“William Shakespeare is not generally thought of as a religious apologist,” so began the call for papers for this special issue, to which we might reply, C.S. Lewis is not generally thought of as a Shakespeare scholar. But “not generally” is where many of the most exciting research discoveries lie, and, if we can reorient our eyes, we find might discover things hiding in the works of both writers who are “not generally” viewed through these lenses. Besides, I always caution my students to be specific and avoid generalizations (inevitably using a generalization to make my point), so I suppose I ought to practice what I preach. This essay explores how Lewis uses King Lear in his discussion of affection in The Four Loves. My goal is both to describe how Lewis does so and what that reveals about Shakespeare’s apologetic capacity and potential.[1] Along the way, I hope to show, as well, how Lewis anticipates the contemporary swerve towards “affect studies,” especially in Shakespearean drama.

In The Four Loves, Lewis self-consciously uses literary examples as touchstones, attempting to establish a shared frame of reference and a degree of community with his readers. This is doubly emphasized by the direct second-person address he employs: “I am driven to literary examples because you, the reader and I, do not live in the same neighbourhood.”[2] Lewis laments the loss of a shared frame of reference via scripture, or a shared notion of God, but he hopes that shared literary references might, by analogy, fill in the gaps. He states this most clearly in a letter to James Welch of the B.B.C. Although the New Testament “always assumes an audience who already believe in the Law of Nature and know they have disobeyed it,” in “modern England” the situation is quite different: “we cannot […] assume this, and therefore most apologetic begins a stage too far on.”[3] This both helps explain what Shakespeare is doing in The Four Loves, and, more broadly, Lewis’s apologetic approach.[4] As Wesley Kort writes, “Lewis grounds his presentation of Christianity on what he takes to be reasonable and shareable assumptions.”[5] In this case, Lewis assumes a shared awareness of King Lear and its story of a King(dom) gone bad. Adopting this approach, Lewis deliberately uses terms, analogies, and examples which do not “grow out of the obvious religious and social terrain.”[6] As such, Lewis was remembered as one who “never ‘talked religion,’ except in the sense that a real Christian never talks anything else,” and he was, in reviews, aptly noted for his “gift of illustration.”[7] In The Four Loves, Lewis uses images and narratives from literary examples, such as Shakespeare, which function something like parables.[8]


To contract the distance between his reader and his message, Lewis adopts the “neighborly” practice of using “literary examples.” The specific example he had just mentioned before explaining his technique is King Lear.[9] This occurs in his discussion of the first of the four loves, Affection. Lewis portrays affection as the love closest to the kind of love seen across the animal kingdom, characterized by “warm comfortableness” like that found in the “satisfaction of being together” seen in a “nuzzling” embrace.[10] Affection is open to everyone, it is “the most catholic” of the loves, and can unite unlikely parties, but depends both upon the “familiar” and a willingness “to appreciate goodness and intelligence in themselves, not merely goodness or intelligence flavoured and served to suit our own palate.”[11] Like all the loves, however, affection can go bad: “left simply to follow its own bent, it can darken and degrade human life.”[12] And it is just this distorted affection Lewis profiles in King Lear, contrasting  affection working “for ill” in Lear with affection that can “love the unattractive.”[13] Lewis claims that Affection involves both Need-Love, “our craving for the Affection of others” and Gift-Love, which is “God-like” when it is “most boundless and unwearied in giving.”[14] The two fit together in affection which “is a gift love, but it needs to be needed.”[15] As R.V. Young writes, “when Lear demands love of his daughters, he is expressing a genuine need: men and women need to be loved.”[16] But love is two-way, a “give and take.”[17] Affection can be corrupted such that love is ravenous (needy) without reciprocity (giving and receiving) and that is the case in the opening scene of King Lear, in which Lear demands Need-love – more precisely, flattery under the guise of love.

Lewis writes, “at the beginning of King Lear the hero is shown as a very unlovable old man devoured with a ravenous appetite for Affection.”[18] “Ravenous” also serves as a convenient image for the later discussion of Eros gone bad, where Lewis describes two lovers who are “ravenous to receive and implacably refus[e] to give.”[19] Lear is ravenous for public displays of his love. He needs it, yet shows no  understanding that Affection “depends upon common sense and give and take and ‘decency.’”[20] Although he plans to divide his Kingdom and so, apparently,  relinquish his power, as the play opens we see this as just a manipulative power play for another kind of power. Emotional power.[21] Although Lewis’s reference to King Lear in The Four Loves calls our attention to one character and one moment in the play, it is evident he has the whole scene in mind.[22] Furthermore, Lewis also suggests the impact of this scene (and its depiction of corrupted Need-Love) on the entire play.

