Wordsdays – Religious Chaos in King Lear

(I’m an English student – how long do you think it would be before I started writing about literature on here?)

King Lear is the story of a king, called Lear. Except he’s not a king, and is often referred to as ‘old man’, and not by name – as you can tell, it’s a chaotic play, full of destruction and literal madness, which is probably why I like it so much.

Shakespeare’s tragedy focuses on the decline of old King Lear, whose first action is to give up his kingdom to his two cruel daughters for lying that they love him, and give nothing to his youngest daughter, Cordelia, as she tells him the truth, saying ‘I love your majesty according to my bond, no more nor less’. The play then follows Lear’s descent into madness at the hands of these two other daughters, Goneril and Regan, his company of a disguised noble, a mad beggar and a fool, and the steady rise to power of the bastard Edmund, at the expense of his indecisive, but loyal father Gloucester, and his brother Edgar, who is the closest thing this play has to a hero. The play ends with only Edgar, Goneril’s husband Albany, and the disguised noble Kent, surviving, ending the events on a decidedly bleak note.

However, I want to focus on the religion of the text, a theme we’ve not discussed in class in its own right; religion and the gods in Lear’s pagan Britain serve an important role, beyond merely being an example of Lear’s madness and violence, in that they almost mock those in the world of men, seeming to exist only for the cries and desires of lunatic kings, before ending the play in a brutally cyclic fashion to assert their authority over mankind.

The gods are used initially in a simple sense, as an example of Lear’s madness and rage: his anger at Goneril, for trying to reduce the size of his train of knights after giving up power, is shown in his appeals to ‘Nature … dear goddess [to] into her womb convey sterility’ – he is not just angry at her, but furious enough to call upon a higher power to punish her.

The idea of the gods being controllable is a theme that runs through the play; the gods do not appear to govern the world of man, but initially appear more like tools to be used by man: Lear’s commanding tone over Nature to ‘Suspend thy purpose’ suggests that Lear can control nature and divert its course to suit his own needs. Also, the word ‘purpose’ suggests that the gods have their own agendas and goals to accomplish, and Lear’s attempt to control these purposes suggests that the needs of man are more important to the needs of gods.

This attempt at control could be an early sign of Lear’s madness, in that he takes the role of an absolute monarch too far, in believing that he can control the gods, whereas he cannot even control his own children.

Lear is also confused in his usage of Nature, calling it ‘dear goddess’, then proceeding to order it about, and suggesting that children will ‘honour her [Goneril]’, just as Goneril  is dishonouring Lear by dismissing his knights as ‘so disordered, so debauched and bold’ and insisting that her steward Oswald calls Lear ‘my lady’s father’, which suggests that Lear cannot be defined as a man in his own right. Also, this is another example of Lear never being called ‘Lear’ – he even calls himself ‘the dragon’ in act 1.1 for Nature’s sake.

The idea of nature being subordinate to man is also shown in Kent, who spends much of the play disguised as Lear’s servant, Caius, after the King banishes him in 1.1 (there’s a lot of banishment in that scene). Kent swears ‘By Juno’, suggesting that even the lowest servant can command the gods for support. Furthermore, Kent is sitting in the stocks on the floor at this point, perhaps showing that even a man deprived of freedom and power within the world of men can still have influence over the world of the gods.

These ‘gods’ are chaotic in their own right, in that their pantheon is never defined and the gods themselves are not identified; there is a mixture of pagan beliefs in nature and Roman deities such as ‘Jupiter’, presenting a messy belief system in Lear’s Britain. This isn’t helped by the fact that people only mention the gods in times of need and desperation, suggesting that the gods themselves were thrown together haphazardly, or on an impulse.

However, the gods ultimately show themselves to dominate the world of men in the bloodbath of the play’s climax. There are constant references to ‘Fortune’ and its ‘wheel’ throughout the play – in mediating on the actions of Goneril and Regan, Kent calls out ‘Fortune, good night: smile once more: turn thy wheel!’ – perhaps suggesting that Fortune and its cyclicality are the most powerful deistic figures in the world of the play.

The violence at the end of the play supports this idea, as the scene contains the same main characters as 1.1, apart from Edmund, absent in the final scene and Edgar, absent int he opening scene, except almost all of them are dead; those who die are also the most explicitly destructive in the play: Goneril and Regan compete for power and Edmund’s love, and so die; Cornwall removes Gloucester’s eyes, and so dies. The dying Edmund says ‘The wheel has come full circle’, suggesting that the ‘antagonists’ in the play have, basically, got what they deserved.

Although this may offer hope, in that the violent characters will meet violent ends, it also suggests that the destruction of the play will be forever repeated within Britain: the final lines of the play are Edgar’s, saying ‘we that are young shall never see so much, nor live so long’, showing how, under the cyclicality of Fortune, those who have survived these events will die soon afterwards; Kent even says ‘I have a journey, sir, shortly to go’, suggesting that once Lear has died, he will follow his master to the grave.

There is another problem in the ending of the play, in that Britain does not change; although Edgar appears to take the role of ruler, if not monarch, using the royal ‘we’ in conversation, there is still the potential for another chain of destructive events to break out: what if Edgar goes mad and ruins the kingdom? What if his descendants do likewise? What if, in his old age, he tries to abdicate from power, and give it all to two ungrateful daughters, who fall in love with a bastard and remove the eyes of a nobleman, in a sequel with more repetition from the previous instalment than ever game in the FIFA series since 2007?

Fundamentally, Britain seems at the mercy of the gods, and no-one does anything to change this – Albany even looks to defend the monarchy of Lear, by trying to give the old man ‘absolute power’ again, whose madness would have left his country totally vulnerable to the desires of the gods. I’m not asking for proportional representation here, but a bit more awareness about the dangers of putting a madman who thinks he can control the gods, when they are actually playing a cruel joke on him, in total control of  country would have been nice.

Throughout the play, the gods are used as tools in the hands of man, and serve as obvious examples of these individual’s madness, and more subtle examples of the problems with absolute power – it makes one thing one can control the gods. These gods then exert themselves at the end of the play, not striking characters down with a thunderbolt, but in a society in which the wheel of Fortune is feared and appealed to, the fact that the killers and traitors die would suggest that it is these gods who really have the power in Lear’s Britain.

‘Wordsdays’ is a weekly series on the Jamespatrickcasey blog, with a terrible name and an unnecessary message in the footer. Every Wednesday, I will attempt to balance the sophistication and complexity of the ideas of some of the world’s most popular pieces of literature, with the bluntness and daft metaphors of my own writing style, while trying to make it vaguely informative and halfway amusing. No prior knowledge of the texts discussed will be needed to read these posts, although a vague knowledge of the word being discusses won’t exactly hurt.

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