King Lear, or The Tragedy of King Lear, is among the most renowned plays written by English playwright and world’s greatest dramatist William Shakespeare. It tells the story of the legendary king of ancient Britain, Lear, who decides to bequeath his entire kingdom to his two eldest daughters due to their flattery of him; and disinherits his youngest daughter Cordelia as she won’t unduly flatter him. This sets the events of the tragedy in motion with King Lear plunging into madness as his two eldest daughters ill-treat him. The play contains some of the best lines written by Shakespeare which are often quoted by people. Here are the 10 most famous quotations from King Lear with their explanation.
#10 “I am a very foolish fond old man,
Fourscore and upward, not an hour more nor less.
And to deal plainly
I fear I am not in my perfect mind.”
– King Lear (Act IV, Scene VII)
In the previous Act, King Lear has become homeless after being driven out by his two eldest daughters, to whom he had bequeathed his kingdom. The behavior of his ungrateful daughters coupled with the hardships of stormy weather he has had to endure has driven Lear towards madness. This line is said by Lear, in madness, to his youngest daughter Cordelia who is trying to bring him back to his senses. He is saying that he is a foolish, senile old man who is more than eighty years old, not an hour more or less; the last part added to suggest his insanity as it makes no sense. He then adds that to put it simply he fears that he is not entirely sane. The line is important as Lear is admitting his mistake to Cordelia of expelling her because she didn’t flatter him. It is also ironic as it is in insanity that Lear recognizes his follies and realizes his unjust decision.
#9 “Now, gods, stand up for bastards!”
– Edmund (Act I, Scene II)
Edmund is the illegitimate son, or bastard son, of the Earl of Gloucester; while Edgar, is his brother and the Earl’s legitimate son. The story of these three characters runs parallel to that of King Lear and his daughters; and as Lear is deceived by his two eldest daughters, similarly Gloucester is tricked by his illegitimate son. This line is said by Edmund at the end of his famous soliloquy in which he challenges the social structure which treats illegitimate children unfairly and claims to be have a right to equal status as his legitimate brother. He also reveals that he plans to deceive his father and his brother to achieve his goal of acquiring the power he deserves. In this famous line, he is invoking the Gods to stand up for bastards and aid him in achieving his goal through his treacherous plot. He is thus asking for divine help to reverse the man made social order that treats him unfairly.
#8 “Unhappy that I am, I cannot heave
My heart into my mouth. I love your majesty
According to my bond, no more nor less.”
– Cordelia (Act I, Scene I)
In the first Act of the play, King Lear decides to retire and divide his kingdom among his 3 daughters. While his two eldest daughters, Regan and Goneril, are able to flatter him to receive their rewards; his youngest daughter Cordelia is unable to articulate her love for him. When he urges her to speak, Cordelia replies with these famous lines, which mean that she cannot heave or lift her heart in her mouth even if it leads to her being unlucky in not having her share of Lear’s fortunes. She adds that she loves the king as a daughter loves her father, neither more nor less. Cordelia’s refusal to part with her integrity and unduly flatter her father to receive his wealth brings about King Lear’s dreadful error in judgment and sets the tragedy in motion.
#7 “Have more than thou showest,
Speak less than thou knowest,
Lend less than thou owest”
– Fool (Act I, Scene IV)
These words are spoken by Lear’s personal, stand-up comedian, the Fool, at a juncture of the play when Lear’s stature is diminishing in his kingdom. Through these lines, and in fact through most of the scene, the Fool is trying to make Lear realize the mistake he has committed by giving up his kingdom to his two eldest daughters just because they flattered him. Simple translation of the lines would be – have more than you show, speak less than you know and lend less than you owe. The Fool is saying that one should be wary in the social world by keeping to oneself more than what one shows the world; speaking wisely and refraining from saying things, even if one knows them, if they could prove harmful later; and not giving up ones possessions in such quantity that one is left in a poor state.
#6 “I am a man more sinned against than sinning.”