A. Setting the Scene

In the opening scene of the play, Lear sets out to divide his kingdom amongst his daughters and retire from ruling while still retaining the name of King. He then, shockingly, announces that he has decided to allot portions of the kingdom to his daughters based on how much or how well they say they love him. It’s not just how much they “say” but how much he says they say they love him.[23] Goneril, the eldest, declares her love with hyperbolic flattery, Regan tries to better Goneril’s display, but Cordelia (Lear’s “joy”) responds with an honesty which is at odds with the atmosphere of flattery in the court.[24] Goneril and Regan get what they want, Lear thinks he gets what he wants, and Cordelia is banished. In this early scene, the eerie foreshadowing of feigned affection, or of a love which is “dearer than eyesight,” will be the same sham love with which Goneril later orders Cornwall to “pluck out [Gloucester’s] eyes!”[25] The opening scene, therefore, foreshadows a play with much to say and show about love, misplaced or misread affection, and the consequences of forgetting the relationship between Gift-love and Need-love in affection. Lear, the dominant character in the scene and in the play, is full of Need-love, “our craving for the Affection of others,” without offering Gift-love in return.[26]

From the outset, Lear offers his daughters no freedom from his demands for their expressions of love as his imperative “speak” indicates.[27] Lear wants to be free from his duty, but not from his power; he refuses to give love or land for “nothing.”[28] Any gift from him depends on a quantified offering of love, and certainly Goneril and Regan produce words in order to elicit a particular value (the highest possible) of land and estimation.[29] Lear’s jealousy seeps from the scene, even as he literally enacts the corrupted Need-love desires identified by Lewis  to “allow no freedom” and to live “on ‘scenes.’”[30] He constructs a scene where he is the center (even as he appears to be distributing power), demanding a symphony of praise, a scene which is unsettled with the entrance of what he takes to be the discordant tone of his favored daughter Cordelia’s “Nothing.”[31]

B. Feelings-First: Affect Theory (A Digression)

But more than simply setting the scene for a discussion of affection and, more specifically, Need-love gone wrong, Lewis’s use of King Lear offers an (early) example of an affect-oriented reading of the play, anticipating the recent interest in affect studies in literary and dramatic theory. This shows that the so-called “affective turn” is not as new as recent scholarship suggests, since Lewis engages with some of the same ideas both here (1960) and elsewhere in his work. For some of my readers, I assume, some background is perhaps in order. So, first, what is affect? Truthfully, I used to have a hard time knowing whether to use affect or effect in a sentence. Sometimes I still do. The distinguisher usually offered is that to affect is to have an effect on someone, or grammatically: effect is the noun and affect the verb. Importantly implied in the verb affect is action. But there is also another aspect to affect – its connection to feelings, sensations, affection, movement. Sometimes this movement is literal. In the case of King Lear, he is so “moved” by the affective displays of Goneril and Regan that he moves the boundaries of his kingdom. Affection contains both meanings of affect: to be effected by and to feel for another. At least uncorrupted affection does. Corrupted affection results in only one person’s “affects” being cared for. Demands for affection are dangerous, indeed “insatiable demands” ultimately destroy it.[32] Lewis cautions us: “Need-love, like all our impulses, can be selfishly indulged. A tyrannous and gluttonous demand for affection can be a horrible thing.”[33] This is embodied by Lear in the opening scene, although later in the play, he is exposed to sufferings that awaken his empathy.[34]

In terms of literary theory, one can perform an “affective reading” of a text, as Lewis frequently does. Such readings are interested in how the text affects the reader, how the text engages with the affections of the characters, and how to read feelingly. At the most basic level, when we read the opening scene of King Lear, we feel (or are encouraged to feel) for Cordelia (who appears slighted), and, depending on the capaciousness of our sympathies also for Lear (who appears abusive), and maybe even for Goneril and Regan (who appear). We feel, in part, because this is a scene which grapples with love and the risks of being full of love for another (Cordelia) or full of love for oneself (Lear, Goneril, and Regan).[35] And we feel because this family’s love (or lack of it) ricochets throughout the rest of the play, showing the effect of affect when it is not reciprocal.


A. Affect and the Gospel

Lewis’s The Four Loves offers one example of reading Shakespeare’s King Lear in a way that blends affect with cultural apologetics, suggesting the value of affect in apologetics and recognizing the importance of affected responses to the Gospel. After all, we need to respond to the Gospel whole-heartedly, which would seem to include our intellect, our will, and our feeling. To respond feelingly is to be affected by the message.[36] Lewis’s use of King Lear in The Four Loves is affect-attentive. Moreover, by showing us the one-sidedness of selfish love and its traumatic consequences, and inviting a feeling response to the depiction of sacrificial love, his reading suggests how King Lear and other Shakespeare works may be read through a cultural apologetic lens.

