Humans And Animals In King Lear

Scattered throughout Shakespeare’s King Lear are references to animals. These references serve as points of comparison, and affinity, with the human animal.

The purpose of these references is to highlight human existence on the appetitive level – that which solely feeds and nurtures the body, without concern for concepts that drive human society, such as ethics and morality.

In fact, it is for this very reason that Lear is turned out into the wild heath, very much like a feral beast, wherein he can enact his tragedy, free from all associations with the constructs of civilization.

In effect, the animal references in King Lear emphasize humankind’s affinity with all living things, in that each of us is involved in a cycle – birth, begetting offspring, death – life outside civilization, life as the instinctual drive to breed and survive.

As well, it is important to realize that human society is also a construct of superfluity in that human beings tend to accumulate wealth and power, without thinking about why they need to carry on in this way.

This is precisely the painful lesson that Lear learns on the heath. He has been turned out into the storm like some mad, unwanted animal. He, the king, is powerless before nature. All his wealth, all his influence, even his fifty companions that he kept with him at all times as a show of his might – are all stripped away. On the heath, he is no more than a lost, old man whom no one wants.

Interestingly enough, Lear the king, living in his court, was more appetitive, more driven by his own sense of power (since he could make or break the lives of his daughter, especially Cordelia) – more like an animal – than the human being that he becomes on the heath.

It is by suffering like a wretched animal, by being cast to the very lowest level of subsistence, that Lear learns about truth of a human life, indeed the value of a human life. It by suffering that he undergoes purification, where all superfluity is stripped from him, and he becomes a man that finally understands the value of love and compassion. And the animals teach this lesson to him:

Poor naked wretches, wheresoe’er you are,
That bide the pelting of this pitiless storm,
How shall your houseless heads and unfed sides,
Your loop’d and window’d raggedness, defend you
From seasons such as these? O, I have ta’en
Too little care of this! Take physic, pomp,
Expose thyself to feel what wretches feel,
That thou mayst shake the superflux to them,
And show the heavens more just (III.iv.28-36).

Despite the darkness that pervades the entire play, King Lear is about the discovery of love. All too often a lifetime will go by before we understand the reality of love.

In fact, the entire play is structured around the idea of inversion – things that we assume are normal and therefore proper (such as Lear the King parceling out his kingdom to the daughter who loves him the most) – are twisted and inherently wrong, if not evil.

By his own action, by trying to see which daughter loves him the most, Lear unleashes the tragedy that shall consume in the end. Lear the “wise, old king” is in fact a foolish old man – for he actually believes he can discern true love by initiating a game – “Let’s play who loves Dad the most.”

But Cordelia refuses to play. She knows that true love is not contained in mere words, but is in fact found in actions and deeds – something Lear himself bitterly learns:

No, no, no, no! Come let’s away to prison:
We two alone will sing like birds i’ the cage;
When thou dost ask me blessing, I’ll kneel down
And ask of thee forgiveness. So we’ll live,
And pray, and sing, and tell old tales, and laugh
At gilded butterflies, and hear poor rogues
Talk of court news; and we’ll talk with them too –
Who loses and who wins; who’s in, who’s out (V.iii.8-15).

Birds in a cage are freer than kings at court. They are completely without guile and deception. The inversion continues, for the cage is the freest place for Lear; it is there he finds truth, and it is there that he finds true love that Cordelia bears for him.

Of course, it is in the nature of Shakespearean tragedy that death comes precisely – and only – when complete realization is achieved and truth laid bare.

Thus, when Lear finds Cordelia, it is too late. Death takes away the very person that Lear sought throughout the play – someone who would love him without hope for reward.

And it is at this very juncture that we have the strongest evocation of the parallel between human existence and animals – for as living creatures we share the same fate – some will die soon, others a little later, but human and animals – indeed all life – is bound to the cycle of life and death:

Why should a dog, a horse, a rat, have life,
And thou no breath at all? Thou’lt come no more,
Never, never, never, never, never (V.iii.307-309).

