The character King Lear represents an allegorical shift from the illiterate, Medieval Age to the literate, Renaissance Age. To illustrate this argument, King Lear needs to be read as a Renaissance play that occurred in a previous “imagined pagan time.” (Lawrence, Gods, 156) As a pagan king, Lear is seen in the realm of the Roman gods and their shame culture. The role of gods in Lear’s decision making are interwoven throughout the play as Lear tries to reconcile his humanity in relation to himself and the other characters, especially Cordelia. Specific to Lear, this reconciliation is an attempt to justify his actions and sense of his “nature” or humanity. While struggling with the vacuous ness of his beliefs, Lear progresses from a shame culture character at the beginning to a guilt culture character at the end of the play, ultimately finding his true nature in death.
The play opens with Lear dividing his kingdom between his daughters. Once Cordelia has offered her version of her love for her father, Lear begins invoking the Roman gods to rebuke her:
“Let it be so; thy truth, then, be thy dower:
For, by the sacred radiance of the sun,
The mysteries of Hecate, and the night;
By all the operation of the orbs
From whom we do exist, and cease to be” (Lr., 1.1.105-09)
In the article “’Gods that We Adore’: The Divine in King Lear,” Sean Lawrence argues Lear is still “worshipping” ancient gods. He continues to invoke Roman gods in Act 1:
“Lear: Now, by Apollo-
Kent: Now, by Apollo, King, Thou swear’st thy gods in vain. (Lr., 1.1.158-60)
A little later in the scene, Lear orders Kent “Away! By Jupiter.” (Lr., 1.1.178)
Lear, by appealing to the gods, is acknowledging his faith in an outdated, “shame culture” system of belief by invoking the ancient gods as justification for his actions.
Lawrence claims Lear “appropriate[s] the gods to his own purposes.” (Lawrence, Gods, 152) This appropriation leads to Lear’s psychological and spiritual destruction. Lawrence further argues the “sources of [Lear’s] self righteousness in defining the gods as a power that made himself, and to which he can appeal in asserting his own power, rather than as a source of judgment which stands over and against him.” (Lawrence, Gods, 152) Lear’s self proclaimed god-like stature causes him to create gods that are “only his [and] their failure to intervene on his behalf represents only the frustration of his will.” (Lawrence, Gods, 152) Lear, following this argument, represents a renaissance from shame to guilt culture. His gods have deserted him, leaving him nothing but his own humanity and the guilty knowledge that his pride in deposing Cordelia will lead to madness and death.
I agree with Lawrence’s interpretation. At the beginning of the play, Lear has an “Oedipus ness” that puts him within the realm of the shame culture of the Greeks and Romans and their gods. He’s similar to Oedipus: they both share the character trait of pride and a sense of being able...