As I suggested earlier, affect is not simply passive. It has potential. It causes us to feel, to be moved and to move. Affection implies a need to share and a need to recognize our dependency, “since we do, in reality, need one another.”[37] Affective love must work reciprocally; it depends on both a “recipient of affection” and a giver.[38] It is a give and take relationship. The human need of and desire for the interconnection inherent in affection are perverted when the sharing is removed and replaced by demands to feel this way or that. We have moved then from affection to manipulation or assault. The fact that affect theory stresses our interconnectedness, our dependence on the exchange with others, points toward a message inherent in the Gospel (and so, too, in apologetics). Paying attention to affective exchange (either its presence or absence) shows one way that affective readings of texts might work with apologetic readings. Lewis’s reading of King Lear is both affective and apologetic. We read Lewis and are moved by Lewis’s re-situating the story of Lear as a parable of affection. Part of that, perhaps, is our recognition of what the selfish loves of Lear, Goneril, and Regan might say about us. And the motion in our hearts to be different. Doubtless, Lewis hopes that his audience will respond feelingly as well to the Divine Love he points to throughout The Four Loves.

Affection uncorrupted is almost a parable of Christian grace (Ephesians 2:4-9). Exchange depends on affectionate sacrifice (Galatians 2:20), bearing the feelings and burdens of others, replacing inordinate self-concern with selfless outward looking, moving, and feeling for those outside of ourselves. Apologetically, affective exchange might point towards the human desire for ultimate interconnectedness with the One not yet met. It speaks to our desire to have our feelings truly understood, to be at home in a world which feels out of kilter, and, for those whose hearts and affection have been properly (at)tuned, to embrace the life-changing affective sacrifice, the ultimate sign of our being loved (Romans 5:8).

B. The Case of Cordelia

In the opening scene of King Lear, the only affection validated by Lear is corrupted, or more specifically, affected. Cordelia, on the other hand, is so moved that she shifts the parameters of the conversation. Refusing Lear’s demands for flattery she responds with her ironically pregnant “Nothing.”[39] She apparently refuses to be moved, and yet in fact is so moved that she comes alongside to help the very one who will reject her. Lear’s relationships with Goneril and Regan are predicated on the solitary self rather than the self in relation. In Martin Buber’s model, they replace what should be an I-Thou relationship with an I-It stance.[40] They are in fact “relegating [each other] to the status of things”: specifically, in this case, objects which can parrot love in exchange for control and status.[41] The contrasting I-Thou relationality of Cordelia’s love may be seen in her references to familial bonds. Her honest “Nothing” literally voices Martin Buber’s conceptualization of I-Thou: “When Thou is spoken, the speaker has no thing; he has indeed nothing. But he takes his stand in relation.”[42] Cordelia takes her stand “in relation,” in love and in honesty.[43] Lear, though, is not yet willing or ready for true love. In fact, King Lear dramatizes a failure to understand the difference between affection and affectation. Pleased by his insincere daughters’ claims, Lear confuses and conflates the pleasure of having a craving met with the higher pleasure of appreciation, and thus turns what Lewis calls “a pleasure of the second kind into one of the first.”[44]

Although Cordelia’s speech begins with emotion-laden words, “unhappy that I am,”[45] seemingly defining her existence affectively, it is in actuality a subordinate clause to the heavier words to follow: “I cannot heave / My heart into my mouth.”[46] She is unhappy because she cannot (and Lear thinks she will not) express the weightiness of her love verbally, even if this is the very thing Lear insists upon. Yet throughout the play, her silence is full of affect. Cordelia’s words, spare though they may be, signal an appeal for affective exchange in response to the corrupted Need-love which underpins Lear’s loud “challenge” (in which he shall have the final “say”).[47] Recognizing the real terms of the game, Cordelia refuses to offer further display to sway her father’s “say.”[48] Cordelia’s rightly-ordered relationality is chastened (“mend your speech”) and then rejected (“as a stranger to my heart and me”).[49] Grounded in honest affection, Lear sees it as threatening his control. What Lewis calls Lear’s “ravenous appetite for Affection” blinds him to Cordelia’s “truth” and deadens his appetite for anything other than flattery.[50] Lear’s self-indulgent “Need-love” reveals his “darker purpose” which is enacted in his demand that his daughters verbally prove their love.[51] Cordelia too, however, exemplifies a kind of Need-love, one very human with the capacity for goodness. Lewis reminds us, in fact, to be cautious about calling Need-love “mere selfishness” for “no one calls a child selfish because it turns for comfort to its mother.”[52] Or father, in the case of Cordelia. Need-love is not inherently bad. But, like all loves, it can turn demonic.

