King Lear: Themes
Many themes are evident in King Lear, but perhaps one of the most prevalent relates to the theme of justice. Shakespeare has developed a tragedy that allows us to see man's decent into chaos. Although Lear is perceived as "a man more sinned against than sinning" (p.62), the treatment of the main characters encourages the reader to reflect on the presence or lack of justice in this world. The characters also vary in their inclination to view the world from either a fatalistic or moralistic point of view, depending on their beliefs about the presence or absence of a higher power. The theme of justice in relation to higher powers can be illustrated from the perspective of King Lear, Gloucester, and Edgar.
When reading King Lear, it is helpful to understand the Elizabethan "Chain of Being" in which nature is viewed as order. Rosenblatt (1984) states that there was a belief in an established hierarchy within the universe. Everything had its own relative position beginning with Heaven, the Divine Being, and the stars and planets which are all above. On earth the king is next, then the nobles, on down to the peasantry. Holding the lowest position were the beggars and lunatics and finally, the animals. Interrupting this order is unnatural. King Lear's sin was that he disrupted this chain of being by relinquishing his throne. By allowing his daughters and their husbands to rule the kingdom, the natural order of things was disturbed. His notion that he can still be in control after dividing the kingdom is a delusion. According to Elizabethan philosophy, it would seem that this is the beginning of his mistakes and is also the cause of much of the misfortune that occurs later on in the play. Chaos rules the unnatural.
As well, King Lear makes another devastating mistake which affects his relationship with his daughters by asking them to tell him how much they love him in order that he may divide his kingdom according to the strength of their love. Cordelia, the youngest daughter, states that she loves her father "according to her bond" (p.4). She is saying that she loves him as much as any child could love a father. On the other hand, Goneril and Reagan easily speak the words that their father wants to hear, rather than the truth. Because Lear is not satisfied with Cordelia's response, he turns his back on Cordelia and on her love. By doing this he is destroying the natural family unit and lacks the insight to know this. He unjustly punishes Cordelia by banishing her from the kingdom. He casts out his daughter in an unfatherly fashion, yet is gravely upset by the ingratitude of his other two daughters, Goneril and Reagan. Once again, due to Lear's lack of wisdom, he fails to recognize the sincerity of Cordelia's words. Thus, he puts his relationship with his daughters in jeopardy which results in a constant source of grief for King Lear.
King Lear holds firm to his belief that the world is governed by the gods and in justice. Therefore he does not question the will of the gods in letting him suffer from his daughter's unkindness, but prays
If it be you that stirs these daughters' hearts
Against their father, fool me not with so much
To bear it tamely; touch me with noble anger (p.50).
Greer (1986) reminds us that Shakespeare uses the word
"nature" often, but rarely with the same meaning. For instance, Lear personifies nature when he calls Cordelia "a wretch whom Nature is ashamed/Almost to acknowledge hers" (p.9). Here, it seems as though Lear thinks himself to be particularly special and close to nature because he is presumptuous in believing that he can read Nature's mind. On the same note, Lear also seems to order his goddess, Nature, as though he is in control. He commands Nature to follow his orders,
Hear, Nature, hear! dear goddess, hear!
Suspend thy purpose, if thou didst intend
To make this creature...
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