An important question is posed in Shakespeare’s King Lear: what does it mean to be human? Further investigated in Act III and IV, the question of what defines “humanness” and the commentary on the dichotomy between nature and civilization comes to a head as Lear makes a quick descent into supposed madness and runs outside in the storm, proclaiming his sense of betrayal to the violent weather and crying out with fury: “Here I stand, your slave— / A poor, infirm, weak, and despised old man. / But yet I call you servile ministers, / That will with two pernicious daughters joined / Your high engendered battles ‘gainst a head / So old and white as this. Oh, ho! ‘Tis foul.” Lear begins to cast off typical qualities of humanness, transitioning into a more primal, natural state of man by welcoming the storm and shedding his clothing in a fit: “Thou art the thing itself. / Unaccommodated man is no more but such a poor, bare, forked animal as thou art.— / Off, off, you lendings! Come. Unbutton here.” The removal of his clothing is significant because clothing is one of the most defining characteristics of man versus beast. He describes man in its basest form, one that he takes on: just a two-legged thing, not indebted to animals for their clothing and perfume like sophisticated people are.
Lear, gesturing to Edgar, asks, “Is man no more than this?” We see the illustration of men that have rejected civilization, choosing instead the side of nature: strong, masculine, and more trustworthy and honest than civilization and the people within it. Lear adopts beastliness because civilized humans have betrayed him; his daughters are false and cruel creatures, manipulating Lear with proclamations of love and loyalty when, in actuality, they only seek wealth and power—two constructions of a greedy society. King Lear is critiquing “civilization”. It is commonly believed that to be more civilized is to be more human—but in a civilization that values money more than truth, do we really understand what being human is? King Lear claims agency and seeks truth when he goes mad. Recognizing the wickedness of his faithless daughters, Lear shouts into the storm because “Through tatter’d clothes small vices do appear; / Robes and furr’d gowns hide all. Plate sin with gold, / And the strong lance of justice hurtless breaks…” That is, wealth and power are capable of hiding sinful behavior. The poor are prosecuted, while the rich get off scot-free—the hypocrite prosecutes the whore.
Earlier in Act II, Lear gives a speech that again calls into question the definition of humanness; humans, he asserts, have wants beyond needs. Human desire separates man from animal. “Allow not nature more than nature needs, / Man’s life’s as cheap as beast’s.” He wants his knights not because he needs them, but because they give him meaning as a man—just as Regan’s fancy clothing is worn not just for warmth. Lear’s rejection of civilization, therefore, is an action he takes in search of truth. By embracing the basest form a human can take, Lear might be clearing his vision—warped by wants and desires—to discover the truth of Regan and Goneril’s evilness, the truth of Cordelia’s genuine love, and the redeeming qualities that can be found in some honest people.