What is the role of nature in Shakespeare's King Lear? Can someone provide any textual evidence, please? Nature metaphors (weather mirroring the state of mind etc) are quite straightforward to...

What is the role of nature in Shakespeare's King Lear? Can someone provide any textual evidence, please?

Nature metaphors (weather mirroring the state of mind etc) are quite straightforward to deduct from the play. Next to that you also have the nature of the characters (as in good and evil) and whether they act naturally or unnaturally (in accordance to nature, eg. Cordelia or not, eg. Lear, Edmund etc). Also, characters such as Lear and Gloucester in a way leave everything up to/rely on this higher natural power (the stars etc.), in order to justify their actions.

So, what might be an explanation which elaborates on the less straightforward function of nature in the play?

Asked on by lolaleon

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kipling2448 | (Level 3) Educator Emeritus

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Nature plays a prominent role in William Shakespeare’s King Lear, both metaphorically and as a plot element propelling action.  The metaphorical use of nature is strongly implied throughout King Lear, a somewhat grim story in which an aging monarch’s own daughters plot against him.  It is against the backdrop of this palace intrigue that Shakespeare’s use of metaphors – in this case, comparing the growing sectarian conflict with the raging of the storm occurring both outside the castle walls and inside the king’s mind.  In the opening of Act III, Scene II, Lear is conversing with the Fool (or court jester), who enjoys the rare privilege of speaking candidly, if comically, to the highest authority in the land, a privilege accorded no other human being.  As Lear rages against the machinations of his daughters, his language is replete with references to raging storms:

“Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! rage! blow!
You cataracts and hurricanoes, spout
Till you have drench'd our steeples, drown'd 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!
Crack nature's moulds, an germens spill at once,
That make ingrateful man!”

. . .

“Rumble thy bellyful! Spit, fire! spout, rain!
Nor rain, wind, thunder, fire, are my daughters:
I tax not you, you elements, with unkindness;
I never gave you kingdom, call'd you children,
You owe me no subscription: then let fall
Your horrible pleasure: here I stand, your slave,
A poor, infirm, weak, and despised old man: . . .”

This is a lengthy quote from Scene II, but it captures Shakespeare’s use of nature as a metaphor for the emotional turbulence within the kingdom.  These metaphorical references to the weather occur throughout the play, and gain in momentum in direct correlation to the story’s approaching climax, in which the king angrily departs the castle and wanders into a raging thunderstorm – a powerful metaphor for the raging storm from which he seeks to escape.

Lear is not alone in referencing nature as a metaphor for human emotions.  Favorite, but spurned daughter Cordelia similarly, in Scene IV, laments the chain of events that has transpired and seeks a proper resolution to the divisions within her family.  Addressing the court physician and soldiers, Cordelia states:

“Alack, 'tis he: why, he was met even now
As mad as the vex'd sea; singing aloud;
Crown'd with rank fumiter and furrow-weeds,
With bur-docks, hemlock, nettles, cuckoo-flowers,
Darnel, and all the idle weeds that grow
In our sustaining corn. A century send forth;
Search every acre in the high-grown field,
And bring him to our eye.”

Shakespeare’s use of nature in King Lear is as prominent as can possibly be.  Since the ancient Greeks and tales of the god Poseidon, weather has been used to convey emotions.  Storms are a perfect metaphor for human emotions run amok, and Shakespeare utilized them to the fullest extent.

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lolaleon | Student, Undergraduate | (Level 1) Valedictorian

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Thank you for your answer, although it is quite one dimensional. Isn't the concept of nature quite ambiguous in King Lear?

Nature metaphors (weather mirroring the state of mind etc) are quite straightforward to deduct from the play. Next to that you also have the nature of the characters (as in good and evil) and whether they act naturally or unnaturally (in accordance to nature, eg. Cordelia or not, eg. Lear, Edmund etc). Also, character's such as Lear and Gloucester in a way leave everything up to/rely on this higher natural power (the stars etc.), in order to justify their actions. I was looking for an explanation which elaborates on the less straightforward function of nature in the play.

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mwestwood | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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In the Elizabethan Age, the idea of world order is essential. This Chain of Being is essential to the structure of Shakespeare's dramas, the psychology of his personages, the "imagery that informs their speeches, and the fates they must confront." When this Chain of Being is disrupted, chaos occurs. In Act I Edmund speaks of his half-brother in a speech of much foreboding,

...his is the excellent foppery of the world,
that, when we are sick in fortune—often the surfeit
of our own behavior,—we make guilty of our disasters
the sun, the moon, and the stars: as if we were villains
by necessity; fools by heavenly compulsion; knaves,
thieves, and treachers, by spherical predominance; (1.2.114-119)

In Act III, this interconnection through the Chain of Being of disruption of the order of Lear's family and the "foul weather" is illustrated as ridicule of "the little world of man," but, at the same time, it reflects the human world, mirroring  the "division" in the kingdom. Thus, when Lear's kingdom becomes disturbed with the machinations of Edmund and the excesses of the other characters, who love or hate too much, so, too does the cosmos reflect this excess. Both Lear's and Edgar's loves are catastrophes, hence the storms of nature. For instance, in Act II, Lear rages against his two daughters,

I will have such revenges on you both
That all the world shall—I will do such things—
What they are yet I know not, but they shall be
The terrors of the earth. You think I’ll weep?
No, I’ll not weep. (2.4.276-280)
Storm and tempest [stage directions]
While the tempest represents the disruption of Lear's family, so, too, does the weather reflect the unnatural relationship of Gloucester's two sons. With Edgar as the "order of law" son, he relates to the natural order; however, the illegitimate son Edmund contributes a chaotic principle to the natural order. Thus, in his lust, Gloucester digresses from the natural order and has a son born who greatly disrupts the natural order with his murderous plots and acts of a villain. 
 
For instance, in Act III, Scene 3, Gloucester reveals to Edmund the "[M]ost savage and unnatural" treatment of Lear by Cornwall and Regan. He confides in Edmund, but Edmund quickly betrays him. As he contemplates his treachery, Edmund says, "The younger rises when the old doth fall" as the tempest yet rages, for the son disrupts the natural order of being.
 
In King Lear, with the disruption of the natural order of parent and children, King and heirs, storms of emotions and villainy are reflected by the storms of nature put out of order because of the disruption of the Chain of Being.
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