Theological Consequences In King Lear Essay, Research Paper
Theological Consequences in King Lear
Shakespeare’s King Lear is not primarily a theological text. It contains no direct references to Christ, and its characters are not overtly religious, except perhaps in a strictly pagan sense. King Lear is, however, a play that seeks out the “meaning” of life, a play that attempts to come to terms with life’s pain; or, rather, plummets the reader into such a storm of chaos and meaninglessness that any preconceived meaningful assumptions must necessarily be challenged. At the time in which Shakespeare wrote, amidst the recent activity of the Reformation, the assumptions the general public took into a theater were varied, but, more often than not, within some context of Christian thought. As Shakespeare was undoubtedly aware, interpretation of the play would necessarily be set in Christian context. (Even anti-Christian interpretation would be considered to be a Christian context in that it is reactionary.) The question arises as to whether or not Shakespeare, intentionally or not, has emphasized one strain of Christian thought while denouncing another? Or, in this play without any obvious redemption, has Shakespeare denounced Christianity altogether? I do not think he has gone to this extreme, but has instead challenged Christian interpretation as a whole. As we shall see, the distinction between Christianity and Christian interpretation is crucial.
For my premise that Shakespeare and his audience were in some way effected by the Christian thought of the day, I am indebted to Stephen Lynch, who has researched the evidence for this position in a chapter from his Shakespearean Intertextualities entitled “English Reformations in King Leir and King Lear.” Within the chapter, Lynch explores possibilities in theological interpretations of the play in light of its predecessor King Leir. It is Lynch’s contention that Shakespeare’s Lear is reactionary to certain Calvinistic implications communicated in Leir. Shakespeare’s negation of Leir’s theological values are not, however, a necessary affirmation of a different theological stance. It might be the foundation of a new theological view, or it could be an utter negation from which, to quote the King himself, “Nothing can come of nothing”(1.82). The question of what truly follows from “nothing” is at the heart of King Lear. Can any good issue from the apparently needless suffering that a character like Lear is forced to endure? Lynch, in the end, seems unsure: ” if the play moves toward redemption, it is not the absolute and certain redemption of the old play, but an incremental, unsteady, and indeterminate redemption”(56). If there is any redemptive value to be found in the play, according to Lynch, it comes about only through the very internalized purgatorial suffering of its characters. In the original Leir play, though, redemption was always regained through grace and divine acts of providence. Hence, ready-made acts of religious piety were honored instead of any transformative experience of religious suffering. Even if Shakespeare’s version is not truly redemptive, it serves as at least an indictment against the earlier view that largely ignored the harsh reality of suffering.
The reality of the actual experience of suffering is also given great importance in a 1986 article by James L. Calderwood entitled “Creative Uncreation in King Lear.” Rarely in his essay does Calderwood directly confront the different theological analyses of the play, but then it is more effective that he does not. The point that Calderwood does make has immediate implications upon theology. Also, an excess of discussion would belabor the point he makes, for, in a sense, an excess of discussion is what he is rallying against. The pain and suffering of the play, Calderwood argues, is caused by a confusion in the convention of language. This confusion lies in the difference between “what is” and “what is said.” The difference between the two is perhaps best exemplified in Edgar’s saying, “Who is’t can say ‘I am at the worst’? / I am worse than e’er I was. / And worse I may be yet. The worst is not / So long as we can say ‘This is the worst’”(4.1, 25-28). Language, for Calderwood, is merely a cushion that shelters us from the harshness of reality. And, as the convention is grows more sophisticated an awareness of the reality may be lost. There comes a time “[w]hen a culture reaches the point where reality has been definitively charted – when fluid forms have petrified into institutions, and live meanings have deadened into clich s”(6).
Further, Shakespeare, who was a playwright and used language as his medium, must have been aware of this confusion. As a critic well aware of the relationship between meaning and its conventional context, Calderwood shows obvious deconstructionist tendencies. Here, though, he opts not to deconstruct but instead to show how Shakespeare already has. The play operates under a process of “uncreation,” where everything that is “something” moves towards “nothing,” “requiring us to return with [Shakespeare] to a point of creative origin, the unshaped, meaningless stuff with which he began” (8). King Lear is a play in which Shakespeare is acutely aware of the inadequacies of his medium, thus explaining the irresolution of its complicated ending: to deliver us to the “immediate, uninterpreted experience” of suffering unbuffered by constraints of language.
