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King Lear and the Gods

King Lear and the Gods

WILLIAM R. ELTON
Copyright Date: 1988
Pages: 384
https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt130hn7x
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  • Book Info
    King Lear and the Gods
    Book Description:

    Many critics hold that Shakespeare'sKing Learis primarily a drama of meaningful suffering and redemption within a just universe ruled by providential higher powers. William Elton'sKing Lear and the Godschallenges the validity of this widespread optimistic view. Testing the prevailing view against the play's acknowledged sources, and analyzing the functions of the double plot, the characters, and the play's implicit ironies, Elton concludes that this standard interpretation constitutes a serious misreading of the tragedy.

    eISBN: 978-0-8131-6130-3
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. ACKNOWLEDGMENTS
    (pp. vii-viii)
    W.R.E.
  4. NOTE ON THE TEXT
    (pp. ix-x)
  5. Part I

    • CHAPTER I The Problem
      (pp. 3-8)

      Most recent interpretations of Shakespeare’sKing Learhave tended, in various ways, to identify it as a “Christian” play. The aim of this study, however, is not to determine whether it contains Christian references; rather, it is mainly to examine the validity of the currently widespread view thatLearis an optimistically Christian drama. This belief holds, first, that the protagonist, among other characters, is, consequent to his sufferings, “regenerated;” “redeemed;” or “saved;” often by analogy with the morality-play tradition or with Dante’sPurgatoriothrough which he is assumed to have passed on the way to hisParadiso.Second, corresponding...

    • CHAPTER II Renaissance Concepts of Providence
      (pp. 9-33)

      In the latter half of the sixteenth century two attitudes toward divine providence, even among Christian believers, seem to have gained ground: first, that providence, if it existed, had little or no relation to the particular affairs of individual men; and, second, that it operated in ways bafflingly inscrutable and hidden to human reason. The first coincided with an Epicurean revival, which, along with Lucretius and the renewed ancient atomist tradition, Lucian, and such currents as Averroism, prevailed among those increasingly susceptible to skepticism. The second viewpoint, although also traditional, was emphasized, in addition to Montaignian and related influences, by...

    • CHAPTER III Sidney’s Arcadia: Four Attitudes to Providence
      (pp. 34-62)

      In the England of Shakespeare’s day the providential doctrines of Calvin, which I have summarized above, found a welcome home, the Genevan’s influence exceeding, indeed, that of any other theologian. As Hooker observed, Calvin for a long period occupied the position which the “Master of Sentences” had held in the age of scholasticism, “so that the perfectest divines were judged they, which were skilfullest in Calvin’s writings:”¹ Although modern Anglicans, especially after the Oxford Movement, may tend to identify mainly the liberal or Anglo-Catholic branch as the true (Renaissance) Church of England, the fact remains that during Shakespeare’s career the...

    • CHAPTER IV From Leir to Lear
      (pp. 63-72)

      In order more freely to relate the problematic type of universe present in theArcadiato the characters of theLearplot, based partly, as scholars tend to agree, on the old chronicle play ofKing Leir(ca. 1588-1594),¹ Shakespeare would have had to banish the numerous direct Christian references of the dramatic source; the paganism of Shakespeare’s tragedy, it may be suggested, is present in a proportion perhaps comparable to that in theArcadia.In the nineteenth century, critics had already perceived the need for such de-Christianizing changes so that Shakespeare might, with less restriction, put the question boldly,...

  6. Part II

    • CHAPTER V Prisca Theologia: Cordelia and Edgar
      (pp. 75-114)

      We may consider initially the first of the four categories of pagan belief outlined above and one of its representatives, Cordelia. She speaks in just four scenes of the play and is the most taciturn of the main characters.¹ In Cordelia’s resolution to “Love, and be silent” (I.i.62) we find the inception of a capability whose nature speaks louder than words; Cordelia absent is, perhaps, as powerful as Cordelia present. With only some hundred and fifteen lines, hers, in contrast to the “dread-bolted thunder” and its complementary hell-shrieking Bedlam, is a constantargumentum ex silentio.

      “Grace” (I.i.273), the “bond” (I.i.93),...

    • CHAPTER VI Pagan Atheism: Goneril and Regan, Edmund
      (pp. 115-146)

      As has been indicated, Renaissance expectation was to view the pagan as “saved;” superstitious, or atheistical. Through loose construction of both of these last terms, the superstitious person could in his deviation from the Christian mean also be considered atheistical, and so, by a similar construction, might the converse occur. But, in general, the distinctions established in an earlier chapter held good: the two were conventionally paired; the first erred by excessive and irrational fear of the deities, while the second erred by inadequate and too rational regard for the heavenly powers. As the whole problem of Renaissance “atheism” is...

