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Nature And Cosmic Order In King Lear

Although King Lear contains a great deal of material which can be viewed as a commentary on early seventeenth-century society, the play is located in a pre-Christian world where God has no influence on the characters of the play, and nature itself can take on a sinister quality used to exploit the weaknesses of the protagonists.

The most obvious example where these ideas clash is in the character of Edmund, and in particular, his speech concerning legitimacy. His first words in this soliloquy are, ‘Thou, Nature, art my goddess; to thy law / My services are bound.’ (1.2.1-2). His adherence to nature attacks the cosmic order of the play because as an ‘unnatural’ son, i.e. one born out of wedlock, he inverts this order to suggest that his own conception represents the power of lust and passion over the conventional marriage and birth of legitimate children, or as Edmund puts it, ‘a whole tribe of fops / Got ‘tween a sleep and wake.’ (1.2.14-15). Edmund celebrates the raw power of nature in a way which is Darwinian long before any such concept was articulated. [1] Edmund also tears at the bonds of natural affection, because he attempts to destroy the bond between Edgar and Gloucester, which he is successful at accomplishing early in the play. Such is his success, Gloucester even goes as far as to label Edgar ‘Unnatural’ (1.2.76), while he calls Edmund a, ‘Loyal and natural boy’ (2.1.84) and states that he will make him the inheritor of his estates, which would have been unusual for a Shakespearian audience to witness. [2] Gloucester’s use of the word ‘natural’ has a deliberately ambiguous meaning here, as it can be taken either as his recognition of Edmund’s newfound legitimacy, or as his mistaken belief in his son’s bonds of natural affection for him.

The horror of Edmund is that he is able to take advantage of the situation and use the trusting nature of those around him to enhance his own position. His actions are mirrored by the unnatural behaviour of Goneril and Regan who both flatter Lear’s vanity and play upon the familial bond which they share with him, while afterwards behaving in an unnatural manner. It is this shattering of the cosmic order of familial ties and the way in which Lear ‘unnaturally’ cuts off the only daughter who genuinely adhered to these bonds which triggers the chain of events which will lead to tragedy. When Lear eventually recognises that he has misjudged his daughters he also recognises that he has behaved unnaturally towards Cordelia, and indeed, that he has violated the cosmic and natural order by treating her in such a callous manner. Graham Martin and Stephen Regan argue that until he goes mad, Lear’s conception of nature is based on solely on material grounds, and he barters land for love, a process which he cannot continue to sustain. They state, ‘once Lear has abandoned his real power, he can no longer make his system of nature serve his needs. Nature will no longer heed him, however eloquent his appeals.’ [3]

Cordelia is one of the few characters in the play who displays both acceptance of the cosmic order, as she respects the familial bonds, although she refuses to play Lear’s unnatural game, as well as a nature which is nurturing as opposed to aggressive. However, in the world of Lear both of these qualities are not enough to combat tragedy and disaster, and she ends up suffering the same fate as the characters who do not adhere to these two principles.

Although order is ultimately restored by the end of the play, it comes at the expense of the entire royal family. Shakespeare has demonstrated that cosmic order can be easily shattered by unnatural forces such as the figures of Goneril and Regan, as well as by a character such as Edmund, who although behaves in an unnatural way, is happy to align himself with nature, in order to exploit the baser elements of humanity, and increase his own power and position.

Ralph McLean

 

1. For more on this see, Robert J. Bauer, ‘Despite of Mine Own Nature: Edmund and the Orders, Cosmic and Moral’, in, Texas Studies in Literature and Language Vol. 10 (1968), pp.359-366) Return to text

2. In 1611 John Gwillim stated, ‘Bastards are not capable of their fathers patrimonie.’ John Gwillim, A Display of Heraldry (London, 1611), p. 53. Return to text

3. Stephen Regan and Graham Martin, ‘King Lear’, in, ed., Kiernan Ryan, Shakespeare: Texts and Contexts (London, 2000), pp. 264-5. Return to text

 

 

General Background
Antony and Cleopatra
Hamlet
King Lear
Othello
A Brief Overview Of British Social And Political History
The Politics of the Catholic Church
The Influence of Montaigne on Shakespeare
International Relations and Politics
James VI and I and his Patronage of the Arts
Kingship in the Renaissance
Early Modern Attitudes to Madness
Political Theatre
Elizabethan and Jacobean Revenge Tragedy
The Religious Reformation, 1529-1559
The Influence Of Machiavelli On Shakespeare
The Succession of James I
Suicide in the Renaissance
Textual Variations in Shakespeare’s Plays
The Tragic Hero
The Transition from Medieval to Renaissance Drama
The Battle of Actium
Sources for Antony and Cleopatra
Marc Antony
The Contrast Between the Renaissance Prince Hamlet and Old Hamlet
New Words in Hamlet?
Is Hamlet a Problem Play?
Sources for Hamlet
Concepts of Heaven, Hell and Purgatory in Hamlet
‘And My Poor Fool Is Hanged’
The Double Role Of Cordelia And The Fool In King Lear
The Enclosure Acts
The Theme of Nature in King Lear
Nature and Cosmic Order in King Lear
Sources for King Lear
Cyprus
The Publishing and Performance History of Othello
Race in Othello
Sources for Othello
Venice
The Wife as Property in Othello