King Lear is a Christian Play About a Pagan World
It is evident that King Lear contains references to both the Christian
and Pagan doctrine. However, they seem to be expressed in entirely
different styles. King Lear is purposefully set in a pre Christian era
with numerous references to classical Gods but conversely there
appears to be a striking resonance of Christian theology throughout
the play. These echoes appear in various forms including the idea of
Edgar being a Christ-like figure and also the presence of a supposed
divine justice. Therefore there is truth in the view that although
King Lear has a pagan setting, its significance is ultimately relating
Perhaps the most obvious way in which Shakespeare creates the pagan
setting is through the specific mentions of non-Christian gods. When
looking at the first scene it is apparent Shakespeare has deliberately
seasoned it with pagan references, an example being Lear's response to
Cordelia's unwillingness to speak,
'by the sacred radiance of the sun,
The mysteries of Hecate and the night'.
Shortly after this, Lear's rage is aimed at Kent for his defence of
the king's supposedly wicked daughter, when he swears, 'by Apollo' and
'by Jupiter'. Another instance that shows Lear appealing to deities
rather than the Christian belief of a singular being occurs during his
exposure to the storm on the heath,
'Let the great Gods,
That keep this dreadful pudder o'er our heads,
Find out their enemies now.'
All these quotes therefore demonstrate that King Lear is deliberately
set in a pre-Christian era.
However, this is not conclusive evidence that can be used to define
King Lear as a pagan play as there are also many echoes of the Old
Testament tradition featured. One form of this is the repetition of
reference and request to the gods as disciplinary beings. Critics have
commented particularly on the similarity of Lear's sufferings to those
experienced by Job in the Bible. There are also some quotes that have
biblical connotations such as Coredlia's,
'O dear father
It is thy business that I go about'.
There are other devices used in the play that may not have overt
doctrinal messages but can be deduced as relating to the Bible. Such
as the storm seeming somewhat apocalyptic and Lear wearing a crown of
thorns and thus resembling Jesus.
Another theme which once explored can help with understanding the
religious qualities of King Lear is that of divine justice. It is
clear that sinning is punished in the play. Evil may triumph for a
time and cause immense suffering but within itself it carries the
seeds of its own destruction and therefore will eventually fail. This
point is most obviously shown through the actions of the two sisters.
Goneril and Regan use their wicked ways to gain...