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The theme of nature pervades King Lear throughout, and forms a large basis of the topic of the play. It is thanks to the idea of nature that we can see the characteristics of characters, for instance the degree of their loyalty, and their progression throughout the play in relation to their belief of ‘nature’. Nature, however, in King Lear can be a complex matter, and is best divided into three main areas. There is ‘Nature’ in itself, essentially seen as a force more powerful (perhaps omnipotent), by some characters and ‘removed’ from the human world.
Then there is ‘nature’- that is the nature of characters and their personalities, and finally the ‘natural’- the characters’ own individual view whether something is in their eyes ‘natural’ or not. These three sub-topics heavily inter-link with each other during the play, and essentially help constitute each other too. However, ‘nature’ on its own is harmless. It is human influence that creates the disharmony that mentions of ‘nature’ appear to portray.
It is therefore first appropriate to explain how ‘nature’ first causes such unrest.
The opening dialogue of the opening scene introduces us to Gloucester’s view of what is natural or not. “I have so often blushed to acknowledge him…the whoreson must be acknowledged” lets us know that, although accepting that Gloucester by blood his own son, he believes in the natural order and therefore sees his son Edmund as illegitimate and a bastard. These views of ‘the natural’ are directly paralleled by Lear, at which point the plot and sub-plot become established.
Lear sees his patriarchal dominance as completely natural; he finds the hierarchical structure of his family normal.
Therefore the ‘love test’, which for the audience seems an absurd act of narcissism, is perceived by Lear as acceptable. It is these two attitudes to ‘the natural’ that are the reasons for the beginning of shortcomings of the two powerful leaders throughout the play, and this is due to the conflicting opinions of their children on what ‘the natural’ is. Edmund’s soliloquy in the following act introduces us to his views on his father’s belief. He mocks it, loathes it and most importantly rejects it- “Why ‘bastard’?…. ine word, ‘legitimate’”, highlighting how he does not subscribe to the belief in the natural order like his father does, hence due his perceived ‘harshness’ decides to seek vengeance. This rejection of the belief in what is the ‘natural order’ evident too in Cordelia. The ‘love test’, in her eyes, is an act of foolishness; something that is unnatural and unnecessary, hence her stubborn refusal to partake in it. This, in the eyes of Lear, is an act of pure treachery- she is after all going against and breaking his idea of the ‘natural order’ (as summed up by France it is a “tardiness in nature”).
What he does in ‘retaliation’, therefore, paradoxically destroys any idea of any normal, structured ‘natural order’- exiling his beloved daughter from his kingdom. When Lear disowns Cordelia he invokes the natural world when he swears “by the sacred radiance of the sun”, naturalising his actions towards Cordelia, and thereby legitimising the power he holds over her. Lear, in finding that his “frame of nature” has been “wrenched “from the fixed place” suggests the seriousness of his crimes against the natural order.
It is therefore this sequence of events and the contrasting views of ‘the natural’ that cause the discordant events in the play. It is from the reactions of the characters to their own family members’ belief in ‘the natural’ that we can tell their true character, or nature. The ‘battle’ of malign versus benign nature best defines and groups the contrasting ‘natures’ in the play, and categorising the characters into these groups is important in ascertaining the motives, and loyalty, of the characters. From the evidence we can draw in the opening scene we can categorise Cordelia’s nature as ‘good’.
She does not use false, wholly empty flattery to attempt to please her father: “Love, and be silent” is a genuine display of love for her father, and evidences her integrity and loyalty, to which Lear is sadly blind. Gonerill and Regan, after stating their plot to “do something i’theat”, are essentially directly contrasted to their benevolent sister and therefore are malign characters. The animal imagery that is associated with them- “wolvish visage.. serpent’s sooth” indicate the unnaturalness of their behaviour in comparison to how they should behave if they observed the natural social order.
Edmund’s reaction to Gloucester’s assertion of the ‘natural order’ most definitely makes him the ‘bad’, or ‘evil’ and disloyal character, his deceitful letter highlighting his malcontent, and his Machiavellian character (based on writer Niccolo Machiavelli’s 16th century character, who took delight in their own manipulative evil and were synonymous with the devil). Kent and the Fool, the only other ‘major’ characters in Act I, have a loyal and good nature- their common goal is to help Lear achieve insight, and prevent the evil that the malign-natured characters are trying to impose. See better Lear” highlights Kent’s good nature in trying to make his good friend realise what is going on. Read also dmund and Edgar essay
The true extent of Kent’s loyalty is shown when he goes as far as to dress up in order to help Lear gain insight- the irony being that even one of the best-natured characters of the play has to resort to using deceit in order to help protect Lear. The Fool, despite his arguably cruel treatment of Lear, also wishes Lear well and his main role in the play, critics argue, is to help protect Lear against the evils of the two daughters, and therefore his nature is good.