Towards the end of his essay, Calderwood goes on to admit, “Despite the intensity of his concern for immediacy in King Lear, his play remains unavoidably a saying – not the agonizing ‘it is’ itself but a mediated representation of the worst”(18). With this in mind, one theological implication may follow from Calderwood’s interpretation. Lear may be viewed as a sort of mystic text. Like any other mystical text, the value in Lear lies not in the words themselves, but the experience to which the words are pointing. Of course, such a mystical experience, as Lear may have had, would not necessarily be distinctly Christian. Part of what makes a mystical experience mystical, after all, is the transgression beyond the delineations of the conventional world, religious delineations, and the various dogmas of Christianity included. In any case, as both Lynch and Calderwood seem to lead us, if Shakespeare is making an appeal to a new brand of Christianity, it is a living, breathing, experiential brand of Christianity.
It has been traditionally recounted, however, that mystical experiences generally have some sort of inherent, redemptive value. They classically result in periods of profound understanding, feelings of oneness, and peace of mind for the mystic. As to whether Lear receives any redemption of this sort, is addressed directly by Lynch and indirectly by Calderwood. The question is answered for Lynch by whether or not Lear is smiling on his deathbed and if such a smile would be in earnest or in madness. Lynch’s final idea of redemption, though, is not of the “immediate, uninterpreted experience” from which Calderwood has led me to suggest mysticism, but of a more traditional heaven, “a paradise that is not an earthly prison” (57). On the other hand, Calderwood’s worldview is Hobbesian. He does not recognize any sort of mystical redemption that I have alluded to. Lear, for him, confronts the harsh truth of the world directly but it is altogether grim. For him, it is a world whose “late eclipses of the sun and moon portend no good to us” and whose “wheels of fire will not be metaphors” (19).
I agree with Calderwood’s sense of the truth in King Lear being found in immediate, uninterpreted experience, but contend that the outcome of seeing such truth might not be ultimately bleak. It is quite possible that Lear never reaches such a point of understanding, and that this lack of understanding is in fact his tragedy. Calderwood suggests that his tragedy is not in his lack of understanding but in the fact that he understands too much, making his tragedy more the tragedy of all humankind. But, there seems evidence, to me, that Lear is still not at the point of seeing “what is” immediately. He, for instance, kills the guard who has hanged Cordelia in an act of revenge and later brags about it to her corpse. This suggests that he is still in the glaze of at least a false conventional sense of revenge, in which one killing justifies another. Also, he is far from readily willing to accept the death of his Cordelia. He admits that she is “dead as earth,” but then revokes the statement as he deludes himself into believing that the feather stirs and she lives. Lear has not even entered upon the possibility of purgatorial transformative suffering because he is not willing to experience the immediate reality of “what is,” the dead body of Cordelia. Even at the end he fails to make any real acceptance as he still looks upon her lips for the breath of life, this time in a frenzy (”Look there, look there!”) Lear’s failure to come to accept the pain of the present reality should be made obvious to all at this point. Kent’s “Break, heart, I prithee, break!” can even be seen as a command towards Lear’s condition. If Lear had faith enough to allow his heart to break, to feel the full immediate pain of death, he might gain some redemption. Instead, Lear unnaturally clings to illusions of life in death’s closing hour, and this struggle causes him more pain than the acceptance of death possibly could. As such, Kent’s command can also be seen as a sort of warning to the reader. We are to learn from Lear what Lear could not.