C. Ravenous Love: A Devilish Digression

Lewis’s treatment of King Lear in The Four Loves (“the hero is shown as a very unlovable old man devoured with a ravenous appetite for Affection”)[53] recalls his earlier treatment of all-consuming Need-love in The Screwtape Letters (1942). In Letters, Lewis also paired ravenous and affection, when the demon Screwtape in his final sign-off, describes himself as his nephew’s “ravenously affectionate uncle.”[54] Each of Screwtape’s letters concludes with a reference to affection (“Your Affectionate Uncle”), so the affection imagery is both cumulative and charged with meaning. In the “ravenous . . . for affection” image, Lewis expresses a love akin to cannibalism – the kind of consuming Lewis cautions against in The Four Loves: “Love, having become a god, becomes a demon.”[55] This is literalized in Screwtape’s implied off-page devouring of Wormwood. And of course, the love is already literally demonic, since both correspondents are demons.[56] One way Lewis highlights disordered affection is by focusing on the demons’ work to turn human love into self-love, to confuse relationship and responsibility with objectification and tyranny, foreshadowing the corrupted Need-love of Lear portrayed in The Four Loves.

In Letter XXI of The Screwtape Letters, the spiritual attack explicitly centers around “the sense of ownership,” as the devils refigure something given as a gift into something one believes one is entitled to, the kind of damage which occurs when selfish Need-love demands as an entitlement that which is a gift, say, the affection of another person.[57] One way the confusion about entitlement and ownership is expressed is by the confused meanings of “my” and “mine” in the mind of a child in relation to his teddy-bear. Screwtape advises Wormwood that “in the nursery a child can be taught to mean by ‘my Teddy-bear’ not the old imagined recipient of affection to whom it stands in a special relation . . . but ‘the bear I can pull to pieces if I like.’”[58] Like the spoiled child with his abused Teddy-bear, Lear’s desire for affective display in part derives from a desire to bolster his self-love by playing puppet master and demonstrating his ownership of and control over his subjects, particularly his daughters. Shakespeare suggests this by Lear’s prefatory “my” of “my daughters” which precedes his challenge: establishing possession. He uses “my” not to mean the “recipient of affection,” but the objects “on whom I have a claim.”[59] It suggests, by implication, my offspring who “I can pull to pieces if I like.”[60] His ownership of them is like his ownership of his land which he can rip apart at will, demonstrating his power, albeit to destroy rather than nurture.

In The Screwtape Letters, the shift in love from my to my “Teddy-bear” appears initially to be a mere matter of semantics and pronunciation.[61] However, the figuring of the pronoun, and the shift of my from affection to ownership aligns sharply with what we see in the opening scene of King Lear.[62] The “my” which emphasizes ownership, as in “my daughters,” shows the consequences of the turning inward of affection. That rendering of the “possessive pronoun” sees the other as an object to control rather than “the object of our affections,” a shift from the relational to the isolated self. [63] As Buber writes, and as Lear discovers as the play progresses: “Love does not cling to the I in such a way as to have the Thou only for its ‘content,’ its object”; “but love is between I and Thou. The man who does not know this . . . does not know love.”[64] After all, if a child takes a Teddy-bear and pulls it to pieces, it can no longer give (or receive) affection. If Lear takes his kingdom or his family and pulls it to pieces, he cannot reunify either. Lewis employs King Lear as a substitute to portray this moral lesson without the theological “baggage.” Lear expects love, demands it in fact, but only receives the sycophantic substitute. And there is a related lesson: Lear, as begetter, desires to be beloved by the begotten. Of course, the love of a child for a parent is not an aberration (as displayed in Cordelia), but Lear’s one-sided demand from what he thinks is a position of absolute power indicates the absence of reciprocity.

In King Lear, we are presented with several examples of monstrous self-love in the Lear family. Unfortunately, Cordelia’s honest and relational affection is obscured in an environment where self-love literally is on the throne. In Lewis’s reading, King Lear dramatizes the danger of self-absorbed human love, theologically termed “sin,” and the corruption of persons, family, and communities to which this can lead. But his reading also points towards Cordelia, who is not consumed by a ravenous desire for affection. Although denied by her father, she still desires the appropriate recognition and affection which comes from reciprocal love. She is offered that by her intended husband, the King of France, a model of good love, who shares her gladness that she has not “such a [flatterers] tongue” and recognizes that she, in purity of love, “is herself a dowry.”[65] In the Lear section of The Four Loves, then, (as in Screwtape two decades earlier) Lewis explores affection gone wrong but also, by counter examples, suggests what true affection and Need-love properly understood might look like.

D. Lear’s Affective Movement

The physicality and consequences of a ravenous appetite governing one’s desires are embodied in Screwtape, and thus, when we return to Lewis’s reading of Lear after reading The Screwtape Letters, we see afresh the demonic origins of this inordinate Need-love. Such Need-love is characterized by its disproportionate demand for flattery (and other falsifications), and a demand for affection without a mutual commitment to affective exchange. Lewis makes this clear and applies it to his readers in one of the most provocative passages in The Four Loves.

