Nature and Culture in Shakespeare's King Lear

A philosophical analysis of Shakespeare's King Lear.
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Shakespeare's King Lear is a great work with many dramatical, social and philosophical dimensions. Its breadth of emotion is even wider than its great diversity of characters, and a good range of milieu, social and natural, further exploits curious interest. Equally, there arise metaphysical, political and social questions (which is natural in a drama of so great multiplicity is so steeped in conflict) through action, deeds and words. The universality of the questions and the general variety of the play opens the philosophical viewpoint of the play to many aspects.


I have chosen to philosophically view the play through the distinction Nature - Culture. We will find that viewing King Lear from this aspect gives a presentation of all important, big 'points' in King Lear - be it though from a selective point of view, i.e. from a specific aspect, and reveal the actuality and potency of King Lear, then and now. This is quite a surprise. Originally, I thought the title was far, far too narrow.


I'm probably interpreting Shakespeare too radically, but hey... who cares what he meant?


Nature - Culture

Clearly, King Lear bears a consequent distinction between nature and culture, a distinction with a purpose. I have chosen certain expressions in the play of great philosophical, political and social relevance and of great relevance to our essay title.


- What will determines us?

We have the corresponding distinction between what is and what is added. Lear is the symbol or representative of the self-righteous culture that ignores truth or Nature.



So young and so untender?



So young, my lord, and true




Out of my sight!



See better, Lear, and let me still remain

The true blank of thine eye.




Do, kill thy physician, and thy fee bestow

Upon the foul desease.



In the nature of things (what is), that is: in our first experience, before the reflection, we see clearly that we (I) create the future. No matter what causes leads to my choices (we must accept some element of causal determinism), I do have a choice, it is I who create the future, and other Is like me. King Lear presents this so clearly as if to make a point: every tragic happening is the result of a choice (The expelling of Cordelia, the blinding of Gloucester, framing Edgar, et cetera).


And yet, the characters keep appealing and referring to other causes, especially "the gods". It is perhaps only Edmund that understands there is a willed culture involved that we are sustaining (under its influence).


World, world, O world!

But that thy strange mutations make us hate thee,

Life would not yield to age.



As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods,

They kill us for their sport.



It is the stars,

The stars above us govern our conditions



Think that the clearest gods, who make them honours

Of men's impossibilities, have preserved thee.



These are just some samples from the fourth act.


Culture, the spirit of the people, what is added, contradicts the actual situation, the true nature of things, the first experience, what is. The view of things that reflection has created has added things that were not there earlier, and are therefore not true. The result: People do not realize their responsibility nor their choice at all. And if people do not recognize neither responsibility nor choice, how fares the implementation of morality?


So we get a distinction between truth and the normal apprehension of the majority - which is a good, radical critical attitude that we all still need (living in society and all that...), and a critique of the more clearly and politically despotic nature of common apprehension ("more clearly and politically" because I mean common apprehension is still quite despotic). We even get to see the result of Culture's corruption of Nature!


Added to this, King Lear examples that it is in fact Culture that determines us. But this will become clear through the essay.


- The Nature of Love

We have the distinction between "true love" and the way love is valued by (Lear's) culture. Lear sees love as a clear expression that may be measured and subjected to punishment or reward. Shakespeare makes it clear that this love is not, as we understand from the elaborate "love" lines, honest or true, and that love as we vaguely understand it must be something else, deeper.


Which of you shall we say doth love us most,

That we our largest bounty may extend

Where nature doth merit challenge.



What can you say to draw

A third more opulent than your sisters?



How, nothing will come of nothing [thinking quantity]. Speak again.



Thy youngest daughter does not love thee least,

Nor are those empty-hearted, whose low sounds

Reverb no hollowness.



So Shakespeare presents a surprising alternative. Rather than resorting to the classical "love is something deep inside you that cannot be measured or understood in words, Shakespeare makes love as understood in words as he can, consistent with a distinction between nature and culture: According to Shakespeare's alternative, expressed through one of the good guys (well, actually, good girl), love is a duty.


Unhappy that I am, I cannot heave

My hearth into my mouth. I love your majesty

According to my bond, no more nor less.



