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Shakespeare and Milton: Love and Loss

Updated on July 1, 2010


Chronicling  love’s suffering and loss, both Shakespeare and Milton detail the journey love must experience in order to be recognised and appreciated. Only when King Lear, and Adam and Eve are able to compare between love and its lack  are they able to see that which they took for granted.

King Lear and Cordelia  Credit: Google Images
King Lear and Cordelia Credit: Google Images

Before The Fall


King Lear takes for granted that he has the love of all his daughters. Not only does he assume their love exists for him, but he also assumes once he hands  the kingdom  over to them that they will support him in his golden years. As king, Lear never wanted for the material necessities of life. Food, shelter and clothing were always his. His confident statement  “… we still retain the name, and all the additions to a king,” (1.1.136-37) makes it clear he expects his life to continue without interruption of previous rights and privileges . Lear has no real  experience of loss, and therefore no real appreciation of what it entails, and thus no defence against a fall.


Before the fall in Paradise Lost, Adam and Eve are oblivious to anything beyond their paradise. They were warned not to eat the fruit from the tree of knowledge, but have no way of knowing the consequences of their disobedience as evidenced in Adam’s words; “So near grows death to life, whate’er death is” (Book 4 l.425). At this juncture, all three characters are only conscious of a one-sided meaning in the concept of love. Their experience thus far does not prepare them for what must come if they are to truly experience the full meaning of love.



Lear’s first realization that love in its fuller meaning may include difficulties comes when Cordelia does not publicly profess her love for her father in the same manner as her sisters. The king equates love with material when he says, “How, how, Cordelia! Mend your speech a little,/ lest it mar your fortunes” (1.1.93-94). When he realises that Cordelia is not forthcoming with what he expects, he strikes back by disowning her, “Here I disclaim all my paternal care” (1.1.114).

Later in scene four, in a twist of roles, daughter Goneril admonishes Lear for his followers’ behaviour and their numbers, giving Lear another jolt that all is not right with his orderly world. His response “Are you our daughter” (1.4.212) speaks of his shock and surprise, and puts all his previous assumptions in jeopardy. Doubt over the veracity of filial love further degenerates to madness and a storm of emotion just prior to his leaving Gloucester’s for the outside elements, where weather seems to plot against him as well. His last words before leaving, “I have full cause for weeping, but this heart/ shall break into a hundred thousand flaws/ Or ere I’ll weep. O fool, I shall go mad!” (3.1.282-84) mark the true onset of Lear’s suffering and loss.


The first to feel the effects of suffering and loss in Milton’s epic is the earth itself; “Earth felt the wound and nature from her seat/ ... That all was lost” (9, 782-84). Paradise is tainted. Once Adam becomes aware of Eve’s transgression, he stands by her initially, saying “…no no, I feel/ The link of nature draw me” (9, 13-14). Following lines of Adam have him justifying Eve’s deed, and he comes to the conclusion that death may not be the result, yet he decides “…if death/ Consort with thee, death is to me as life” (9, 953-54). His true anguish does not come until after he eats the fruit and experiences the full consequence of his loss.

John MiltonsParadise Lost byGustave Dor, 1866.
John MiltonsParadise Lost byGustave Dor, 1866.
The Death of King Lear by Benjamin West 1728 - 1820
The Death of King Lear by Benjamin West 1728 - 1820



All three characters are thrown into chaos where their emotions rule thought and action. Lear becomes unstable, and by setting off into a night of storms, endangers his life. The primal sounds he  expresses in “…Kill, kill, kill, kill, kill, kill!” (4.6.l.184) is the only satisfying outlet of his anguish. Adam’s grief and anguish are expressed in his diatribe after he sees that even nature has     changed from a pastoral ideal to beast warring with beast which  “… nor stood much in awe/ Of man, but fled him” (10, 713-14). While prison is hardly an ideal location to come to grips with his new found sense of deeper love, Lear nevertheless says to Cordelia “… Come, let’s away to prison./ We two alone will sing like birds i’ the cage” (5.3.8-9). Before his transformation such a scenario was unthinkable, but now that his eyes open to a truer value of love, he believes he can exist anywhere with it.


Eve is able to assimilate the concept of deeper love much quicker than Adam. To prove her love she offers to “…sustain alone/ The worst, and not persuade thee, rather than die/ Deserted, than oblige thee with  fact/ Pernicious to thy peace…” (9, 978-81). Adam’s deepening love arrives more deliberately after a great deal of ranting and blaming of Eve, “Out of my sight, thou serpent , that name best/ Befits thee with him leagued, thyself as false/ And hateful…” (10, 867-69). He finally relents, but only after Eve once again is willing to take responsibility. In the last few lines of the epic, both partners have come to terms with their  banishment from Eden and, with “Some natural tears they dropped, but wiped them soon…They hand in hand with wandering steps and slow,/ Through Eden took their solitary way.” They begin their life anew and with a more profound understanding.


Lear’s journey of discovery has come to his ultimate end with a broken heart over the death of his Cordelia, but not before his life is changed  for the better, and however briefly, lived on a deeper plane. Like a muscle which needs  to be stretched and exercised if it’s expected to become stronger, love too, must be tested through difficulty. Without comparing the emotion of love with its absence or fear, true comprehension of the emotion is unlikely and doomed to be a shallow representation.


Works Cited


Abrams, M.H., The Norton Anthology of English Literature Volume 1. New York,
     W.W. Norton & Company, 2000.
          Milton, John. “Paradise Lost.” Abrams 1818-2044.
          Shakespeare, William. “King Lear.” Abrams 1109-1192.


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