King Lear Food Language and Gustatory Imageryas a Linguistic Essay

King Lear

Food Language and Gustatory Imagery

as a Linguistic Device

Yesim Turker

Social Institute of Karabuk University

English Language and Literature

M.A. Student

[email protected]


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1.1. Objective of Study

This research paper seeks to examine the application of gustatory imagery and identify food language as a linguistic device in the tragedy of King Lear by William Shakespeare. In selected drama text, I attempt to prove that characters eating habits determine the power relation between them and represent their true nature.

1.2. Research Question

“How food language and gustatory imagery provide political context along with strong comments upon the play’s characterization, plot, and motifs?” is the fundamental core of this study. This question determines the methodology and guides all literature review.

1.3. Background Information

1.3.1. The Tragedy of King Lear by William Shakespeare

King Lear is a tragedy play written by W. Shakespeare and first performed in 1605-06. The setting of play is in England during the Anglo-Saxon Era. 8th C.

has been known Heptarchy of seven kingdoms which is a tribal ruling system composed of seven sub-kingdoms. Therefore, the setting of place is various locations in England. The protagonist of play is King Lear against Lear’s daughters Goneril and Regan & Edmund, the bastard son of Gloucester. Tone of the play is serious and tragic, but the occasional bursts of comedy are uniformly dark.

1.3.2. Imagery

“So instead of trying to define let me simply recall what imagery does. The root meaning of the word is “likeness” a mental image is like something you have previously experienced or had knowledge of”. (Gittings, 1960, p. 61)

“Imagery refers to images produced in the mind by language, whose words may refer either to experiences which could produce physical perceptions, were the reader actually to have those experiences or to the sense impressions themselves” (Preminger, 1993, p. 560)

Imagery is the term for figures of speech or words that create strong mental pictures and sensations. It can be symbolic. It can set the scene and communicate character. It engages readers.

The imagery of King Lear has two dimensions which create real picture in the reader’s mind, visual and more verbal representation of reality on the theatre stage. Shakespeare more likely describes visual imagery in verbal form.

1.3.3. Gustatory Imagery

“Imagery” includes not only visual sense qualities, but also qualities that are auditory, tactile (touch), thermal (heat and cold), olfactory (smell), gustatory (taste), and kinaesthetic (sensations of movement).” (Abram, 1999, p. 121)

Gustatory imagery appeals to the sense of taste. In order to evoke gustatory imagery, writer has to arouse physical, sensual perceptions by written language. The way of using words, writer links between external word and reader’s internal world or mind.

In Shakespeare works, gustatory imagery has been used to pinpoint natural desires to satisfy bodily needs, for instance food, power, and sexual appetite.

1.3.4. Food Language

“Food is a living expression of history and culture”. (Jurafsky, 2014)

“All innovation happens at interstices. Great food is no exception, created at the intersection of cultures as each one modifies and enhances what is borrowed from its neighbours. The language of food is a window onto these “between” places, the ancient clash of civilizations, and the modern clash of culture, the covert clues to human cognition, society and evolution.” (Spare, 2009, p. 6)

“Whether we are aware of it or not, our choice of foods, how we prepare them, where, when, and with whom we consume them is greatly influenced by our own social background, our gender and age, the social group we belong to, our ethnicity, religion or political persuasion.” (Mueldner, 2015, p. 1)

When we analyses the cultural dimension of food, it shows that man has started to eat for survival purpose that he has to eat or has to be eaten by others. These types of relations with nature force man to be a hunter. After discovering the fire, he has protected himself and started the first term of cooking which is roasting. Basically he put the fire, and exposed the food direct to flame. Providing and distributing food to his own tribal society has been classified as man’s responsibility. Therefore, in Celtic Era food has linked with power, social statue and prestige. The food was cooked over the fire, has been eating on noble banquettes table .Leftover has been distributed to poor pheasants. Also poaching any animals have been banded by aristocratic law. In result of breaking law is faced of put on death.

