King Lear: Doing the concord-dance in Nature

As anyone who’s been around this Bard-related rodeo for any length of time knows, I like a good concordance (and for for those that haven’t been around or don’t know–a concordance is a reference book that counts the number of time a word appears in within a given collection of works). For the purposes of this blog, I like to use the one at OpenSource Shakespeare. My usual modus operandi is to read through the play, and note what words begin to pop-up on my reader’s radar in with obvious regularity. And for King Lear, one of the many repeated words (in other words, dear readers, we got more of these types of entries coming your way) is “nature.”

So, naturally (see what I did there), we’re going to start with that word…

“Nature” (and its variants, “natures,” “nature’s,” “natural,” and “unnatural”) pop up in King Lear 39 times. Within the Canon, only the other major tragedies Hamlet and Macbeth come relatively close with 35 and 31 usages, respectively (seven plays–four tragedies, two comedies, and a romance–have between 20 and 30 usages; 13 plays–four tragedies, four histories, two comedies, and three romances–have between 10 and 20 usages; the remaining 13 plays have fewer than 10 usages).

That’s quite a bit of “nature.”

According to the good ol’ OED (Oxford English Dictionary Online. Oxford University Press, March 2016. Web. 3 May 2016.), during Shakespeare’s day, these were the major (and yes, I’m leaving some out for purposes of space) meanings of the word (and its variants):

nature, n.

  • A person’s physical strength or constitution (I.1.a.)
  • The female genitals (I.3.a.)
  • The sexual urge (II.4.b)
  • The power or force which is fundamental to the physical and mental functioning of a human being (II.4.a.)
  • The vital functions of the human body (II.4.c.)
  • The inherent dominating power or impulse in a person (II.5.a.)
  • Natural feeling or affection, originally esp. that between parent and child (II.6.)
  • Human nature (III.7.a.)
  • The innate or characteristic disposition of a particular person (III.7.b.)
  • The inherent or essential quality of a thing (III.8.a.)
  • The creative and regulative power which is conceived of as operating in the material world (IV.10.a.)
  • This power personified as a female being (IV.10.b.)
  • The phenomena of the physical world collectively (IV.11.a.)
  • The body’s own natural power of healing itself (IV.12.)

natural, n.

  • A person having a low learning ability or intellectual capacity (II.7.a.)

natural, adj. and adv.

  • Proper to the nature or character of the person or thing (A.I.2.d.)
  • Instinctively or immediately felt to be right and fair, though not prescribed by any enactment or formal compact (A.I.4.)
  • Of a person: having a status (esp. of allegiance or authority) by birth (A.II.14.a.)
  • Hereditary; possessed by right of birth (A.II.14.b.)
  • Of a person: related genetically but not legally to his or her father; born outside marriage, illegitimate (A.II.15.a.)
  • Of a person’s child: genetically related (without reference to legal recognition) (A.II.15.b.)
  • Of a person: native to a country; native-born (A.II.17.b.)

unnatural, adj. and n.

  • Of a person: lacking normal human feelings or sympathies, esp. in regard to familial relationships; acting in an inhuman or unfeeling manner; excessively cruel or wicked (A.2.a.)
  • Illegitimate; having no natural right or claim (A.4.)
  • At variance with what is normal, usual, or to be expected (A.5.)

If we take a look at the uses within the play, we see quite the variety of definitions being used.

 