Perhaps, though, I have been granting too much credence to the views of Calderwood. It is true that Shakespeare does uncreate his play, as he “begins with art and subtracts from it towards nature as the chaotic immediate,” to deliver the feeling of that immediate in its rawness. The purpose of the play, however, might be not to “inform us that this is not the worst after all, only a saying of the worst,” not to show the inadequacy of language, but, rather, to reaffirm the language (18). Shakespeare brings us to nothing at the end of King Lear, but as Calderwood has shown us, “Something frequently comes of nothing in King Lear” (6). The most significant instance of nothing is the first, the “nothing” of Cordelia’s pronouncement. Cordelia’s “nothing,” however, is much more of a something than the dead flattery of her sisters. She is the only one who loves her father but cannot “heave her heart into her mouth.” But, because of his merely conventional way of seeing, Lear interprets Cordelia’s something as a nothing. From here we see Lear unfold and come to nothing himself, undergoing what may be viewed as a transformational suffering. If Lear’s transformation is completed he would recognize the value of the experiential/mystical process as opposed to hardened conventional forms. And from here, he could gain a new understanding of language, bringing the play full circle and offering some redemption. As Edgar says in the end, “Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.” The new power of language is not in what is said, but how it is said. Thus, in the end, Lear recognizes Cordelia as a fool for breaking from convention earlier, but a wise fool. He has perhaps actually learned the value of Cordelia’s lesson, to love unconditionally, as with his last words he tells all to look on her lips from which issued the original loving paradox that lead to Lear’s final redemption.
Redemption in a play where the suffering is deeply internalized must necessarily be difficult to express. King Lear is one of the rare pieces of art whose meaning many people would readily admit cannot be easily stated in any convenient terms. The play revolves around emotion more than cognition, and as such, moves beyond the realm of any dogmatic interpretation. This does not necessarily mean, though, that it moves beyond the realm of religion. Any religion with the elasticity to encompass the whole scope of human emotion and experience can be related to Lear. As Lynch says, “While Leir is a play about carrying crosses, Lear is a play about dying on them” (55). If we read Lear once, live and die with it completely, then never say anything else about it, so be it.
n King Lear, Shakespeare creates many conditions in which humans live in the world. The main characters in the play are used to portray Shakespeare's ideas of evil between the characters and in the world. Shakespeare presents the conflict between good and evil by carefully separating the characters into two groups in order to bring out different attitudes to life.
The conflict between good and evil divisions in King Lear lies in their opposed attitudes to what man is and therefore to his obligation in the society around him. These attitudes are understood in what the characters say and do everywhere in the play. For instance, the villain Edmund declares his Machiavellian character in a soliloquy. Edmund states:
“Thou, Nature, art my goddess;”
He speaks of nature as his guiding principle as opposed to the manmade customs by which society is ruled. This was a powerful and threatening statement for the Elizabethans. For them, the idea of society was of an ordered, divinely conceived organism which reflected the hierarchy and order of the rest of the created universe. Within society the bonds and obligations were divinely ordained. Therefore, Edmund diminishes all this by cn King Lear, Shakespeare creates many conditions in which humans live in the world. The main characters in the play are used to portray Shakespeare's ideas of evil between the characters and in the world. Shakespeare presents the conflict between good and evil by carefully separating the characters into two groups in order to bring out different attitudes to life.
The conflict between good and evil divisions in King Lear lies in their opposed attitudes to what man is and therefore to his obligation in the society around him. These attitudes are understood in what the characters say and do everywhere in the play. For instance, the villain Edmund declares his Machiavellian character in a soliloquy. Edmund states:
“Thou, Nature, art my goddess;”
He speaks of nature as his guiding principle as.
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In the classic play, King Lear the theme of blindness encompasses both literal and figurative meanings. The terms blind or blindness generally are described in the Webster's Dictionary as " ¦wanting of sight or discernment, having no outlet, an obstruction of view or ignorance. Another understanding of blindness could also be interpreted as psychological defect or willful denial. The theme of blindness is most apparent in Shakespeare's characters King Lear, the Duke of Albany and the Earl of Gloucester. Essentially when each character experiences one form or another of blindness, they are faced with a behavioral choice and choose poorly which over time results in the characters remorseful behavior.
