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Representations of Nature in Shakespeare’s King Lear

Sarah Doncaster

The concept of Nature in Shakespeare’s King Lear1 is not simply one of many themes to be uncovered and analysed, but rather it can be considered to be the foundation of the whole play. From Kingship through to personal human relations, from representations of the physical world to notions of the heavenly realm, from the portrayal of human nature to the use of animal imagery; Nature permeates every line of King Lear. However as I intend to argue, Nature in all of these contexts is a social construct, which is utilized in order to legitimise the existing social order. In order to do this it is first necessary to draw a very brief sketch of the political and social beliefs of the Elizabethan and Jacobean ages, whilst outlining my arguments for believing that Nature is a socially constructed concept. In light of these arguments I will then analyse the representations of nature in King Lear to show how the play can be seen as both a portrayal of and a contribution to the social and political beliefs of the time.

It is well documented that both the Elizabethan and Jacobean age were not known for their unity. It was a time of change and upheaval, Elizabeth I never married and therefore left no heir to the throne, leaving her subjects to worry about who would succeed her, and what was to become of them; when James I succeeded her to become the first Stuart King, although he ended the war with Spain in 1604, he could not overcome the deep-seated political and financial problems that dogged the state. Therefore in order to overcome any debate on Kingship regarding legitimacy or efficiency the representation of unity and harmony between the state and Nature was of paramount importance to his continued reign. ‘Kings are justly called Gods for that they exercise a manner or resemblance of Divine power on the earth.’1 This quotation is from a speech by James I to his parliament and it illustrates a belief in the Divine right of Kings. By connecting the notion of the Divine to Kings, James I is legitimising his power through naturalisation, the very fact that James I felt it necessary to reiterate this concept in parliament suggests that it was a social construct, not a natural fact, designed to legitimise and protect the interests of the monarchy. The concept of ‘the Great Chain of Being’ follows on from the notion of the Divine Right of Kings and again legitimises the actions of those holding power. For if by ‘nature’ everyone and everything has its place, and knows its duties and obligations to that place, then the status quo is maintained and those that hold the power cannot be questioned.

Shakespeare belonged to a world where notions of man, his nature and his place in the universe were an amalgamation of both Christian and pagan philosophies. According to Reese, ‘it provided a cosmological system which, though complicated, inconsistent and even uncertain in its details, was definite in outline and purpose, and its core was the assurance of the unity and intimate correspondence of the whole of God’s creation.’3

Belief in the correspondence and unity of the physical world to the heavenly allowed man to believe in God’s grand plan where everything had its place, and nothing was without a purpose. The fundamental principle of this universe was order, with God at the head of his hierarchy in the heavenly realm, and man, who was created in God’s image, at the head of the physical world, with Kings at the head of the state. This belief in the social order stemming from the natural order is an important concept to grasp when examining the idea of nature being utilized to maintain the status quo. Closely associated with the belief in an ordered universe was the concept of nature as a benign force in the universe. Nature in this sense was a principle of order linking all spheres of existence in their proper relationships. Reese suggests that ‘the endlessly recurring correspondence between microcosm and macrocosm, was the most significant of the symbols which proclaimed the order and unity of the world, for it proclaimed at the same time the special place which man occupied in the universal scheme’.4 It can be argued that the importance of the correspondence between microcosm and macrocosm was a social construct called forth to legitimise man’s power over other men, and it is in this light I will examine the representations of nature.

If we accept the proposal that the Renaissance 5 concept of nature was socially constructed, then we can understand the necessity of representing disorder breeding disorder, because it reinforces the need to conform. It was thought that unity was easily displaced because disorder in any part of the universe causes disorder in its corresponding part. This concept can be seen in Troilus and Cressida where Ulysses predicts that once ‘The specialty of rule hath been neglected’ disaster will follow, for ‘Take but degree away, untune that string, / And hark what discord follows.’ 6 By removing a ‘degree’ or not acting according to the ‘natural’ social order, disorder and disharmony in the whole of the universe are inevitable. This interdependence of man and nature is a theme, which is explored in Lear; men are never represented in isolation, but always in relation to the divine hierarchy, the physical world and the world of animals.