location/
speaker
use defined
I.i.52
Lear
“Where nature doth with merit challenge” II.6
I.i.169
Lear
“Which nor our nature nor our place can bear” II.5.a
I.i.210
Lear
“a wretch whom nature is ashamed” III.7.a
I.i.234
France
“A tardiness in nature” III.8.a or II.6
I.ii.1
Edmund
“Thou, Nature, art my goddess…” IV.10.b
I.ii.11
Edmund
“Who in the lusty stealth of nature…” BAWDY ALERT: II.4.a (or possibly even I.3.a [as the preceding sentence deals with women])
I.ii.78
Gloucester
“unnatural, detested, brutish villain” A.2.a
I.ii.102, 103, 109
Gloucester
“Though the wisdom of nature… yet nature finds itself… the king falls from bias of nature” III.7.a; III.7.a; II.6
I.ii.165-166
Edmund
“a brother noble, // Whose nature is so far from doing harms” III.7.b
I.iv.250
Lear
“wrenched my frame of nature // From the fixed place” III.7.b or II.4.a
I.iv.257
Lear
“Hear, Nature, hear, dear goddess…” IV.10.b
I.v.32
Lear
“I will forget my nature” II.5.a or III.7.b
II.i.49
Edmund
“his unnatural purpose” A.2.a
II.i.83
Gloucester
“Loyal and natural boy” A.I.2.d or A.I.4 (or A.II.14.a or A.II.14.b or A.II.15.a or A.II.15.b, status by birth)
II.i.115
Cornwall
“Natures of such deep trust” II.6
II.ii.53
Kent
“Nature disclaims in thee” IV.11.a or IV.10.a
II.ii.75
Kent
“smooth every passion // Than in this natures of their lords rebel”  III.8.a
II.ii.97
Cornwall
“constrains the garb // Quite from his nature”  III.7.a
II.iv.99
Lear
“We are not ourselves // When nature, being oppressed, commands the mind” II.4.a or IV.10.a or IV.11.a (this last one could be foreshadowing)
II.iv.138-139
Regan
“Nature in you stands on the very verge // Of his confine” II.4.a or II.5.a or I.1.a
II.iv.163, 170
Lear
“Tender-hefted nature… The offices of nature, bond of childhood”  II.6
II.iv.259, 262
Lear
“Allow not nature more than nature needs… Why, nature needs not what thou gorgeous wear’st”  III.7.a
III.ii.8
Lear
“Crack nature’s molds” IV.11.a
III.ii.48-49
Kent
“Man’s nature cannot carry // Th’ affliction nor the fear” II.4.a (or I.1.a if speaking on individual terms)
III.iii.2
Gloucester
“I like not this unnatural dealing” A.2.a (possibly A.5)
III.iii.7
Edgar
“Most savage and unnatural!” A.2.a
III.iv.3
Kent
“The open night’s too rough // For nature to endure” I.1.a or II.4.c
III.iv.70-71
Lear
“Nothing could have subdued nature // To such a lowness but his unkind daughters” II.5.a or II.4.a or I.1.a
III.v.3
Edmund
“nature thus gives way to loyalty” II.6
III.vi.37
Lear
“Is there any cause in nature that makes these hard hearts” III.7.a or IV.10.b (though possibly II.5.a if Lear sees his own fault in this)
III.vi.92 [Quarto]
Kent
“Oppressed nature sleeps” II.4.a
III.vii.85-86
Gloucester
“enkind all the sparks of nature // To quit this horrid act.” II.6
IV.ii.33 [Quarto]
Albany
“That nature which contemns it origin” III.7.b
IV.iii.12
Gentleman
“Our foster nurse of nature is repose” III.4.a
IV.v.39
Gloucester
“My snuff and loathed part of nature” II.5.a or I.1.a
IV.v.86
Lear
“Nature’s above art in that respect” III.8.a or II.5.a
IV.v.132
Gloucester
“O ruined piece of nature!” I.1.a
IV.v.188
Lear
“I am even // The natural fool of fortune.” A.I.2.d or A.II.17.b (though it could reference the noun version II.7.a)
IV.v.203
Gentleman
“Thou hast a daughter // Who redeems nature” II.6
IV.vi.15
Cordelia
“this great breach in his abused nature” III.7.b or II.4.a or I.1.a or IV.12
V.iii.220
Edmund
“Despite of mine own nature” III.7.b (possibly II.6)

What I find fascinating is that the play’s great and central set piece is the storm, and yet that which we (naturally) consider as “nature” (“the phenomena of the physical world collectively” [IV.11.a]) is the one meaning that Shakespeare seems to avoid. Only in one case can it be employed–as Lear talks of “nature, being oppressed, command[ing] the mind” [II.iv.99]–but even there, it’s certainly not the main meaning being conveyed; it can been seen thus only as a kind of academic foreshadowing.

If what is outside in nature is ignored or avoided, could it be that the nature in us is even wilder and more destructive?

Comment?