The Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities presents


16 May 2019

The View from Above: Putting Grief in Perspective in King Lear

Shakespeare’s plays contain many examples of grieving characters rejecting the consolation offered to them by others, often in terms suggesting that the experience of grief is being set against the empty ‘philosophy’ of the language of consolation. Rather than speaking for unmediated emotion, however, grief, and specifically a grief that resists consolation, is represented in Shakespeare’s plays in relation to specific theological and philosophical frameworks. In this paper, I focus on the representation of suffering and its consolation in King Lear. Critics have noted allusions to the book of Job in this play, but readings of Lear in the light of Job tend to regard Shakespeare as putting forward a sceptical reading of the biblical text, one in which justice and divine intervention, and therefore hope, are denied. In this paper, I explore the critique of consolation in King Lear, suggesting that this critique, informed by the structures of grief depicted in Job, takes aim not at biblical models but at the classical consolation tradition. I compare Senecan models of consolation with the responses to grief explored in Job and in King Lear. In all three cases, the work of consolation involves attempting to shift the perspective of those who grieve. Encouraging those who mourn to take ‘a view from above’, Stoic consolation seeks to eliminate grief through the adoption of a particular view of mankind’s place within the cosmos. The ‘view from above’ also appears in both Job and King Lear, where it nevertheless offers a very different perspective on mankind’s place within nature and time, calling into question the basis of Stoic consolation. The book of Job, and Calvin’s reading of Job in particular, highlights the extent to which consolatory perspectives work to exclude both pity and hope. Following this reading, King Lear, I suggest, rejects consolation not as a nihilistic gesture but in order to allow for both pity and, perhaps, a glimmer of hope.   

Naomi Baker is Senior Lecturer in English Renaissance Literature at the University of Manchester, UK. She has published articles on the theological and philosophical contexts of Renaissance drama alongside work on religious and dissenting writing in seventeenth-century England. Her books include a critical edition of two of the earliest Puritan conversion narratives to be written in English, Scripture Women (2005), and an exploration of representations of ugliness in early modern literature and culture, Plain Ugly: The Unattractive Body in Early Modern Europe (2010). She is currently working on a wider project on grief and consolation in early modern England.


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Level 4 Forgan Smith Tower
The University of Queensland
St Lucia
Seminar Room 402