In King Lear, food has been used in similar meaning. Man has to provide food and distribute in the kingdom. As a political play, all food language and imagery refer to political and class position. Even though, food language is metaphorical, the economic and political powers are embedded in food. Food language emphasis that power issues never change from primitive ages to Anglo-Saxson Era, Basically “who eats who” is the subject matter.

Furthermore food consumption and feeding is linked to sexual desire. In other words, male has provided food and this task makes him suitable as a mate. Shakespeare affirms that king Lear suffers not only losing his home, but also being labelled as impotent.

2. Literary Review

2.1.1. King Lear summary

“In the King Lear summary we learn about Shakespeare’s King Lear a play which is based upon the mythological Celtic king of Britain King Lear. As a tragedy with psychological overtones, the play marks the descent of King Lear into madness brought upon by the cruel behaviour of his two daughters whose false flattery incites him to bequeath a considerable portion of his wealth to both. King Lear indulges in the themes of human nature, greed, betrayal; cruelty and lack of maternal love not present in the daughters but Lear himself, hence his intentions to please them so that he would be taken care of in his old age. Sigmund Freud was especially interested in the symbolism of his third daughter Cordelia’s death which he felt helps Lear come to terms with the concept of ultimate death.” (Alpin, 2016)

“Meanwhile in what appears to be a sub plot of the play, Edmund the illegitimate son of the Earl of Gloucester plans to usurp his elder brother Edgar. He plots to ruin Edgar’s reputation in the eyes of their father the earl of Gloucester. Edmund succeeds in tricking his father into believing that Edgar is plotting to murder him.” (Alpin, 2016)

Figure 1 King Lear is a 5 act play and his plot structure has two layers. Main plot and sup plot. (April Bicham, 2018)

2.1.2. Methodology

In order to determine food language, each food lexical has searched in selected text Corpus which is created in Ant-Cont. corpus analytic tool kits. Evidence of each concordance lines has turned as table. This methodology is given me a power to interpreted according cultural, economic and social prosody.

2.1.3. Analysing of Text

In the beginning of the play King Lear has all the political power over the kingdom. He orders to divide his lands between his daughters according to their loyalty. Cordelia is the youngest and the extremely honest one, could not satisfy his desire. She has never used flattering answers. Lear orders that her share has to be distributed among other two.

? “Cornwall and Albany, / With my two daughters’ dowers, digest this third” (Shakespeare, 1997)

The word of “digest” refers not food being absorbed by body, but dividing, disposing or distributing land of her share. In terms of a power, two daughters have big appetites like gluttony. On the other hand Cordelia has a natural appetite.

Even though their husband did not realise their wives dark gluttonise actions, they participated in the beginning. Duke of Albany is a virtuous but weak against his wife, Gonereil King Lear’ decision created a turmoil in regards of governing the state, Kent, Duke of Albany and Edgar .repaired the damage. Gonereil influences over her husband and others have been described by her excess appetite of power. Albany at the end of play stated that ‘You are not worth the dust which the rude wind / Blows in your face’, (Shakespeare, 1997, p. 30)

Figure 2 State Map before The Distribution Figure 3 State Map after distributions between daughters.

? In sub-plot Edgar, the legal son of Gloucester disguises himself as a poor and mad beggar which is called Tom. The way he describes Poor Tom’s food reveals that he acts out crazy in order to save himself from manhunt by his father. Also, a lunatic person in 17th C. was classified a beggar and there has been an anonymous poem about lunatic Tom a Bedlam. Above quotation and Figure 4’s poem have similar chanting tones.

“While I do sing, Any food, any feeding,

Feeding, drink, or clothing;

Come dame or maid, be not afraid,

Poor Tom will injure nothing.” (Graves, 1949, pp. 209-211)

Figure 4 Edgar’s answer to King Lear’s question which is “Who gives anything to poor Tom?”