    • CHAPTER VII Pagan Superstition: Gloucester
      (pp. 147-170)

      Summarizing Renaissance attitudes to pagan belief, I suggest that the age accepted the conventional dualism between superstition and atheism as extremes to the mean of true religion and that pagans, external to the Christian faith, regardless of time or place, were by definition held to share those extremes. Given the pagan premises ofKing Lear,therefore, it is reasonable to anticipate the usual superstitious attitudes ascribed to pagans in Renaissance treatises. What were the traits associated with the superstitious type, according to the Elizabethan view? Although astrological beliefs were widely held and were undoubtedly represented in Shakespeare’s audience, a distinguishing...

    • CHAPTER VIII Deus Absconditus: Lear
      (pp. 171-264)

      Up to this point I have, in examining the major characters ofKing Lear,shown that they correspond closely to main Renaissance religious attitudes, especially those which Elizabethans would have attributed to heathens:prisca theologia,atheism, or superstition. To the first type, it has been indicated, belong Cordelia and Edgar; to the second belong Goneril, Regan, and Edmund; and to the third Gloucester corresponds. But what of the protagonist of the tragedy, Lear himself? An investigation of Lear’s belief utterances excludes him from group one and, in a sense, from group three; moreover, he starts with no a priori negativist...

  7. Part III

    • CHAPTER IX Double Plot
      (pp. 267-283)

      According to bradley, the double plot chiefly contributes to Lear’s “structural weakness:” “the secondary plot fills out a story which would by itself have been somewhat thin:” and “the subplot simply repeats the theme of the main story.”¹ Although the double action is thus held to be fatally defective and to be filling which is “simply” repetitive, some critics have excused it on the grounds that it universalizes ingratitude and intensifies the tragic effect. Since Shakespeare succeeded, however, in the neighboring tragedies ofOthelloandMacbeth,in achieving intensity and universality without recourse to such devices, a further attempt to...

    • CHAPTER X Minor Characters: Kent, Cornwall, Albany, the Fool
      (pp. 284-328)

      Having suggested that in the major characters ofKing Learfour main religious positions may be delineated, I turn next to those characters who, regardless of the number of their lines, are yet in a subordinate role to the more prominent figures. What is implied by this statement is that, disregarding quantitative measurements, Cordelia, Edgar, Goneril, Regan, Edmund, Gloucester, and Lear conduct the business of the two plots and are the substance of the two interrelated families. Behind them stand their servants, their followers, and those who, like Albany, are so unfortunate as to be married into them.

      In other...

    • CHAPTER XI Irony as Structure
      (pp. 329-334)

      InLearstructural irony is a principle of action which, with the safety of indirection, probes the ways of the gods to man. From Senecan tragic irony, as from effects similar to those of Calvinism and Montaigne, Renaissance drama drew some of its climate for tragedy; the vengefulness of the Senecan deities and the obscurity of providence fostered a sense of divine inscrutability and human victimization. As in Marlowe, Kyd, Greville, and Webster, for example, such tragic irony of cosmic disproportion emerges in Shakespeare. Ironically suggesting, perhaps, that one level might as effectively be appealed to as the other,Macbeth...

    • CHAPTER XII Conclusion
      (pp. 335-338)

      In order to answer the question with which this study started, “What is the validity of the optimistic Christian interpretation ofKing Lear?”I have had to consider the play in relation to its Renaissance religious background. A brief recapitulation may serve to bring to mind the relevance of the parts to the aim of the whole study.

      The first chapter indicated that a majority of recent interpretations tended to the theory of Christian optimism in one or both of its aspects: (I) that, by analogy with the morality tradition or with Dante, the protagonist was somehow redeemed; and (2)...

  8. King Lear Studies: 1967-1987
    (pp. 339-345)

    FOR THIS new issue of“King Lear” and the Gods,I have been asked to supply a brief, selective sketch of Lear research in the score of years since the book’s publication (1966).¹ In that period, Shakespearean studies have included emphasis on theatrical performance and related interests. Such concerns contrast with the critical fashions of previous decades, which comprised application of Renaissance psychology, image-pattern approaches, and orthodox political-religious contextualizing. Relatively little is now heard of “wrath in old age” as a key to Lear, of patterns of sight-imagery, or of Tillyardian conformity to order and degree.

    InLearstudies, which...

  9. Index
    (pp. 346-375)