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Wisdom, Folly, and Vanity in "King Lear"

By Edited Sep 4, 2015 0 0

The influence of the Christianity on Shakespeare’s The Tragedy of King Lear is a subject that has been heavily debated over the years.  Conclusions have gone from complete exclusion of Christianity from any critical discussion on King Lear due to its setting in a time before Christianity came to the continent, to more modern interpretations that would be hesitant to accept any claim that are not Christian themes in any of the tragedies of Shakespeare, including King Lear.[1]  The latter seems much more plausible given the Christian intellectual orientation of the typical Elizabethan audience.  In fact, individuals such as Carolyn French have surmised that King Lear actually depends on this orientation more than any of the other Shakespearean tragedies to fully understand the action of this play.[2] French makes this argument in opposition to those such as Margret Webster who argue not only that Ling Lear does not have a Christian rational but that the dramatic structure of Lear has no rational at all.[3]In response to Webster, French said the following:

Without this orientation we are likely to accept Lear as a rather bleak but moving domestic melodrama about an insane old man who is driven out into the storm by his ungrateful daughters, or to reject it as a meaningless composite of extravagant emotionalism and mordant humor, more enervating than moving in performance. 

French claims that not only can Lear be characterized as play about Christian justice, and a play about Christian patience, but it is also a play about Christian folly which French goes on to say is to be interpreted is a kind of wisdom.[4]  I would have to agree with the claim that Christian folly can be found in Lear as it was this subject that drew me into my initial study of the play.  It seems that there are many parallels between the writings of the Apostle Paul and Lear when it comes to the subject of folly.  There also appears to be parallels between Lear and The Praise of Folly written by Erasmus which drew on the foolish wisdom paradox of Paul as well.  However, while searching for parallels between Lear and Folly I couldn’t help but notice that there seemed to be a connection to another king and biblical writer that dedicated a whole treatise to the subject of wisdom, folly, and the apparent meaninglessness of life.  This king is none other than King Solomon who is traditionally accepted as the author of Ecclesiastes.  As I will try to presently show by a limited exposition of Chapters one through four of Ecclesiastes andActs one through three of King Lear, it seems there are themes and elements in Ecclesiastes that are also paralleled in The Tragedy of King Lear.  This is interesting because it shows one more possible connection to a religious source in the supposedly pagan King Lear.     

Solomon was very similar in character to that of Lear.  They were both great kings in their day who in their wisdom wanted to keep peace in their respective kingdoms not by bloodshed but through diplomacy.  However, because of the eventual foolishness on the part of both Solomon and Lear their kingdoms would be divided and their foolishness would result their demise.  Toward the end of his reign, Solomon suffered greatly from a lack of faith in God and tried to rule his kingdom in his own wisdom.  The decisions that he made during this time had a tragic effect on him and his kingdom.  Thus Solomon, cut off from his creator, set out in his own wisdom to find meaning in life apart from God.  This is the setting in which the book of Ecclesiastes was written, a book in which Solomon reveals his personal thoughts and conclusions about life.  It is also the latter part of Lear’s life that is the focus of King Lear.  Lear sets out on this journey through the wilderness and storms of life suffering from the consequences of his “wisdom” which has proven to be folly.  Along the way he will reveal his own thoughts and make his own conclusions about life in his world where the Gods do not exist or do not care about the fate of humans on earth.   

One theme from the book of Ecclesiastes that is demonstrated early in King Lear comes from the first chapter:

I am come to great estate, and have gotten more wisdom than all they that have been before me…yea, my heart had great experience of wisdom and knowledge.  And I gave my heart to know wisdom, and to know madness and folly: I perceived that this also is vexation of spirit.  For in much wisdom is much grief: and he that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow.[5]

In this passage one can see a parallel not with Lear but between the claim of Solomon and the fate of the earl of Kent in Act I.  The Preacher claims that he has had a successful life and has gained much wisdom along the way.  He has made and effort in his life to know what is wise and what is foolish.  This seems to be a fair descriptor of the earl of Kent who is a nobleman and has served Lear faithfully for many years.  The grief of Kent came for him when he chose to “come between the dragon and his wrath” (1.1.120).  The earl of Kent was the only person in the court of King Lear who disagreed with his actions in regards to the disinheritance of Cordelia.  There is an exchange of words between the two in which Kent calls the King “mad” (1.1.144) and points out that “majesty” has fallen to “folly” (1.1.147).  For this reason, Lear focuses his rage on Kent and banishes him from the kingdom.    Thus Kent demonstrates the theme in Ecclesiastes that “with much wisdom is much grief, and he that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow.”  The pronouncement on Kent and its connection to this theme also foreshadows what will soon happen to Lear who through his “wisdom” will experience much grief and the knowledge he will soon gain about his daughters will cause him much sorrow.

