How does the theme of nature develop in Shakespeare's play King Lear?

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iandavidclark3 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Nature and the natural world are important themes in Shakespeare's King Lear, and their importance is especially apparent in Act III, Scene 2. In this scene, Lear and his Fool wander out into the wilderness after being rejected by both of Lear's supposedly loving daughters, and Lear rages against the stormy weather, addressing Nature directly as if it were a living entity: 

Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! rage! blow!
You cataracts and hurricanoes, spout
Till you have drenched our steeples, drowned the cocks!
You sulphurous and thought-executing fires,
Vaunt-couriers to oak-cleaving thunderbolts,
Singe my white head! And thou, all-shaking thunder,
Smite flat the thick rotundity o' the world! (1-7)

From Lear's address, we begin to see nature as a chaotic, disorderly force that lacks rhyme or reason. Indeed, in this scene it seems as if nature directly mirrors the chaos in Lear's own life. As such, the theme of nature in King Lear often presents the natural world as a chaotic, disorderly realm that undermines humanity's conception of an organized and rational universe. As such, through the theme of a chaotic nature, Shakespeare suggests traditional conceptions of meaning and order are not as steady as they once were, and human life is at the mercy of a natural world that has no qualms with squashing the lives of humans at random.

gbeatty eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In Shakespeare’s classic tragedy King Lear, the theme of nature is developed in several different and complex ways.

In the early scenes, though the word “nature” is not used, Cordelia essentially claims that she loves Lear as she should—according to their bond, which is a natural one. Knowing the proper role of nature is mark of Cordelia’s goodness. If you can accurately read the  natural order, that’s a good thing.

When Edmund starts planning his actions against his father and brother, he says, “Thou, nature, art my goddess…” (Act I, Scene 2). Here he is saying he’ll follow nature, rather than law or custom, which serves him because it opposes the social stigma of bastardy (and justifies his actions). This misreading of nature marks him as a bad character.

Later, once Regan and Goneril start mistreating Lear, he finds their actions unnatural.  They are not acting as daughters, or as women in some cases, and that lack of nature defines their actions as evil.

Finally, throughout Lear’s madness and suffering, nature is an active threat in itself. The great storm in Act III, Scene 2 is technically natural…but Lear should not be out in it.