`The Excellent Foppery of the World':
Skepticism in King Lear
"As flies to wanton boys are we to th' gods; / They kill us for their sport." (4.1.41-42) So bemoans the blinded and despondent Earl of Gloucester in King Lear. Whether his claim deserves merit, while intriguing, is far beyond the scope of this paper. What I do intend to explore, however, is whether Shakespeare's play supports or opposes these and other skeptical ideas. I will argue that King Lear strongly advocates a skeptical worldview, not just in regards to belief in theism, but in all areas. A skeptical, humanistic philosophy pervades the entire text of Lear; I do not believe this is incidental.
First, an important distinction must be made. Skepticism is not atheism, and it is not nihilism. By "skepticism" I simply mean the philosophical position whereby all claims and belief systems, particularly, although not excluded to, those involving the supernatural, are questioned and critically examined, with the scientific method applied when possible. Skepticism does not necessarily lead to atheism, just as credulity does not lead to theism. For the purposes of this paper, whether solar eclipses really "portend no good to us" (1.2.109-110) is not important; what is important, and what I intend to show Shakespeare advocates in King Lear, is that people should critically examine the available evidence for that and similar claims.
King Lear contains numerous examples of characters advocating a skeptical worldview. Edmund, the bastard child of Gloucester, provides many. In his opening lines, he declares, "Thou, Nature, art my goddess. To thy law / My services are bound" (1.2.1-2), choosing naturalism over spiritualism. Later, after Gloucester warns him that the recent eclipses don't bode well for them, Edmund says to himself,
This is the excellent foppery of the world, that when we are sick in fortune (often the surfeits of our own behavior) we make guilty of our disasters the sun, the moon, and stars, as if we were villains on necessity, fools by heavenly compulsion; knaves, thieves, and treachers by spherical predominance; drunkards, liars, and adulterers by an enforced obedience of planetary influence; and all that we are evil in, by a divine thrusting on. (1.2.125-33)
Further, Edmund manipulates other characters' beliefs, invoking the supernatural to support his cause. Directly after dismissing astrology as "excellent foppery," Edmund replies to Edgar that he is "thinking... of a prediction I read this other day, what should follow these eclipses" (1.2.147-8). Later, after accusing Edgar of trying to murder him, Edmund describes to Gloucester how Edgar "stood... in the dark, his sharp sword out, / Mumbling of wicked charms, conjuring the moon / To stand auspicious mistress" (2.1.43-45). Gloucester advocates skepticism on his own, when, after being blinded, he questions the logic of a just god, declaring, "As flies to wanton boys are we to th' gods; / They kill...