The finality of “Never” rings like a knell upon all human hopes to be greater and higher than what we really are – human animals. It is this question that Kent asks as he sees Lear carry in the dead Ophelia: “Is this the promis’d end” (V.iii.265).

When the play ends, we must answer Kent and say, “Yes. This is the promised end – for death makes animals of us all.” And it is to Kent that we must leave the final word: “Break, heart, I prithee, break”(V.iii.314).


The photo shows, “Cordelia’s Farewell,” by Edwin Austin Abbey, painted in 1898.

Failed Cultures

Culture, firstly, is human community that ensures that life is pursued well. A successful culture readily seeks to enact social policies that guarantee to some degree that people are happy and satisfied. And an individual who inhabits a successful culture carries out actions that benefit him or her, and his or her society at large.

It would be simple to wax philosophical and begin an analysis of the organic nature of culture, with the tools readily available, such as Social Darwinism.

But such analyses are contentious and misleading, because they concern themselves simply with an examination of how cultures come into being and sustain themselves – they do not make value judgments. We need to make value judgments.

Therefore, our approach must be different, and we need newer tools. If we stay within the confines of traditional arguments, such as materialism, we are bound to lose our focus and end up justifying or critiquing one mode of production over another.

Such a methodology would yield little of value. And we do indeed need to speak again of values and virtues – because the chief goal of all cultures is to produce a virtuous person, that is, a person who holds the ideal of human worth (and all its implications – truthfulness, generosity and self-control) to be uppermost in all activity and endeavor.

But how do we recognize a failed culture? Here are the characteristics of all failed cultures that exist in the world today.

First, power does not reside with the middle class, but with the privileged elite.

Second, the system of government is not constitutional – in other words, we are dealing with dictatorships, with strong men, backed up by the loyalty of the army.

Third, civilians have no control over the military – rather, they are terrorized by it.

Fourth, religion and political ideology control all modes of thought, with the resulting denial of intellectual and individual freedoms.

Fifth, criticism of the government or rulers does not exist, and if such criticism does raise its head – it is immediately met with immense violence (often far greater in proportion to the criticism), until there is once again the silence of enforced consent.

Sixth, civilians live not in contentment and ease, but in a state of perpetual anxiety – not knowing what will happen next, since they have no control over the mechanisms of power (elections, for example).

Seventh, the poor classes are little better than slaves, who have no recourse to bettering their lot.

Eighth, the education system is merely an instrument of state or religious propaganda.

Ninth, private property is in the hands of the few, while the many are dispossessed.

Tenth, there is no trust and hence there is systemic corruption.

In this way, failed cultures consistently produce failed states, which can yield nothing but misery for those unfortunate enough to live in such spheres of cultural, social, and political devastation.


The photo shows, “”Duel on the Kulikovo Field,” by Avilov Mikhail, painted in 1943.

Is Marx Still Useful?

Although Marxist concepts have largely been ridden over by the march of capitalism, a process that Marx himself certainly did not foresee. However, this does not mean that capitalism is dominant because of inherent superiority. Marx’s Communist Manifesto is precisely important because of capitalism’s dominance – because it is the only system that can provide an effective critique of capitalism, as it exists today.

Capitalism in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries is certainly ubiquitous. Goods and services spread into all kinds of hidden nooks and crannies of society, where there is the slightest potential for profit. This is the grand beneficial attribute of capitalism, as we know it today.

However, capitalism as implemented in our times makes an unreasonable and unrealistic assumption – that economic prosperity requires constant expansion of the entire system (growth).

That is, more goods and services must be provided constantly to ever-growing markets, which require a constant population growth and/or the acquisition of buying power by people who never had it before. In order to keep the system growing, increasingly resources must be consumed to make the goods for the ever-growing markets and more and more energy must be expended to make them, to distribute them, and to collect and dispose of the waste.

