Screwtape and Lear: What Both Say About Duty and Christian Love
The underlying perspective that both King Lear and The Screwtape Letters share may be called a Christian perspective, in which duty, humility and sacrifice are indirectly valued as the best ideals, though, of course, Screwtape also notes that "duty comes before pleasure" (Lewis 21). While Cordelia represents Christ in Lear, the ordeals of Wormwood's patient resemble the crisis of identity that Lear suffers. The relationship between sanity and goodness is established in both works, and that relationship serves to underscore the main theme which is the greatness of Christian living and the tragedy and violence that results from unchristian living. The texts thus serve to complement one another and both agree on man's place in society (which is that he should subordinate himself to God rather than to Self or appetite or Satanic pride, etc.). So while the material is very different (Lear is high art -- Golden Age Tragedy; Screwtape is epistolary satire), the message is the same regarding our ethical responsibilities. This paper will explore the themes that unite these two works and show how they ultimately point to a standard of living in which man "puts on" Christ rather than asserting Self to his own detriment.
"There is wishful thinking in Hell as well as on Earth," states Lewis (i) in the introduction to Screwtape. This observation can be equally applied to Shakespeare's King Lear because there is much "wishful thinking" demonstrated by both Lear and his two wickedly plotting daughters. Their wishful thinking is ultimately vain, of course, and the reason why it is vain can be found in both their respective ends as well as in the illuminative contrast between theirs and that of Cordelia's -- if her "thinking" can be called "wishful." If Cordelia hopes, it is not, as St. Paul states, in herself, but rather in her God. Her hope is that her father might be well, his kingdom saved from her wicked sisters. She does not rejoice in herself but in the goodness that comes from above, as both she and St. Paul indicate. (Though a play about pagans, it may thus be said to have a Christian theme). Lear and the two wicked daughters, on the other hand, wish (and plot) for their own pleasure and fortune. Cordelia alone is self-sacrificing in the family, and along with Kent acts as a kind of guardian angel. Their "guardianship," moreover, springs from a sense of duty, which both understand compels them to love Lear -- not with any false or emotional display of affection but with actual care and compassion (which can seem cold in comparison with the "words" of the faking daughters).
As Lear shows and Lewis intimates, there are two kinds of "wishful thinking" -- that which is selfish/self-centered and that which is other-oriented, concerned with a greater good. Lear gives away his kingdom because he wants to retire and take it easy -- and he goes about this plan in the worst possible, most self-serving manner, giving his kingdom to the biggest public flatterers of his person. He is falling for the trap of Screwtape, who advises his nephew to lure individuals to Hell by appealing to their pride. Lear succumbs to this temptation at the beginning of the play, and thus sets up the conflict between Satanic pride and ambition on one side and Christian humility and devotion on the other. Although there is no mention of Christ in Lear, the themes are apparent.
They are also apparent in The Screwtape Letters. In his first letter to Wormwood, Screwtape asserts that the devil's primary aim is to "fuddle" the patient -- not to use reason or logic, because these are tools that will lead one away from Satan to God. Rather, the devil's job is to overwhelm the patient with ordinary day-to-day affairs -- with "real life" -- so that he gives no thought to that much more pressing, much greater question of human existence (why am I here?) which could lead to the implementation of a Christian life. Cordelia and Kent both ask and answer the question of their existence in relation to their lord (Lear) and that is what gives the two characters their nobility. Edgar and Lear are, on the contrary, befuddled (the former only dramatically so as to escape detection, the latter really because he has given himself over to ordinary affairs of "real life" -- comfort, retirement, his retinue). Edgar's care for the mad Lear, however, restores some of his own sanity/direction/sense of humanity/duty (a point which indicates that argument is not the only path to Heaven but that care/compassion also is).
What both Lewis and Shakespeare show is in perfect agreement with the Pauline scriptures: "If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal…If I have a faith that can move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing" (1 Cor 32:1-2). Love -- or charity -- is what truly and most efficaciously binds man to God: "And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love" (1 Cor 13:13). The patient of Wormwood converts to Christianity via reason but without action on his part (love for fellow man, love for God), his faith is meaningless. So, too, with Lear and his children: he asks his daughters to show how much they love him, and while Goneril and Regan profess their love, they do not show it in action; meanwhile, Cordelia asserts that she loves her father as much as duty obliges -- "according to my bond; no more nor less" (1.1) -- and this is no small amount, as her actions show. Thus, both works share the "Christian" theme of the importance of love in action.
These works both agree on our place in society, too -- even though Lewis's is more immediate in terms of time. Shakespeare had one foot in the medieval world and one foot in the modern world (White), and so he represents a link between our society and the Old World. Lewis stresses the importance of the Old World, and so the two can actually work together to provide a "way back" to the ideals that each suggests are important. As Kent says, the way back, however, is not an easy one -- the heart must "break" (5.2) because it can be filled with too much vanity or "self-pitying" (Lewis 22). There is no way out of the "tough" world (Shakespeare 5.2) than through the breaking of the heart, the giving of all (as Cordelia shows).
One of the oddities of The Screwtape Letters, however, is that Screwtape speaks of "duty" just as much as a Christian would -- the only difference being that of allegiance. Screwtape owes allegiance to Satan, who is dedicated to destroying man. Cordelia owes her allegiance to Lear and God, resembling Christ in that she dies to save. This important distinction sheds light on our place in society in that it urges us to give allegiance to the "better angels" (Lincoln) as our country's own forefathers have urged. Thus, one sees a perpetual message that resounds among the leading lights of the past centuries, from Jesus to Shakespeare to Lincoln to Lewis -- different voices but always the same message, which is found in the Golden Rule: do unto others as you would have them do unto you.
It is a simple message and the two writers deliver it in different ways. Shakespeare shows the tragedy that results in a specific time and place when one king foolishly gives away his kingdom and yet still expects to be treated by a king. Perhaps if all his daughters had been truly dutiful like Cordelia, he would have been honored and treated well -- but Shakespeare appears to show what Lewis later illustrates: humans are not perfect and some are more given to the House of the Devil than to the House of God. So, it can be suggested that Shakespeare populates his play with characters who are very much influenced by the works of devils like Wormwood and Screwtape: characters like Edmund, Goneril, Regan, and Lear himself.
Both works also reflect what the truly good person's attitude towards war should be: Screwtape advises his nephew to turn his patient into an extremest -- and Shakespeare certainly shows how extremism destroys people in his play: the wicked daughters are extreme in their callousness and thirst for empire. Yet, it might be said that Cordelia and Kent are extreme in their love for Lear. They go out of their way (in a big way) to serve him even after he casts them off. Kent follows in disguise and Cordelia returns with an army to do battle with her wicked sisters who have driven out their father. Thus, the two writers indicate that war, though evil, is like a punishment for sin. Lear…
Sources Used in Document:
White, David Allen. "Shakespeare." MN: St. Thomas Aquinas Seminary, 1996. Print.
Lewis, C.S. The Screwtape Letters. Bartleby. Web. 29 Apr 2015.