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Diseased Bodies

Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory

There sure are a lot of references to sick bodies and diseased body parts in King Lear, wouldn't you say? It's like a David Cronenberg movie up in here.

We're especially interested in the way Lear talks about his evil daughters, Goneril and Regan, as though they are some kind of venereal disease that plagues Lear's body. Check out what Lear says to Regan after she boots him out of her palace:

We'll no more meet, no more see one another.
But yet thou art my flesh, my blood, my daughter,
Or rather a disease that's in my flesh,
Which I must needs call mine. Thou art a boil,
A plague-sore an embossèd carbuncle,
In my corrupted blood.

When Lear goes off on Goneril, he insists she's more like a "disease that's in [his] flesh" than a daughter (his "flesh and blood"). Goneril, he says, is "a boil, a plague-sore," a nasty little "carbuncle" and so on. (In other words, Goneril, whose name sounds a lot like "gonorrhea," is kind of like a venereal disease.) 

Okay, Lear's really good at insults this is a pretty elaborate way for Lear to tell Goneril that she makes him sick. But, what else are we to make of all this nasty talk? On the one hand, this passage is in keeping with just about everything else Lear says about women (especially Goneril and Regan)—Lear frequently associates women with sexual promiscuity and pretty much blames all the problems in the world on the ladies, which we talk about in more detail in our theme on "Gender."

The Kingdom Of The Body

Yet, there's also something else going on here and it's a bit more complex. In Shakespeare's day, the human body was often used as a metaphor for a kingdom. In Shakespeare's Henry IV Part 2, for example, the kingdom of Henry IV (who is literally ill) is imagined as a human body wracked with disease, which turns out to be an appropriate metaphor for a commonwealth that's been plagued by civil rebellion and turmoil. 

Something similar is at work in King Lear. When Lear imagines that his body is diseased, we can't help but notice that his kingdom is also not doing so well. After all, it's just been hacked up into pieces by Lear and, with Goneril and Regan (and their spouses) now in charge, it's quickly becoming a corrupt place. What's more, civil war (not to mention a war with France) is on the horizon. 

In King Lear's mind, the corruption of his kingdom is caused by Goneril and Regan so, it's not so surprising that he refers to Goneril (in the passage above) as a "plague-sore."

History Snack: The kingdom/body metaphor was so popular, in fact, that King James I of England (a.k.a. King James VI of Scotland) used it to describe his duties as king. Here's a sampling of what King James says in The Trew Law of Free Monarchies (1598):

And the proper office of a king towards his subjects agrees very well with the office of the head towards the body and all members thereof, for from the head, being the seat of judgment, proceeds the care and foresight of guiding, and preventing all evil that may come to the body and any part thereof. The head cares for the body: so does the king for his people. […] in case any of them be affected with infirmity [the head/king] must cut care and provide for their remedy, in case it be curable, and, if otherwise, cut them off for fear of infecting of the rest, even so it is betwixt the prince and his people.

Ugh. It's getting gorier than an operating theater in here.

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