Tensions and Ambiguities Paper
Nature in Lear: Working out the Many Meanings it Possesses
The play King Lear is clearly a play about family issues, but these issues are described in a way that is not often used. Shakespeare uses nature in King Lear to show many elements in the play that compete with one another to show many forms of conflict. This conflict is built upon by nature, conceived by nature, and finished by nature. The usage of nature in the play does not rely on only the literal representations of the word but rather natural and unnatural thoughts and actions as well. I will refer to the usage of the imagery of nature to secure thoughts that the play is representing but also discuss the natural and unnatural actions that people take in the play. Both of these versions of nature are heavy in the play and neither have a more significant impact than the other on the plot. The many ways that nature is used in the King Lear is meant to show that what people find to be most natural in the play is what leads to their undoing, mainly through the characters of Gloucester and Lear and comparing what makes a more compelling tragedy through their usage of nature.
The play seems to have a progression of the power of nature throughout the plot that shows readers of Shakespeare its many faces. First we see the act of family bonds that are divided with imagery of nature, and then shortly after we see the natural actions of a family undone by the honesty of one daughter, Cordelia. Lear thinks it is natural to ask his daughters to argue their love with their siblings in order to receive better land divisions, and these arguments are directly correlating with the beauty and geography of the land they receive. Next we see the natural bond of son and father, Edgar, compared to the illegitimate son, Edmund. This bond between father and son can easily be broken by the unnatural acts done by Edmund. Although Edgar is the actual son of Gloucester, he is quickly turned away by the false accusation given by the unnatural son. Then we see Lear’s mind escaping him as he leaves his daughters and enters into a storm that represents his state of mind. The nature of Lear’s character, literal setting details, and inner monologue all play part in the nature used here. Finally we see the physical blindness of Gloucester that represents his natural state of being blind to the betrayal of him by Edmund. This is the most devastating of all because we see that all along Gloucester was being betrayed, and when he finally understands that he has been betrayed he cannot even see the face of his betrayer, nor can he ever recognize his faithful son again. The two stories intertwined make an interesting comparison of what is and is not natural by comparing the tragedy of Lear to Gloucester, and actually finding that Gloucester has a much more tragic end.
The play begins by showing the nature of family bonds. Lear asks his daughters to compete with each other to prove which one of them loves their father most and tells them that this will depend on what land they receive, “Which of you shall we say doth love us most, that we our largest bounty may extend where nature doth with merit challenge” (I.i.56-58). Lear is showing that is natural to him in a family to compete for their father’s love, that his love can be bought by their plea, and with their pleas will nature decide their share of the land. The view of nature here is focusing on family bonds, but it also shows us the character of Lear being attention driven, stubborn, and selfish. The interesting thing about nature being paired with family bonds are the fact that their answers are met by their shares of land being described by the nature they inhabit, “. . . even from this line to this with shadowy forests [and with champains riched, with plenteous river] and wide meads . . .” (I.i.69-71). The tie of family bonds and the character of Lear are being returned by the beauty of the land each daughter receives, showing that Earth’s true nature is truly driving their claims of love for their father. Regan and Goneril know that their claims of love spoken to their father are going to result in what share of the land they receive and therefore, being preconceived thoughts, are unnatural. The only daughter acting naturally in this scene is Cordelia with the honest answer that wishes to only please her with its truth.
The Earl of Gloucester loves both of his sons, but is being tricked by his illegitimate son, Edmund, that Edgar is against him through the use of a false letter. Gloucester describes this act as “Unnatural, detested, brutish villain! Worse than Brutish! (I.ii.80-81). This is showing that even the most natural ties of a father to his son can easily be broken, but Gloucester does not truly see the nature of Edmund’s plan until it is too late. The use of nature here is playing mostly on the natural bonds of a father to his son and how a father reacts when they feel they are betrayed by their heir. The unnatural heir, Edmund, is now Gloucester’s favorite son that will reveal himself later.
In II.iv. Lear becomes upset after his daughters Regan and Goneril request that he dismisses half of his guards in order to stay with them, and then decides to venture out into a raging storm. The use of the storm is showing the physical nature of the setting of the play and also representing Lear’s inner monologue of frustration. This frustration is built by no one but Lear himself because of the literal nature of his character’s stubbornness to not compromise with his daughters. This is showing nature playing on itself; first it is meant to show that Lear’s character is stubborn and selfish by him leaving the house of Gloucester instead of just giving in to his own stubbornness. Nature is shown through the literal storm happening outside that encompasses both fear in our minds but anger and loss that Lear fears towards his family bonds. Finally, the natural struggle is being shown with the loss of his mind by showing his inner struggle with the inability to face his daughters denying his commands. This is referring back to the earlier reference of what Lear finds natural in a father-daughter relationship because he feels that his daughters should compete for his favor, not argue with him. The nature is building upon itself to help reveal more of the plot, and it also shows the true character of Lear the whole way through.
The last major form of nature shown in the play is when Cornwall plucks out Gloucester’s eyes. His reaction to both his eyes being taken is the most heartbreaking moment of act three, “All dark and comfortless! Where’s my son Edmund?—Edmund, enkindle all the sparks of nature to quit this horrid act” (III.vii. 103-106). The loss of his eyes makes him want to reunite with his son Edmund, the son that he has been fooled into believing is good. The true nature of Gloucester’s blindness is shown here through the literal blinding of his character in the play.
An interesting twist here is the tie between the two families of Lear and Gloucester. The play is named after King Lear but we do not sympathize much with his character. When reading the play as a whole we are brought into his thought process and we are interlocked with the step by step frustrations that he meets, however, his tragedies are all of his own demise. He chooses to become so angry at his daughter Cordelia for not answering his question of her claim of love, he chooses not to compromise with Regan and Goneril about the amount of men that he needs at his side, and he chooses to go out into the storm accompanied by none other than the fool. But the entire play begins and ends with him, meanwhile we have Gloucester. Gloucester did not do anything to start his conflict other than to love his legitimate son as the first heir, and love his illegitimate son as the second. The conflict starts with Edmund betraying Edgar to their father, and then leads to Gloucester becoming fooled. This lie leads to Gloucester becoming blind and even his death. Nature is used in Lear’s case to show how natural bonds are undone by his own doing, and Gloucester’s are undone by his unnatural son’s doing. The more tragic of the two seems to go to Gloucester who literally and figuratively is blind to all the betrayals done to him throughout the play. Lear has a more satisfying way of building up tension through his constant frustrations at all of his daughters but there is not a true tragedy in the play except for his loss of Cordelia shortly before his own death. The ambiguities of nature in King Lear are met more accurately with Gloucester’s tragedy than Lear’s because of the physical and literal blindness that nature shows us throughout the play. Lear uses nature many times to show his frustrations toward his daughters, but hardly ever does he make these usages of nature seem tragic to us.
It is difficult to say whether one side of Lear was more tragic than the other, but after calculating all the major usages of nature throughout King Lear, it seems as though the real tragedy is relying on that of Gloucester. The use of nature helps us to see the tension more clearly in the play through the usage of the given land to the daughters and the more beautiful property going to the more loving claims, the bonds of father and son by Edgar, Edmund, and Gloucester, the easing away of Lear’s mind during the storm, and finally, Gloucester’s going blind. These are all major themes of nature in the play that help the reader to relate to the plot and characters more clearly. These trends of nature, though they are not all literal, are intentional to make the reader more clearly see the emotions and actions of each and every character. Family is a natural bond that everyone encounters in life, but in King Lear we see this bond through nature that makes the plot all the more interesting.
William, Shakespeare P. W. King Lear. Simon & Schuste, 2005. Print.