Moreover, Shakespeare appears to be presenting a morally chaotic world through the way in which the characters can be seen as possessing seen corrupted morals, motivated purely by materialism as opposed to moralistic values. We see this in the elegant and superficial speeches of Gonerill and Regan who claim to love Lear ‘Dearer than eyesight’, the hyperbole in these statements highlighting their manipulative nature and greed for worldly goods. Their actions throughout the rest of the play prove the fabrication of these initial promises. Johnson comments that King Lear is a play in which the ‘Wicked prosper and virtuous miscarry’. I find this view accurate as the audience can witness how the Machiavellian characters such as Gonerill and Regan are rewarded for their materialism, and given total rights over the kingdom, whereas the virtuous characters such as Cordelia and Kent are punished for their honesty and moralistic values, consequently demonstrating a world of chaotic morals. Lear himself is presented as morally ambivalent, similar to Claudius in Hamlet, initially valuing riches and reputation, which were the very things that fuelled his disillusionment and moral blindness. The love test he uses to bribe his daughters with ‘the largest bounty’ can be seen as an obvious attempt to buy their love and consequently boost his self-image. His rash reaction to Cordelia’s refusal to perform, pledging to ‘disclaim all paternal care’ illustrates how his hubris stops him from being able to differentiate between his honest daughter and his deceitful daughters. It also demonstrates the way in which the antagonists exploit the hamartia of the protagonist, heightening the tragic nature of the play. However, towards the end of the play, Lear’s character undergoes anagnorisis and so he comes to possess more virtuous principles. In Act 3, for the first time he recognises the plight of the ‘Poor naked wretches’ that are forced to ‘bide the pelting of [the]pitiless storm’, the alliteration in ‘pitiless’ and ‘pelting’ demonstrating the extreme suffering endured by those in poverty. Through Shakespeare’s emotive lexis, Lear is presented as regretful, empathetic, and compassionate, which directly contrasts with his initial selfishness and fixation with worldly things, and it is this contrast that presents a sense of moral confusion.
On the other hand, through employing moral characters that remain virtuous throughout the play, Shakespeare doesn’t present a completely morally chaotic world. Cordelia’s character is the personification of virtue and morality, creating a direct juxtaposition with the immoral, Machiavellian characters such as Gonerill and Regan. When required to bargain her love for rights over the kingdom, she comments “I cannot heave my heart into my mouth”, portraying her honest nature. The idiom “heart in your mouth”, which suggests nervousness or fear, demonstrates that Cordelia does not see any reason to fear losing the land, emphasising her lack of materialism and strong moral compass. Expanding on this, Lear later describes her tears as “The holy water from her heavenly eyes”, the alliteration of ‘holy’ and ‘heavenly’ stressing her virtue and linking her to the Gods. Foakes comments "The optimistic thrust of Edgar's moralizing hints at the possibility of a happy ending.’’ The play concludes with the moralistic character Edgar reigning over England, and although good characters such as Cordelia die, (which wasn’t received well by Shakespeare’s original audience), evil is ultimately eradicated whilst good triumphs. By the end of the play, Evil can even be seen to be eradicated by evil itself. Gonerill poisons Regan, and mentions in an aside after Regan feels the effects “If not I’ll ne’er trust medicine”, the secretive nature of this aside presenting her murderous and calculating nature. Shortly after, she commits suicide, which would have been seen as a great act of sin by a Jacobean audience, but ultimately evil defeats itself, evoking a rebalancing of morals and a move back towards the natural order. The play clearly descends from the embodied values of medieval morality plays, which was a popular form of drama in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. These plays present a direct conflict between good and evil, and ultimately the evil and chaos must be destroyed, and a moral lesson is learned.
Overall, there are many aspects of King Lear that evoke a seeming moral chaos, however by the end of the play, as in all morality plays, the chaos is removed and moral order is restored, resulting in catharsis for the audience.