In his book Keywords the literary and cultural critic Raymond Williams said that ‘nature’ is ‘perhaps the most complex word in the language’. In King Lear the word appears forty times. In addition the word ‘natural’ appears twice and ‘unnatural’ seven times. Amongst its many meanings are the following:

The created order

CarrionNature is ultimately derived from the Latin verb meaning ‘to be born’, so it means those things which have been created. King Lear is full of things which belong to the natural world such as
  • Animals (references to crows, choughs, hog, fox, rat, newt, dog, worm, tadpole, frog, cat, sheep etc.)
  • Plants (corn, wheat, cuckoo-flowers, samphire, nettles, burdocks, hemlock etc.)
  • Weather (thunder, lightning, wind, rain, whirlwinds etc.).
Shakespeare uses these constant references to create a strong sense of a world of teeming variety that is wild, alien and beyond the control of human beings. Human arrogance is thus put into perspective when faced with the power of the storm.
References to the natural world are also used to reflect human concerns, as when Lear thinks of the thunder and lightning as judges and when Edgar equates the hostility of nature with the human cruelty which made him an outlaw. 

Natural as original innocence now corrupted.

In Act 4 Scene 5 a Gentleman says to Lear:
      Thou hast a daughter
Who redeems nature from the general curse
Which twain have brought her to.    
Adam and EveHere nature means the sinful world made corrupt by the original sin of Adam and Eve. (See Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve, 'Second Adam'.) Shakespeare’s contemporary audience would have been familiar with the story in Genesis of how Adam and Eve were tempted by Satan (in the form of a serpent) to eat fruit from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, expressly against the command of God. As a result of their sin, Christians believed that all human beings were born with original sin, from which God rescued them by sending his son, Jesus Christ, in order to redeem both people and nature. 
In the above quotation Goneril and Regan are equated with Adam and Eve, whilst Cordelia is seen as a kind of Christ-like figure capable of redeeming nature from the corruption caused by her sisters.

Natural is good; unnatural is bad

To act against nature in the play is to behave wickedly. Lear thinks that it is natural for children to pander to their parents, which is why he casts Cordelia out after she ‘unnaturally’ fails to please him in the love test. 
If nature is what has been created by ‘the gods’ of the play, then it is assumed it must be good. To act according to nature is, therefore, to carry out a sacred duty. When Lear hopes that Regan will treat him better than Goneril, he says to her:
      Thou better know’st
The offices of nature, bond of childhood,
Effects of courtesy, dues of gratitude (Act 2 Scene 2)    
The ‘offices of nature’ here clearly mean ‘what children ought to do for their parents’, i.e. be grateful and ‘please’ their parents.
This raises questions about whether nature is always good. When Lear later declares (in the imaginary trial of his daughters):
      Then let them anatomize Regan; see what breeds about her heart. Is there any cause in nature that makes these hard hearts?
(Act 3 Scene 4)     
he is asking the fundamental question of whether evil may be just as ‘natural’ as goodness. If it is not an inherent part of human ‘nature’, then where does it come from?

Edmund’s goddess

      Thou, Nature, art my goddess. To thy law
My services are bound.   (Act 1 Scene 2)     
When Edmund commits himself to the ‘goddess’ Nature, he does so ironically. Even though the play is set in a pagan world, to Shakespeare’s original audience he would have been emphatically denying his belief in God and Christian morality. However, Edmund’s tone is mocking. He does not really believe in any such goddess; in fact, he believes that he owes no obligation to anyone other than himself. In that sense, selfish ambition is really the goddess he worships. There is a further irony in Edmund ‘worshipping’ nature, in as much as Edmund is a ‘natural’ child i.e. he has been born out of wedlock. He is worshipping himself!

Human nature

Within King Lear, the term nature also has the uncomplicated meaning of ‘what people are like’ as in France’s words: ‘Is it but this – a tardiness in nature’ (Act 1 Scene 1). In this sense the play is concerned with what it means to be human, a theme explored throughout Shakespeare’s work.
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