The most significant character to portray ignorance, psychological defect and willful denial is the title character King Lear. Though his blindness is not of the literal sense he is figuratively blind due to his disconnection with real life, which results in repeated inappropriate behavior. King Lear's disconnection with life due to the hierarchy of his position as a King ordained by God is typical of the times. In this part of history, kings typically wanted for nothing, were not confronted when their behavior was viewed as improper. Characters such as King Lear were surrounded by people whom sole purpose was to make his life as easy as possible and make every request a reality. The expectations of King Lear, due to his high position in the hierarchy, deemed that he should be capable of discovering the truth of the matter at hand, while also recognizing falseness in others. Regrettably in the case of this character, his tendency of figurative blindness towards others true nature more specifically with his daughters, caused much turmoil throughout the play.
A primary example of this behavior is best expressed when King Lear becomes angry at his youngest daughters reluctance to falsely overstate her affection in order tEssays Related to Blindness - King Lear
King Lear Essay Research Paper
In King Lear the unnatural elements seem to always dominate the natural elements throughout the play. There exists a reversal of order in the play where the evil prosper in the downfall of the good and where man’s life is meaningless and arbitrary. King Lear the tragic hero dies in the end despite the torment and agony he had to endure to regenerate and repent. But it is the worthless destruction of countless other lives because of Lear’s own personal tragedy that supports the view of the brutality and the meaningless of man’s life in the play.
Life in Lear’s universe is brutal and at times merciless. All this has been brought about by the reign of evil in the play. The natural order of things has been reversed to such an extent that many of society’s cherished values have been neglected and confused. Evil characters such as Edmund is praised by Gloucester for exposing the “treachery” of Edgar while Edgar is denounced for his “villany”. Love based on selflessness and truth is weighted in materialistic terms. A man’s life then can only be considered arbitrary and meaningless in the chaotic universe of King Lear.
The character of Lear and Gloucester die in a state of joy but they nevertheless die in the end resulf. Both had immeasurable sufferings for their follies and yet both had gained wisdom – patience insight love – from their experiences. Both were shown to have the capacity for comparison during their ordeals and both were courageous enough to triumph over their weaknesses. Yet despite their regenation gained through suffering and pain they are made to die in the end. Their deaths hardly seem just and proper if a man’s life were not meaningless. But in King Lear a man’s life is meaningless indeed.
There were also many others who were not directly involved in Lear’s personal tragedy that died for it. Because of Lear’s follies and the subsequent reign of evil the armies of France and Britain fought. That battle must have resulted in numberous death on both sides. The army of France led by the King of France and Cordelia had come in an attempt to overthrow the evil reign of Goneril and Regan and to rescue King Lear. Cordelia was still bound by honour duty and obedience to Lear despite her banishment and she at last had come for her beloved father. Lear’s folly had caused both armies to fight for his redemption and regeneration. The many deaths of soldiers from both sides are too numberous and insignificant to take note of in this indifferent universe of King Lear.
Finally if the deaths of Gloucester and Lear seemed unfair then the death of Cordelia can be considered totally unjust. Cordelia embodies the virtues of selflessness and honesty completely and she had enough love to help her father despite his total mistreatment of her in the beginning. Cordelia dies brutally in the end murdered by a captain bribed by Edmund. Her brutal death is such a devastating shock that one can only claim that a man’s life is meaningless in King Lear. Cordelia of all the characters should not have died and to die in such a brutal manner indicates the brutality of a man’s life in King Lear.
It can be argued that the destruction of good by evil is a tragic fact of life and while that may be true there were simply too many deaths to be accounted for in the play. Finally in King Lear Shakespeare presents a theme that it is possible for man to carve his own path in destiny. By choosing an evil path one can be self – destructive. Following a path of goodness allows one to have spiritual hope and bonds with fellow man. It is a just universe that allows the freedom of choice to exist for the individual and that also carefully monitors the prevalence of goodness.
Therefore in King Lear Shakespeare does not present an indifferent universe. He also does not present that man’s life is meaningless. He does indicate however that there is justice in suffering that evil proves to be futile and that only through goodness is a sense of religious hope and spiritual bond possible. By illustrating these facts Shakespeare wishes to indicate that not only is the universe ‘not indifferent’ but also that man’s nature is very pertinent to the maintenance of justice on earth.
