing with humility, admirable transformations are nonetheless met with immense tragedy—an effect possible solely because through rebirth, those characters become sympathetic and therefore tragic to lose.
In a continuation of such bittersweet justice, Lear’s loyal followers are redeemed as well, but are not freed from suffering. Gloucester finds humanistic meaning during his reduction by recognizing that status is secondary to love. As such, the tragedy of his death is highlighted by the torn joy he experiences as he returns to Edgar only to have his heart “burst smilingly” (5.3). Edgar in turn, regains and realizes his father’s love, only to have death take Gloucester’s from him. Nonetheless, like the deaths of Lear and Cordelia, Gloucester’s death and Edgar’s loss are tragic precisely because they occur after the characters are reborn.
Conversely, tragedy is not elicited from the deaths of Regan, Goneril, and Edmund—characters that desperately cling to their conceited nature. From this stubborn resistance, wickedness and animalism are cemented within base individuals during King Lear’s conclusion. Regan and Goneril, in a carnal struggle for Edmund’s favor, devour each other as victims of their own greed. When their father is informed of their deaths, Lear merely states “Aye, so I think” (5.3). Furthermore, when a captain brings news of Edmund’s death, Albany unflinchingly replies “That’s but a trifle here” (5.3).
These apathetic reactions to the usually tragic event of death underscore the lack of humanity present in Goneril, Regan, and Edmund. In the end, tragedy only results from the loss of renewed characters—Edgar, Kent, Gloucester, and above all, Lear. The destruction and ensuing rebirth of these characters, though framed in a catastrophic context, paradoxically provides hope to humans willing to change their inhuman ways. Thus, as fortune’s wheel completes its cycle for King Lear’s resolution, Albany correctly points out, “All friends shall taste The wages of their virtue, and all foes, The cup of their deserving” (5.3).
King Lear reveals true character in accordance with individual responses to misfortune, but the play’s justice is still marred by a tragic ending. This ending is filled with bloodshed. Gloucester is killed. Edgar kills Edmund. Goneril poisons Regan. Regan kills herself. In betraying Cordelia, brings about a series of events that prompts her execution. Her death, when revealed to lear, leads to his death in turn, as he finally realizes that substance matters more than show and that Cordelia was his only truly loyal daughter. In the end, Shakespeare makes this an ultimate tragedy—several of the good characters are killed, and injustice is paramount throughout the play. Still, tragedy can only exist when something worth saving is lost. Those that counter agony with humility are worth lamentation, for they are human again. Those who do not are justifiably cast aside as monstrous beasts. This dichotomy is made clear, primarily, in King Lear using the motif of clothing.
Greenfeld, Thelma Nelson. Shakespeare Quarterly, Vol. 5, No. 3 (Summer, 1954), pp. 281-286
Kronenfeld, Judy. “King Lear and the Naked Truth: Rethinking the Language of Religion and
Resistance.” Duke University Press, Durham, North Carolina. 1998.
Shakespeare, William. King Lear. The Pelican Shakespeare. New York City: Penguin Classics,