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Medieval Contemplation vs. Renaissance Humanism in “King Lear”

by Campbell Healy

“King Lear” was written by William Shakespeare in the very early 1600’s, around the end of the reign of Queen Elizabeth I and the rise of King James I.  Queen Elizabeth I ruled her kingdom well, but as her description as the Virgin Queen indicates, she did not have an heir.  Among the people of England there was confusion and worry that Elizabeth would die without naming an heir, resulting in a struggle for power and chaos in the kingdom.  Another change around this time period was the transition from Medieval contemplation and those ways of viewing the world to Renaissance humanism, which was a transition from focusing on the power of God to focusing on the power of the individual.  The tragedy “King Lear” addresses both of these issues with its plot, in which a monarch loses power to two of his greedy daughters and dies with no one left to take care of the kingdom, and also with its characters, who can be categorized into Medieval and Renaissance.  One character, however, doesn’t easily fit into either of the categories, and despite spending little time onstage, she plays a significant role in the sequence of events.  The Medieval and Renaissance characters have their general strengths and flaws, and because Cordelia fits both the Medieval and the Renaissance descriptions, she represents the ideal heir that England needs next.

Some characters can be identified as Medieval, and these characters possess certain qualities that are good in leaders and certain qualities that are not.  The Medieval values focus on the idea that each person is just a small part of a giant world, and that each person should help and cooperate with others.  In the Medieval viewpoint, God is the only being with power and the one who determines every person’s fate, and the individual is weak.  The Medieval characters have stronger beliefs in deities than the Renaissance characters, and  call upon the gods for help many times.  Frances Biscoglio, PhD, in the critical essay “Invocations to the Gods in King Lear,” claims that the invocations, or lack thereof, of characters reveal their moral goodness.  Biscoglio wrote:  “Calling on the gods, in other words, acknowledging a transcendent power outside oneself, is a characteristic of all "good" characters, and must therefore be seen as a spontaneous response of moral human beings. In fact, those characters who communicate with the gods have an ethical sensibility expressed in their care for and service to others” (Biscoglio 13).  Since the characters are acknowledging powers outside of themselves, they are acting humble in recognizing their place in the world and focusing on the outside world rather just themselves.  Many of the invocations are requests for help, so the characters are admitting that they do not have or believe that they do not have the power to change their situations, meaning that the characters are more passive and less likely to seek out their own solutions to the problems.  This could explain why the Medieval characters are the characters without power.  Among them the is king himself, Lear, who upon losing his knights decides to go out into a storm and rage at the gods instead of reasoning with his daughters or gaining supporters to oppose his daughters.  Biscoglio’s claim clearly shows the relationship between addressing gods and the morality and actions of characters, which explains why the Medieval characters are the most moral and passive ones.  The Medieval characters such as Kent maintain their morality because they see themselves as part of the bigger picture and so try to help others.  Of all the characters in “King Lear,” Kent, one of Lear’s servants, is Lear’s most faithful companion, spending the entire play disguised in order to take care of Lear despite being banished by him. Biscoglio in his essay remarks on Kent’s unwavering loyalty to and care for Lear, saying, “He suffers banishment for his straightforward opposition to Lear's unnatural rupture of the parental bond; still, he offers his king uncompromising loyalty and service, despite Lear's foolhardy resignation of that office” (Biscoglio 13).  This quote refers to Kent’s banishment, which was due to Kent questioning Lear’s decision to banish Cordelia for refusing to flatter him.  This quote shows how Kent is one of the more moral characters of the play, since he is the only one to question Lear’s outrageous decision to banish Cordelia when it is clear that she loves him the most.  Kent is willing to stand up for Cordelia even at the expense of his banishment, and he doesn’t let banishment stop him from serving Lear.  However, Kent also finds himself powerless as he travels with Lear, who has lost his land, his knights, and his sanity because of his Renaissance daughters.  Like the other Medieval characters such as Edgar, Kent is selfless and considered a morally righteous person, but he loses his power while the cunning Renaissance characters rise.  Selflessness and morals are important in leadership because a ruler must try to rule their subjects as wisely and justly as possible to ensure peace and cooperation between the ruler and the people.  However, the Medieval characters are too passive and reliant on fate and the gods to be strong rulers, since a ruler must be ready to take action rather than wait in vain for help.

