Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

A reader's group devoted to the discussion of meaningful books.

Friday, May 29, 2015

SHAKESPEARE: King Lear (Act III Man and Nature & the Nature of Man)

In Genesis (GB Series 1) we read about the origin of Man and how “the Lord God sent him forth from the garden of Eden...”  Our ancestors were exiled from the secluded paradise of Eden and sent forth into the wide open world.  What did they find?  Living in a state of Nature was not the paradise envisioned by some philosophers.  There was still much beauty and wonder in the world but it was often cold, harsh and unforgiving.  So when the curtain of history rises we find people already living in cities and enjoying sophisticated urban lifestyles.  Which is better: living in Society or living in Nature?

There has been much debate concerning The Good Life in Society versus The Good Life in Nature.  King Lear (the play) gives us the worst of both worlds.  Shakespeare shows what The Bad Life looks like in both Society and Nature.  King Lear (the man) suddenly finds himself without shelter, either physically or emotionally.  He’s been shut out of his own castle by his daughters during the worst storm in memory.  At first he challenges Nature herself and yells: “Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks!  Rage!  Blow!  You cataracts and hurricanoes, spout till you have drench’d our steeples…”  It’s foolish to tell the wind to blow or not to blow.  Every fool knows that and The Fool observes to Lear: “Here’s a night pities neither wise men nor fools.”  Nature plays no favorites, isn’t fair, and rains on both good and bad men alike.  The Fool knows wisdom doesn’t help much during a storm.  Neither does money or political power or titles or fancy clothes.  What a man needs most during a storm is a place to get in out of the rain.  In those circumstances the worst hut is more valuable than the best book of philosophy.  King Lear says “The art of our necessities is strange, and can make vile things precious.”  Does Lear not know this already?  No, he’s a king and has been used to living like a king.  The lesson is a harsh one but Lear gets the point.  He reflects on the truly poor, those who have nothing: “Poor naked wretches, wheresoe’er you are, that bide the pelting of this pitiless storm, how shall your houseless heads and unfed sides, your loop’d and window’d raggedness, defend you from seasons such as these?”  And the main lesson a king takes away from this experience makes Lear ashamed: “O, I have ta’en too little care of this!  Take physic, pomp; expose thyself to feel what wretches feel.”  Now Lear knows firsthand what poverty can do to a man.  The laws of Nature are sometimes cold, harsh and unforgiving. 

But so are the laws of Society.  Gloucester doesn’t have to face the power of storms to learn the laws of Nature.  He has to face something much worse: greedy, corrupt and powerful men and women.  His own son Edmund betrays him.  Gloucester had long been a loyal and faithful subject to King Lear.  Two days later it’s treason for helping the same king.  Once Edmund lets them know Gloucester has remained loyal to Lear, Cornwall says “seek out the traitor Gloucester.”  Regan says, “Hang him instantly.”  Goneril says, “Pluck out his eyes.”  What they have in mind for Gloucester is too gruesome for Edmund to see because the force of personal vengeance is worse than the impersonal force of nature.  Cornwall and Regan can take vengeance on Gloucester any way they see fit because they have the power to do whatever they want.  They don’t have to follow any laws.  They are the law.  Hobbes says the state of Nature has "No arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death..."   Maybe it’s true but that’s Nature at her worst.  Is Society any better?  King Lear shows us Nature is often cruel but never intentionally; the Nature of Man is often cruel intentionally.  


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