– King Lear (Act III, Scene II)
This often-quoted line is said by King Lear while standing in the open field during a storm. He has been thrown out by his two eldest daughters, Regan and Goneril, to whom he gave the responsibility of running his kingdom. These lines come in the later part of the scene which begins with Lear’s famous storm speech. In this passage, Lear is urging the Gods to use this storm to strike against people who have secretly committed crimes. He ends the passage with this quotation which simply means that though he is aware that he has sinned, he knows that people have committed greater sins against him.
#5 “The Prince of Darkness is a gentleman.”
– Edgar (Act I, Scene IV)
This line is said by Edgar while he is disguised as mad Tom o’ Bedlam. Tom o’ Bedlam is a famous anonymous poem and the term is often used to describe beggars and vagrants who feign mental illness. Here Edgar is replying to his father, Earl of Gloucester, who doesn’t recognize his son due to the disguise. Gloucester has suggested to Lear that he is keeping poor company and Edgar contradicts this by comparing gentlemen to the devil. “The Prince of Darkness” is a popular description of the devil. It is an English translation of an old Latin phrase “princeps tenebrarum”; with princeps meaning “first one” or “leader” and tenenbrarum referring to the “darkness of night”.
#4 “When we are born, we cry that we are come to this great stage of fools.”
– King Lear (Act IV, Scene VI)
These words are spoken by Lear to Gloucester after Lear has lost his mind. In madness, he says some well-known philosophical lines and this quotation is the most famous among them. A child always cries when he is born. Here, Shakespeare uses this fact to suggest that a newborn cries because he realizes that he has entered a terrible world of fools; or a world where people behave idiotically and without reason. Lear might be implying that a child cries as he realizes that he has to be among such idiots and he too one day will become a terrible person like all others. Also, like in another famous quotation from the play As You Like It, Shakespeare compares the world to a “stage” in this line.
#3 “As flies to wanton boys are we to th’ gods.
They kill us for their sport.”
– Earl of Gloucester (Act IV, Scene I)
These are among the most famous lines of the play and are immensely significant as they address one of the major themes of King Lear – whether the world we live in is, by nature, indifferent to human suffering? They are spoken by Gloucester, while wandering on the heath, to an old man. In the previous Act, he has been blinded for aiding Lear, by the king’s daughter Regan and her husband Cornwall. Gloucester suffers a similar fate to Lear as he is tricked by his illegitimate son Edmund into believing that his son Edgar is treacherous, only to realize his mistake later. The difficulties faced by Gloucester are parallel to the difficulties faced by King Lear and like Lear, he too has to face the cruelty of nature. In this quotation, Gloucester says that the gods play around with us as cruelly as schoolboys who pull the wings off flies. He thus compares the gods to immature and unjust children; and man to insignificant flies, creatures subject to the cruelty of their uncaring and whimsical creator.
#2 “Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! Rage, blow!
You cataracts and hurricanoes, spout
Till you have drenched our steeples, drowned the cocks!”
– King Lear (Act III, Scene II)
These lines are part of Lear’s famous diatribe against the storm. The once mighty King Lear is now powerless and has been thrown out by his two eldest daughters. He makes this speech while plodding across a deserted heath in the middle of a storm. In the above lines, Lear calls on the winds to blow so hard that your cheeks crack. He urges the cataracts (torrents) and hurricanoes (hurricanes) of the storm to drench the world until the very tops of buildings – steeples and, cocks or weathervanes, – are drowned. Lear goes on to urge nature to bring on another apocalypse like the Biblical flood so that no more ungrateful humans are ever created. The storm is symbolically related to the state of mind of Lear as he finds that he has been deceived by his ungrateful daughters. The storm speech is not only one of the most important passages in the play but also among the most renowned by Shakespeare.
#1 “Nothing will come of nothing.”
– King Lear (Act I, Scene I)
This line is spoken by King Lear while he is deciding to divide his kingdom among his daughters. After his two eldest daughters have been able to flatter and deceive him, Lear asks Cordelia to speak, expecting her to flatter him even more. However, she has faith that “my love’s more ponderous than my tongue”, and hence says “Nothing”. Lear replies to this with the most famous lines of the play, “Nothing will come of nothing”, implying that as long as she says nothing to flatter him, she will receive nothing from him. “Nothing comes from nothing” is also a philosophical expression first argued by pre-Socratic Greek philosopher Parmenides to prove that existence is necessarily eternal.