Law and Catastrophe in Shakespeare's King Lear

10 Pages Posted: 8 Jan 2018

Date Written: January 3, 2018


Shakespeare’s King Lear appears to reaffirm the importance of the law of civilization, because if we do not, then catastrophes like this tragedy take place. However, at the same time the play makes a reader wonder what happens when the law is not adequate to hold upright against the winds that blow when there is no thick forest of laws.

The “scientific” work of Darwin and the “social Darwinists,” Europeans considered life in nature to be a fight for survival using “fang and claw” against all others - as Edmund, Goneril, Regan, and Cornwall seem to be doing. Although this was preceded in Shakespearean times by a concept of civilization or society to be good while the state of nature was base or primitive in behavior that was far from the conduct sanctioned by religion.

As depicted in Dante’s Divine Comedy, the base natural aspects of humanity exist in hell while the intellect that defines humans in the image of God, exists in heaven; thus, urging people to act rationally or more Godly, not basely natural. Incidentally, Emile Durkheim in his The Elementary Forms of Religious Life put forth the notion that religion equals society - or that at least one function of religion is to enforce social mores, cultural behavior patterns or norms that together form cultures. Perhaps Durkheim may have interpreted King Lear as a representation of what happens when a clash of the norms of society and how humans act naturally occurs.

Keywords: Shakespeare, law, literature, King Lear

Suggested Citation

Lincoln IV, Charles Edward Andrew, Law and Catastrophe in Shakespeare's King Lear (January 3, 2018). Available at SSRN: or

Charles Edward Andrew Lincoln IV (Contact Author)

University of Groningen, Faculty of Law ( email )


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