Representations of Nature in Shakespeare’s King Lear
The concept of Nature in Shakespeare’s King Lear1 is not simply one of many themes to be uncovered and analyzed, but rather it can be considered to be the foundation of the whole play. From Kingship through to personal human relations, from representations of the physical world to notions of the heavenly realm, from the portrayal of human nature to the use of animal imagery; Nature permeates every line of King Lear. However as I intend to argue, Nature in all of these contexts is a social construct, which is utilized in order to legitimize the existing social order. In order to do this it is first necessary to draw a very brief sketch of the political and social beliefs of the Elizabethan and Jacobean ages, whilst outlining my arguments for believing that Nature is a socially constructed concept. In light of these arguments I will then analyze the representations of nature in King Lear to show how the play can be seen as both a portrayal of and a contribution to the social and political beliefs of the time.
It is well documented that both the Elizabethan and Jacobean age were not known for their unity. It was a time of change and upheaval, Elizabeth I never married and therefore left no heir to the throne, leaving her subjects to worry about who would succeed her, and what was to become of them; when James I succeeded her to become the first Stuart King, although he ended the war with Spain in 1604, he could not overcome the deep-seated political and financial problems that dogged the state. Therefore in order to overcome any debate on Kingship regarding legitimacy or efficiency the representation of unity and harmony between the state and Nature was of paramount importance to his continued reign. ‘Kings are justly called Gods for that they exercise a manner or resemblance of Divine power on the earth.’1 This quotation is from a speech by James I to his parliament and it illustrates a belief in the Divine right of Kings. By connecting the notion of the Divine to Kings, James I is legitimizing his power through naturalization, the very fact that James I felt it necessary to reiterate this concept in parliament suggests that it was a social construct, not a natural fact, designed to legitimize and protect the interests of the monarchy. The concept of ‘the Great Chain of Being’ follows on from the notion of the Divine Right of Kings and again legitimizes the actions of those holding power. For if by ‘nature’ everyone and everything has its place, and knows its duties and obligations to that place, then the status quo is maintained and those that hold the power cannot be questioned.
Shakespeare belonged to a world where notions of man, his nature and his place in the universe were an amalgamation of both Christian and pagan philosophies. According to Reese, ‘it provided a cosmological system which, though complicated, inconsistent and even uncertain in its details, was definite in outline and purpose, and its core was the assurance of the unity and intimate correspondence of the whole of God’s creation.’3
Belief in the correspondence and unity of the physical world to the heavenly allowed man to believe in God’s grand plan where everything had its place, and nothing was without a purpose. The fundamental principle of this universe was order, with God at the head of his hierarchy in the heavenly realm, and man, who was created in God’s image, at the head of the physical world, with Kings at the head of the state. This belief in the social order stemming from the natural order is an important concept to grasp when examining the idea of nature being utilized to maintain the status quo. Closely associated with the belief in an ordered universe was the concept of nature as a benign force in the universe. Nature in this sense was a principle of order linking all spheres of existence in their proper relationships. Reese suggests that ‘the endlessly recurring...
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