hedHuman Nature and Discontent in King Lear
Alex KP, Grade 11 English
The Elizabethans believed, or pretended to believe, that the natural world reflected a hierarchy that mirrored good government and stable monarchy. Even our scientific age talks about laws of nature and good government through good laws. Shakespeares era contrasted nature and art, just as one can consider an essential human nature contrasted with culture. As well, Shakespeares era distinguished natural and unnatural behaviors; the latter would include mistreating family members, opposing cultural, political, religious, and social norms, as well as presenting the eternal question of fate. King Lear identifies familial relationships and their flaws, questions whether human society is the product of nature or technology, and whether human nature is fundamentally selfish or generous. More than just a consistent theme in the play, this concept of nature in society and practice reveals the core of human nature.
In King Lear, nature itself is also an object of controversy. Often used to identify things that are pure, true and peaceful, nature is known also as a device used for the cruel and explicit actions by all things evil or unfortunate. King Lear presents a dichotomy of good and evil, and Shakespeare hopes the reader will consider the harsher, two-faced qualities of nature in his tragedy.
The connection between human beings and the natural world is often neglected. Why? Perhaps the concept of a similarity between humans and brute nature repels civility or advance in society; this explains the extreme use of animal imagery as offense in the play. Thus, it is reasonable to ask, what constitutes this highly offensive and scorned unnatural behaviour?
According to passages in King Lear, the most common fault of and insult to a human, is to ill-treat family, and more specifically, powerful and royal family. This is evident when a very offended Lear condemns his daughter Cordelias unsatisfactory praise, to her suitor, the King of France:
Tavert your liking a more worthier way
than on a wretch whom Nature is ashamed
(Act 1, Scene 1, line 210)
Here, King Lear almost personifies Nature, and as something capable of passing judgement: a strict division between the proper and acceptable action versus the intolerable one. The concept of nature representing justice and truth is also apparent in the sub-plot when Gloucester denounces Edgar as his son, followed by his praise for Edmunds loyalty:
Loyal and natural boy, Ill work the means
to make thee capable
(Act 2, Scene 1, line 83)
Thus, the notion of nature as a compliment or praise is similar to societys view of normalcy. Traditionally and contemporarily speaking, tolerance and acceptance within a community is strictly connected with standardization, and predictability. The Fool, with his sly and witty remarks, portrays a perfect example of this unpredictable and unexpected speech:
Truths a dog must to kennel; he must be
whippd out when the ladys Brach may stand
by thfire and stink..
(Act 1, Scene 4, line 105)
Throughout the play, Edmunds connection with nature is extremely confusing, and uncommon in his class, deeming his very existence unnatural from the start. As the plot progresses, his role swings back and forth from natural to unnatural, depending on his actions. This is somewhat unusual, as most characters are classified as good or bad, natural or natural, within their first few lines in the play, and here the reader is forced to constantly make assumptions and form opinions about Edmund. More obvious attempts at opposing the norms in King Lear include Cordelias modest praise of her father, the Duke of Albanys eventual recognition and action against the ploys of his wife and her sister, and Kents protective disobedience to Lear.