? Gloucester other son Edmund was described in the text as a ‘whoreson [who] must be acknowledged.’ (Shakespeare, 1997). He is very cunning, egoist and overconfident. He is aware of his social position and he does anything to take over his father belongings, such as title, land. In figure 5, Captain describes Edmund’s desire with a metaphorical food language. The task he has been giving to Captain was too difficult for human being. It shows that he is stone-hearted and cruel man.

Figure 5

? Again Shakespeare uses the food as a metaphor. In Act 5 scenes 4, “The food of thy abused father’s wrath.” (Shakespeare, 1997) He acknowledged that Gloucester admitted his mistake and relived his pain by apologising how he was angry and furious with his son, when he was deceived.( Figure 6 )

? In Figure 7 and 8, food language describe King Lear’s tragic situation, He has no power, he still has error of judgement and he realises that his authority was diminished. As a retired King he was expected to have respect and comfortable retirement life.

Figure 6

Figure 7

Figure 8

Figure 9

? “To eat no fish “has two different interpretations. First of all, in Medieval Ages there was a law to force low class people to eat fish. Fridays and Saturdays were fish days until Cromwell time. It was a religious connotation as well. Also, upper class eats meat and other source of protein. Kent, without telling who he was described himself with a hint. He is a Protestant and he is a proper upper class man. Unfortunately King Lear could not hint the all these traits.

? Below 3 figures is some evidence of Corpus Study. Especially Figure 10 shows EGG lexical with its connotations and collocations. Fool stated that Kingdom divided between two daughters as an egg cracked and yolk was gone. The only thing left was two empty shells which are signified to crown.

? Fool character uses food imagery in order to show King what he lost with his unwise decision. He lost his kingdom, his home, his daughter, his respect and the most important his manhood.

Figure 10

Figure 11

Figure 12


In this study clearly stated that King Lear is expressed as a figure of impotency. Shakespeare’s food language is emphasizing his losses of power in the arenas of kingdom, home, and manhood. The characters in King Lear side (Lear, Kent, Cordelia, and Edgar) are associated with food deprivation or food production, while the Machiavellian figures (Goneril, Regan, and Edmund) are associated with extreme appetites and endless consumption.

“Character’s relationship to food consumption, deprivation, or production indicates his or her true nature, (Fischler, 1988)

William Shakespeare has described power/ gender relations with the promise of food and declining the service of food. In the meantime, the daughters’ appetites brought the destruction of self, family and kingdom.

At the end of the play, King Lear he became lunatic and delusional. He lost his sense of time, place.

“We’ll go to supper in the morning” (Shakespeare, 1997) it shows that he is aware of his hunger, but he could not satisfy his desire by all means.

In corpus methodology demonstrates that how frequent words or patterns construction are used in the selected text and co-occur with another linguistic elements such as collocation, colligation. Even though these datum can be used for corpus linguistic study I have been used to outline meaning apart from lexical usage.



Abram, M. H. (1999). A Glossary of Literary Terms/ Seventh Edition . Ear/ McPeek .

Alpin, A. (2016, May 28). King Lear summary. Retrieved December 20, 2018, from Shakespeare quotes and plays:

April Bicham, G. S. (2018). Freytag’s Analysis and Pyramid. Retrieved from Nameless09:

Fischler, C. (1988). Food, Self and Identity. Social Science Information, 27:275-293.

Gittings, R. (1960). “Shakespeare’s Imagery”. In C. F. Spurgeon., The Living Shakespeare. London.

Graves, R. (1949). The Common Asphodel . London: Hamish Hamilton.

Jurafsky, D. (2014). The Language of Food.

Mueldner, G. H. (2015). Isotope Analysis of the Coppergate Skeletons.

Preminger, A. &. (1993). The Princeton Encyclopaedia of Poetry and Poetics. Princeton (New Jersey): Princeton University Press.

Shakespeare, W. a. (1997). King Lear. Thomas Nelson and Sons.

Spare, S. R. (2009). An analys?s of the fools’ gustatory ?magery ?n K?ng Lear.

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