Evaluate Shakespeare’s portrayal of Nature and loyalty in King Lear up to Act 2 Scene 1?
The theme of nature pervades King Lear throughout, and forms a large basis of the topic of the play. It is thanks to the idea of nature that we can see the characteristics of characters, for instance the degree of their loyalty, and their progression throughout the play in relation to their belief of ‘nature’.
Nature, however, in King Lear can be a complex matter, and is best divided into three main areas. There is ‘Nature’ in itself, essentially seen as a force more powerful (perhaps omnipotent), by some characters and ‘removed’ from the human world. Then there is ‘nature’- that is the nature of characters and their personalities, and finally the ‘natural’- the characters’ own individual view whether something is in their eyes ‘natural’ or not. These three sub-topics heavily inter-link with each other during the play, and essentially help constitute each other too.
However, ‘nature’ on its own is harmless. It is human influence that creates the disharmony that mentions of ‘nature’ appear to portray. It is therefore first appropriate to explain how ‘nature’ first causes such unrest. The opening dialogue of the opening scene introduces us to Gloucester’s view of what is natural or not. “I have so often blushed to acknowledge him…the whoreson must be acknowledged” lets us know that, although accepting that Gloucester by blood his own son, he believes in the natural order and therefore sees his son Edmund as illegitimate and a bastard. These views of ‘the natural’ are directly paralleled by Lear, at which point the plot and sub-plot become established. Lear sees his patriarchal dominance as completely natural; he finds the hierarchical structure of his family normal. Therefore the ‘love test’, which for the audience seems an absurd act of narcissism, is perceived by Lear as acceptable. It is these two attitudes to ‘the natural’ that are the reasons for the beginning of shortcomings of the two powerful leaders throughout the play, and this is due to the conflicting opinions of their children on what ‘the natural’ is.
Edmund’s soliloquy in the following act introduces us to his views on his father’s belief. He mocks it, loathes it and most importantly rejects it- “Why ‘bastard’?....fine word, ‘legitimate’”, highlighting how he does not subscribe to the belief in the natural order like his father does, hence due his perceived ‘harshness’ decides to seek vengeance. This rejection of the belief in what is the ‘natural order’ evident too in Cordelia. The ‘love test’, in her eyes, is an act of foolishness; something that is unnatural and unnecessary, hence her stubborn refusal to partake in it. This, in the eyes of Lear, is an act of pure treachery- she is after all going against and breaking his idea of the ‘natural order’ (as summed up by France it is a “tardiness in nature”). What he does in ‘retaliation’, therefore, paradoxically destroys any idea of any normal, structured ‘natural order’- exiling his beloved daughter from his kingdom. When Lear disowns Cordelia he invokes the natural world when he swears “by the sacred radiance of the sun”, naturalising his actions towards Cordelia, and thereby legitimising the power he holds over her. Lear, in finding that his “frame of nature” has been “wrenched “from the fixed place” suggests the seriousness of his crimes against the natural order. It is therefore this sequence of events and the contrasting views of ‘the natural’ that cause the discordant events in the play.