The Theme of Nature in King Lear
Ideas about nature form an important part of King Lear. Elements of the natural world, such as the heavenly bodies and the animal kingdom, are invoked in the characters’ speech, as they use their different concepts of what nature is in order to justify their actions. Lear, for example, sees himself as master of the natural world, with ‘shadowy forests’, ‘champaigns riched’, ‘plenteous rivers’ and ‘wide-skirted meads’  to dispense to his children. When he disowns Cordelia, he vows by ‘the sacred radiance of the sun,/ the mysteries of Hecate and the night,/ By all the operations of the orbs’, in other words, by the sun, the moon and the planets, to ‘disclaim all my paternal care,/ Propinquity and property of blood’.  An obvious problem here is that Lear calls upon nature to witness his rejection of nature, as manifested in the natural, father-daughter bond between himself and Cordelia, a bond which he is brought painfully to acknowledge again at the end of the play.
Nature also appears in the play as an uncontrollable elemental force: the tempest consists of ‘cataracts and hurricanoes’, ‘sulphurous’ fires and ‘all-shaking thunder’.  Lear, Kent, Gloucester and Edgar are cast out from the civilised world into the natural world, to wander through storm and wilderness. These things are aspects of nature in themselves, yet also represent the chaos that results from violations of an order that exists in the human world, but that could also be thought of as ‘natural’, such as royal or paternal authority. In Act Three, the ‘foul weather’ is depicted as making a mockery of ‘the little world of man’, and yet it echoes the human world as well, reflecting the ‘division’ in the kingdom.  So, while on the one hand, humanity is seen in futile opposition to the great forces of nature, on the other it is also a microcosm, or little world, which is a replica of the macrocosm, or greater world; as Pico della Mirandola said, ‘whatever is in the lower world, is also in the higher ones’.  This mirroring between man and cosmos may explain why in King Lear the natural elements correspond not only to the strife in the kingdom, but also to the characters’ inner turmoil.  Lear in his rage threatens his daughters with a revenge as fearsome as ‘the terrors of the earth’, and, despite his sorrow, refuses to cry: ‘You think I’ll weep,/ No, I’ll not weep’, and at that moment, the storm, with its thunder and rain, breaks forth.  Lear goes on to describe ‘this tempest in my mind’, which he experiences when he faces his daughters’ ingratitude.  Shakespeare, however, also presents an opposing case when he makes Edmund scornful of correspondences between man and the natural world, particularly the idea that the stars govern the fates of men. 
In Shakespeare’s day, ‘nature’ could evoke ideas about harmony and order. In antiquity, the Stoics saw the universe as being ruled by reason. Thus, the human faculty of reason, and human systems like ethics, were in accordance with nature. In Ptolemaic astronomy, the cosmos consisted of concentric spheres, with the ultimate being the prime mover or primum mobile. In the middle ages, Christians associated this sphere with God, and in 1588, John Case’s Sphaera Civitatis showed Elizabeth I as the primum mobile, and below her a series of spheres representing majesty, prudence, fortitude, religion, mercy, eloquence, abundance and immovable justice.  The idea of the great chain of being (scala naturae) held that all created things belong to a hierarchy under God, from the angels down through humans, animals, plants and minerals.  The hierarchical system was representative of a divine order that could be echoed in the human world. Just as God ruled all creation and all mankind, so should kings rule earthly kingdoms.
Yet, in King Lear, ‘nature’ can also stand for ferocity and disruption of order. Gloucester’s eldest son is his legitimately, ‘by order of law’,  corresponding with the ideas of natural law and divine order. But in fathering an illegitimate son, Gloucester follows another, more chaotic principle, ‘the lusty stealth of nature’, as Edmund puts it.  In following his natural lust, Gloucester begets a vicious son who will overturn the ‘natural’ – according to the sense of nature as ordered and harmonious – bonds of respect for authority and filial piety. Lear describes his eldest daughters in terms of this more ferocious paradigm of nature: he refers to Goneril’s ‘wolfish visage’,  describing her nature as predatory and rapacious, and calls Regan ‘serpent-like’,  referring to the sharpness of her tongue, but also inevitably to the Fall of Man, instigated by the Devil in serpent form.  In preferring the children in whom a wilder nature prevails, based on appetite and will to power, Gloucester and Lear reject the ‘kind nature’ that ‘first doth cause all things to love’,  and, in so doing, disrupt the harmony of their world.
1. William Shakespeare, King Lear
, ed. by R. A. Foakes, The Arden Shakespeare, Third Series (London: Nelson, 1977; Thomson Learning, 2005), 1.1.64-5, p. 162. Return to text
5. Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, Heptaplus, in Charles Glenn Wallis, Paul J.W. Miller & Douglas Carmichael, Pico della Mirandola : On the Dignity of Man, On Being and the One, Heptaplus, (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1965), 2nd Proem (1489), cited in Wouter J. Hanegraaff, ‘Sympathy or the Devil’, Esoterica, 2 (2000), online at http://www.esoteric.msu.edu/VolumeII/Sympdevil.html
Cf. also E. M. W. Tillyard, The Elizabethan World Picture (London: Chatto & Windus, 1975), p. 25. Return to text
16. Cf. John F. Danby, Shakespeare’s Doctrine of Nature: A Study of King Lear (London: Faber and Faber, 1948), pp. 32-3. Return to text
17. From Sir John Davies, Orchestra (1596), cited in Tillyard, p. 97. Return to text