It would be absurd to say that Lear is lacking in Affection. In so far as Affection is Need-love he is half-crazy with it. Unless, in his own way, he loved his daughters he would not so desperately desire their love. The most unlovable parent (or child) may be full of such ravenous love. But it works to their own misery and everyone else’s. The situation becomes suffocating. If people are already unlovable a continual demand on their part (as of right) to be loved—their manifest sense of injury, their reproaches, whether loud and clamorous or merely implicit in every look and gesture of resentful self-pity—produce in us a sense of guilt (they are intended to do so) for a fault we could not have avoided and cannot cease to commit. They seal up the very fountain for which they are thirsty. If ever, at some favoured moment, any germ of Affection for them stirs in us, their demand for more and still more, petrifies us again.[66]

Affect depends upon mutual action and interaction, but also proper loving separation (neither consuming, suffocating, nor cannibalistic). Lewis (on Lear) insists that love values the other as an individual, not as an object to be exploited or abused.[67] Lear begins as a negative example of this; he is not, however, beyond transformation.

Communality seems almost impossible in Lear’s broken kingdom; however, sacrifice and willingness to give of oneself eventually disrupt the Regime of the Self. Shakespeare traces a shifting understanding of love in his play from (in Lewis’s terms) corrupted Need-love to a recognition that real affection is grounded in both Need-love and (usually sacrificial) Gift-love. Even in the horrific scene of the blinding of Gloucester, as Lewis explores in “The World’s Last Night,” the demonic powers are unsettled by the sacrifice of the unnamed First Servant. And throughout the play, the love offered by Cordelia, Kent and Edgar suggest the inadequacy of Need-love (alone).[68] Finally, Lear himself undergoes a kind of transformation. His own sufferings (both humiliation and homelessness) plus his new community of beggars, fools, and exiles appear to move him emotionally and morally. He comes to recognize and feel not only his own dependence, but also the needs of his subjects and their dependence on his charity (linked with his affection). He realizes, with “climbing sorrow” the consequences of having taken “too little care” of the “poor naked wretches” of his kingdom.[69] The need for reciprocity haunts the emotional landscape of King Lear, and is captured in the rhyming quatrain of the Fool who echoes the reference to bearing one another’s burdens in Galatians 2:6.

Fathers that wear rags

Do make their children blind,

But fathers that bear bags

Shall see their children kind.[70]

Clearly this suggests Lear’s failure to bear his or others burdens. Even more directly, Edgar, the wrongly-despised (and now hunted) son of Gloucester, disguised as a a mad beggar, explicitly applies the theme of empathetic emotional exchange to himself who “by the art of known and feeling sorrows, / Am pregnant to good pity.”[71] In other words, his own sorrows have taught him to receive and respond to sorrows feelingly. He recognizes the axiom Lear initially denies, that for Need-love to reach true completion “what it needs is to give” as well as to receive.[72]

As Lewis’s treatment indicates, Lear, at first, misreads the way affection works, seeing its transmission as a public rather than a more private affair, as performed rather than wordlessly exchanged. To bribe for affection impedes (“petrifies”) the very affection demanded.[73] To have our Need-love fulfilled, we must in turn be willing to respond to the Need-love of others with our Gift-love in return. It requires what has been described as “affective attunement.”[74] For Lear, such knowledge comes slowly. Homelessly roaming, he seeks audience (and indeed a home) with his daughter Regan and her husband Cornwall. As Lear grapples with his demands for affection being rejected, he tells Gloucester, “The King would speak with Cornwall, the dear father / Would with his daughter speak, commands – tends – service.”[75] His language to Gloucester moves quickly from a position of absolute power and control to weakness, but it also shifts from the politicized (“commands”) to the affective (“dear” and “tends”). Although he commands, even tends (which itself hints at subservience and tenderness) audience, his affective display is unreciprocated. He finally sees through Regan’s lying flattery which he had earlier encouraged. Likewise, he sees the emptiness of their “relationship,” as he is denied audience as either “King” or “dear father.”[76] But there is movement. Lear realizes the cost of denied affection when he feels it for himself from Goneril and then Regan. Later, more profoundly, homeless in the storm and in the company of fools and madmen, he begins to feel for the poor beggar in his presence as well as the “poor naked wretches” of the world to whom, in fact, he prays.[77]


In his brief treatment of King Lear in The Four Loves, Lewis not only illustrates his point about Need-love corrupted, but also shows how this kind of affective reading might point towards a depth of moral, even religious meanings. This is not necessarily equal to a Christian reading of King Lear, nor is it necessarily “cultural apologetics” as such (if we could agree on a definition). Instead, Lewis reflects on a play about affection gone wrong for his chapter on affection in a book about a Christian understanding of love. But he doesn’t, or at least Shakespeare doesn’t, stop with simply defining affection gone wrong. He shows the awful dominance of selfish Need-love, the possibility and need for Gift-love (rejected in the opening scene), and a world in which, sometimes at least, broken relationships and one-sided affection can be healed by sacrificial acts of love. Through affecting literary examples rather than scriptural images or language, Shakespeare and Lewis portray the horrors of ravenous affection. And gesture towards a remedy.