Once the concept of correspondence between man’s nature and the natural world is understood in terms of legitimising the social order, it becomes easier to contextualise the actions of Lear with the almost constant references to nature. The tragedy of King Lear stems from Lear’s attempt to subvert the ‘natural’ social order by relinquishing his crown to his daughters. Lear proclaims in the first scene his intention to divide his kingdom and ‘To shake all cares and business from our age,’ in order to ‘Unburdened crawl towards death’ to ensure ‘that future strife / May be prevented now’.8 However this statement is highly ironic in light of the ensuing catastrophic events which follow. Once disorder is initiated by Lear’s revocation of his powers and rights as King, disaster in corresponding hierarchies follow. Lear’s relinquishment of his power is in direct opposition to the concept of the Divine Right of Kings. According to the laws of nature (which as I have proposed were socially constructed) it was impossible for Lear to stop being a king, because that was his rightful position by divine ordination and in fact throughout the play he is still referred to as the King, even though he has divided his crown. Also Lear is unable to stop seeing himself as the King, which can be seen from his banishment of Kent, soon after he has relinquished his powers:
Hear me, recreant, on thine allegiance, hear me:
That thou hast sought to make us break our vows,
Which we durst never yet, and with strained pride
To come betwixt our sentence and our power,
Which nor our nature, nor our place can bear,
Our potency made good take thy reward.[8]
In this speech Lear not only uses the power of the King which he no longer holds to banish Kent, but he also, unknown to himself, explains why he cannot or should not divide his kingdom, for it goes against both his ‘nature’ and his ‘place’ to divide his ‘power’ from his ‘sentence,’ which is exactly what he does, thereby attempting to deny his nature and position.

Aside from the natural position of Kings the natural social order can also be seen in terms of power relations between characters: King over subjects, fathers over daughters, husbands over wives. This naturalisation can be seen as being represented by the character of Lear. He possesses his daughters, because according to the Great Chain of Being he presides over them, therefore it is only ‘natural’ that they should proclaim their love for him. Cordelia’s refusal to do so, is therefore shocking to Lear and he calls her ‘a wretch whom nature is ashamed / Almost t’acknowledge hers.’9

As we know Cordelia is more ‘natural’ or true in her behaviour than her sisters Regan and Goneril, and she demonstrates that she fully understands the social order when she explains she loves her father according to her ‘bond’ and questions why her sisters have the need for husbands if they love their father all. This is an important concept in a society where women are considered to be the property of men until they get married and then they become the property of their husbands. Although Cordelia could be said to be disobedient by not fulfilling her father’s wishes, and this in itself could be taken as a subversion of the social order, I feel that her loyal and loving behaviour towards her father, despite being banished from both his kingdom and his love, is in itself affirmation of the social order. It is Lear’s actions that bring about the tragedy, not Cordelia’s and this is important to bear in mind when evaluating the importance of Cordelia’s disobedience.

When Lear disowns Cordelia he invokes both the heavenly realm and the natural world when he swears ‘by the sacred radiance of the sun, / The mysteries of Hecate and the night, / By all the operation of the orbs / From whom we do exist and cease to be,’ in order to ‘disclaim all [his] paternal care, / Propinquity and property of blood.’ 10 In doing so he is naturalising his actions towards Cordelia, and thereby legitimising the power he holds over her. Lear’s power and its intimate connection with nature is shown at its height when he discovers the treachery of Regan and Goneril and as he releases his anger at them, whilst refusing to weep, the stage directions tell of a ‘storm and tempest’11 which can be interpreted as the heavens responding to Lear’s rage. Both this and the centrality of the storm within the play helps us to comprehend the correspondence between Lear and Nature, and therefore reinforcing the necessity to maintain the status quo.

To examine the portrayal of human nature and its relation to Nature, I intend to look to the subplot contained within King Lear. Gloucester, as we learn from the beginning of the play has two sons, Edgar who is legitimate and Edmund who is illegitimate. Edmund’s illegitimacy and his actions that stem from it highlight the distinction between nature and the ’natural’ social order. Both of Gloucester’s sons are his by nature, as can be seen from his admission that Edmund’s ‘breeding, sir, hath been at my charge’ 12 but he goes on to acknowledge that the distinction between Edgar and Edmund is one enforced by society, for Edgar is his son ‘by order of law...who is yet no dearer in [his] account.’ 13 The distinction between nature and what society deems as natural is underlined by Edmund’s rejection of the ‘natural’ ties of children to their fathers in favour of the laws of nature, as we can see when he declares, ‘Thou, Nature, art my goddess; to thy law /My services are bound.’ 14 In fact the Nature to which Edmund is appealing is the animal law, where appetite is the driving force behind all action. Edmund’s behaviour throughout the play comes from his urge to satisfy his appetite for his brother’s legitimacy and thereby gain his property and status. Edmund manages to persuade Gloucester that Edgar is plotting against him, whilst favouring himself, and Edmund is also instrumental in the blinding of Gloucester, when Edmund betrays Gloucester to Cornwall as a traitor. He gets his reward when Cornwall states to him, ‘it hath made thee Earl of Gloucester.’ 15 These actions seem to clearly support a new order based on animal nature, because Edmund is so successful in bringing about the changes he wanted. However as the play begins to reach its conclusion, there is a duel between Edgar and Edmund in which Edmund is wounded and killed by Edgar, thereby restoring the natural social order, and proving that legitimacy is always superior to illegitimacy, no matter how clever it is. The division between the natural social order and animal nature can also be seen when Lear realises that both Regan and Goneril do not love as they professed to. Lear exclaims, ‘Allow not nature more than nature needs, / Man’s life is cheap as beast’s,’ 16 meaning that if human nature is not allowed more than is needed by animal nature then human life is worth the same as an animals life. This serves to highlight the distinction between human nature and animal nature, suggesting that they are not harmonious and united.