In the second chapter of the book of Ecclesiastes, Solomon discusses the relative value of wisdom:

And I turned myself to behold wisdom, and madness, and folly: for what can the man do that cometh after the king?...Then I saw thatwisdom excelleth folly, as far as light excelleth darkness.  The wise man’s eyes are in his head; but the fool walketh in darkness: and I myself perceived also that one event happeneth to them all. Then said I in my heart, As it happeneth to the fool, so it happeneth even to me; and why was I then more wise? Then I said in my heart, that this also is vanity.  For there is no remembrance of the wise more than of the fool for ever; seeing that which now is in the days to come shall all be forgotten. And how dieth the wise man? as the fool.[6]

In this passage Solomon is considering what those that will come after him will be like and determines that they will be like they are at the present.  He then realized in all his activities he had proven himself to be superior to others. Yet while he belived that wisdom was better than folly he couldn’t help but notice “As it happeneth to the fool, so it happeneth even to me.”  This theme is stretched out in Lear over much of the play.  However the first time that Lear begins to realize that there has been a terrible flaw in his reasoning is when he goes to stay with his daughter Goneril. 

After his knights have been treated harshly and he has disrespected by Oswald the Fool makes his first appearance.  The fact that the Fool appears at this time in the play is significant as this is the first time that Lear’s will question his own reasoning as Kent had done at the beginning of the play.  The person whom Lear calls “Fool” is apparently quite wise and he informs the King that he has made a grave mistake in giving his kingdom along with his power over to Goneril and Regan when he remarks to Kent “Why, this fellow has banished two on’s daughters and did the third a blessing against her will” (1.4.89-91) 

It is now that Lear begins to question not only his reason and thereby his sanity but he also questions his own identity.  Lear says “Does any here know me? This is not Lear. / Does Lear walk thus, speak thus? Where are his eyes” (1.4.191-192)?  Recall Ecclesiastes when Solomon states “The wise man’s eyes are in his head; but the fool walketh in darkness.”   Lear is making the same comparison as Solomon in these lines, the wise man like the person with sight and the fool who is blind.  This also is a foreshadowing of Lear and Gloucester who will illustrate this wisdom of folly paradox at the same time yet in different ways.  Lear will have his sight but will succumb to insanity while Gloucester will be completely lucid yet at the same time blind.  Furious and saddened by the treatment of his daughter Lear sets out to the castle of his second daughter Regan. 

By the end of Act II Lear declares “O Fool, I shall go mad!”(2.2.451) and will have begun to fulfill the last part of this passage:  “As it happeneth to the fool, so it happeneth even to me…there is no remembrance of the wise more than of the fool for ever…And how dieth the wise man? as the fool.”

Solomon now turns in his discourse to the subject of injustice and death.

And moreover I saw under the sun the place of judgment, that wickedness was there; and the place of righteousness, that iniquity was there.  I said in mine heart, God shall judge the righteous and the wicked: for there is a time there for every purpose and for every work.  I said in mine heart concerning the estate of the sons of men, that Godmight manifest them, and that they might see that they themselves are beasts…So I returned, and considered all the oppressions that are done under the sun: and behold the tears of such as were oppressed, and they had no comforter; and on the sideof their oppressors there was power; but they had no comforter.  Wherefore I praised the dead which are already dead more than the living which are yet alive. Yea, better is he than both they, which hath not yet been, who hath not seen the evil work that is done under the sun.[7]

In this passage Solomon contrast what he believed to be true about justice with what he now perceives to be reality.  He once believed that God reward the righteous and likewise punish the wicked.  However what he observed was just the opposite.  He realized that the oppressed had no one to comfort them and those that had the ability to provide them comfort, the oppressors, failed to do so. 

After receiving similar treatment from his second daughter Lear bursts out in the middle of a raging storm to begin his own lonely journey in the world which now made no sense to him.  The thing that Lear keeps thinking about during this mad wandering is the treatment that he received from his cruel and unjust daughters.  As the Fool tells Kent who is calling for them in the storm there is no one there but “a wise man and a fool” (3.2.39-40) but it nearly impossible at this point tool distinguish which one is Lear and which one is the King’s court jester.  Kent declares that man’s nature cannot possibly bare the storm in which Lear is now suffering (3.2.47-48).  The irony is apparent at that moment but there is also irony in this statement which has yet to be revealed. 

In a similar line of reasoning as Solomon Lear begins a discourse in which he is cheering on the Gods yelling “Let the great Gods, that keep this dreadful pother o’er our heads, find out their enemies now” (3.2.49-51).  He then declares “Tremble, thou wretch that has within thee undivulged crimes unwhipped of justice” (3.2.51-52).  Most importantly he finishes this outburst with “I am a man more sinned against than sinning” (3.2.58-59).  This is the most telling line in the discourse but the whole passage reveals that Lear believes that the storm is not directed at him but at the “enemies of the Gods” who are raining down their punishment on the unjust.  The fact that he ends his statement with “I am a man more sinned against than sinning” suggest that Lear believes that he is unjustly caught in the storm and that he is either not being targeted by the God’s wrath or perhaps that they are treating him unfairly.  Regardless this passage still calls to mind Solomon’s initial feelings on this subject as well, that “God shall judge the righteous and the wicked.”  For Solomon as Lear also reveals in this passage people suffer because they have sinned against their respective Gods.

