Nature in Shakespeare’s King Lear

Freed-Isserow, Eugenie R.
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The Southern African Society for Medieval and Renaissance Studies (SASMARS)
The ‘Nature’ whom Edmund, bastard son of the Earl of Gloucester, proclaims as his ‘goddess’ in his first extended soliloquy in Shakespeare’s King Lear is a deity whose qualities have been variously understood in the centuries since Shakespeare composed the play, and whose character was ambiguous even in the age that gave rise to it. William Elton, in his authoritative study of the play’s philosophical milieu, records that on the one hand ‘the goddess Nature whom Edmund worships was, in effect, increasingly reconciled with the orthodox Deity’, while on the other hand ‘Nature’ was often equated with the principle of animal fecundity, uncomplicated by moral or social restraints.1 The personification of ‘Nature’ in Shakespeare’s fourth sonnet leans towards the latter view: ‘[Nature,] being frank, ... lends to those are free’—the context of a poem urging a young man to marry and produce offspring indicating that the senses of both ‘frank’ and ‘free’ here include sexual liberality.2 Elton (130) cites Montaigne’s phrase nostre grande et puissante mère nature as referring to the pagan goddess, the embodiment of sensuality in whose ‘service’ any natural impulse—sexual or other—may be acted upon without inhibition of any kind.
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