The reality of love

The Christian background

Shakespeare’s audiences would have been familiar with Christian teaching about love and the fact that true love is not merely words but comes from the heart. In Matthew 15:8 Jesus quotes the Old Testament prophet Isaiah when he says: 
      These people honour me with their lips,
but their hearts are far from me.     
These words are strongly relevant to what happens in the opening scene in which Lear rewards Goneril and Regan, who pay only lip-service to the love-test, and disowns Cordelia. Yet it is she who knows that love comes from the heart and cannot be summoned up at the whim of an aged father. She ‘cannot heave / [Her] heart into [her] mouth’ and so prefers to say ‘Nothing’.

The love test

The way Lear formulates his love-test is itself very revealing. He asks:
     Which of you shall we say does love us most? (Act 1 Scene 1)     
If love, according to Christian teaching, is an emotion which springs from the heart, then it is highly presumptuous of Lear to judge (‘shall we say’) the quality of that love on the extremely flimsy basis of his daughters’ words. As a man of the theatre, Shakespeare’s whole life was concerned with giving people words to say in order to produce false – but convincing – appearances. Cordelia sees through her sisters’ tactics immediately, describing their protestations as ‘glib and oily art’, mere play acting. 

Cordelia’s reaction

As if to prove that love is not something which can be quantified in such an artificial way, Cordelia herself gives a misleading impression. Considering the degree of her sacrifice for her father later in the play, what are we to make of her words:
      I love your Majesty
According to my bond; no more nor less.     
Far from expressing the warmth of love, her words seem coldly unemotional. And it seems highly unlikely that she actually believes what she says – certainly not the comment about ‘no more nor less’.

Love quickly turns to hate

Discussion of such an emotive topic as love is clearly dangerous and can make people say irrational things. What Lear says about welcoming the child-eating Scythian in preference to the ‘ungrateful’ Cordelia suggests a seriously disturbed state of mind. And so soon after her apparent disobedience he is calling her his ‘sometime daughter’, as if family relationships can be assumed and cast off at will. This is completely opposed not only to classical and biblical teaching (see The status of men; Family relationships) but to the laws of nature. It is not only language which is wrong in the play’s opening scene, but the concept of love itself which is seriously misunderstood.

Love transformed

The crucifixionLear undergoes a fundamental transformation in his understanding of love during the course of the play. By the end, and after much suffering, both Cordelia and Lear understand what ‘the heart’ means when it comes to love. Their kneeling before one another symbolises a new relationship based on humility and trust. However, this is only achieved by Cordelia returning from France to help her stricken father and thereby sacrificing herself in the process. Shakespeare’s original audience would have connected this sacrifice with that of Christ. As with their understanding of the crucifixion, they would interpret that death does not always mean failure but rather demonstrates the power of love and the extent to which it will go for the beloved.
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