King Lear

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The Stars, Heavens, and the Gods Symbol Analysis

The Stars, Heavens, and the Gods Symbol Icon
In Shakespeare's time there was a particularly strong belief that order on earth depended on order in the heavens—or, as Kent puts it, that "the stars above us govern our conditions" (4.3.39). Celestial bodies are thus both a metaphor of order and a potential source of disorder, when they go awry. Multiple characters in King Lear make references to eclipses that have taken place; in Act 1 Scene 2 in particular, Gloucester attributes the chaos in Lear's court—the banishment of Kent and abrupt departure of Cordelia and France—to "these late eclipses of the sun and moon" (1.2.109). Edmund then mockingly takes up the theme of "what should follow these eclipses" (1.2.148). Later in the play, Lear and Gloucester both appeal to the stars and gods together as benevolent spectators of their sad plights, and as forces for justice. (E.g., Lear cries out in 2.4: "You heavens, give me that patience […] You see me here, you gods, a poor old man" (313-4).

The Stars, Heavens, and the Gods Quotes in King Lear

The King Lear quotes below all refer to the symbol of The Stars, Heavens, and the Gods. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
Fathers, Children, and Siblings Theme Icon
). Note: all page and citation info for the quotes below refers to the Simon & Schuster edition of King Lear published in 2004.
Act 1, scene 2 Quotes
"Thou, Nature, art my goddess."
Related Characters: Edmund (speaker)
Related Symbols: The Stars, Heavens, and the Gods
Page Number: 1.2.1
Explanation and Analysis:

Edmund bemoans how his status as a bastard prevents him from having a claim to his father's title. As a result, he renounces the value of human laws and instead chooses to exalt the wonder of “Nature.”

Here we see Edmund turn away for the first time from the systems that organize human life. He reveals a wish to violate social norms and seize power for himself. Since “Nature” exists beyond the royal system that delineates between legitimate and illegitimate children, it offers a world in which Edmund could receive a proper inheritance. That Edmund selects nature to be his “goddess” also marks a subtle turn away from Christianity and toward paganism. Though religion is not a blatant theme in King Lear, it bubbles under the tragedy’s surface. Edmund’s embrace of Nature could be seen as somewhat heretical, which foreshadows the way he will sin both spiritually and politically in order to further his own ascent to power.

His soliloquy also initiates a pattern in King Lear of characters seeking solace or support in the natural environment. The tragedy often juxtaposes the banality and social cruelty of the human realm with a more egalitarian and open natural world. Shakespeare positions nature as an open psychological and physical space on which characters can project their ideal worlds, beyond the constraints of normative human society.


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"These late eclipses in the sun and moon portend no good to us."
Related Characters: Gloucester (speaker)
Related Symbols: The Stars, Heavens, and the Gods
Page Number: 1.2.109-110
Explanation and Analysis:

Edmund has just falsely informed Gloucester that Edgar is plotting against his father. Gloucester notes, as he wonders how to proceed, that the movements in the heavenly bodies foreshadow negative events to come.

This passage speaks to the important role of omens for the characters of King Lear. Various characters refer to the way the heavens ordain human events, and thus examining their movements offers a way to guess at the future. Gloucester believes, here, that he can interpret “late eclipses”—moments when light is blocked from the sun or moon—as signs of “no good” to come. (Symbolically, we could say that the light of royalty and stability will be eclipsed by deceit and eventually murder.) Shakespeare thus presents Gloucester as adhering to the value of fate—believing the the heavens determine his life more than individual human action.

It is intriguing that Gloucester brings up the idea of heavenly bodies just after Edmund has sworn allegiance to nature. Though they both seem to be appealing to the same force, their ways of doing so are vastly different. If Edmund sees in nature a space beyond the moral and social constraints of humanity, Gloucester instead sees a divine power that rules over and intersects human affairs. The first sees it as a space apart; the second as deeply integrated. In this way, Shakespeare treats nature and the heavens as a complex symbolic system—a site that various characters interpret differently based on their own beliefs and ends.

"As if we were villains on necessity; fools by heavenly compulsion."
Related Characters: Edmund (speaker)
Related Symbols: The Stars, Heavens, and the Gods
Page Number: 1.2.128-129
Explanation and Analysis:

After Gloucester departs, Edmund mocks his father’s comments on the heavens. He believes that the motion of the planets do nothing to ordain human action.

With these characters, Shakespeare establishes two poles on the question of human agency in the context of heavenly predestination. Whereas Gloucester believes that eclipses in the sky predict negative events in the human world, Edmund finds this perspective ridiculous. This debate speaks to a philosophical question on free will, but it also expresses a generational difference. Just as Lear values ceremonial behavior and adherence to tradition, Gloucester finds deference the heavens to be important. Friction arises with both sets of children because the younger generations seek increased personal control.

To substantiate his claim on the heavens, Edmund gives two examples of where human identities should not reasonably conform to fate: “villains” and “fools.” Shakespeare has not arbitrarily selected these terms. Being himself a villain (as he has just decided), Edmund is implicitly claiming that he acts according to his own will as opposed to the effect of any celestial body. Yet we could take his exploits as proof that Gloucester was correct that eclipses foretold negative events. “Fools” will play an important role later in the tragedy, when both actual and artificial fools render unclear whether the heavens or human action lead to madness. Thus even as Edmund disparages his father’s belief in destiny, Shakespeare subtly designs the structure of the tragedy to reiterate the ever-present role of fate.

Act 5, scene 3 Quotes
"Howl, howl, howl! O, you are men of stones!
Had I your tongues and eyes, I'd use them so
That heaven's vault should crack. She's gone forever."
Related Characters: King Lear (speaker), Cordelia
Related Symbols: The Stars, Heavens, and the Gods
Page Number: 5.3.308-310
Explanation and Analysis:

Just as Edmund sends a messenger to halt his plans to kill Cordelia and Lear, Lear enters with his daughter’s body. He exclaims these lines of intense remorse.

Though Lear’s language has become increasingly difficult to parse, it continues to hold meaning if examined carefully. Lear’s invocation—“Howl, Howl, Howl”—recalls his earlier expressions during the storm. Here, he mimics the environmental sounds, becoming himself an expression of natural catastrophe rather than of rational human logic. Calling others “men of stones” implies that he finds them emotionless and cold in the face of the catastrophe he has witnessed. As a result, Lear finds their verbal responses lacking.

In particular, he wishes he possessed their “tongues and eyes” because he could speak and see with greater vigor the horror of his daughter’s death. That Lear demands the senses of others is particularly evocative considering the role that blindness and insanity have played in the work: even as he descends into a lack of proper sensation, he demands the sensory capacities of others. His goal would be “that heaven’s vault should crack,” which develops the previous imagery of celestial bodies. Here Lear implies that something could “crack” or change course in the pre-destined role of the heavens were he given sufficient power—a point that notably deviates from his earlier adherence to fate and the heavens. Thus in Lear’s more remorseful moments, he both imitates and seeks to overcome the power of nature, all while demanding that the other unmoved humans grant him their sensations.

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