Welcome Brawlers, to a special episode of the Bard Brawl!
I promised you a post on the weather, astrology and nature in King Lear. However, we’ve done one better: Daniel and I got together yesterday for a short discussion of the play – and yes, we did talk about the weather.
There are a lot of different themes in Lear, a bunch of which we list and touch upon in this episode. However, King Lear is really a play about “Nature”.
Notice the scare quotes and the capital ‘N’? Yeah, there’s a good reason for that.
When we think of nature, we tend to think of birds, trees, hiking, national parks, Bear Grylls, whatever. And yes, nature could mean that to Shakespeare and his contemporaries, too. However, Shakespeare is much more interested in Nature, as in human nature.
The idea of Nature, what is it, and whether it is in fact good or bad, is very much up for grabs in this play. One of the (many) reasons Lear is still so popular is that even in the present, we haven’t managed to agree on the character of “Human Nature”. Is there even such a thing?
While this is grossly oversimplifying things, there tends to to be two models of Nature in the play.
On the one hand, we have the model which Lear and Gloucester subscribe to. In their view, daughters and sons are ‘by nature’ inclined to love their parents. That natural bond is supposed to ensure that children and parents get along and that children will take care of their parents when they are no longer able to care for themselves.
Also, Gloucester is very much interested in astrology and celestial events which he sees as portents of things to come in the realm of human affairs. It is entirely natural to him to see a comet streak across the sky and to associate that with some impending disaster in society. Why? because it suggests that some part of this well-oiled system is out of balance. When everything is working naturally, the natural world is sympathetic to and connected with humanity – and has humanity’s best interests at heart.
Another way of saying this is that Nature programs these behaviours into us in order to prevent society from crumbling into chaos. As a result, Lear and Gloucester place a tremendous amount of trust in this system.
What does Lear call Goneril and Regan after he is refused admittance with his knights: “You unnatural hags!” That is, their behaviour runs contrary to the natural model of the parent-child relationship.
And then there’s Edmond.
Clearly, he’s got no interest in his daily horoscope.
And why would he? According to his father’s model of the universe, he’s supposed to be the reject, the one left out, somehow less important or valued because of a simple accident of birth.
In his first speech, Edmond days; “Thou, nature, art my goddess; to thy law / My services are bound.” Clearly, he’s not talking about the same ‘Nature’ which Lear and Gloucester are referring to. His understanding of nature is the complete opposite of Lear and Gloucester’s.
Yet it is perhaps much closer to what we might think of when we consider human nature.
Lear and Gloucester live in a world where Nature runs everything, where your successes and failures are the result of the world working for or against you. However, Edmund sees human nature as self-directed and he’s pretty straight-forward with us: You think I’m ruthless and conniving because I was born out of wedlock?
father compounded with my mother under the
dragon’s tail; and my nativity was under Ursa
major; so that it follows, I am rough and
lecherous. Tut, I should have been that I am,
had the maidenliest star in the firmament
twinkled on my bastardizing.
Edmond admits that he chose to act this way. He wasn’t born this way, and the planets had nothing to do with it.
Can’t get enough of the Lear? Check out Melvyn Bragg’s In Our Time podcast on the fated king.
Enjoy your holidays and we’ll be here again next week for act IV of King Lear.
Bonus sonnet 22 read by Hannah Dorozio.
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