Lear: Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! rage! blow!
You cataracts and hurricanoes, spout
Till you have drench’d our steeples, drown’d the cocks!
You sulphurous and thought-executing fires,
Vaunt-couriers to oak-cleaving thunderbolts,
Singe my white head! And thou, all-shaking thunder,
Smite flat the thick rotundity o’ the world!
Crack nature’s moulds, an germens spill at once,
That make ingrateful man!
— William Shakespeare, King Lear, Act III, Scene ii
As Shakespeare tells it, the legendary King Lear of ancient Britain, in his old age, decides to resign his kingship and divide his kingdom among his three daughters. He foolishly demands statements of their love as he makes the division, but his youngest and best-loved daughter, Cordelia, finds herself unable to express her deep love for her father in terms he expects, so he disowns her and divides his kingdom between the other two. He expects to be honored and respected by them for the rest of his life. When King Lear’s selfish, ambitious, and domineering daughters, Goneril and Regan, refuse to give him the honor he expects, he storms away from them in rage and wanders on the heath in fury and growing madness, calling on fire and water to wreak destruction on the earth.
To Shakespeare and his contemporaries, the theme of an aging monarch dealing with difficult issues of succession would have had contemporary significance; the play was written in the years immediately following the death of Queen Elizabeth I at the age of 69. She had reigned for almost 45 years and died without children, so the succession was no simple matter.
Even more significantly, the play reflects the disorder caused when divinely-ordained hierarchies are disrupted. Shakespeare’s play reflects the concept of a ladder of life, a natural scale in which all that exists has its assigned place. This “Great Chain of Being” was ordained by God; it is violated when anyone or anything seeks to leave the place assigned. For a king to abdicate his responsibilities is thus a violation of divine order. This violation of order causes disorder and destruction in both the natural and social order. When Lear abdicates, his kingdom falls into disorder and conflict, his daughters behave unnaturally, and nature itself echoes this disorder with the violent storm on the heath, where Lear wanders in madness and fury.
While today’s social and political scientists regard the Great Chain of Being as an antiquated and outdated description of the order of the universe, elements of it still linger in our culture. Here are some questions for thought:
Does God firmly control our lives through a detailed and careful plan for each of us? Or does God give us free will to choose our own paths?
Do natural disasters reflect in any way the actions of humans? Do they result from choices we make?
What are the consequences when we deny or avoid or abdicate our responsibilities to one another?
Where does our search for the sacred take us in terms of our responsibilities to one another and to the earth we inhabit?