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Cordelia. He admits that she is “dead as earth,” but then revokes the statement as he deludes himself into believing that the feather stirs and she lives. Lear has not even entered upon the possibility of purgatorial transformative suffering because he is not willing to experience the immediate reality of “what is,” the dead body of Cordelia. Even at the end he fails to make any real acceptance as he still looks upon her lips for the breath of life, this time in a frenzy (”Look there, look there!”) Lear’s failure to come to accept the pain of the present reality should be made obvious to all at this point. Kent’s “Break, heart, I prithee, break!” can even be seen as a command towards Lear’s condition. If Lear had faith enough to allow his heart to break, to
feel the full immediate pain of death, he might gain some redemption. Instead, Lear unnaturally clings to illusions of life in death’s closing hour, and this struggle causes him more pain than the acceptance of death possibly could. As such, Kent’s command can also be seen as a sort of warning to the reader. We are to learn from Lear what Lear could not. Perhaps, though, I have been granting too much credence to the views of Calderwood. It is true that Shakespeare does uncreate his play, as he “begins with art and subtracts from it towards nature as the chaotic immediate,” to deliver the feeling of that immediate in its rawness. The purpose of the play, however, might be not to “inform us that this is not the worst after all, only a saying of the worst,” not to show
the inadequacy of language, but, rather, to reaffirm the language (18). Shakespeare brings us to nothing at the end of King Lear, but as Calderwood has shown us, “Something frequently comes of nothing in King Lear” (6). The most significant instance of nothing is the first, the “nothing” of Cordelia’s pronouncement. Cordelia’s “nothing,” however, is much more of a something than the dead flattery of her sisters. She is the only one who loves her father but cannot “heave her heart into her mouth.” But, because of his merely conventional way of seeing, Lear interprets Cordelia’s something as a nothing. From here we see Lear unfold and come to nothing himself, undergoing what may be viewed as a transformational suffering. If Lear’s transformation is completed
he would recognize the value of the experiential/mystical process as opposed to hardened conventional forms. And from here, he could gain a new understanding of language, bringing the play full circle and offering some redemption. As Edgar says in the end, “Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.” The new power of language is not in what is said, but how it is said. Thus, in the end, Lear recognizes Cordelia as a fool for breaking from convention earlier, but a wise fool. He has perhaps actually learned the value of Cordelia’s lesson, to love unconditionally, as with his last words he tells all to look on her lips from which issued the original loving paradox that lead to Lear’s final redemption. Redemption in a play where the suffering is deeply internalized must
necessarily be difficult to express. King Lear is one of the rare pieces of art whose meaning many people would readily admit cannot be easily stated in any convenient terms. The play revolves around emotion more than cognition, and as such, moves beyond the realm of any dogmatic interpretation. This does not necessarily mean, though, that it moves beyond the realm of religion. Any religion with the elasticity to encompass the whole scope of human emotion and experience can be related to Lear. As Lynch says, “While Leir is a play about carrying crosses, Lear is a play about dying on them” (55). If we read Lear once, live and die with it completely, then never say anything else about it, so be it. 352
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King Lear: Rejection
An important idea present in William Shakespeare's " King Lear " is
rejection and the role this rejection plays in the experiences of the involved
characters. The important ideas to be considered here are the causes and
effects associated with the act of rejection. The most important situations to
be considered in the story of " King Lear " are those that develop between the
two fathers, Lear and Gloucester, and their children, Goneril and Regan,
Cordelia, Edmund, and Edgar. Each case falls on a different plane, but it is
important to consider the similarities between the positions of Lear and
The rejection of Lear by his two daughters, Goneril and Regan, can be
seen as a type of revenge. Throughout their lives they had always been far
behind Cordelia in the king's eyes. As a result of this second-hand treatment,
Goneril and Regan carried with them an immense amount of hatred and when Lear
divided his kingdom between them, they both openly rejected his presence in
their lives. " Some other time for that. - Beloved Regan, she hath tied sharp-
tooth'd unkindness, like a vulture here, - I can speak scarce to thee ; thou'lt
not believe with how depraved quality - O Regan ( King Lear II.iii )!
