The worldview of King Lear

King Lear is set in an ancient, pagan Britain long before the advent of Christianity. Many characters in the play refer to supernatural agencies, believing that they are responsible in different ways for the things that occur in nature and to human beings. These powers variously control events and influence people’s characters. 

At the same time Shakespeare was writing at the start of the seventeenth century as the forces of Renaissance humanism were gaining ground. Instead of measuring behaviour against the absolutes of faith, humanists adopted the relativism first espoused by a rediscovered ancient Greek philosopher (Protagoras), that ‘man is the measure of all things.’ Many critics see King Lear as an exploration of what a truly humanistic world might look like, devoid of a coherent faith system. 
 
In order to create such a world, Shakespeare alludes to a mish-mash of beliefs, which contradict each other and are often inconsistent. 

Fortune

Lady Fortune spinning her wheelIn Act 2 Scene 2 Kent refers to the goddess Fortune after he has been placed in the stocks and invokes her to ‘turn [her] wheel’. People in Shakespeare’s day would have been very familiar with the image of Fortune and her wheel, since the idea had been around since classical antiquity. In his Consolation of Philosophy Boethius (480-524 AD) describes Fortune’s wheel as something which raises up the lowly and sends the proud crashing to the ground. 
 
In medieval art Fortune’s wheel was often depicted as having a hopeful character carried up on one side of the wheel. At the top was another wearing a crown. On the way down, on the wheel’s other side a third character was usually shown in rags, falling off - whilst a fourth was traditionally shown on the ground, cast down to the lowest point. Commonly there was a Latin inscription under each character, of particular relevance to King Lear
  • ‘Regnabo’ (I shall reign)
  • ‘Regno’ (I reign)
  • ‘Regnavi’ (I have reigned’)
  • ‘Sum sine regno’ (I am without sovereign power).
 
Edmund too refers to his changed fortunes at the end of the play when he says, ‘The wheel is come full circle.’ The concept of Fortune’s Wheel simply but powerfully conveyed life’s uncertainties, warning the proud and powerful that they were vulnerable to losing all they had – at the same time as encouraging the poor and powerless that their luck could change. 

Astrological events

Planetary eclipses

In Act 1 Scene 2 Gloucester ascribes all recent bad things, such as treason, broken family relationships and civil disorder, to ‘These late eclipses in the sun and moon.’ Such beliefs were prominent in Shakespeare’s day – indeed the late Queen Elizabeth regularly consulted her royal astrologer, Dr John Dee. 
 
EclipseThe reason that eclipses were thought to be particularly unlucky is that they appeared to go against the ‘natural order’. An eclipse of the sun, for instance, resulted in the disordered confusion of the day and night. People also believed that such a disorder in nature had a meaning for human beings too, since the planetary bodies were believed to influence people’s behaviour. 
 
Gloucester believes that it is natural for a son to honour his father. Not to do so goes against the rules of nature. It is a sign of Gloucester’s credulousness that he immediately starts thinking that eclipses must be to blame as soon as Edmund sows in his mind suspicions about Edgar’s treacherous behaviour.

The stars

In Act 4 Scene 3 Kent thinks that only astrological force can explain the differences between Cordelia and her sisters;
 
      It is the stars,
The stars above us, govern our conditions;
Else one self mate and make could not beget
Such different issues.     
                                         
He expresses disbelief that the same two marriage partners could produce offspring with such wildly different characteristics. The influence of the stars at the time of birth must have been responsible.

The gods

Albany is convinced (Act 5 Scene 3) that the deaths of Goneril and Regan are ‘a judgement of the heavens’, just as he thinks that Cornwall’s fatal wound at the hands of the servant is proof that the heavenly ‘justicers’ really do exist and take vengeance for ‘our nether crimes’.
 
Gloucester (Act 4 Scene 6) prays to the ‘mighty gods’ saying that it is futile to try to battle against their ‘opposeless wills’. That is, whatever the gods want they get and it is impossible for humans to oppose them. 
 
Characters tend to invoke the gods whenever they need divine help: 
  • In Act 1 Scene 2 Edmund wants the gods to ‘stand up for bastards’ 
  • Kent prays that the gods will shelter the banished Cordelia (Act 1 Scene 1)
  • Lear prays that ‘the stored vengeances of heaven’ will fall on the ‘ingrateful top’ of Goneril (Act 2 Scene 4)
  • In Act 3 Scene 2 Lear says, ‘Let the great gods … Find out their enemies now’, believing that those who have offended the gods by their misdeeds will not be able to conceal their terror in a storm which they will see as directed against them.

