'The Hireling Shepherd ' is a more complex work than first might seem . In a well known letter to J.A.Pythian , Holman Hunt explained that although his first intention was to present a realistic shepherd and shepherdess he also had 'an occult suggestion in mind of a simple charactor .' When the painting was exhibited at the Royal Academy , Hunt included these lines from King Lear as an epigraph :
Sleepeth or waketh thou , jolly shepherd ?
Thy sheep be in the corn ;
And for one blast of thy minikin mouth ,
Thy sheep shall take no harm. (Act 111, scene 6 )
The letter to Pythian went on to explain that
Shakespeare's song represents a shepherd who is neglecting his real duty of guarding the sheep : instead of using his voice in truthfully performing his duty , he is using his " minikin' mouth "in some idle way. He was a type thus of other muddle headed pastors who instead of performing their services to their flock discuss vain questions of no value to any human soul.