It is the ever-expanding, ever-growing status inherent in capitalism that The Communist Manifesto actively seeks to analyze.

The analogy that immediately comes to mind is that of an aging star, whose ever-expanding propensity leads to a might implosion. Added to this effect is the role of leaders, which is continually cut down, where the desire is to see less government.

Therefore, there is an absence of political leaders (in politics and in economic infrastructures) that want to actively promote a policy that contradicts the ideology of perpetual growth.

The Communist Manifesto begins its critique at very center of the capitalist system – the worker, upon whose labor the entire system depends. Thus, the class struggle assumes a central position in the Marx’s work, where we read about the “doctrine of the conditions of liberation of the proletariat.”

This was a doctrine that sought to culminate in scientific evidence that the laws of history and the economy require development towards the expansion of capitalism and the victorious revolution of the working class against capital. It involves total divergence from ethical socialism.

Thus, The Communist Manifesto takes a striking and original stand: the future of mankind’s intellectual progress and the future of the proletariat were identical.

Intellectuals used to concern themselves with classical writers and with the great contemporary artists and scientists could now identify their cause with the cause of the working classes.

They could change the world, not just study it and comment on it. It is this notion of change that is so crucial to the Manifesto and makes the work so very relevant to our times, since capitalism always desires the status quo; change is the kiss of death for capitalism.

Further, the Manifesto sees through the liberal linguistic habits as curtains of mist that conceal the reality of capitalism. In fact, the whole of nature our society is certainly determined by the prevailing technology of consumption and production.

And yet, the great gap in our society is between those who own the technology (the capital) and those who work with it. Around this gap, the bulk of the classes form in our society: the bourgeoisie or middle class and the proletariat or working class. The family itself has become a reflection of this class society in which the man is the property-owning ruler and the woman, the property-less proletarian.

This notion still persists today, despite tendencies to the contrary. Consequently, the owners of technology become ever richer and more independent and the working class becomes ever poorer and more dependent. Thus, a class struggle ─ an omnipresent dynamic force in social life ─ is created.

As well, the Manifesto puts forward a scientific theory of production relations and class struggle. It predicts that the technology exploited by capitalism confers immense welfare on its owners, and that workers will turn against them when the time is ripe for them to rise in revolution.

Only after that revolution will the good society emerge. Marx is certainly right in his criticism of natural rights: rights are neither congenital nor eternal. Nor are they given finally in a social contract. Rights are taken, exercised and given in conflicts and negotiations, and confirmed, developed and undermined in legislation and customs.

The surest relevance of the Manifesto lies in its advancement of ethical socialism, which ultimately has converged with the dictates of capitalism. Therefore, private individuals can own companies, though preferably also work in them. Solidarity becomes vertical, applying to one’s own company: directors and engineers are counted as members of the workers’ collective.

But if ethical socialism had been given a chance of shaping the market economy, the more offensive aspects of capitalism (such as dismissals without notice and large-scale exclusion of many employees) and the least egalitarian aspects of capitalism (such as unearned incomes and positions of power that the capitalists can bequeath to children who do not perform productive work) would presumably never have evinced their present development.

Thus, in conclusion, we see that the Manifesto’s relevance lies in its change wrought upon present-day capitalism, in the shape of ethical socialism, whose catalogues of rights propounded by reform parties have constituted the most attractive elements.

In broad terms, one could say that the more the election campaigns and political exercise of power in the advanced industrial countries have been concerned with promises on rights, rather than with the hope of revolution, the more successful they have been among the voters.

The social science of our own day concedes that people sharing the same life situations develop common needs and values that may find expression, for example, in political demands.

These demands may very well be clad in a language that resembles ethical socialism’s catalogues of rights. Here, modern political sociology has a more subtle view than Marx had. There is much more political dynamite in ethical socialism than Marx thought.


The photo shows, “Train Platform,” by Hans Baluschek, painted ca. 1925.