Shakespeare Uses Nature, both Literally and Figuratively
Shakespeare uses nature, both literally and figuratively throughout King Lear to portray characters, human nature, and human society, as well as to represent the emotional and physical status of characters. Nature, in its literal sense, is used in Act 3 to represent and mirror the emotions and mental status of King Lear. Shakespeare uses the raging storm as a reflection of Lear’s mental conflict against his gradual loss of sanity. The manic Lear stands out in the storm and bellows, “Rumble thy bellyful! Spit, fire! Spout, rain! Nor rain, wind, thunder, fire are my daughters. I tax not you, you elements, with unkindness.” By having Lear react to a physical representation of chaos, Shakespeare creates a visual parallel between the real world chaos with the mental chaos that Lear is currently enduring. Shakespeare also uses the comparison of Edgar to a ‘beast’ to convey his physical status in Act 2, Scene 3. As Edgar proclaims, “Brought near to beast. My face I’ll grime with filth, blanket my loins, elf all my hairs in knots, and with presented nakedness outface the winds and persecutions of the sky.” by comparing Edgar in disguise to a beast, Shakespeare highlights Edgar’s relationship to the wilderness during his time as ‘Poor Tom’.
While Shakespeare uses the physical concept of nature and natural occurrences in conjunction with the emotions and actions of characters, he also uses the nature in a figurative sense to portray human behavior and to develop certain characters. In Act 1, Scene 2, Edmund refers to Nature in the divine sense, “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…” Edmund claims that he is bound to divine and Natural law rather than the unjust social laws of man. Through this, Shakespeare is able to criticize human society through Edmunds, as he claims it opposes Natural law – or the way things are naturally supposed to be. Another way that Shakespeare uses nature in its figurative sense is to further develop the character of Goneril in Act 4, Scene 2. As Albany states, “I fear your disposition. That nature which contemns its origin cannot be bordered certain in itself.” Shakespeare refers to both Goneril’s personality and its origin. Shakespeare refers to Goneril’s cruel behavior and actions towards in one sense, but also conveys that she’s sees the origin of her nature, her father, with hatred as well, therefore creating a paradox in the personality of Goneril that can be ‘bordered certain’ in herself.
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How it works
In the same way graphs record and present mathematical data, literature is a tool device that we use to teach us about our humanity. Whether fiction or nonfiction, literature poses hypothetical questions about how humans would act/react in certain conditions. Our common responses in these conditions, whether they be emotions or actions, is what we call human nature. Therefore, literature is the lens in which we can observe the human condition and its nature, whether it be positive or negative. In literature such as King Lear, there are many examples of characters displaying both positive and negative aspects of human nature. For example, In Act 1, Scene 1, Lear’s decision to split his kingdom among his daughters based on who flatters him the most is indicative of a weakness in human nature, “Which of you shall we say doth love us most, that we our largest bounty may extend where nature doth with merit challenge.” Lear’s superficial behavior and his greed for flattery is a prime explain of a negative quality that can take root in our behavior. Another example of a character that openly displays negative qualities of human nature is Edmund, who is rife with jealously and hatred towards his half-brother, “Edmund the base shall top th’ legitmate. I grow, I prosper. Now gods, stand up for bastards!” On the other hand, characters like Edgar and Cordelia, represent positive aspects of human nature such as loyalty. So what can we about human nature from literature? Well the answer is simple, we can learn about the key experiences, characteristics, and emotions that can shape and define our behavior, for better or worse. After all, there is not one single human experience that we all conform with as we all have different values and core beliefs. But what literature does is provide examples of other individuals’ experiences and their actions, from which we can analyze and extrapolate common behaviors and emotions that define human nature.”