King Lear Contents
- Shakespeare, William
- 1564 - 1582: William Shakespeare's Stratford Beginnings
- 1582 - 1592: William Shakespeare's Marriage, Parenthood and Early Occupation
- 1592 - 1594: William Shakespeare's Life In London, part 1
- 1594 - 1611: William Shakespeare's Life In London, part 2
- 1594 - 1611: William Shakespeare's Life In London, part 3
- 1611 - 1616: William Shakespeare - Back to Stratford
- Social / political background
- Religious / philosophical background
- The Theatre
- Act I
- Act II
- Act III
- Act IV
- Act V
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.
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.
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.
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.
Lear 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.
- English Standard Version
- King James Version
1Then Pharisees and scribes came to Jesus from Jerusalem and said, 2Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands when they eat. 3He answered them, And why do you break the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition? 4For God commanded, Honor your father and your mother, and, Whoever reviles father or mother must surely die. 5But you say, If anyone tells his father or his mother, What you would have gained from me is given to God, 6he need not honor his father. So for the sake of your tradition you have made void the word of God. 7You hypocrites! Well did Isaiah prophesy of you, when he said: 8This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; 9in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men. 10And he called the people to him and said to them, Hear and understand: 11it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but what comes out of the mouth; this defiles a person. 12Then the disciples came and said to him, Do you know that the Pharisees were offended when they heard this saying? 13He answered, Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be rooted up. 14Let them alone; they are blind guides. And if the blind lead the blind, both will fall into a pit. 15But Peter said to him, Explain the parable to us. 16And he said, Are you also still without understanding? 17Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth passes into the stomach and is expelled? 18But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this defiles a person. 19For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander. 20These are what defile a person. But to eat with unwashed hands does not defile anyone. 21And Jesus went away from there and withdrew to the district of Tyre and Sidon. 22And behold, a Canaanite woman from that region came out and was crying, Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David; my daughter is severely oppressed by a demon. 23But he did not answer her a word. And his disciples came and begged him, saying, Send her away, for she is crying out after us. 24He answered, I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. 25But she came and knelt before him, saying, Lord, help me. 26And he answered, It is not right to take the children's bread and throw it to the dogs. 27She said, Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters' table. 28Then Jesus answered her, O woman, great is your faith! Be it done for you as you desire. And her daughter was healed instantly. 29Jesus went on from there and walked beside the Sea of Galilee. And he went up on the mountain and sat down there. 30And great crowds came to him, bringing with them the lame, the blind, the crippled, the mute, and many others, and they put them at his feet, and he healed them, 31so that the crowd wondered, when they saw the mute speaking, the crippled healthy, the lame walking, and the blind seeing. And they glorified the God of Israel. 32Then Jesus called his disciples to him and said, I have compassion on the crowd because they have been with me now three days and have nothing to eat. And I am unwilling to send them away hungry, lest they faint on the way. 33And the disciples said to him, Where are we to get enough bread in such a desolate place to feed so great a crowd? 34And Jesus said to them, How many loaves do you have? They said, Seven, and a few small fish. 35And directing the crowd to sit down on the ground, 36he took the seven loaves and the fish, and having given thanks he broke them and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. 37And they all ate and were satisfied. And they took up seven baskets full of the broken pieces left over. 38Those who ate were four thousand men, besides women and children. 39And after sending away the crowds, he got into the boat and went to the region of Magadan.
1Then came to Jesus scribes and Pharisees, which were of Jerusalem, saying, 2Why do thy disciples transgress the tradition of the elders? for they wash not their hands when they eat bread. 3But he answered and said unto them, Why do ye also transgress the commandment of God by your tradition? 4For God commanded, saying, Honour thy father and mother: and, He that curseth father or mother, let him die the death. 5But ye say, Whosoever shall say to his father or his mother, It is a gift, by whatsoever thou mightest be profited by me; 6And honour not his father or his mother, he shall be free. Thus have ye made the commandment of God of none effect by your tradition. 7Ye hypocrites, well did Esaias prophesy of you, saying, 8This people draweth nigh unto me with their mouth, and honoureth me with their lips; but their heart is far from me. 9But in vain they do worship me, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men. 10And he called the multitude, and said unto them, Hear, and understand: 11Not that which goeth into the mouth defileth a man; but that which cometh out of the mouth, this defileth a man. 12Then came his disciples, and said unto him, Knowest thou that the Pharisees were offended, after they heard this saying? 13But he answered and said, Every plant, which my heavenly Father hath not planted, shall be rooted up. 14Let them alone: they be blind leaders of the blind. And if the blind lead the blind, both shall fall into the ditch. 15Then answered Peter and said unto him, Declare unto us this parable. 16And Jesus said, Are ye also yet without understanding? 17Do not ye yet understand, that whatsoever entereth in at the mouth goeth into the belly, and is cast out into the draught? 18But those things which proceed out of the mouth come forth from the heart; and they defile the man. 19For out of the heart proceed evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, blasphemies: 20These are the things which defile a man: but to eat with unwashen hands defileth not a man. 21Then Jesus went thence, and departed into the coasts of Tyre and Sidon. 22And, behold, a woman of Canaan came out of the same coasts, and cried unto him, saying, Have mercy on me, O Lord, thou son of David; my daughter is grievously vexed with a devil. 23But he answered her not a word. And his disciples came and besought him, saying, Send her away; for she crieth after us. 24But he answered and said, I am not sent but unto the lost sheep of the house of Israel. 25Then came she and worshipped him, saying, Lord, help me. 26But he answered and said, It is not meet to take the children's bread, and to cast it to dogs. 27And she said, Truth, Lord: yet the dogs eat of the crumbs which fall from their masters' table. 28Then Jesus answered and said unto her, O woman, great is thy faith: be it unto thee even as thou wilt. And her daughter was made whole from that very hour. 29And Jesus departed from thence, and came nigh unto the sea of Galilee; and went up into a mountain, and sat down there. 30And great multitudes came unto him, having with them those that were lame, blind, dumb, maimed, and many others, and cast them down at Jesus' feet; and he healed them: 31Insomuch that the multitude wondered, when they saw the dumb to speak, the maimed to be whole, the lame to walk, and the blind to see: and they glorified the God of Israel. 32Then Jesus called his disciples unto him, and said, I have compassion on the multitude, because they continue with me now three days, and have nothing to eat: and I will not send them away fasting, lest they faint in the way. 33And his disciples say unto him, Whence should we have so much bread in the wilderness, as to fill so great a multitude? 34And Jesus saith unto them, How many loaves have ye? And they said, Seven, and a few little fishes. 35And he commanded the multitude to sit down on the ground. 36And he took the seven loaves and the fishes, and gave thanks, and brake them, and gave to his disciples, and the disciples to the multitude. 37And they did all eat, and were filled: and they took up of the broken meat that was left seven baskets full. 38And they that did eat were four thousand men, beside women and children. 39And he sent away the multitude, and took ship, and came into the coasts of Magdala.
Name originally given to disciples of Jesus by outsiders and gradually adopted by the Early Church.
The name given to the man believed by Christians to be the Son of God. Also given the title Christ, meaning 'anointed one' or Messiah. His life is recorded most fully in the Four Gospels.
A 'testament' is a covenant or binding agreement and is a term used in the Bible of God's relationship with his people). The sacred writings of Judaism (the Hebrew Bible). These also form the first part of the Christian Bible.
Someone who conveys God's message to human beings or speaks about the future sometimes through words alone, sometimes through dramatic actions.
Title (eventually used as name) given to Jesus, refering to an anointed person set apart for a special task such as a king.
Execution by nailing or binding a person to a cross.
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