Stepping away from the immediate frame of the Gospel or the frame of our immediate time and place, Lewis uses King Lear to nudge his readers towards the realization that to empathize with or be affected by someone (in a book, in a play, in our family, in our “neighborhood”) is to recognize something profoundly fundamental to human flourishing.[78] Perhaps it is to sense, as Lewis did, as Buber did, that those with whom we are faced are no “mere mortal[s],” and to recognize that to feel, give, or take love is “costly” to all involved.[79] Both of these point toward Gospel and moral matters without explicitly stating it. We feel it first. Lewis’s cultural apologetics approach in The Four Loves then is to use King Lear and other “literary examples” to point towards the Gospel of Love without saying so. The onus is on the reader to connect the dots. Lewis does not spell it out, but we might feel our way towards it.

Thinking again about Kort’s use of the term “shareable” to characterize Lewis’s apologetics, we might apply it to Lewis’s concern for sharing the Gospel.[80] Effective sharing requires shared meanings of important ideas. Indeed, King Lear demonstrates that love may be interpreted in different, even polarized ways: from the loud performance of sham feelings to a love beyond quantifying or speaking. Shakespeare, mediated by Lewis, also adds necessary meaning to familiar terms. “God is love” (1 John 4:16) or “For God so loved the world” (John 3:16) might mean more to those who have spent time (using “literary examples”) in the Lewis/Shakespeare school of love.[81]

It is true that knowledge of King Lear will help readers grasp the meaning of the analogy in The Four Loves. However, modelling good cultural apologetics practice, Lewis also offers a paraphrase which simply captures the idea, with just enough context for those unfamiliar with the play: “at the beginning of King Lear the hero is shown as a very unlovable old man devoured with a ravenous appetite for Affection.”[82] Furthermore, if we accept  Paul Gould’s claim that “cultural apologetics must demonstrate not only the truth of Christianity but also its desirability,” Lewis’s use of Lear is a good example.[83] No-one (regardless of prior knowledge of Shakespeare) escapes Lewis’s chapter on Affection thinking Lear’s demand for performed prescribed love is a good thing. Lewis’s presentation and rhetorical structuring do not allow it.

Lewis employs King Lear to imaginatively assist reason. As Holly Ordway has noted, imaginative apologetics can both “evoke longing for truth, goodness and beauty” (in this case true loves of all sorts) and “orient that longing toward its divine source.”[84] Ultimately, the love demonstrated by Goneril and Reagan is mere flattery passed off for love, and the true love of Cordelia is cut off (or is it?) by her untimely death. But, as the chapter title of “Affection” indicates, this is an example designed to affect us, in which our sympathies are very much directed first towards Cordelia and finally, with more nuance, toward Lear.

Through Lewis’s examples from King Lear, readers can recognize the relationship between Need-love and Gift-love. Lear’s journey may suggest to some the human need for the ultimate Gift-love, since, as Lewis argues throughout the book, each of the loves point to Divine Love. The King Lear reference also importantly dramatizes the dangers of misunderstanding Lewis’s discussion of affection, seeing affection as something simply passive, “familiar,” and characterized by its “warm comfortableness.”[85] To see ourselves as passive receivers of Affection as something we  “let […] pour over us like a warm shower-bath” is to recognize only Need-love and ignore Gift-love.[86] As Lewis demonstrates, Lear expects to passively receive affect, instead he (and we) are forced to acknowledge (and feel) that affect depends on activity and active exchange. Indeed, Lewis’s sympathetic re-maneuvering is also accusatory: obviously we are supposed to see ourselves in Lear (and the other characters). Lewis’s use of Lear in The Four Loves is thus affectively targeted. Finally, as we find in all of Lewis’s writings, including his insights from Shakespeare, he illustrates his points feelingly.

Citation Information

Sarah R.A. Waters, “Lewis, Lear, and The Four Loves,” An Unexpected Journal: Shakespeare & Cultural Apologetics 5, no. 4. (Advent 2022), 206-224.


[1] The Four Loves contains numerous other Shakespearean references which are not the subject of this essay. See, for instance, the reference to Sonnet 129, C.S. Lewis, The Four Loves (1960; repr., London: HarperCollins, 2002), 16. All further references to this edition.

[2] Lewis, 49. Italics mine.

[3] Lewis, Letter to James W. Welch, 10 Feb 1941, in The Collected Letters of CS Lewis, vol. 2 (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 2004), 470.

