Ryan is an academic coach at Central Connecticut State University, currently pursuing a Master's in Student Development in Higher Education.
The play King Lear, first performed around 1604, centers on Lear, King of Britain, as he draws up plans to divide his kingdom among his three daughters. He selfishly demands that each daughter profess her love to obtain their portion. The first two daughters are quick to say everything they know their father wants to hear and are given their portion of land. His third daughter, Cordelia, refuses to say anything except that her love is too great to be put into words. This enrages Lear, who banishes her from his Kingdom. He is subsequently abused by the two supposedly loving daughters, descends into madness, and reunites with his truly loving Cordelia before both tragically die.
Humanistic backdrop of King Lear
for a deeper analysis of Humanism and Atheism at the time Shakespeare wrote King Lear, see my page entitled "Shakespeare religion and God: Was Shakespeare and Atheist or did Shakespeare believe in God"
Shakespeare's intimate knowledge of the human condition throughout King Lear echoes Historian Marvin Perry's description of the Humanist revolution, which began around the same time period Shakespeare wrote the play:
the Humanist Revolution "mark[ed] the birth of modernity...[where] individuals in all endeavors [were] not constrained by a destiny imposed by God from outside, but [were] free to make their own destiny guided.only by examples of the past, the forces of the present circumstances, and the drives of their own inner nature".
An analysis of King Lear, coupled with bible citations and evidence from the text, mimics this ideology.
Atheism in King Lear
The scene in which King Lear banishes Cordelia highlights a very un-Christian theme-Materialism. Jesus, Christendom's revered Messiah, preached exhaustively on these subject. For instance, in Luke 12:15 he said, "Take heed, and beware of covetousness", and in Mathew 19:16-26 he urges a rich young man to sell his possessions and live a pious life. Yet King Lear does not follow Jesus's teachings. The entirety of the argument between him and Cordelia centers on his need for validation. He knows his daughter loves him and she says so, but he demands it to be materialized in her words. She does not relent to him and speak lies. Rather she maintains that she loves him according to their bond. So in response, Lear takes away his symbol of love, his material goods. His attachment to materialism is evidenced by how he equates love and material things.
The Storm Scene
The storm scene is perhaps the best example of an un-Christian theme. The storm symbolizes King Lear's transition to loving Cordelia. Although initially banishing Cordelia, he transforms after the storm and his bout of madness and proclaims, "if you have poison for my, I will drink it...you have some cause [your sisters] do not"(4.7.74-76). He exhibits the remorse of a good human being. This is very Humanist. He appeals to the tangible realities of the past, present and future, with a strong emphasis on his human relation to Cordelia.
A critic may be quick to point out that King Lear's remorse shows Christian morals, but this would be a fallacy. First, King Lear goes through a period of madness, contrasting with a state of epiphany found in religiously oriented writings. A religious writing would contain allusions to a higher power, like God and good deeds in the play Everyman, or the magical garments in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. But King Lear is different. His madness is not attributed to the supernatural. It is biological and human. Furthermore, Cordelia's consultation with a doctor, King Lear's numerous appeals to nature, and the imagery of the storm as a catalyst for his change are all evidence for an emphasis on nature rather than religion.
Theologian William Lane Craig often says, "an absence of evidence is not an evidence of absence", when defending himself against religious skeptics' assertions that there is no scientific evidence for God. Ironically, this assertion can also apply to Shakespeare's atheism. The evidence is based mainly on a lack of evidence to the contrary. The historical evidence of his religious affiliation is entire absent. In a time period as religiously ripe as 17th century England, this would be very conspicuous. Add with it the strong Humanist overtones in the play King Lear, and there is a very strong case to say that Shakespeare was an Atheist.
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I am currently an instructor at the Arc of Farmington Valley(FAVARH), a non-profit organization that supports teenagers and adults with...