Some of the characters in “King Lear” exhibit the values and ideas of the Renaissance, and while some of their characteristics are useful others show that a ruler should not mainly embody Renaissance ideals.  The Renaissance introduced individualism and power in the individual, recognizing a person’s capability to determine their future rather than let it be decided by some higher being.  One example of a Renaissance character in “King Lear” is Edmund, who is in the subplot.  Edmund is the illegitimate son of the Lord of Gloucester, and his birth means that his legitimate brother, Edgar, will inherit all of their father’s land.  Early on, Edmund rejects the idea that his birth should determine his place, and decides to use his wits to take his father’s land.  Edmund, like Lear’s daughters and the other Renaissance characters, rarely addresses the gods.  Edmund’s only invocation is to Nature, to whom he asks why his birth must cause him to have a lower social standing.  Although he addresses Nature, he doesn’t ask the goddess for help but instead decides that he will take his brother’s inheritance using his intelligence since he can’t use his birth.  In her essay, Biscoglio remarks on how Edmund’s invocation is different from the invocations of other characters, saying, “(Edmund)'s narcissistic appeal to the Goddess had been full of confidence that she would bless, rather than repudiate, the disordered bonds of his illegitimacy. His prayer is on his behalf only” (Biscoglio 13).  Biscoglio claims that Edmund’s prayer is a purely selfish one, because Edmund expects the goddess to support him, and he spends the prayer arguing for his belief.  Edmund isn’t asking for guidance or understanding, but instead stating his belief and expecting the gods to agree with him.  He even ends his apostrophe with the phrase, “Now, gods, stand up for bastards!” (1. 2. 23).  The fact that Edmund ends his prayer telling the gods to stand up for him shows his faith in his own power.  Edmund and the other Renaissance characters don’t make requests of the gods because they believe that as individuals they have power to change their fate, and so they never ask for help from beings associated with predestination and a lack of free will.  As part of the plan to get rid of Edgar, Edmund shows Gloucester a forged letter stating that Edgar wishes to kill their father, and he tells Edgar that Gloucester, Lear’s daughter Regan, and Regan’s husband Cornwall are all after Edgar.  Edmund hears them approaching, and says to Edgar, “Fly, brother. —Torches, torches! / —So, farewell. / Some blood drawn on me would beget opinion / Of my more fierce endeavor” (2. 1. 34- 7).  Edmund orders his brother to leave and pretends to be on his brother’s side, but as the others approach Edmund cuts his arm with a sword and acts as if he has just fought Edgar in an attempt to keep him there.  This quotation not only shows Edmund’s intelligence and his ability to trick those who stand in his way, but also his heartlessness.  Since Edmund recognizes his own abilities and uses his wit, he is able to turn Gloucester against Edgar and through his actions replaces the son thought of as destined to inherit their father’s land.  Edmund also manages to arouse sympathy from Regan and Cornwall, who become his allies and help him throw out his father and become a lord.  Edmund shows no remorse for his brother, and later shows that he doesn’t care for his father either when he betrays Gloucester and allows Regan and Cornwall to dig out Gloucester’s eyes.  Like Edmund, the less moral characters including Regan fit the Renaissance persona because these characters value their personal desires over everyone else.  For most of the play, Goneril, Regan, and their husbands control the kingdom and Edmund first replaces his brother as the heir and then takes his father’s land.  The Renaissance characters are powerful but immoral and selfish.  While the Renaissance characters act selfishly because of their individualism, they also manage to gain power over the “good” characters because they understand their own power in determining their fates and use their wits to achieve their goals.  The ability of the Renaissance characters to use their own skills to change a situation would be useful in a ruler.  However,  rulers must also think of their subjects and put the lives of their citizens above their personal desires.