[4] In the same letter Lewis requests that the title of the talks should “mention Christianity only at the end, [I] would prefer not to unmask my battery until then,” 470.

[5] Wesley A. Kort, Reading C.S. Lewis: A Commentary (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016), 87. (Italics mine).

[6] Kort, 87; Paul L. Holmer, C.S. Lewis: The Shape of His Faith and Thought (London: Sheldon Press, 1977), 93.

[7] Clifford Morris, “A Christian Gentleman,” in C.S. Lewis at the Breakfast Table and Other Reminiscences, ed. by James Como (1979; repr. San Diego: Harvest, 1992), 92- 201; 195; H.C.L. Heywood, “Review of Beyond Personality,” Theology: A Monthly Review XLVIII, no. 297 (March 1945): 66-67.

[8] In a less than complementary review of The Four Loves, Alasdair MacIntyre wryly notes that “Professor Lewis, the perceptive and learned critic of medieval and Renaissance literature, has herebeen completely defeated and ousted by Mr Lewis, the arch and patronizing lay theologian.” See “Love and Mr. Lewis,” The Guardian, 8 April 1960.

[9] Lewis, The Four Loves, 49. This is not the first literary reference in The Four Loves, nor even in this chapter which has already taken in Tristram Shandy, The Wind in the Willows, Don Quixote, The Pickwick Papers, and The Old Curiosity Shop in the same breath, 41, Comus, 42, King Solomons Ring, 44 and The Way of the Flesh, 48 before we even get to King Lear. Lewis also references Gilbert White’s The Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne (1789) earlier in this same chapter, and discusses in broader terms the presentation of “domestic affections” by Victorian novelists, 41.

[10] Lewis, 40.

[11] Lewis, 45.

[12] Lewis, 48.

[13] Lewis’s use of Lear in The Four Loves offers a reading of the play whereby those who love selfishly (the villains) are contrasted with those who love selflessly (the heroes). This is not simply a moral reading, but rather explores the capacity of love and the implications of love corrupted. In a similar vein, see R. V. Young “Hope and Despair in King Lear: the Gospel and the Crisis of Natural Law,” in King Lear: New Critical Essays, ed. by Jeffrey Kahan (New York: Routledge, 2008), 253-77.

[14] Lewis,  9.

[15] Lewis, 40.

[16] Young, 271.

[17] Lewis, 66.

[18] Lewis, 49.

[19] Lewis, 140.

[20] Lewis, 67.

[21] Lewis, 140.

[22] Lewis, 49.

[23] William Shakespeare, King Lear, ed. by R.A. Foakes, Arden Shakespeare Third Series (London: Bloomsbury, 1997), 161. All further references are to this edition and are given by act, scene, and line number; 1.1.53; 1.1.51.

[24] Lear, 1.1.82.

[25] Lear, 3.7.4.

[26] Lewis, 48.

[27] Lear, 1.1.54.

[28] Lear, 1.1.87.

[29] Lear, 1.1.56; 1.1.57.

[30] Lewis, 140.

[31] Lear, 1.1.87.

[32] Lewis, 51.

[33] Lewis, 3.

[34] Lear, 3.4.34; 3.2.72. For more on this, see Gary Tandy’s essay in this volume.

35 Or even another selfish individual, such as Goneril and Regan both here (for Lear) and later (for Edmund).

[36] Of course feelings should not be the only basis; See Lewis, Mere Christianity (Glasgow: Fontana, 1955): ‘Nobody can always have devout feelings: and even if we could, feelings are not what God principally cares about. Christian Love, either towards God or towards man, is an affair of the will. . . . [T]hough our feelings come and go, His love for us does not,” 115. On the other hand, as the Bright Spirit says in Lewis’s The Great Divorce (London: Geoffrey Bles, 1945): “No natural feelings are high or low, holy or unholy, in themselves. They are all holy when God’s hand is on the rein. They all go bad when they set up on their own and make themselves into false gods,” 100.

[37] Lewis, 3.

[38] Lewis, The Screwtape Letters (1942; repr. London: Geoffrey Bles, 1945), 109.

[39] Lear, 1.1.87.

[40] Martin Buber, I and Thou, trans. by Ronald Gregor Smith (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1937) notes, “When a man says I he refers to” either I-Thou or I-It, 4.

[41] Martin Luther King, Jr., “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” 16 April 1963, first pub: “Letter from Birmingham City Jail,” American Friends Service Committee, May 1963. As Teresa Brennan notes, “to be effective, the construction of self-containment also depends on another person […] accepting those unwanted affects for us,” The Transmission of Affect (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2004), 12.

[42] Lear, 1.1.87; Buber, 4.

[43] Buber, 4.

[44] Lewis, The Four Loves, 14; Lear, 1.1.82.

