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Ray Delva
December 2014
ENGL 4337
Illegitimate Innateness: Nature versus Nurture in King Lear
I am a man/ More sinnd against than sinning
-Lear in King Lear (III.ii.59-60)

Even though the Renaissance brought about the birth of a rising new middle classand
with it, a refreshing sense of social mobilityit was still a time of distinct and segregated social
classes. Existing within the extremely hierarchal society of England was an implicit
understanding that ones behavior must be reflective of his social class. The upper-class
aristocracy, who had unequal access to education as well as opportunities for travel, were often
thought of as being naturally moral and more intelligent than any of the other classes leading to
the conception of a popular notion that aristocrats were a naturally superior people. Essentially,
this notion suggests that the qualities of ones character are innate and that there is a direct
correlation between class and personality. However, by never taking into consideration the socioeconomic factors that influence personality, this notion fails to acknowledge the complexities
behind personality development.
This idea of character as something that is innate is evoked in Shakespeares classic
tragedy King Lear. While the character Cordelia, whose love for Lear is almost too pure to be
true, displays many of the ideal traits associated with aristocracy, the majority of her upper-class
peers are terribly immoral. The actions of these characters completely nullify any assumption
that people of the upper-class are intrinsically noble. Another character, the bastard Edmund,
whose status as an illegitimate would regard him as base and immoral in the eyes of a

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Renaissance audience, is surprisingly one of the most multi-dimensional characters; he arguably

shows the most amount of character development in the whole play. Shakespeares
characterization of the upper-class, though not uniform, calls into question the validity of social
class as an indicator of character while his characterization of Edmund offers insight into how
ones environment is a much more deciding factor of personality and behavior than ones social
Lears most loyal subject, the Earl of Kent, is one of the few people to explicitly remark
on the notion of intrinsic character qualities. While disguised as the peasant Caius, Kent claims
not to know the recently dethroned Lear, but somehow be able to recognize something in his
countenance which [he] would fain call master (I.iv.27-28). Kent implies that Lears
authoritative qualitya quality undoubtedly established by his kingshipis so ingrained in his
character that he is able to physically recognize it in Lears face. Lear acceptance of Kents
services following this reason not only illustrate his vainness (a quality truly innate in Lear), but
it also suggests that he, too, abides by some notion that the qualities of a person are intrinsic and
governed by social standing. This is also suggested in Lears reactions to the betrayal of his
daughters. The eponymous king begs the gods to anatomize Reagan and see what breeds
about her heart in hopes of finding if there is any cause in nature that make these hard hearts
( This call to the gods seem based on a presupposition that Reagans treachery has
something to do with the functions of her heart, again linking behavior to biology. His fixation
on the nature of Reagans hard heart does not allow him to consider the possibility that his
daughters immorality may be as a result of her environment, particularly the corrupting
influence of her older sister, Goneril.

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Adding to the evidence that character cannot be determined by class is the sacrifice of the
Duke of Cornwalls servant. When Cornwall and his co-conspirators, Goneril and Reagan, find
out that Gloucester helped Lear escape their wrath, they do not waste the opportunity to exact
revenge. While the others hold Gloucester down, Cornwall proceeds to gouge out one of his eyes
and he is right about to gouge out the other when suddenly he is stopped by one of his servants.
This servant, who cannot even be dignified with a name and is only referred to in the play as
Servant 1, has been in Cornwalls service since [he] was a child (III.vii.74), but this loyalty
is tested after witnessing the cruel treatment of Gloucester by his master. Angered by his
servants defiance, Cornwall duels Servant 1 and is almost defeated until Reagan fatally stabs the
servant in the back. Although his appearance is extremely brief in the play, Servant 1s defiance
is critical in assessing Shakespeares commentary on the link between class and personality. If
social class supposedly determines behavior, then Servant 1 would presumably have far less
moral integrity than his masters. However, his sudden disobedience towards his master, to whom
he has served the majority of his life, proves that the servants sense of justice is so firm that not
even is. Had he not intervened, Servant 1s life would have been spared. His compulsion to
intervene, however, is evidence of a morality that few, if any other character, regardless of class,
demonstrates. His consequential death at the hands of Reagan, who must attack him indirectly in
order to slay him, not only emphasizes the immorality of the upper-class characters, it also
accentuates their cowardice.
Aside from class, there is another hierarchy of relationships to be considered in King
Lear: the familial one. In the same sense that people of the lower class were expected to respect
and practically revere the upper-class, children during the Renaissance period were also expected
to naturally harbor a mutual feeling of unconditional love for their parents. This notion has

