Various Interpretations of “Nature” in King Lear


It is possible to look upon King Lear as a drama of ideas embodying forth “the meanings of the single word Nature”, being essentially preoccupied with Nature in all its vastness. It is not, however, a drama of ideas in the sense of the medieval Morality plays or modern Shavian plays; it is a peculiar creation of Shakespeare, his Novum Organum of Elizabethan thought and times.

The word Nature conveys several meaning including what is known as the Romantic Nature. To Elizabethans, however, it did stand for an order. Words again change meanings as does the word Nature with the passage of time and since words are living entities, they flesh forth ideas which may clash with each other bringing inquisition or martyrdom in its train. Thus we see it is highly probable to have a multiplicity of meanings for the same word current among a people who are animated by the idea or ideas behind the word for seeking an application in the field of action. Words thus not only reflect reality but become part of reality. Similarly the varying views on Nature not only reflect various opinions or ideas but also help us to see “the stubborn holds it has on us and we on it”, acting and reacting on each other. The meaning of the word concretizes active people and it may be said following Coleridge that they are “not merely regulative but constitutive of our being”.

Drama is the most effective vehicle for handling such meanings for the people who are committed by concurrent and associated ideas to a programme of action. Thus in drama we watch the development of an idea pertaining to a word or number of words giving shape to meaningful meanings – meanings again which are sometimes adopted and it other times discarded, King Lear presents consistently an idea of the word Nature in its manifold implication and inflections as current in Elizabethan times.

The words nature, natural, unnatural occur over forty times in King Lear as against twenty-five instances of such occurrence in Timon of Athens and twenty eight in Macbeth. They cover the possible Elizabethan meanings of the word nature exclusive seem to dominate in the play. One view is held by Edmurd, Goneril and Regan while the other is largely adopted by the Lear party. The former group’s philosophy is Hobbes while the latter party’s view of the Nature finds contemporary expression in Hooker and Bacon.

As we feel in going through the play, Nature is a keyword that explains the dramatic structure of King Lear and clarifies its layers of significance. Now, nature may signify essential qualities of things of innate attitude of men, expressing it through inherent and spontaneous impulses governing character. Both Lear and Gloucester act on this assumption taking filial love and affection between parent and children as granted. Thus Cordelia’s supposed deficiency in filial affection is considered quite unnatural by Lear. So Gloucester finds in disorders of nature (such as eclipses of the moon) the cause of unnatural happening in the human world – “There’s son against father; “there’s father against child” etc. Lear subsequently discovers that while Cordelia’s conduct was not proper his treatment of Cordelia was unnature, which resulted in his frame of nature being wrenched from its fixed place. Nature again to Glucester is the physical universe outside of man and contrasted to him in many aspects and products of the planet”. This leads to yet another meaning which gives King Lear the largeness for which it is distinguished”, says Dr. Sengupta in his Aspects of Shakespearean Tragedy. That meaning refers to the creative power of creature operating in the mundane world and influencing mankind and above everything else producing the moral disposition that goes by the name of human nature.

King Lear’s implicit belief in this human nature born of the innate connexion between man and nature is revealed in his banishment of abnormal Cordelia while preferring the normal elder daughters. Again disturbed and agitated by the calculated cruelty of Goneril, Lear denounces her not as a hypocrite but as an unnatural Goneril either barren or bestow upon her a disnatured child as a permanent torment to her. Rejected by both Goneril and Regan, Lear searches deeper to discover that the whole nature is diseased. However, Lear’s faith in nature filial affection appears to arise from a misconception which confuses spontaneous impulses with rationally guided behavior. He learns by experience and seems to speak differently on nature as he tried to explain the basis of his demand on his daughter’s love thus: “Filial ingratitude / Is it not as this month should tear this hand / For lifting food to’t”?

William Shakespeare
The identification between nature and rational social order based on co – operation seems complete here. Nature thus is not just the “propinquity and properly of blood”, as claimed by Lear earlier. Albany utters the same idea when he says “that nature which contemns its origin, / Cannot be border’d certain in itself”. The Fool in his common wisdom anticipates all these and continuously reminds Lear of his unnatural folly of dividing his kingdom – a folly that even animals in their nature instincts would avoid. The hand and mouth analogy of Lear is countered by the Fool by his practical example from the bird – world thus:
The hedge – sparrow fed the cuckoo so long
That its had it head bit off by its young.

