Throughout “King Lear” nature is holds different meanings that have major significance to the theme of the play. Characters speak to it as though it’s a personified entity; they refer to the celestial objects in the heavens above and even to that of animals of the Earth. When the characters speak to nature, they do it as a means of justifying their intentions or previous actions, and also as a means of invoking it in some form. Nature is also used to describe the disposition of a character and the physical world with no spiritual bearing. We see that nature tends to hold many ambiguous meanings during the play; however they are centered mostly between nature that embodies the laws of the universe or that of a man. One instance of the contrasting views of nature is Lear and Edmund not holding the same views of nature as one another.
In “King Lear” there are two strong contrasting views of nature that govern men; that of Edmunds and the characters closely associated to him, and that of Lear and his party. Edmund is seen in the first Act speaking to the heavens of his plot to sabotage the legitimate son Edgar, Edmund’s half-brother. He personifies nature in the line “Thou Nature, art my goddess; to thy law my services are bound” and proceeds to tell of his intention with overthrowing Edgar “Legitimate Edgar, I must have your land. Our father’s love is to the bastard Edmund.” He looks to nature to aid him in achieving his goals of furthering himself above the legitimate. Looking to the stars he speaks about how his father Gloucester in the “lusty stealth of nature” “compounded” with his mother under the “Dragon’s tail” which we can see to be a sign of the stars. Along with this Edmund states his nativity is under Ursa Major, which emphasizes the fact that he sees the fates of man are governed and consolidated by the heavens which can in turn reflect upon the meaning of what is natural. In the scene where Edgar is being fooled by Edmund into fleeing his father’s fake wrath, Edmund again reinforces the belief when he states he has read a prediction that will soon follow the eclipses. The lines spoken here are worth looking at as they foreshadow instances of the play. Edmund speaks of the “unnaturalness” that will occur between the child and parent which is hinting at the father-daughter relationships that are broken between Lear and his offspring, death, and severing of friendships. This shows Edmund’s idea of the resulting deconstruction of nature from the superstitious signs in the sky. Once Edmund’s scheme is fully set into swing, Gloucester states “... and of my land, /Loyal and natural boy, I’ll work the means/to make thee capable”. This is interesting because it shows Gloucester has already contradicted his view of Edgar being the legitimate “by order of law” by now implying Edmund is potentially the natural and legitimate son. This is worthy of consideration because it ties in with the disruption of nature that occurs throughout the play when both Lear and Gloucester reject the natural. Ultimately in Lear’s case his rashness towards Cordelia is the example as well as Gloucester’s inability to ask Edgar about the letter. They end up facing substantial repercussions for these shortfalls. In the play Edmund even uses his own father to gain superiority over others when he sells Gloucester out to Cornwall by giving him the French Invasion letter. Edmund then, is seen as an individual who believes nature is self-advancement at the cost of anyone he uses to gain this advancement from, even if it means betraying his own blood. John Danby in his work “Shakespeare’s Doctrine of Nature: A Study of King Lear” states: "He embodies something vital which a final synthesis must reaffirm… It is right for man to feel, as Edmund does, that society exists for man, not man for society. It is not right to assert the kind of man Edmund would erect to this supremacy”. This contradicts the views of Lear however, who believes nature is an...
References: Danby, John. Shakespeare’s Doctrine of Nature: A Study of King Lear (London, 1949)
Harrison, G. B. Shakespeare: The Complete Works. New York: Heinle & Heinle, 1968.
Leggatt, Alexander. King Lear. New York: & London: Harvester-Wheatsheaf, 1988.
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