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Exposing Renaissance Discord


by Taylor A. Pecsok

The Downfall of King Lear as an Allegory Exposing Renaissance Discord

In the time of William Shakespeare, a new approach to social order was emerging: that of Renaissance Humanism. Followed by the expansion of trade, prosperity, luxury and the widening of social contracts, Elizabethan Era scholars began a trend of proliferating secularism, suspended between the opposing spectrums of faith and reason. As England moved into the seventeenth century, Shakespeare’s contemporaries experienced an increased suppression in the Medieval priorities of the supernatural and loyalty to the diminishing manorial system and progression toward an era of individualism. Motivated by this evolution in ideals, it can be argued that William Shakespeare modeled his play, King Lear, after the ongoing turmoil between the newly emerging Renaissance Humanism and the slowly fading Medieval Contemplation. Using the characters of Edmund, Cordelia and Gloucester to embody their own respective aspects of the conflict, Shakespeare effectively sheds light on the extent of the differences between the two and justifies the need for a reorientation of contemporary medieval values.

In order for there to be an overthrow of the old ways, the imbalance in the social system must be recognized; in the instance of King Lear, this “visionary” is the Earl of Gloucester’s bastard son, Edmund. Paralleling the conflict of Renaissance versus Medieval, Edmund acknowledges that as an illegitimate son, he will receive no portion of his father’s throne, thus inspiring him to foster an elaborate scheme to overthrow the old power. As Edmund and his fellow Renaissance Humanists believe, “the younger rises when the old doth fall” (Shakespeare Act III, Scene III, 75). This instance embodies not only the source of angst at the Edmund plot, but also the overall motivations of Shakespeare’s “rebirth” parties, thus demonstrating similarities between the world of the author and the symbolic narrative he had created. Although Edmund embodies the qualities of Renaissance Humanism and the possibility of gaining power through progress, Michelle Lee contradicts the argument by pointing out that while he may be perceived as a “villain humanist” (2) , Edgar’s lack of virtue cannot account for the reasoning he put into his scheme. While Lee believes this characterization contradicts the humanist belief that reasoning leads to morality, the persistence of Edmund’s progressive attitude overpowers this minor infraction. From his arrogance, rebellion and sin in faking Edgar’s treason to backstabbing the Crown, Edmund demonstrates how he exemplifies the Renaissance qualities of individualism and recoils from the Medieval Christian ideals of theology.

While Edmund epitomizes the humanistic values of individualism and self-sufficiency, Cordelia represents the principles of logic and educated reasoning. From the tragedy’s inception, Cordelia challenged King Lear’s lack of judgment with her honesty and rationale. When Lear asks which of his daughters loves him most, he receives blatantly extravagant flatteries from his eldest daughters, Goneril and Regan, and a truthful reply from Cordelia. An example of the Medieval values of loyalty placed on the manorial system, Lear is shocked by the contradiction to his requests. Cordelia logically hypothesizes that once she is wed, half her heart will go to her husband, not solely dedicated to Lear as he would have hoped. Furthermore, the passing Medieval days were categorized by an importance of theology; the Renaissance ages were classified by scientific inquisition and creative output. After Cordelia is aware of her father’s worsening condition of encroaching madness, she applies a humanistic tactic new to the time: the use of a doctor. The conflict between the competing ideals of new and old experience a monumental clash at their focus on fate and the stars. While Cordelia uses the rational option of a medicinal specialist, characters such as Kent and Gloucester claim “the stars above us govern our conditions” (Shakespeare, Act 4, Scene 3, 54), emphasizing the division between humanism and Medieval Contemplation. Using a doctor not only implies an active response to Lear, but also an aesthetic appreciation that was nonexistent before the emergence of the cult of humanity. Cordelia represents a the stimulation of interest in literature to the extent that critic, Rob Worrall explained “Shakespeare’s as the embodiment of Renaissance literature” (2).

In order for King Lear to be considered a conflict between the new and old rule, characters must emerge to embody the position of Medieval Contemplation and resist the rebirth of the emerging Renaissance Humanism. In this case, the character that challenges the progressive bearings of Edmund and Cordelia is the once-potent ruler, the Earl of Gloucester. From the play’s genesis, the Gloucester subplot consistently fulfilled the dwindling philosophy of Medieval Contemplation. Whereas Edmund and Cordelia represent the notion on individualism, Gloucester relies heavily on loyalty and a suspension of reasoning. He easily falls victim to the manipulation of the rebellious motives of his bastard son, Edmund, and fails to deduce that Edmund is out for personal gain. Loyalty remains a prominent theme in the promotion of old age ideals, as can be seen in the once-popular manorial system in which safety and shelter are a give- and-take between greater and subordinate powers. Paralleling the unquestioning adherence to the word of another, Gloucester takes Edmund’s lies in full faith, never evoking even the thought that the bastard son might be out to take control of his power. Not only does Gloucester embody
the loyalty, but he consistently personifies the Medieval view that the gods and fate govern all. After being blinded in an act of symbolism, Gloucester cries out that “as flies to wanton boys, are we to the gods. They kill us for their sport” (Shakespeare, Act IV, Scene I, 54). By comparing mankind to impotent flies, Gloucester reinforces his old-age philosophy of the futility of man and the omnipotent power of the stars. Through the Renaissance, Shakespeare’s era experienced the movement toward humanistic rationale and away from the reliance on theological entities that Gloucester epitomizes.

Through William Shakespeare’s characterization of several of his most well-established individuals, King Lear as a whole parallels the misfortune of socio-political order between the emergence of Renaissance Humanism and the fall of Medieval Contemplation that was ensuing during the Elizabethan Era. Using the plot-line as a juxtaposition of old versus new ideals, Shakespeare effectively creates a tragedy that both progresses the storyline and brings to light a controversial social issue of the time. While the the play exhibits the constant struggle between opposing powers, Shakespeare makes it clear that humanism will prevail. When humanistic Edmund betrays his classically idealized father to the rebellious forces of Goneril and Regan, it establishes the eventual superiority of individualism and the coming of a new era of reason. Through the exercising of innovative aesthetic principles, the characters of Cordelia and Edmund demonstrate the superiority of Renaissance Humanism over the madness and aging doctrine of Gloucester’s Medieval Contemplation. Utilizing these newfound approaches, King Lear facilitated the ushering in of an intellectually-based social philosophy.


Works Cited

Lee, Michelle. “Renaissance Humanism.” Shakespearean Criticism. Ed. Vol. 101. Detroit: Gale,
2006. Literature Resource Center. Web. 7 Nov. 2014. Shakespeare, William. The Tragedy of King Lear. New Haven: Yale UP, 1947. Print. Worrall, Rob. “King Lear: forty years on: twentieth-century readings of King Lear.” The English
Review 16.1 (2005): 15+. Literature Resource Center. Web. 7 Nov. 2014.

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