Even from the beginning, Cordelia is set apart from the other characters.  King Lear, the sovereign of England, in his old age decides to distribute his land among his three daughters, Goneril, Regan, and Cordelia. Lear chooses to determine how much land each daughter receives by how much each daughter says that she loves him, essentially deciding based on her praise of him.  Goneril and Regan easily flatter their father and each claim that they love him entirely, though in reality both only care about the land.  Cordelia, despite loving her father more than her sisters, refuses to flatter him and lie, and upon his insistence that she speak tells him that she can’t love him entirely because she would have no love left for her future husband.  Goneril and Regan wish to increase their wealth and power, so they fit with the Renaissance ideas since they act on their selfish desires.  The daughters later take their father’s knights and land, allowing them to gain power and showing their Renaissance qualities not only through their focus on the individual but also through their gaining power because of their actions.  Cordelia also shows her individualism by choosing to protect her integrity by not flattering Lear, however her genuine concern and lover for her father show a selfless side that seems more Medieval than Renaissance.  Lear banishes Cordelia, but after that she marries the king of France and becomes a queen.  A critical essay written by Barbara Millard, PhD,  called “Virago with a Soft Voice: Cordelia’s Tragic Rebellion in King Lear” comments on this, saying “Having rejected the static role that Lear would have imposed on her in act one, Cordelia goes on to create her own future, to seek retribution and the creation of a new order beyond her sisters', and eventually to achieve her own transcendence from political constraints through her reconciliation with Lear” (Millard 143-165).  This quotation notes how Cordelia’s decision results in her achieving sovereignty through her own action marrying the king of France, and how she continues to wield her power as an individual.  She even leads the French army, and they go to war with Britain to stop her sisters and put Lear back in power.  Both Cordelia’s wish to preserve her integrity and her later rise to power after being banished show how Cordelia fits the Renaissance description.  Although both Cordelia and her sisters focus on individualism in that scene, Cordelia is set apart from her sisters because she actually does care about her father.  When Lear orders Cordelia to speak and explain why she will not tell him how great her love is, Cordelia responds with, ”Why have my sisters husbands if they say / They love you all?“ (1. 1. 109-110).  She also says, “Sure I shall never marry like my sisters, to love my father all” (1. 1. 114-5).  Cordelia is attempting to reason with Lear and convince him that Goneril and Regan are exaggerating and feigning their affections by claiming that they can’t dedicate themselves and their love entirely to Lear when they both also have husbands.  Cordelia knows the truth about her sisters and so she tries to warn Lear about them so that he won’t fall for their tricks.  Cordelia’s love for Lear and her determination to help him by opposing her sisters shows that she leans more towards Medieval than do her sisters.  As we’ve seen, in “King Lear” the Medieval characters are also the good characters and the Renaissance characters are also the evil characters.  Cordelia, however, doesn’t fit any of these descriptions, as shown by Millard in her essay, where she says, “Yet, to see Cordelia as either sainted martyr (pathetic, timid, politically naive, misunderstood) or villain (cold, willful, insensitive, proud, unbending) is to ignore an important dramatic tension in the play” (Millard 143-165).  Millard was stating that female Shakespeare characters usually fall into one of those two categories, however the categories can also describe the Medieval and Renaissance characters.  As a purely Medieval character, Cordelia would be morally righteous but have no power or strength, while as a purely Renaissance character she would be immoral but also strong.  Instead of being one or the other, Cordelia embodies both Medieval and Renaissance ideals by being a morally righteous and selfless person who relies on her intelligence and abilities as an individual to solve her problems.  Cordelia’s duality is shown most while she is the commander of the French army and is searching for Lear.  Cordelia, despite being a woman and not French, takes charge of the French army in an attempt to stop her sisters and restore her father to his place as king.  While her army prepares, she sends out a search party to find Lear and gets a doctor to care for Lear.  Millard describes Cordelia’s role as a mixture of caregiver and fighter, saying, “Even Cordelia's expression of sympathy to her father combines the language of nursery: ‘restoration,’ ‘medicine,’ ‘kiss,’ ‘repair,’ ‘reverence,’ ‘pity,’ ‘benediction’—with the terms of warfare: ‘violent,’ ‘breach,’ ‘challenge,’ ‘opps'd,’ ‘warring,’ ‘dread-bolted,’ ‘terrible and nimble stroke,’ ‘perdu,’ ‘helm,’ ‘enemy’” (Millard 143-165).  The melding of the warlike and healing vocabulary shows how Cordelia plays the part of the selfless healer caring for her father and the strong ruler fighting to fix the wrongdoing her sisters did to their father.  Unlike Kent, Edgar, and Gloucester, who along the way attempt to help Lear, she is the only one in the position to provide medical assistance to Lear and to oppose her sisters, showing how she is the ideal ruler because of the combination of Medieval and Renaissance ideas.  The tragedy of King Lear and the events that unfold all begin with Lear banishing Cordelia, the one truthful and loving daughter of the three.  By banishing and renouncing the ideal heir, Lear is left at the mercy of his ruthless daughters Goneril and Regan, and the kingdom falls apart as the two sides, Medieval and Renaissance, battle.

Shakespeare’s play “King Lear” was written during a period of change, from monarch to monarch and from ideology to ideology. The tragedy addresses the worries of that time, and presents an ideal solution and a grim prediction of the future.  Cordelia adopts the best qualities of Medieval contemplation and Renaissance humanism, creating a desirable leader in “King Lear” and the template for a desirable leader in England.  However, Shakespeare also warns that there must be an heir, or else the kingdom will fall into chaos as everyone tries to take control, as in “King Lear.”  Cordelia is ideal because she unifies two different viewpoints, which is an important part about being a ruler.  A ruler must be able to unify their subjects, even when they all vary in ideas and strengths and weaknesses, and so Cordelia, acting as a unifying force, represents the ideal ruler for England.

Works Cited

Biscoglio, Frances. "Invocations to the Gods in King Lear." Shakespeare Newsletter Spring-Summer 2001: 13+. Literature Resource Center. Web. 3 Nov. 2015.
Millard, Barbara C. "Virago with a Soft Voice: Cordelia's Tragic Rebellion in King Lear." Philological Quarterly 68.2 (Spring 1989): 143-165. Rpt. in Shakespearean Criticism. Ed. Dana Ramel Barnes. Vol. 36. Detroit: Gale, 1997. Literature Resource Center. Web. 3 Nov. 2015.
Shakespeare, William. King Lear. Ed. Mowat, Barbara, and Paul Werstine. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2009. Print