Christian Love in Pagan Britain: Shakespeare’s King Lear

For most of us, William Shakespeare’s King Lear conjures up images of barren moors,  stormy weather, and characters who are even crueler than the elements. But while the play may  seem at first to be about wickedness and depravity, it contains a deeper message about what it  means to love. As the characters of the play respond to injustices by inquiring into the “cause” of  evil, they not only discover that there is no cause in nature for sin, but also that there is no natural  cause for the truest kind of love, which is more divine.  

The play begins with Lear’s dispensing portions of his estate to his three daughters:  Goneril, who is vicious and conniving; Regan, who is acrid and biting; and the youngest,  Cordelia, who is fair and just. Lear is not seeking to place his estate, whole and undivided, into  better hands for the sake of his descendants and dependents. His “fast intent” is to shake off all  cares and responsibilities so that he can “unburden’d crawl toward death.” What may seem to an  unobservant reader like an act of generosity is in fact a demonstration of selfishness. Lear is not an evil man, but his desire for comfort and flattery overwhelms his commitment to duty and  sacrifice, and he is only as generous to his daughters as their flattery permits.  

“Tell me,” says Lear to his daughters, “Which of you shall we say doth love us most?  That we our largest bounty may extend Where nature doth with merit challenge.” In an awkward  and stilted manner, Goneril and Regan contrive to gush forth answers that appeal to their father’s  pride. When Cordelia says in a curt, respectful manner that she loves her father “according to her  bond; nor more, nor less,” Lear disowns her. The loyal and plain-spoken Earl of Kent reproaches  Lear for his wrong-doing. Lear then banishes Kent from his kingdom, but instead of leaving,  Kent takes on the disguise of a lowly servant named Caius in order to stay with and protect Lear. 

Cordelia is good and virtuous, and she never bears ill will. But her cool response to  Lear’s demand is hardly satisfying to the spectator. It is clear that Cordelia’s love is not like that of Kent, for it is never totally for the sake of the other, and it never goes beyond what is required  by justice.  

But when the King of France enters the play, we catch another glimpse of the love that  has been demonstrated already by Kent. France takes Cordelia as his dowriless wife, and it is  clear that his love for her goes beyond what is merited, for he sees that she is “most rich, being  poor.” While Goneril, Regan, Lear, and even Cordelia view love as a thing to be coveted,  exchanged, or merited (mostly for the sake of oneself), France shows us that true love has no  material cause. “Love’s not love,” says he, “When it is mingled with regards that stand Aloof  from the entire point.” France sees that Cordelia is infinitely more than her dowry, and he loves  her for her own sake. 

But the members of Lear’s family are not the only ones who do not know how to love. In Act I Scene II we meet Edmund, the bastard son of the Earl of Gloucester, who envies his  younger brother, Edgar, for his right to inheritance. Edmund devises a cunning strategy to usurp  his father’s estate by making it seem as though Edgar is plotting against Gloucester. Even more  startling than Edmund’s trickery is Gloucester’s unquestioning acceptance of Edmund’s  fabrications. The “late eclipses in the sun and moon,” says Gloucester, have foretold the cooling  of love; the falling off of friendship; and the division between brothers, sons, and fathers. While  Edmund manipulates the astounded and embittered Edgar into putting on the character of a  beggar and madman named “Poor Tom” for the sake of escaping their father’s supposed wrath,  Gloucester accepts Edmund’s lies just as readily as he subjects love to the malevolent, natural  forces that the horoscopes purport to disclose. 

When Goneril and Regan attempt to strip Lear of the one hundred knights that he has  left in order to keep him from asking for the return of his estate, Lear wonders, much like  Gloucester, if there is “any cause in nature that makes for these hard hearts?” Goneril and Regan bolt their doors to keep their father from their homes, and Lear takes off with his fool and Kent,  who wander with him over the heath. “Crack nature’s moulds,” blurts Lear, “all germens spill at  once, That make ingrateful man!” 

Throughout the play we see, however, that there is nothing natural about the hardness  of heart in Goneril, Regan, and Edmund. Goneril and Regan are frequently referred to as  “unnatural,” while Edmund ignores human nature and stops at nothing to get what he wants.  “Men are as the time is,” he says. “To be tender-minded Does not become a sword.” These  characters are shockingly deliberate in their lying and sinning; they do not even bother to regard  the natural laws of justice. But the other characters—namely Lear, Gloucester, Cordelia, and  Edgar—are trying, throughout the play, to grasp at the meaning of good and evil. They are  slowly seeing that nature does not provide an account for sin; nor can the natural law alone  explain the mysterious love of those who are willing to forsake their own material goods for the  sake of others.  

At the beginning of the play, Lear regards himself as a “man More sinn’d against than  sinning,” but we see his “wits begin to turn” as he ceases to perceive his “gifting” of his estate to  his daughters as an act of generosity: he knows now that he has been selfish, and he starts to  become more aware of his faults as well as the needs of those around him. When Lear and his  little band encounter the freezing, naked Edgar, who is disguised as Poor Tom, Lear suddenly  sees that “man is no more But such a poor, bare, forked animal,” and he takes off his own clothes  to symbolize this fact. We see him start to care more for Kent, who is still disguised as the  servant Caius: Lear asks him how he is, and if he is cold. He starts to feel so much distress for  those in his domain who are alone and poor that he wants to feel for himself the pains that they  have endured under his rule. “Nothing almost sees miracles but misery,” and Lear’s sudden humility enables him to see what is worth loving in others, even those who have had everything  stripped from them. 