Good my lord,

You have begot me, bred me, loved me. I

Return those duties back as are right fit,

Obey you, love you and most honour you.



Opposing all romanticising of love, showing us how it makes love words without meaning and no more, and opposing a more mystical approach, tempting us to denote that also as romanticising without solid ground, Shakespeare gives us a love with a solid backbone in morals and society, a love that has some defendable meaning and purpose. Shakespeare's conception of love, implicit in the play, is as a kind of devotion, and therefore, for Shakespeare, true love means devotion in action and according to moral and civil duty, not opportunistic love in words. This is his Nature of Love, as opposed to the Culture of Love.


- The Nature of Society and Government (and who's best to preserve it)

But we also have a far more practical political nature - culture distinction. That is the radical - conservative distinction.


With King Lear ruling, everything is in order and under control - tradition and continuity keeps society stable and virtuous. But when Goneril and Regan, the young, the opportunistic, the selfish, the radical, those who break with tradition and customary ideals, come to power, hell breaks loose. The play makes a royalist distinction between the old and established and the new and destructive, making it clear that virtue and stability goes with tradition, and rebellion is evil. Tradition is the 'nature' of things, Christianity is the nature of things, royalty and men is the nature of things - women are evil, irreligion is evil.


However, if we look deeper, we see that King Lear might not be so reactionary after all. Act 4, Scene 1, lines 9-53. Cast out blind by the evil sisters, Gloucester is led by an old servant. The old man is putting himself in danger because Gloucester needs his help. The evil aristocratic sisters have caused him the damage that creates this need. So we see that the true champions of traditional ideals are the poor and powerless, embodied in the old man, the only independent uninfluential character (the others are not independent characters in the same way, especially the knights, but more like props; they are there to serve the need of the main characters) in the play. So we have the more radical distinction between aristocratic vice and proletarian virtue (Christian still, of course - the "noble" poverty).


This is politically relevant. When showed these different characters and what they represent, we are compelled to ask the following question: Who is more fit to rule - the old king, symbol and part of the established and tradition, but in decline; the selfish sisters who break with all traditional ideals, who dissolve all ideals, actually; or the ones who truly understand what these ideals of tradition - the only public conception of morals, so therefore we may be practically speaking of morals itself (at least from an early 17th century point of view) - the ones who act accordingly, the oppressed classes? So the play is still conservative in values - the conservative Christian conception of morals being the only one imaginable by the majority (now as before) - but politically it becomes democratic and socialist. However, King Lear climbs down from this radical peak and turns back to a royalist conception in giving us the fourth alternative: Cordelia, an aristocrat who knows her values as well as the proletariat, a morally proletarian aristocrat, if you will. So the play ends up as an appeal to better leadership - with the revolutionary warning tag (the worker state) that if the powerful does not act with virtue, it may be necessary for the ones who are virtuous to take their power.


So in the end, our distinction is expressed this way: The Nature of Government is virtuous, Christian implementation of power. This is the 'correct' culture. This is absolute, but whether or not this is made possible and actually executed, depends on the ('relative') culture of society - perhaps a democratic worker state would be better, perhaps we need some democratic safety institutions against power abuse.


- The oppressive, unreasonable established culture

We have another case in which Culture makes something out of Nature (I'm sticking with my conception of Nature as what is, Culture as what we make out of it or add to it). I am talking about Culture's reception of Edmund's nature.


Heavens deal so still!

Let the superfluous and lust-dieted man

That slaves your ordinance, that will not see

Because he does not feel, feel your power quickly:

So distribution should undo excess

And each man have enough[1].



Culturally, there is something 'indecent', 'wrong', or 'shameful' in Edmund's situation. Naturally, this has no sanction - how could it? So we clearly understand this conception or judgement is man-made, it is pure culture, it is no natural law. Considering how far philosophy has developed, today, this is little argument to disprove the moral validity of a judgement (if you will). In Shakespeare's day, however, natural (a parallel to divine) sanction was the sanction, in Philosophy and in common culture (the ordinary guy still asks for the 'meaning of life', presuming a natural purpose as the only normative validity). Shakespeare questions the validity of Culture in assuming certain moral implications from cold, hard natural facts that cannot support them:


Thou Nature, art my goddess; to thy law

My services are bound. Wherefore should I

Stand in the plague of custom, and permit

The curiosity of nations to deprive me?

