Wednesday, 6 January 2016

Ecocritical reading of King Lear- Nick Johnston Jones

The fuck is ecocritical? Who the hell wakes up in the morning and goes: 'you know what I truly desire an ecocritical reading of 'Fifty Shades of Grey.' Hell to the no. Anyway doesn't matter because I still have to do it anyway. 


"Why should a dog, a horse, a rat have life, And thou no breath at all?"

The last example of animal imagery in a play that contains more references to nature than any other play. Ecophobia is contempt for the natural world. The overwhelming majority of animal references in KL are negative - denigrating both humans and animals through cruel association. 

Goneril and Regan are particularly on the receiving end....
  • "Detested kite! thou liest"
  • “she hath tied / sharp-tooth'd unkindness, like a vulture, here [points to his heart]” 
  • "struck me with her tongue, / Most serpent-like, upon the very heart"
  • “‘twas this flesh begot those pelican daughters” 
Dogs are used most followed by horses and both of these are mentioned in Lear's final cry of despair. 

Dogs - stressed servility and savagery
Horses- modes of transport

Edmund tells the Captain to execute Lear and Cordelia and he replies:
"I cannot draw a cart, nor eat dried oats./ It it be a man's work, I'll do it." 

He rejects the horses's role and lowly station + embraces the evil assignment as 'man's work'. Animals are consciously wicked but men are- who should we rate higher in the 'moral' order? 

Initial fertile descriptions of the land as: 
"With shadowy forests and with champains riched, With plenteous rivers and wide-skirted meads" but after the landscape is described as barren and inhospitable with Gloucester anxiously pointing out "For many miles about There’s scarce a bush." Man and the natural world appear to be fundamentally at odds in the imaginative universe of KL. 

Montaigne's challenge to 'the natural world' 

KL's last line implies a hierarchy of contempt with rats coming last. Chain of Being where animals were placed below man. But Montaigne challenged this long- established paradigm, questioning the 'natural order' and suggesting that man was not necessarily superior to animals.  

Shakespeare's references to cannabilsm echoes Montaigne's sentiments. Montaigne's ideas were gaining currency in the new Jacobean era which underlines the disruption that radical new ideas were causing in a country already rocked by religious and political upheaval. 

Montaigne concluded that man's belief in their innate superiority over animals was juxtaposed to the natural world that was its main weakness. This is clearly seen in the storm scene...

The storm scene symbolises Lear's rage and contempt for everyone. Lear sees the storm as a cosmic reaction to his situation. The ranting , thunder and violence conflate his character with the storm. Shakespeare uses storms to suggest links between human and natural disruption. Normally there's a supernatural dimension but no in KL, it is independent of human agency. 

Steve Mentz writes: "the play mocks human faith in an orderly universe' and the storm represents 'disequilibrium'. 

Nature and the Gods

Nature and Gods are inseparably intertwined. Characters ascribe metaphysical or religious significance to the natural world. 

Characters appeals to nature or the gods reflect the delousional beliefs of the characters who only see what they want, choose what they want to believe. 

'Nature legitimises greed and cruelty, the case of of the evil characters, or that nature abhors and punishes these qualities, in the case of the good."

Confusion reigns + the storm continues as Lear is stripped of his sanity. Lear's arrogance is evident "Blow winds and crack your cheeks.." but he still thinks the storm is about him. The storm is indifferent to human affairs as the Fools points out: "Here's a night pities neither wise men nor fools." But Lear remains in the grip of his ego and stubbornly asserts that he is 'more sinned against than sinning'.

Without morals, or without a moral? 

Lear exhibits some compassion during the storm, belated sympathy for 'poor naked wretches' and the error of his reign. He poses many existential questions

" Is man no more than this?" which echoes Montaigne's "Miserable man: whom if you may consider well, what is he?" 

Play makes clear that humans are equally capable of being good or evil. Though to what extent good or evil are 'natural' human qualities is hard to judge. Shown by Edmund who has a change of heart at the end, vowing "Some good I mean to do/ Despite of mine own nature." Ever the rebel his final defiance is his own nature. 

KL shows us a world where man and nature are fatally opposed. Storm scenes dramatise this but the negative presentation of animal kingdom is also a key note in the terrible menagerie of pain. In depth of this agony Lear is reduced to a bestial state: "Howl, howl, howl, howl". Bitterness of play's ending is not softened in any way. 

Edgar's final injuction is to 'Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say" interpreted as a sing that old ways are challenged, but offers only the faintest glimmer of hope on a darkening stage as the dead march sounds. 

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