Goneril's response further clarifies this rejection. " Good sir, no more ;
these are unsightly tricks. return you to my sister ( King Lear II.iii ).
Lear's reaction is pure rage. He understands that he had not given them too
much of his time, but he had given them their percentage of the kingdom only
because they had made a pledge to him that they would care for him in his
elder years. The bond broken in this situation is a very weak one. The only
thing that held it together was this flimsy pledge that the daughters had no
intention of honoring. But no matter the conditions, he was their father and
his well-being was a sort of payment for their very existence.
Cordelia's rejection of Lear breaks a much stronger bond. Lear loses his
entire life purpose when Cordelia turns Lear away.
Good my lord, you have begot me, bred me, lov'd me. I
return those duties back as are right fit, obey you, love
you, and most honour you. Why have my sisters husbands
if they say they love you all? Haply, when I shall wed,
that Lord whose hand must take my plight shall carry half
my love with him, half my caret duty. Sure I shall never
marry like my sisters to love my father all ( King Lear I.i )
When Cordelia gave Lear this response, he was all alone. The one person he
expected to be there for him in his old age and take care of him as he had done
her was no longer an option. Lear was forced to fall back on his other
daughters, who were unreliable in any sense. When Cordelia is unable to pledge
her complete love to Lear he banishes her to France. In the end she is the
only family by his side. She was the only one honest with Lear and she pays
for her honesty. In the end the relationship is restored. She is by his side
until the time of her death. For the first time Lear realizes that he had been
asking too much from her and at his own expense for she had more than enough
love in her heart for him all along.
The two cases involving Gloucester fall on a similar plane. The first to
be examined is Edmund's rejection of his father. The motive behind this case
is nothing but pure evil. Edmund has everything a man could ever want, but for
some reason he does not feel like he belongs. From the beginning he is working
against his brother's name, which in fact was a very pure one. " Here stood he
in the dark, his sword out, mumbling of wicked charms, conjuring the moon (
King Lear II.i ). He has full possession of his father's love, but he feels a
need to assure it by making his brother out to be a much more evil person than
he ever was. But Edmund's evil goes beyond Edgar. Edmund betrays his father
to the Duke of Cornwall, making him appear guilty of treason. As a result of
this accusation, Gloucester has his eyes gouged out. Edmund no longer
respected Gloucester as his father. He saw him as an obstacle on his way to
It is at this point that Gloucester realizes his love for his other son,
Edgar, who he had rejected from birth.
O you mighty Gods! This world I do renounce and in your
sights shake patiently my great affliction off. If I could
bear it longer and not fall to quarrel with your great
opposeless wills, my shuff and loathed part of nature
should burn itself out. If Edgar live, O Bless him! - Now,
fellow, fare thee well ( King Lear IV.vi ).
Edgar never did accept the fact that his father did not love him and makes every
effort to become a part of his life. When Edmund made Gloucester believe that
Edgar had made an attempt on his life, it looked like Edgar would be forced far
from the land. But Edgar disguised himself as a madman and stayed as a guest
in part of Gloucester's castle. It is this position that helped him gain his
father's heart. After Edmund betrayed Gloucester, he was left without anyone
and wished to die. He asked Edgar to accompany him to a nearby cliff, which he
intended to jump off. Edgar took him elsewhere to prevent this. Edgar was
there for his father when he needed him most. He secured Gloucester's safety.
" Far off, methinks, I hear the beaten drum. Come father, I'll bestow you
with a friend ( King Lear IV.vi ). Edgar far surpassed the allegations Edmund
built up around him and at Gloucester's death, received his father's blessing.
Rejection plays a big role in the motives and actions of the characters
in " King Lear. " Everyone deals with rejection in their own way and
Shakespeare made this very clear through a wide variety of examples. Some
accept rejection, some don't. Some look for revenge, while others try to set
things right. It is the mentality, the strengths, and the personalities of the
characters that produces their reactions. That is what Shakespeare wanted to
convey to his audience.