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already been proved false through Goneril and Reagans betrayal, but Lear is also guilty of
betrayal. In the first act of the play, Lear holds a contest between his daughters making them
compete for their inheritance through complimenting him. When Cordelia refuses to indulge in
the excessive flattery of her father, he immediately disinherits her. Despite his claim that he
lovd her most (I.i.123), Lear does not recognize that Cordelias love for him is so pure that it
cannot be validated through superfluous language. So shallow is Lears idea of love that he
mistakes Goneril and Reagans bootlicking for actual affection. It is a mistake that leads to a
complete destabilizing of the family hierarchy because he not only destroys the one filial
relationship he had that was based on real love, he also ends up giving too much power to the
daughters who will later abandon him.
Like Lear, Gloucester also demonstrates a critical misjudgment of his children. When
Edmund approaches him with a letter he forged to defame Edgar, Gloucester is easily convinced
that his legitimate son and inheritor of all he owns is plotting against him. Gloucester curses
Edgar, calling him an Abhorred villain! Unnatural and detested (I.ii.76). He does not even
try to investigate the matter with Edgar presentan action which would at least allow Edgar to
defend himself before deemed guilty. Gloucesters choice of insults, particularly his labeling of
Edgar as unnatural, enforces the idea that a harmonious relationship between father and child
is a natural one.
These crucial misjudgments of their character indicate just how disconnected with their
children that the fathers in King Lear are. This distance between father and child is phenomenon
that probably wasnt only isolated to Lear and Gloucester. In her article, Medieval and
Renaissance Parenting, Rachelle Hughes notes that during the Renaissance period, there seems
to have been little concern for the child between birth and five or six years old (1). During this

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time, the actual raising of the child was not solely handled by the parent, but instead included
extended family members, wet-nurses, and religious leaders. In the cases of nobility or royalty,
children had an even more populated group of people responsible for their development, thus
there was a greater disconnection between parent and child. With such general estrangement
from their mother and father, one must wonder how children of the Renaissance ever formed
deep, personal relationships with their parents, much less a relationship based on unconditional
obedience. While it would be far too presumptuous to assume that Lear or Gloucester were
absent during the upbringing of their children, Hughes research reveals that it is a valid
possibility. This notion of children having a naturally harmonious relationship with their parents
is one based on ideals, not reality and not even the fiction of Shakespeares drama attempts to
eschew from that reality.
According to the idea of people innately taking on the characteristics of their social class,
Goneril and Reagan, as daughters of the king, should be quintessential examples of
sophistication, chastity and moral behavior. As not only members of the upper-class, but also
leaders of their respective family hierarchies, Lear and Gloucester should be capable of better
judgment, especially regarding their children. Likewise, Servant 1 should not be more morally
inclined than his superiors. These characters, however, all demonstrate behavior completely
contrary to what would be assumed of them, effectively voiding the notion that ones behavior
can be determined by his position in the social hierarchy.
Debunking the myth that character is innate is only part of Shakespeares commentary on
personality. While biology definitely influences the qualities of ones personhood, the
environment that one is placed in also may have significant impacts on his character.
Shakespeare authenticates this idea through the bastard Edmund.

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Within the first couple of lines in the play, even before he is given a speaking part, Edmund
is already identified as the whoreson (I.i.24) by his father Gloucester. To make matters worse,
Gloucester is not even directly addressing Edmund, though Edmund is present. Instead he discusses
the humiliating circumstances of Edmunds conception with Kent and he does so with seemingly no
regard for his sons feelings. This lack of empathy for the bastard was widespread during the
Renaissance and it existed across all classes. In his essay, Illegitimacy and the Social Structure,
Davis Kingsley explains how The bastard, like the prostitute, thief and beggar, belongs to that
motley crowd of disreputable social types which society has generally resented [and] always
endured. He is a living symbol of social irregularity (21). As a manifestation of social irregularity,
Edmund must live with the understanding that his community views his being as illegitimate, a label
which only serves to further ostracize him. Helen Vella Bonavita expands on the concept of
illegitimacy in her article entitled In Everything Illegitimate: Bastards and the National Family. In
it, she writes how illegitimacy during this period was regularly invoked as a means of identifying
and denouncing perceived threats to the good ordering of the social fabric (1). As a bastard,
Edmund is an anomaly and thus he is perceived as detrimental to the well-being of Renaissance
society, regardless of his actual behavior.
In a similar fashion, scholars traditionally perceive Edmund as inherently evil, focusing on
his manipulation of the other characters, but rarely on the causation. These scholars also make the
mistake of implying that Edmunds malicious behavior is somehow expected simply because he was
born a bastard. One such scholar, Irving Ribner, purports in his book Patterns in Shakespearean
Tragedy that It is fitting that Edmund should be a bastard, for, conceived outside of Gods
harmonious order with its moral standards, he can deny all benevolent human feelings which are a
part of it, proceeding directly from the love of God (111). Ribners claim suggests that ones sense
of morality is directly linked to ones societal placinga notion already proved wrong by other

