'the Excellent Foppery of the World': Skepticism in King Lear
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`The Excellent Foppery of the World':
Skepticism in King Lear
"As flies to wanton boys are we to th' gods; / They kill us for their sport." (4.1.41-42) So bemoans the blinded and despondent Earl of Gloucester in King Lear. Whether his claim deserves merit, while intriguing, is far beyond the scope of this paper. What I do intend to explore, however, is whether Shakespeare's play supports or opposes these and other skeptical ideas. I will argue that King Lear strongly advocates a skeptical worldview, not just in regards to belief in theism, but in all areas. A skeptical, humanistic philosophy pervades the entire text of Lear; I do not believe this is incidental.
First, an important distinction must be made. Skepticism is not atheism, and it is not nihilism. By "skepticism" I simply mean the philosophical position whereby all claims and belief systems, particularly, although not excluded to, those involving the supernatural, are questioned and critically examined, with the scientific method applied when possible. Skepticism does not necessarily lead to atheism, just as credulity does not lead to theism. For the purposes of this paper, whether solar eclipses really "portend no good to us" (1.2.109-110) is not important; what is important, and what I intend to show Shakespeare advocates in King Lear, is that people should critically examine the available evidence for that and similar claims.
King Lear contains numerous examples of characters advocating a skeptical worldview. Edmund, the bastard child of Gloucester, provides many. In his opening lines, he declares, "Thou, Nature, art my goddess. To thy law / My services are bound" (1.2.1-2), choosing naturalism over spiritualism. Later, after Gloucester warns him that...
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...ne encounters when trying to use an Aristotlean theory, a Christian formula, or the Renaissance tradition to interpret the play. In particular, the Christian formula fails because redemption does not accomplish anything. Edmund's forgiveness leads to Cordelia's death; no one is redeemed. Also, he points out the problems in viewing Cordelia as an "innocent who dies for everyone else's sins" (231); namely, that her death causes Lear only despair. He also disagrees with pessimistic critics view King Lear as a completely meaningless play. Despite the sadness in the end, the "bad" characters have all died, and a "good" character will rule England.
Additional Works Cited
Golding, William. Lord of the Flies. New York: Berkely Publishing Groups, 1954.
McEachern, Claire. "Figures of Fidelity: Believing in King Lear." Modern Philology 98.2 (November 2000): 211-231.