[45] Lear, 1.1.91. Indeed the play itself begins with a reference to affect: “I thought the king had more affected the Duke of Albany than Cornwall” (1.1.1). This sets the context for the displays of affection Lear then calls for later in the same scene.

[46] Lear, 1.1.91-2.

[47] Lear , 1.1.53.

[48] Lear, 1.181; this is further indicated in the mocking tone of “thy truth then be thy dower,” 1.1.109.

[49] Lear , 1.1.94; 1.1.116.

[50] Lewis, 49.

[51] Lear, 1.1.35.

[52] Lewis, 1.

[53] Lewis, 49. This is, crucially “at the beginning of the play,” indicating the change which is to come about Lear’s character as the play progresses. Also see Gary Tandy’s essay in this volume.

[54] This is particularly true when read in the light of the preceding urgent threat to “settle with” Wormwood, Lewis, The Screwtape Letters, 160.

[55] Lewis, The Four Loves, 68.

[56] Lewis, The Screwtape Letters, 12.

[57] Lewis, The Screwtape Letters, 108.

[58] Lewis, 109. Italics mine. See Joe Ricke, “The Archangel Fragment: Identifying and Interpreting C.S. Lewis’s ‘Cryptic Note,’” Sehnsucht: The C.S. Lewis Journal, 14 (2020): 106-114, particularly his attribution to and discussion of Lewis’s handwritten note in John Arlott’s copy of The Screwtape Letters (109), and subsequent discussion of its significance (111), especially as it directly contrasts to the in Letter XXI in Screwtape. Apparently Lewis had imagined an angelic version of love who saw his human protégé as a “a dear being entrusted to him, not an object to be owned,” 111.

[59] Lewis, 109; Lear, 1.1.48.

[60] Lewis, 109.

[61] Lewis, 109. Screwtape reveals that this linguistic confusion is due to demonic interference, as if English teachers didn’t already know about this.

[62] Caroline J. Simon has noted that in Lewis’s argument “natural loves are God-given goods, yet are also prone to distortions – distortions so severe that Lewis calls them demonic.” Therefore, the Screwtape echo here is an appropriate one on which to dwell. See “On Love,” in Cambridge Companion to C.S. Lewis, ed. by Robert MacSwain and Michael Ward (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 146-59 (146).

[63] Lewis, 109. And yet, as Ricke notes, even Screwtape admits that “a potentially demonic word like ‘mine’ has a sublime meaning in the divine lexicon. To the pure of heart […] ‘mine’ is an expression of generosity and love, not selfishness and conquest,” 111.

[64] Buber, 14-15.

[65] Lear, 1.1.233; 1.1.243.

[66] Lewis, The Four Loves, 50-1.

[67] I Corinthians 13:1-13.

[68] Lewis, “The World’s Last Night” (1952; repr. in CS Lewis Essay Collection & Other Short Pieces, 2000), 42-53.

[69] Lear, 2.2.247; 3.4.32; 3.4.19-20.

[70] Lear, 2.2.238-41.

[71] Lear, 4.6.218-9. A similar idea is expressed by the exiled Duke Senior in As You Like It, ed. by Juliet Dusinberre, Arden Third Series (London: Bloomsbury, 2006), 226: 2.7.123-25.

[72] Lewis, The Four Loves, 62.

[73] Lewis, The Four Loves, 51.

[74] For pioneering discussions of affective attunement in the context of attachment and relationship between mother and child (a relationship which Lewis uses as his exemplary one for storage/affection, The Four Loves, 39-40) see Daniel Stern, The Interpersonal World of the Infant (New York: Basic Books, 1985). For discussion of this within the Christian context, see Cory Wilson, “Afterword” in Moses Chung and Christopher Meehan, Joining Jesus: Ordinary People at the Edges of the Church (Eugene: Cascade Books, 2022), 177-96 (184-85).

[75] Lear, 2.2.288; 2.2.290-91.

[76] Lear, 2.2.290-91.

[77] Lear, 3.4.34.

[78] Lewis, 49.

[79] Lewis, “Weight of Glory,” in C.S. Lewis Essay Collection & Other Short Pieces, ed. by Walter Hooper (1941; repr. London: HarperCollins, 2000), 96-106 (105; 106).

[80] Kort, Reading C.S. Lewis: A Commentary, 87.

[81] For a discussion of how cultural apologetics might “create” (her term) meaning see Chapter Two of Holly Ordway, Apologetics and the Christian Imagination: An Integrated Approach to Defending the Faith (Steubenville: Emmaus Road Publishing, 2017), 21-38.

[82] Lewis, The Four Loves, 49.

[83] Paul M. Gould, Cultural Apologetics: Renewing the Christian Voice, Conscience and Imagination in a Disenchanted World (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2019), 37.

[84] Ordway, 142.

[85] Lewis, The Four Loves, 41; 40.

[86] Lewis, 48.