Cordelia advances a more positive argument when she says that she loves Lear, her father according to her “bond, no more, no less”. This bond according to Dr. S.C. Sengupta is different from simple nature and is a compound of reason and obligation. Danby, however, interprets this bond as a natural tie, “a duty willingly accepted and gladly carried out because it answers to right instinct”.

Uninhibited Nature finds its spokesman in Edmund, who is the natural son (the bastard was known as natural son in Elizabethan parlance being an offspring of he uninhibited son in Elizabethan parlance being an offspring of the uninhibited natural instinct in Man.) He appreciates and praises unbridled nature. A view diametrically opposite to Lear’s Although Edmund addresses Nature as goodness; it is meaningless for him since he is no believer in any power higher than natural impulses. Danby, who thinks that there are two Natures in King Lear – nature perverse, competitive and malignant and Nature kind, ordered a beautiful – present Edmurd as a symbol of the first and Cordelia of the second. There is no denying that the play hinges on a conflict between these – two opposite and contending principles.

III – treated by the second daughter, Lear is out for new experience to face Nature in her furious mood as he leaves hearth and home to weather the storm in the heath. Nature here is hostile with storm and tempest, thunder and lightning. With the King Lear in the heart of it, a new speculation shapes itself about the basic reality in human nature, animal kingdom and the elemental forces outside of them. The first reaction is one of utter disillusionment showing only cruelty under the mask of social order and rational cohesion – human civilization is a hoax and man worse than animal. Mad Tom symbolizes this when he describes himself as a bundle of human vices; “hog in sloth, fox in stealth, and wolf in greediness, dog in madness, lion in prey”. When the despair is little less, Lear thinks of the elemental forces of nature as capable of executing justice upon his malefactors but this temporary feeling only deepens that despair a little later when Lear finds that heavens themselves are not just; otherwise how to explain the difference between the rich and poor, the former enjoying the super – flax while the latter rot abject misery. Even on the very night in the health, the heavens were pouring rain , wind , thunder and fire upon the poor despised old white head of helpless Lear. Therefore in the elemental nature, the justices are suspect and a universal corruption rules throughout obliterating all difference between the judge and the criminal:
Thou rascal beadle, hold the bloody hand!
Why does thou lash that whore? Strip thine own back;
…… ..….. ….. ….. ….. The userer hangs the cozener.
Through tatter’d clothes small vices do appear;
Robes and furr’d gowns hide all”.

And so this futile search for justice takes him to the origin of things, to the essence of nature. “He thinks of arraigning his daughters, but becomes more interested in biology, or more correctly meta-biology, in anatomizing Regan, in finding out what make people cruel”. (Dr. S.C. Sengupta,) Going to the root of the matter he finds that nature becomes “the principle of birth or genesis, the universal mother, the great cause or system of cause which rings phenomena to light! (George Santayana, noted by G. L. Bickersteth in his British Academy Lectures, 1946, entitled The Golden world of King Lear.)

King Lear is Shakespeare’s long essay on the nature of Nature, his search into the meaningful meanings of the word as it is bodied forth in both microcosm and macrocosm. It is full of doubts and despair, asking and questionings, belief and unbelief! It finds the cosmos neither good nor bad. Its vast span covers human and animal nature, moral and elemental nature, internal and external nature. The vastness is explored while the smallness is not ignored. Love yields to lust, lust to corruption, corruption in disease; and then corruption brings suffering which is borne with patience which leads to redemption and redemption can come only though love and grace. A beauty is born out of evil which perhaps answers Kent’s laconic query whether all these misery and suffering are “the promis’d end”. Despite the cruelty and selfishness which are rampant in human and animal nature and even in the elemental forces, man can, to quote Dr. S. C. Sengupta, “derive hope from the fact that evil , a disruptive force , destroys not only good but also itself”. Shakespeare while ending his probing into the nature of Nature seems to insist men, who are otherwise bound upon while of fire, to believe and hope that “there are gods somewhere who are benevolent and just” and that we are not just their play – things.

Ref: 1. Wikipedia
         2. Shakespeare's Stagecraft: Dr. Assual Petre

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