Christianity · Literary Wisdom

The Storms of King Lear and Paradise Lost

Hello, everyone!

I’m sorry I have not posted in a while. I’m working on something grand, lovely, and different, but it needs some more time till I release the first portion on the Internet. In the meantime, here’s a pensive little snippet from my other writing, musing on the storms of Shakespeare’s King Lear and Milton’s Paradise Lost. Passages from both books are included directly below, and if you know the accounts of Creation and of the Fall, I am confident that you shall gain a bit of context from my own writing. Think of it, perhaps, as a literary-minded devotional. Enjoy!

Thus fenced, and, as they thought, their shame in part
Covered, but not at rest or ease of mind,
They sat them down to weep; nor only tears
Rained at their eyes, but high winds worse within
Began to rise, high passions, anger, hate,
Mistrust, suspicion, discord; and shook sore
Their inward state of mind, calm region once
And full of peace, now tost and turbulent:
For Understanding ruled not, and the Will
Heard not her lore; both in subjection now
To sensual Appetite, who from beneath
Usurping over sovran Reason claimed
Superior sway[.]
Paradise Lost, Book IX, Lines 1118-1130

Rumble thy bellyful! Spit, fire! Spout, rain!
Nor rain, wind, thunder, fire are my daughters.
I tax not you, you elements, with unkindness.
I never gave you kingdom, called you children;
You owe me no subscription. Then let fall
Your horrible pleasure. Here I stand your slave,
A poor, infirm, weak, and despised old man.
But yet I call you servile ministers,
That will with two pernicious daughters join
Your high-endangered battles ‘gainst a head
So old and white as this. O, ho, ’tis foul!….
I am a man
More sinned against than sinning.
King Lear, Act III, Scene ii, Lines 16-26, 62-63

William Shakespeare’s King Lear tells about the final days of an elderly, senile king, who witnesses a great deal of misfortune soon after he divides his kingdom between two of his daughters and disowns the other. His pride and misplaced trust drives him into madness, which Shakespeare parallels with the storm raging over the king and his fool. After a few fortunately loyal servants help the king sleep as they scurry him away to Dover, the King awakes with his sanity regained, only to witness war between England and France; the deaths of his daughters Goneril, Regan, and Cordelia (in addition to several other deaths, of course); and finally his own death.

I wouldn’t be surprised if Milton drew from Shakespeare’s renowned storm scene in writing this passage of Paradist Lost. Adam and Eve’s decision to place less blame on the snake than each other reflects Lear’s decision to place less blame on wrathful gods (III, ii, 52-63) than on his deceitful daughters. In fact, elsewhere in the scene, Lear begs for the gods to punish their enemies, to come and surround him with their ire, because he hasn’t yet realized his malice and believes he will be spared from his punishment (hence why he says, “I am a man/More sinned against than sinning.”) On the contrary, Adam and Eve are aware of their sin, but they decide to try hiding from God and opening themselves to all that Satan’s seducing had placed in their hearts. Even though Lear is not yet aware of his sin and Adam and Eve act in response to their awareness, they avoid laying blame on themselves, instead declaring themselves innocent with pity. Why else would Lear call himself “A poor, infirm, weak, and despised old man” when he has been wielding power and “majestical” wrath on everyone around him from the beginning of the play till his storm? Why else would Adam and Eve so soon abandon their weeping?

But there is hope in both stories.

In King Lear and Paradise Lost, there is hope of redemption. In King Lear, that redemption comes from a good night’s sleep and its removal of Lear’s madness. After Lear awakes and his sanity returns, he doesn’t see the storm, but his mistreated daughter, the young queen of France, standing over him with love and an eager, compassionate willingness to forgive. Lear still has to suffer the consequences of his past wrongs (much like Hamlet has to do even after he changed), but his heart is restored for the little time he has left on Earth. As for Adam and Eve, they will not experience redemption so soon, but God does leave them with a sure (and now fulfilled!) promise:

“I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel.” ~Genesis 3:15, ESV


~Sarah Merly

Isaiah 53

February 3, 2019