There are many who have loved Lear with the sacrificial love that Lear is only  beginning to understand. Kent has stayed by Lear’s side in every kind of weather; so has Lear’s  fool. And when Gloucester discovers that Lear’s daughters have conspired against their father, he  places himself in danger for the sake of helping Lear. He provides him with respite from the  winds and rains on the heath and arranges for him to go to Dover, where Cordelia and France are  preparing to war against the houses of Goneril and Regan. When Regan and her husband  Cornwall discover that Gloucester has been loyal to their father, they accuse him of treason and  gouge out his eyes.  

It is at this point that the wandering Edgar, disguised as Poor Tom, finds his newly blinded father in despair. Until this point, Edgar has expected little more than “enforced charity”  from those who owe him, but he is starting to discover that love can go beyond the bounds of  duty and justice. While he has as yet no cause to care for anyone but his poor, impoverished self,  and while he ought to distance himself from the father whom he supposes to have turned against  him, he feels compelled to do otherwise. 

Gloucester begs Edgar (who is still in disguise) to lead him to the cliffs of Dover, from  whose heights he plans to fall and die. He can no longer bear to quarrel with the “great  opposeless wills” of the gods, which his “snuff and loathed part of nature” can no longer endure.  Like Lear, he thinks that the gods, or natural forces, have ordained for him to be miserable. But  he will find no natural or divine cause for his miserable state—Instead, he will discover the  unconditional love of his son, who prevents him from committing suicide despite mistakenly  believing that his father has turned against him. 

Gloucester is led to the cliff—or so he thinks, when Edgar describes the sands and tiny  fishermen hundreds of feet below the surface of its carved edge. When Gloucester falls flat on  his face, Edgar allows his blinded father to think that he has survived a fatal event, when he has  only hit the ground that he was already on. Edgar pretends to be one of the men on the shore below, and remarks to Gloucester that his life is a miracle—the gods must have surely saved him! Edgar helps Gloucester to see that his life, even with all its suffering, is a gift of  innumerable worth. 

The grateful Gloucester ceases to blame the gods for his misery and resolves to happily  bear his afflictions, for he has seen, much like Job, that there is a deeper good to be grasped even  in the depths of great material loss. When Poor Tom reveals himself to Gloucester as Edgar,  Gloucester dies a contented death as his “flaw’d heart, Alack, too weak the conflict to support,  ‘Twixt two extremes of passion, joy, and grief, Burst smilingly.” We can only imagine that,  thanks to the unmerited love of his son, he has finally understood what it means to love without  cause. 

 But the villains of the play have no such happy endings. Edmund has an affair with the  already-married Goneril. Cornwall dies from the wounds of the servant who stabbed him, and he  perceives his death as an “untimely hurt” because his attachments are only to the external powers  and goods that he has recently acquired. Regan is jealous of Goneril and writes a letter of  proposal to Edmund. The sisters fight over his bed after Edmund has declared his love for them  both. Goneril poisons Regan and commits suicide. Edmund’s crimes are made known.  

In Dover, Cordelia, Kent, and a penitent Lear meet for the first time since Lear  disowned Cordelia. Cordelia is overcome by Kent’s loyalty to her father. “O thou good Kent,”  she weeps, “how shall I live and work, To match thy goodness? My life will be too short, And  every measure fail me.” Cordelia has finally seen that she, too, is undeserving of the love that is  demonstrated by men like Kent. 

When she sees her sick, exhausted father, Cordelia implores the “kind gods” to cure  the “great breach in his abused nature.” What she says here is significant, for she is one of the  first to see that there is no natural or divine cause for evil: it is only a lack in what ought to be by  nature. When Lear confesses his sins and admits to Cordelia that she has cause to hate him,  Cordelia only showers with him unmerited forgiveness, saying that she has “no cause, no cause”  at all to hate him. The repetition of the word “cause” hearkens our attention to its use at that earlier stage of the play, when Lear searches in nature and in the heavens for the cause of malice  and even love. Here, he sees that the greatest of all loves has no natural cause—it is something  beyond nature. Lear is so glad to be reunited with Cordelia that he goes happily with her to  prison. 

Moments before his death, Edmund reveals that he has sent someone to kill Lear and  Cordelia. To prevent their death, Edgar and Albany must fly to camp and act quickly. Lear and  Cordelia are put to death before help arrives, but only after their redemption, and with the  faintest of smiles on their lips, and the suggestion that they may be somewhere else.  

“Man is that creature who grows taller when he bows,” says G.K. Chesterton.  Likewise, St. Paul says in his second letter to the Corinthians that he will glory in his infirmities,  “that the power of Christ may dwell in me. For which cause I please myself in my infirmities, in  reproaches, in necessities, in persecutions, in distresses, for Christ. For when I am weak, then am  I powerful.” It is our knowledge of Christ and our hope for eternal life with Him that enables us  to love others as future members of Christ’s body, even despite our own injuries and at the cost  of earthly goods. We are not made for this world but for the next, and when we realize that “there  are no ordinary people,” as C.S. Lewis says in The Weight of Glory, that it “is immortals whom  we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit,” then we are able to love others with more  perfect charity. Our natural desire for self-preservation is elevated to a desire for eternal life with  God and the other souls he has created. How can one read King Lear and see no divine cause for its creation? In this play,  Shakespeare shows us what it means to love with Christian charity, which so ardently desires the  good of the other that it loves without merit and even at the expense of material goods and  comforts. This love begins with the recognition of one’s own nothingness and is actualized in the  sacrificial love that is demonstrated by France, Kent, the fool, Edgar, Gloucester, Cordelia, and  Lear. These characters in Shakespeare’s pre-Christian Britain are harbingers of the love that is  made possible by Christ, who restores our broken nature and enables us to become full  participants in the life and love of the Trinity.

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