Is Lear's suffering a divine punishment for breaking the "Great Chain of Being"?

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

In King Lear, the Great Chain of Being can be translated from the Latin "scala naturae," literally, "natural ladder."  It is the concept of God's strict and natural hierarchical structure of the universe.  I suppose it was constructed out of convenience by the religious and political powers that be to justify their existence and victimize the lower classes.  Regardless, it is a kind of regulation against overthrow and heresy.

  1. God
  2. Angels
  3. Kings
  4. Queens
  5. Archbishops
  6. Dukes
  7. Duchesses
  8. Bishops
  9. Marquises
  10. Deacons
  11. Knights
  12. Local Officials
  13. Ladies-in-Waiting
  14. Priests
  15. Monks
  16. Squires
  17. Pages
  18. Messengers
  19. Merchants
  20. Shopkeepers
  21. Tradesmen
  22. Yeomen
  23. Farmers
  24. Soldiers
  25. Household Servants
  26. Tenant Farmers
  27. Shepherds
  28. Herders
  29. Beggars
  30. Actors
  31. Thieves
  32. Pirates
  33. Gypsies
  34. Animals
  35. Birds
  36. Worms
  37. Plants
  38. Rocks

Below this, I believe, would be demons, witches, the devil and such.  In other words, this regimentation seeks polarity between good and evil, the haves and have-nots, the strong and the weak, man and animal, and men and women.

The problem that Lear faces is that he has no male heir.  His three daughters are essentiallly all the same, and so he decides to divide his land democratically between them.  This is a kind of violation of the Great Chain, but not a major one.  This is the way a father might divide the dowries of his daughters.

I don't think that there is divine intervention at play here.  Rather, Cordelia is unwed (problem #1), and she is strangely silent regarding her love for Lear (problem #2).  Taken together, Lear punishes her for stubbornness on both accounts.  He moves her way down the ladder, to the status of "bastard," like Edmund.  So, Lear thinks he is upholding the Great Chain of Being.  Ironically, however, Lear violates the Great Chain of Being, because Cordelia is the one who loves him most.

This break in the natural order, Cordelia being disenfranchised, causes Lear's world to topple.  According to Enotes:

Harry Levin, in the Introduction to The Riverside Shakespeare describes this divine order.

This idea has been reviewed elsewhere in the text, but it bears repeating in the light of Kent’s comment as he sees Lear enter with the dead Cordelia in his arms. “Is this the promis’d end?” Kent asks, and Edgar adds “Or image of that horror?” John Holloway notes that “the king’s end is like the end of the world: not the Day of Judgement, but the universal cataclysm which was to precede it” (John Holloway, “King Lear,” 1961). For the Elizabethans then, any breakdown in the natural universal order could be a potential for a collapse into world chaos. Their belief that the end of the world was imminent was an integral part of their fears. Though set in pre-Christian Britain, this is, nevertheless, the world of King Lear, beginning with Lear’s unnatural division of the kingdom and ending with Edgar’s almost impossible task of restoring some semblance of order to the “gor’d state.”


See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access
Approved by eNotes Editorial