The Tragedy of King Lear Analysis
Lear: By Jupiter, I swear no!
Kent: By Juno, I swear ay.
In The Tragedy of King Lear, particularly in the first half of the play, Lear continually swears to the gods. He invokes them for mercies and begs them for destruction; he binds both his oaths and his curses with their names. The older characters—Lear and Gloucester—tend view their world as strictly within the moral framework of the pagan religion. As Lear expresses it, the central core of his religion lies in the idea of earthly justice. In II.4.14-15, Lear expresses his disbelief that Regan and Albany would have put the disguised Kent, his messenger, in stocks. He at first attempts to deny the rather obvious fact in front of him, objecting “No” twice before swearing it. By the time Lear invokes the king of the pagan gods, his refusal to believe has become willful and almost absurd. Kent replies, not without sarcasm, by affixing the name of the queen of the gods to a contradictory statement. The formula is turned into nonsense by its repetition. In contradicting Lear’s oath as well as the assertion with which it is coupled, Kent is subtly challenging Lear’s conception of the universe as controlled by just gods. He is also and perhaps more importantly, challenging Lear’s relationship with the gods. It is Kent who most lucidly and repeatedly opposes the ideas put forth by Lear; his actions as well as his statements undermine Lear’s hypotheses about divine order. Lear does not find his foil in youth but in middle age; not in the opposite excess of his own—Edmund’s calculation, say—but in Kent’s comparative moderation. Likewise the viable alternative to his relationship to divine justice is not shown by Edmund with his elevation of a nature oblivious to ideas of justice, but by the more flexible and very human system of Kent. We ought not to forget that it is Kent who, in the instance above, has objective reality on his side. It is important that the divine system with which Lear struggles is a pagan one, for its emphasis on earthly justice seems to form the crux of Lear’s conception of life. Lear’s oaths, particularly in the earlier parts of the play, are one of the most revealing instances first of his idea of natural and divine order, and later of his fight against the disintegration of that idea in the face of an oblivious nature.
Lear reveals that he sets great importance on the gods when he swears by “all the operation of the orbs/From whom we do exist and cease to be” (Lear, I.1.109-110). The very excessiveness of this oath is important; Lear not only swears but affirms a theological truth in swearing: he believes human life to be controlled by the motions of the planets. His divine reality is therefore also a natural one, of which man forms a part. Lear goes so far as to actually invoke nature when cursing Goneril, saying “Hear, Nature, hear dear goddess, here:/Suspend thy purpose if thou didst intend/To make this...