The Earth Centered Theme of Shakespeare's King Lear
King Lear is a complicated, apocalyptic play with parallel plots, moral ambiguity, and a messy ending. The play's events were politically charged and historically informed when they were performed in seventeenth century England, as they continue to be to today. Whatever his intentions, Shakespeare has given us several universal truths to consider. One I like to consider is how beneath all the sinister and bold machinations of man lies the gentle earth, from which we, and all life, spring. Some critics note that Shakespeare was skeptical about God and the role of religion in one's life. I believe King Lear is the product of a writer with a solid cosmology, but one centered in earth and humanity. I hesitate to label Shakespeare a pagan, or anything other than brilliant. Yet there is evidence enough in the text for me to argue an earth-centric thesis. A close reading reveals those who employ common wording or down-to-earth speech as embodiments of goodness, whereas characters that insist on the perfectly controlled, artificial utterances of the feudal court are corrupt at best, if not evil. The gods above are shown to be fickle and uncaring, if not bloodthirsty. Shakespeare also weaves in certain utopian visions into the fabric of King Lear, earth-based ideals, not only pre-Christian like the play's setting, but pre-historic; thus supporting the argument for an earthen cosmology and humanistic political consciousness, freely exhibited and often applied in the work.
Edmund rejects the very idea of baseness, or what we might think of as earthiness. He is skillfully used in the play to oppose to all that is common and good. His famous soliloquy in Act 1, Scene 2 clarifies his distance from such mundane subjects.
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,
For that I am some twelve or fourteen moonshines
Lag of a brother? Why bastard? Wherefore base?
When my dimensions are as well compact,
My mind as generous, and my shape as true,
An honest madam's issue? Why brand they us
With base? With baseness? Bastardy? Base, base?
Who in the lusty stealth of nature take
More composition and fierce quality
Than doth, within a dull, stale, tired bed
Go to th' creating a whole tribe of fops, (Edmund 1.2.6-14)
Edmund claims to honor Nature but his trajectory is upward, away from earth and things natural, where Edgar's trajectory is downward, toward earth, not ultimately, but as a course of action in the drama. In this, Edmund's self-defining moment, he swirls the word base around in his mouth as if tasting wine he finds not altogether palatable. His blinding ambitions keep him from identifying with his own built-in baseness, the fact that he is a bastard, born of physical, real lust. Edmund is ashamed of his conception; he finds nothing to...