The animal imagery in King Lear is always used in derogatory terms to indicate the unnaturalness of a character‘s behaviour in comparison to how they should behave if they observed the natural social order. This contradiction again underlines the distinction between Nature and the ‘natural social order’ and perhaps can be seen best when examining the characters of Regan and Goneril and the reaction of other characters towards them. At the beginning of the play Goneril and Regan comply with their Father’s request for them to declare how much they love him. However once they have received from their father his power and his lands, their attitude and behaviour towards him swiftly changes. Goneril almost immediately finds fault with the behaviour of Lear and his knights, and when she confronts Lear, he berates her and calls her a ‘detested kite’17 on whom Regan would show her nails to her ’wolvish visage.’ 18 When Lear speaks to Regan about Goneril’s attitude, he describes it in terms of animal behaviour, ‘Thy sister’s naught. O, Regan, she hath tied / Sharp -toothed unkindness, like a vulture, here.’ 19 Lord Albany also speaks of the two sisters in comparison to animals; he calls them, ‘Tigers, not daughters,’ 20 and names Goneril a ‘gilded serpent.’ 21 All of these images, tigers, vultures, kites, are of animals who eat other animals, satisfying their hunger at the expense of others. This comparison of Goneril and Regan to animals is similar to Edmund’s allegiance with animal nature, and these three characters embody Albany’s sentiment that ‘Humanity must perforce prey on itself, / Like monsters of the deep.’ 22 Animal appetite is the downfall of both Regan and Goneril, just like Edmund; they both lust after Edmund and as he notes, ’To both these sisters have I sworn my love, / Each jealous of the other as the stung are of the adder.’ 23 This suspicion leads to their deaths, as Goneril poisons Regan and kills herself with a knife. Thus animal nature is defeated and the social order restored.

However the ‘natural’ social order is not restored to what it was at the beginning of the play. Lear is dead, Cordelia is dead, Gloucester is dead, as we have seen Edmund, Goneril and Regan are dead and so is Cornwall; Kent is soon to die for he says, ’I have a journey, sir, shortly to go; / My master calls me, I must not say no.’ 24The only two characters remaining at the end of the play are Edgar and Albany. This emphasises the disasters that follow disobedience, for all those who died have disobeyed the ’natural’ social order, whereas both Edgar and Albany acted in accordance with it.

In conclusion, I have attempted to show that the representation of Nature in King Lear is more than simply one theme amongst many. I have shown that not only is it an intricate part of the play but also inherent in contemporary society. King Lear reflects the social and political beliefs at the time whilst also reinforcing them. This can be seen from James I recommendation to his heir:

And in case it please God to prouide you to all these three Kingdomes, make your eldest son Isaac, leauing him all your kindomes; and prouide the rest with priuate possessions: Otherwayes by deuiding your kingdomes, yee shall leaue the seed of diuision and discord among your posteritie; as befell to this Ile, by the diuision and assignement thereof, to the three sonnes of Brutus, Locrine, Albanact, and Camber.25

Lear’s behaviour as we have seen is completely opposite to James’ recommendation, and James’ prediction of discord and division is proved to be correct.

How to cite this article:

Doncaster, Sarah. Representations of Nature in King Lear. Shakespeare Online. 20 Aug. 2000. (date when you accessed the information) < >.


[1] All further quotes from Lear are taken from this edition.
[2] Foakes, R. A. (ed) King Lear. The Arden Shakespeare. The Arden Shakespeare: third edition (1997, 2000) p14 introductory notes.
[3] Reese, M. M. Shakespeare his world and his work. London 1953, 1958. p458
[4] Reese p 460
[5] I am fully aware of the assumptions and problems, which arise from the use of this word, however I merely mean to imply the time frame, which I outlined earlier in the essay
[6] Shakespeare, W. Troilus and Cressida. Ed. Kenneth Palmer. The Arden Shakespeare. 1982. (1.3.78-110)
[7] King Lear (1.1.38-44)
[8] 1.1.169-173
[9] 1.1.213-214
[10] 1.1.110-115
[11] 2.2.472
[12] 1.1.8
[13] 1.1.18-19
[14] 1.2.1-2
[15] 3.5.17-18
[16] 2.2.455-456
[17] 1.4.254
[18] 1.4.299-300
[19] 2.2.323-324
[20] 4.2.41
[21] 5.3.84
[22] 4.2.50-51
[23] 5.1.57-59
[24] 5.3.320-321
[25] Foakes, R. A. (ed) King Lear. The Arden Shakespeare. The Arden Shakespeare: third edition (1997, 2000) p15 introductory notes. ____

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