Further revealing the possible connection to Ecclesiastes is the discussion that continues just before the Fool attempts to enter the hovel.  It is here that Lear makes an astonishing revelation that calls into question his previous thoughts concerning justice in the world.  He observes:

Poor naked wretches whereso’er you are,

That bide the pelting of this pitiless storm,

How shall your houseless heads and unfed sides,

Your looped and windowed raggedness, defend you

From seasons such as these? (3.4.28-32) 

It seems that in these lines Lear makes the same realization as Solomon had concerning the injustice of the oppressed.  Lear further makes this apparent as he continues in his prayer.

O, I have ta’en

Too little care of this. Take physic, pomp,

Expose thyself to feel what wretches feel,

That thou mayest shake the superflux to them

And show the heavens more just. (3.4.32-36)

This seems to confirm the realization that Lear, as Solomon, realized that the reason that the oppressed had no comfort was because the oppressors, whom Lear now realizes himself to be, have not provided for their comfort. 

This realization also falls in line with the theme of St. Stephen’s Day, the day on which King Lear was first performed before King James I.  This holiday called into remembrance the plight of the poor and was a day in which the rich would open up their homes to the poor, feed them, cloth them, and even serve them. 

Whether or not Shakespeare drew directly from Ecclesiastes for inspiration in the writing of King Lear will probably never be revealed.  However there does seem to be striking similarities between the two which carry on well beyond the scope of this paper.  It seems plausible that there is a real connection between these two works due to the overarching theme of Ecclesiastes of determining how to live life without the help and influence of God and the fact that this was also an issue for Protestants during the time of Shakespeare.  The Reformation had left Protestant Christians in a world without the miracles and magic that had once been proof for many that there was a God and more particularly a God who cared.  Without the icons and miraculous signs of their former Catholic faith some began to doubt that God cared about them since it was held that God did not intervene in the affairs of humans. Some even lost their faith all together once faced with having to rely on humanist reason as their only source for proving the validity or existence of God.  No other biblical writing addresses this issue of living by unaided human reason based solely on data from the natural world than the book of Ecclesiastes.  Thus, in trying to understand a Shakespearean play written in a Protestant country and set in a pagan world much can be learned from the king who declared “Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities; all is vanity.”[8]

 

Works Cited

French, Carolyn S. "Shakespeares Folly: King Lear." Shakespeare Quarterly (Folger Shakespeare Library in association with George Washington University) 10 (1959): pp. 523-529.

Shakespeare, William. "The Tragedy of King Lear." In Norton Shakespeare : Based on the Oxford Edition, by W Shakespeare, S J Greenblatt, S Greenblatt, W Cohen, J E Howard and K E Maus, 582-813. W. W. Norton, 2008.

The Holy Bible: King James Version. Electronic ed. of the 1769 edition of the 1611 Authorized Version. Bellingham WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 1995, S.



[1] French, Carolyn S. "Shakespeares Folly: King Lear." Shakespeare Quarterly (Folger Shakespeare Library in association with George Washington University) 10 (1959): pp. 523-529. 524

[2] French, Carolyn S. "Shakespeares Folly: King Lear." Shakespeare Quarterly (Folger Shakespeare Library in association with George Washington University) 10 (1959): pp. 523-529.  523-524

[3] Margaret Webster, Shakespeare Without Tears (New York: Fawcett Publications, 1957), p. i62. As referenced in French, Carolyn S. "Shakespeares Folly: King Lear." Shakespeare Quarterly (Folger Shakespeare Library in association with George Washington University) 10 (1959): pp. 523-529.  523

[4] French, Carolyn S. "Shakespeares Folly: King Lear." Shakespeare Quarterly (Folger Shakespeare Library in association with George Washington University) 10 (1959): pp. 523-529.  524

[5] The Holy Bible : King James Version. electronic ed. of the 1769 edition of the 1611 Authorized Version. Bellingham WA : Logos Research Systems, Inc., 1995, S. Ec 1:16-18

[6] The Holy Bible : King James Version. electronic ed. of the 1769 edition of the 1611 Authorized Version. Bellingham WA : Logos Research Systems, Inc., 1995, S. Ec 2:12-16

[7] The Holy Bible : King James Version. electronic ed. of the 1769 edition of the 1611 Authorized Version. Bellingham WA : Logos Research Systems, Inc., 1995, S. Ec 3:16-4:3

[8] The Holy Bible : King James Version. electronic ed. of the 1769 edition of the 1611 Authorized Version. Bellingham WA : Logos Research Systems, Inc., 1995, S. Ec 1:2

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