Of the four great tragedies of Shakespeare, King Lear is remarkable for vastness. Its largeness and expansiveness have been dwelt on by many critics; Wilson Knight’s essay on King Lear in his most important book on Shakespeare – The Wheel of Fire – is called “The Lear Universe”.
What gives King Lear its large dimensions is mostly its preoccupation with Nature in all its vastness. Nature plays in it as great a role as in no other of Shakespeare’s plays. ‘Nature’ is a ‘key-word’ of the drama. The word itself and its derivatives are found more than 40 times in the play. “The philosophy of King Lear is firmly planted in the soil of earth. Nature, like human life, is abundant across its pages”. (Knight 1965:179) We come across the outline of the wide sweeps of land to be allotted to Goneril:
… all these bounds, even from this line to this,
With shadowy forests and with champains rich’d,
With plenteous rivers and wide-skirted meads…
or the description of Dover Cliff:
The crows and choughs that wing the midway air
Show scarce so gross as beetles; half way down
Hangs one that gathers sampire, dreadful trade!
When Lear mentions the Lords of France and Burgundy he calls them ‘the vines of France and milk of Burgundy’ referring to the vineyards of the former land and the pastures of the other one.
The world of King Lear is townless. It is the world of flowers, rough country, stormy winds, and wild, or farmyard, beasts. The references to animals are emphatic: the dog, the horse, the cow, the sheep, the hog, the lion, the bear, the wolf, the fox, the monkey, the pole-cat, the civet-cat, the pelican, the owl, the crow, the wren, the fly, the butterfly, the rat, the mouse, the frog, the tadpole, the wall-newt, the water-newt, the worm – the list is far from being completed, and some of them are mentioned again and again. Sometimes, especially in the talk of Edgar as Poor Tom of Bedlam, they have no symbolic meaning; but mostly they are expressly referred to for their typical qualities – ‘hog in sloth, fox in stealth, wolf in greediness, dog in madness, lion in prey’(III.iv.94). A person in the drama is often compared, openly or implicitly, with a certain animal: Goneril is a detested kite; her ingratitude has a serpent’s tooth; she has struck her father most serpent-like upon the very heart; her visage is wolfish; she has tied sharp-toothed unkindness like a vulture on her father’s breast; for her husband she is a gilded serpent; to Gloucester her cruelty seems to have the fangs of a boar. She and Regan are dog-hearted; they are she-foxes; tigers, not daughters; the flesh of each is covered with the fell of a beast; they are pelican daughters sucking the blood that begot them; they are like the cuckoo in a hedge-sparrow’s nest. Oswald is a mongrel; ducking to everyone in power, he is a wag-tail; white with fear, he is a goose. Gloucester, for Regan, is an ingrateful fox; Albany, for his wife, has a cowish spirit and is milk-liver’d. When Edgar first appeared to Lear as Poor Tom, he made Lear think a man a worm.