Though there is certainly a difference between the true nature of characters and how it is perceived by others. Lear’s running commentary throughout Act I about the nature of his daughters allows us to witness his confusion on what the true nature of his three daughters really is. “A wretch whom nature is ashamed” reinforces the earlier point of Lear’s disgust at Cordelia’s encroachment of his hierarchy, though later on in Scene 4 he calls Gonerill, the daughter favoured in the ‘love test’, a “disnatured torment”.
The nature of a character is therefore used as the basis for judgement by Lear, and anything that displeases or challenges his ‘natural’ dominance, his hierarchy, is branded unnatural, and not normal- he is King after all. Gloucester’s views on the nature of his children in relation to his (wrong) perception of the sons’ attitude toward him are very much similar, and are used to convey Gloucester’s inability to see due to his own delusion. This is evident when upon this discovery of Edgar’s letter he brandishes the boy “unnatural”, and also when in Act II Scene I he describes Edgar’s plans to kill him as “strange”.
Gloucester’s frequent associations with what is or isn’t natural about the nature of characters is cunningly used by Edmund in order to strengthen the effectiveness of his deception. “Unnatural purpose” highlights Edmund’s feigned agreement with his father on the topic of which brother is ‘unnatural’ and by pretending to subscribe to his father’s belief on the naturalness of characters he further endears himself to his father, to the benefit of himself.
Gloucester’s stubborn belief in the ‘nature’ of his sons not only causes his downfall in the long run, but is also used against him as a method to undermine him further; this belief in the natural order clearly does him no favours. The irony is almost needless to be mentioned- Edmund, through his acting, pretends to hold the same view that his father does by classifying Edgar as unnatural, though it is this brandishing of whether a character is natural or not that Edmund loathes, and is in fact is actually the central reason for his rise against his father.
Gloucester’s blind nature, of course, means that he is truly fooled, and as as a result misplaces his loyalty into Edmund by stating he is a “loyal and natural boy”- dramatically ironic as we know the true extent of Edmund’s loyalty. This bold and malign nature of Edmund reflects and is explained by what he sees “Nature” as. His claim in his second scene soliloquy- “Nature art my goddess”- highlights how he sees Nature as a more powerful force, and a motivator or motivation to drive him forward in his evil ways.
He has a theory of his own nature- “the maidenliest star…twinkled on my bastardising” –that his nature would have been evil whatever star he was born under- and this epitomizes his self-motivated character. Also, what makes him especially fearful is the fact that instead of accepting a god, he adopts nature as his god, suggesting that his evil may be without limits. King Lear echoes Edmund’s appeal to Nature as a “goddess”, but there is a clear difference in the way in which he views and references ‘Nature’: Lear looks upon ‘Nature’ kindly and appeals to it as something that will uphold the natural order.
Gloucester’s beliefs essentially parallel those of Lear’s- his beliefs in Scene 2 that society is in decay and the divisions in nature (“These late eclipses”) and astrology are to blame for the breakdown “twixt son and father” highlight his conservative stance and social family hierarchy in referencing The Great Chain of Being- a theme that asserted God’s natural order and that everything in Nature had its allotted place (i. his illegitimate son was rightfully base). Edmund’s rejection and undermining of his father’s view highlights his character- that he believes in his own destiny and free will, and it is likely that Shakespeare introduced this concept to highlight the discussion during the Jacobean period about possible “movement” and disruption within the Chain.
Edmund’s nature and belief in animal law as opposed to his father’s natural law is a representation of the hierarchical change in society at the time and the rise of the superfluous against the strict social order. Shakespeare’s portrayal of Nature and loyalty in the opening Act places them as two themes central to the developments in the play.
Through the contrasting views of ‘the natural’- Lear viewing ‘Nature’ as an upholder of the social hierarchy and Edmund as an impetus to break it down, the true ‘nature’ of characters becomes evident, and it is the disharmony between naturally good and evil characters and their conflicting ideologies of the ‘natural’ that creates the tumultuous effects that dominate the play. It is through the ensuing unrest that ‘unnatural’ events occur, and the loyalty of characters in this struggle for the restoration of the natural order is established through their own individual belief in it.
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