The Fates in King Lear: The Role of the Divine in Shakespeare’s Tragedies

It is certainly not uncommon to find references to the divine in Shakespeare’s works, particularly in the more serious works: the sonnets, the tragedies, the histories. What is noticeably uncommon is any form of physical manifestation or even apparition of the divine. There are, of course, one thousand and one possible explanations for this; stage censorship and technological limitation seem to be the most common of these. However, it should be noted that there are many examples of plays written by Shakespeare’s contemporaries which do call for the physical of God or of lesser gods and goddesses. Far more likely, then, seems the possibility that the author tries to communicate something through the seeming absence of God in his works. This can be noted in any of Shakespeare’s theatrical works, less so in the comedies and histories perhaps, therefore take Shakespeare’s magnum opus for example. King Lear, which is largely considered one of Shakespeare’s greatest compositions, is a gleaming example of the negligence of the divine. It contains, like many of the other tragedies, tens of pleas from each of the varied characters to the heavenly for intercession. The events of the drama take place in pagan Britain, meaning that the events predate Christianity in Britannia. In pagan Britain, much like in the other polytheistic societies years before it, a pantheon of gods would have been worshiped, with each bearing a specific purpose or inclination. For comparison, one might recall the Greek Pantheon wherein Apollo was a god of the sun and Pallas a goddess of knowledge. The Britons had a particularly vast pantheon, worshipping some hundred-odd gods, with such specific patronages as oak trees. These pagan gods are called upon many times throughout King Lear, with little to no effect on the plot to come. Interestingly enough, and unique to King Lear, lines of dialogue might even suggest that the characters of the plot recognized the negligence of the gods and thusly branded them unjust. One notable example of this can be found in the Fool, who in Act II says: “Fortune, that arrant whore, ne’er turns the key to th’ poor.” (II.iv.58). This line holds definite anger towards the pagan god of fortune, a trait seldom seen in other plays.

As previously stated, appeals to the divine seem to be far more common in Shakespeare’s serious works, and this may serve to further the inference that the gods are absent or negligent; the histories and tragedies of Sir William Shakespeare are nothing if not predictable. Indeed, many of his theatrical works follow very similar paths, which in turn stemmed from some archetypal work preceding it. It is known, then, that the ends of all tragedies are marked by death, revenge, and discord. Should it not follow that implications of negligence in the divine (perhaps even early Deist or Agnostic ideas, but unlikely) are much easier made in these plays? In what other format does so much woe befall human beings, wherein prayers might rise up to silent ears? King Lear can certainly be seen as an example of this theory, as not all prayers go answered and some quite horrible things seize even those who pray.

There are also those who would argue that King Lear is meant to be seen as a form of Christian mythos or application. This argument is contingent, however, on the agreement that the title character is indeed redeemed or enlightened by his suffering throughout the play. Considering only that which is material to the play, and no tandem ramifications or offshoots, this surely seems to be folly. When one considers the play in historical context (which may be dangerous) it certainly seems feasible that the play might have Christian applications, such a thing might not have been uncommon in Tudor England, but it is of course not allegory. A.C. Bradley, remembered as one of the greatest Shakespeare scholars, claims that “through his sufferings, Lear has won an enlightened soul.” It seems fairly unchristian, however, that the series of unfortunate events which befell Lear were almost solely his fault.


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