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Leir and Lear: Matthew 5:33-37, The Turning Point, and The Rescue Theme James H. Jones Comparisons between Shakespeare’s King Lear and the old Leir source-play have been misleading, because critics have been imprecise as to the meaning of the source-play. In putting the story back in pagan times, Shakespeare avoided his most immediate source’s didac­ ticism and explicitness, but this does not mean that the two plays contrast simply as “Christian” versus “pagan.” The question to be answered— How does the ethos of Shakespeare’s tragedy differ from that of the source-play and other versions of the story with which he may have been familiar?— requires more careful discriminations. Critics have not commented upon certain obvious biblical allusions in the source-play, let alone, as point of departure for interpretation, discussed the difference between their significance in that play and the significance of more subtle echoes of the same biblical passages in Shakespeare’s tragedy. Yet Shakespeare’s transformation of one such biblical allusion at the story’s turning point epitomizes his trans­ formation of the entire play and facilitates insight into the meaning of his tragedy. Editors have long noted in Shakespeare’s tragedy that Lear’s refer­ ence to “ ay and no” as “ no good divinity” ( seems to echo a biblical passage. They have suggested nothing, however, as to the echo’s significance in relation to the tragedy’s overall vision, and they have been uncertain which of three passages is echoed: But before all thyngs, my brethren, sweare not, nether by heaven, nor by earth, nor by anie other othe: but let your yea be yea, and (your) naye, naye, lest ye fall into condemnation. (James 5:11) When I therefore was thus minded, did I use lightnes? or minde I those thyngs which I minde, according to the flesh, that with me shulde be Yea, yea, and Nay, nay? Yea, God is faithful, that our worde toward you was not Yea, and nay. For the Sonne of Godde Jesus Christ . . . was not Yea, and Nay: but in him it was Yea. For all the promises of God in him (are) Yea . . . (2 Corinthians 1:17) Againe, ye have heard that it was said to them of olde time, Thou shalt not forsweare thy selfe, but shalt performe thine others [sic] to the Lord. But I say unto you, Sweare not at all, 125 126 Comparative Drama nether by heaven, for it is the throne of God: Nor yet by the earth: for it is his fote stoole: nether by Jerusalem: for it is the citie of the great King. Nether shalt thou sweare by thine head, because thou canst not make one heere white or blacke. But let your communication be, Yea: yea: Nay, nay. For what­ soever (is) more than these cometh of evil. (Matthew 5 :3 3 )! Perhaps the strongest reason— one that scholars have not noted— for believing that Shakespeare echoes the Matthew passage from the Sermon on the Mount rather than either of the other passages is that it is unmistakably alluded to at a similar dramatic moment in the source-play. The source-play is indeed “ saturated in Christian themes” (as C. B. Watson says),2 but these themes are not merely “Christian.” Its hero is not (contrary to Wilfrid Perret) a “pious Catholic,” 3 and although its dramaturgy is nearly as primitive as that of Morality plays its vision is not “medieval” (as William Elton supposes) 4 or merely “firmly Christian” (as Geoffrey Bush describes it) .5 Rather, the play’s orientation is distinctly Puritan, and its interpretation of the legend is distinguished from that of other versions not (as D. G. James supposes) 6 by being Christian but by being didactically so with a pervasive religious vocabulary, sentiments of humility, penitence, thanksgiving, and the inefficacy of human merit, and a new emphasis on moral lessons, grace, special providences, and Scripture.7 Super­ ficially, the most striking difference between the source-play and other versions of the story is that it is studded with religious references and biblical allusions. These religious references and biblical allusions support the play’s strongly...


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