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characters in the play. Another problem with Ribners claim is how it narrows personality into a
religious context. The implications of his claim are that if one is conceived outside of Gods
harmonious order he cannot hope to acquire all benevolent human feelings which are a part of it.
Not only is the claim underdeveloped, it is too dependent on religious doctrine to be considered
valuable in assessing characters who may not be religiously inclined as is Edmunds case.
Central to this notion of character being determined by societal placing is the ever ongoing
debate of nature versus nurture. The question this timeless debate hopes to answer is to whether or
not personality is developed by genetics (nature) or if it is instead shaped by an individuals
environment and the experiences gained through interaction with that environment (nurture). While
Renaissance England did not have the resources to investigate this matter as thoroughly as it has been
in recent times, their notion of character as being innate reveals how relevant the debate was back
then as it is now. This idea is not completely false as evidenced through characters like Cordelia who
consistently maintains a high level of moral integrity and affection for her father despite being
disowned by him. It is, however, incomplete because it fails to acknowledge how incredibly complex
personalities are. As David F. Bjorklunds argument makes clear in his essay Its Not All in Your
Genes: Life from a Developmental System Perspective, personality results from the continuous,
bidirectional and dynamic interaction of all parts of a [person] (such as genes, cells, tissues, and
organs) and the [person] himself with the context within which the [person] is embedded (309). This
conclusion takes into consideration the biological elements which fashion a person, but it also
equates the importance of biological factors to environmental factors.
While the circumstances of ones birth undoubtedly have an impact on the qualities of ones
character, these qualities are hardly fixed. They are mutable and subject to change as soon as a
persons environment demands it. Through this context, Edmunds characterization as one of the
plays principal villains becomes much more complex than how it is traditionally understood.

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Edmund is not innately an evil person. His evil can be seen as a something fashioned by his rather hostile
environment. Edmund must struggle to gain respect in a society which hates him simply because of the
circumstances surrounding his birthcircumstances which Edmund could not have had possibly any
type of influence on. While his sociopathic tendencies and penchant for manipulation are no means
excused, they are given a reasonable cause, proving that Edmunds evil is more a reaction to his
unsympathetic environment rather than some sort of expression of his being a bastard. His actions are
not justified, but his aggressive attitude towards the classist system which relentlessly antagonizes him
is. So although the line featured in the epigraph is spoken by a deluded Lear, it is much more applicable
to Edmund, who having been labeled a bastard must endure the gratuitous disdain from the community
around him. But even though Edmund maintains his aggression for the majority of the play, a change in
his environment makes his character undergo yet another development.
During the final scene of the play, Edmund is surprised to discover that Goneril has poisoned
Reagan and then killed herself, all for his sake. To this news, he responds with the iconic statement, Yet
Edmund was belovd (V.iii.240). Gonerils murder of her sister and then subsequent suicide is a
horrendous action, but the fact that Edmund is able to recognize a sentiment of love within it shows
how truly deprived of human affection he is. This revelation that Goneril was willing to kill her sister for
his sake is incredibly moving Edmund and he immediately begins repenting for his actions. In an attempt
to undo some of the harm he has caused, he tries to stop the murder of Cordelia; however, this is done
in vain. No longer feeling ostracized, all of Edmunds supposed innate evil vanishes, indicating that not
only were Edmunds malevolent actions a result of his unfriendly environment, but also that the
qualities of a ones character are not fixed and can be drastically changed by ones environment.
The Renaissance notion of innate character is classist and scientifically incomplete. Embracing
this ideology is harmful for society because it does not allow societys outcasts to have the option of
redemption. By condemning ones character based solely off of his place in society leads to the creation

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of sociopaths as seen through Edmund. Shakespeares development of Edmund, as well as his
characterization of the upper-class in King Lear allow the flaws of this idea to come to light.