For that I am some twelve or fourteen moonshines

Lag of a brother? Why bastard? Wherefore base?

When my dimensions are as well compact,

My mind as generous and my shape as true

As honest madam's tissue? Why brand they us

With base? With baseness, bastardry?



In this case, Culture does not follow from nature (the judgement is not implicit in the judged). So it has no right, and what of it - it is totally unreasonable and oppressive, sanctioned only by "custom" and "the curiosity of nations". And what of that? Destruction. Edmund is driven by energy oppressed and released in a destructive form (a typical Ibsen theme). Oppression always leads to destruction. Edmund's egocentric destruction is his counter-oppression:


Well then,

Legitimate Edgar, I must have your land.



- Nature - Culture as method

These are all separate cases of putting a critical attitude to work, or of putting a mirror in front of society so that it may see itself, its culture (with all the uncertainty that implies), its contradictions, its emptiness, and its unreasonableness. The Nature - culture distinction is a method for looking in the mirror. We have to realize that our common apprehension, our truth, is nothing but an addition of reflection to original material of thought, and from that original material we may analyse it from its roots, through its whole phenomenology, or we may compare it to the reality or nature of things, and find it to be reasonable or not. Either way, we may understand ourselves better and get rid of all the shit.


- A play of opposites and the power of Culture

Finally, King Lear as a whole makes a fundamental point pertaining to Nature - culture (the hearth of the play). King Lear is, looked at as a whole, a play consisting of parallels, poles, or contradictions or oppositions. Yet, it is very undialectical (typical of the intellectual environment of the time), for these poles never effect each other; they are more like opposite aspects or points of view of the same society that they are all part of. The characters of the play ranges from King to beggar, egoist and altruist, good and evil, blinded and sighted, sane and mad; and this wide view or scope of society in all its forms is made more clear, obvious and dialectical (in a different way) when many of the main characters go through a reform of their aspect (=position) and find themselves their earlier selves' opposites: Gloucester goes from noble to poor, sighted to blind; Lear goes from King to subject or even fugitive, from powerful to powerless, at the centre and hearth of the nation to insignificant or nothingness, from sane to mad, from hatred of Cordelia to mourning her; Edmund goes from oppressed to oppressor to dead; Goneril and Regan go from subjects to masters to dead (by betrayal); et cetera et cetera (Edgar, Cordelia, Kent, Fool, Albany, Cornwall...). 


The psychological point is that Culture, not Nature, determines who and what we are. It is in our nature to be formed by our culture.


The political consequence is a critique of feudalism and monarchism: It is impossible to argue that one should be destined to confine oneself within the limits set by "the curiosity of nations", one has it in oneself to be whatever Culture allows one to be. So the play is deterministic in another, more radical, way, a way that gives us responsibility, great responsibility (for "it is in our nature to be formed by our culture").


- Conclusion

The essay speaks for itself, a conclusion would be repeating myself. It is clear this distinction cuts to the hearth of the play.


The only thing missing is the classical morality play structure of King Lear. Evil must lose, must destroy itself, while good (a conservative common conception of good) must prevail.


That sir which gives and seeks for gain,

And follows but for form,

Will pack when it begins to rain,

And leave thee in the storm.



I guess, within our current framework, that the point is the radical, important question that is infused in the whole play: What culture is the best (makes the best out of Nature)?


Answers? Cordelia is our symbol of goodness, our hero, the right culture, Edmund is the symbol of the wrong culture - a monster of the culture he was born into. One is constructive, the other destructive. Neither represents the culture of society (in the 400s before our time calculation, or in Shakespeare's 1600s' England) as a whole[2].


The actuality of King Lear, interpreted from this aspect, is obvious. Look in the mirror, comrades. Understand yourselves.


[1] Is Shakespeare a Communist?

[2] So perhaps it means something that our symbol of evil is the oppressed one, and our symbol of good is the loved one?

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