Scepticism

However, despite all these references to the power of the gods, there is also much scepticism in the play. Edmund mocks his father’s belief in the supernatural in Act 1 Scene 2, saying that it merely provides human beings with an excuse for wrongdoings which are entirely their own fault: 
 
      An admirable evasion of whoremaster man, to lay his goatish disposition on the charge of a star.     

Just or cruel?

The gods seem to be all things to all men, and the play as a whole makes no final judgement. For some characters, in some situations, they are just, gentle and bountiful. For others they are indifferent to human affairs, except when human beings offend them by particularly repellent behaviour, when they can take revenge in a way that ‘makes us tremble’ (Albany on the deaths of Goneril and Regan in Act 5 Scene 3). 
 
For Gloucester in Act 4 Scene 1 the gods are simply sadistic, doling out cruelty for their own pleasure:
 
      As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods,
They kill us for their sport.    

Humanism played out

During Shakespeare’s lifetime there were a number of discoveries of New World lands, which entailed an encounter with the non-Christian beliefs of native peoples. King Lear could be said to be a translation of this (perceived) ‘godlessness’ into the British realm. What happens to humanity when it is freed of orthodox moral values? 
 
Edmund is an exemplum of the ‘self-made man’, fuelled by the Machiavellian principles of pragmatism and expediency. With Cornwall, Goneril and Regan he also represents an outworking of the humanistic idea that ‘might is right’. These characters allow no conventional morality to constrain their ambition for power. When Albany describes such behaviour as ‘barbarous’ and ‘degenerate!’, he is castigated as being a ‘Milk-livered man’ and then described in terms that Shakespeare’s audience would have recognised as part of the iconography of Christ: ‘That bear'st a cheek for blows, a head for wrongs.’ (Act 4 Scene 2)

Shakespeare’s Christian world

For Shakespeare’s contemporary audience all these pagan references would have been measured against Christian values and beliefs and the play abounds in language which acts as a bridge between the world of the play and the world in which the play was written and received.

Grace

The Oxford Dictionary of English defines grace as ‘the free and unmerited favour of God, as manifested in the salvation of sinners and the bestowal of blessings’ (see Grace).
 
People of Shakespeare’s time would have believed that kings ruled by divine right or by the ‘grace of God’ (see Divine right of monarchs) and that the kings themselves would have had the gift of grace to bestow on their subjects. 
 
All kings were believed to possess the quality of grace. As the Fool says whilst pointing to Lear, ‘Here’s grace.’ When Lear banishes Cordelia ‘without our grace’, she acknowledges that she no longer ‘stands within his grace’. Meanwhile, Kent is Lear’s representative and by putting him in the stocks, Cornwall is offending against the king’s ‘grace’.

Cordelia

Michelangelo's PietàCordelia is so full of ‘grace’ that many readers of the play have commented on her Christ-like qualities:
  • She forgives those who have ‘sinned’ against her (Colossians 3:13)
  • When she returns from France she is referred to as an angel, and as someone who has redemptive powers
  • Like Jesus she seems to be the epitome of grace. When she hears of what has happened to her father she grieves, shaking ‘The holy water from her heavenly eyes’.
  • In Act 4 Scene 4 she declares ‘O dear father, / It is thy business that I go about’ echoing the words of the boy Jesus in Luke 2:49: ‘Wist ye not that I must be about my Father's business?’ KJB
  • Lear refers to Cordelia as ‘a soul in bliss’ in sharp contrast to himself who he thinks of as a dead sinner ‘bound upon a wheel of fire’.
  • In Act 5 Lear tells Cordelia that he will kneel down to ask her ‘forgiveness’ so that together they will be ‘God’s spies’
  • Lear acknowledges the huge sacrifice that his daughter has made and declares, ‘Upon such sacrifices, my Cordelia, / The gods themselves throw incense.’ The parallel with Christ’s sacrifice (Ephesians 5:2) would have been obvious to Shakespeare’s audiences
  • In Act 4 Scene 6 a gentleman comments that Cordelia ‘redeems nature from the general curse / Which twain have brought her to.’ There is a similarity here with the concept of Christ’s redemption of humankind from the sin of Adam and Eve and the curse which their disobedience in Eden brought upon all human beings (see Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve, 'Second Adam')
  • When Lear carries in the dead Cordelia at the end of the play the stage image is very reminiscent of the traditional Christian representation of the Pietà, a painting or sculpture of Mary the Mother of Jesus holding her dead son in her arms after he had been taken down from the Cross
Parallels with Jesus should not, however, be taken too far. In Cordelia’s case there is no miracle of resurrection.
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