An analysis of the theme of justice in ‘King Lear’.
By Alex Piper.
Justice is a balance of misfortune and good fortune; right and wrong according to motives and circumstances of the individuals under judgement. To be just we must consider why they did it and balance out all the evidence and facts and decide on a punishment depending on these. Types of justice that exist in society include criminal justice, legal justice, vigilante justice, natural justice and divine justice.
As King Lear is a brutal play, filled with human cruelty and many awful disasters, the play’s terrible events raise an obvious question for the characters, namely whether there is any possibility of justice in the world.
Various characters offer their opinions. Towards the end of the play Gloucester says:
"As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods; / they kill us for their sport,"
Here, he has realized it is foolish for humankind to assume that the natural world works in parallel with social or moral justice because ultimately, the gods will do with us what they will regardless of whether or not it is just. , on the other hand, insists that: "the gods are just," optimistically believing that individuals must ultimately get what they deserve. However, in the end, we are left with only a terrifying uncertainty; although the wicked die, the good die along with them, leaving us with the awful image of cradling 's body in his arms unable to accept the fact that she has suffered such an inexplicable injustice. There is goodness in the world of the play, but there is also madness, evil and death, and it is difficult to tell which triumphs in the end. The purpose of this essay is to examine the suffering and the learning journey Lear goes through in order to decide how Shakespeare deals with the theme of justice in one of his greatest tragedies.
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Clearly, King Lear’s idea to divide the land is the wrong decision as it is the gods who decide through divine right who is next to be king or queen. For this attempt to undermine the gods, it is obvious that Lear should be punished and, surely enough, the consequence is he is betrayed by two of his daughters and loses everything, thus, in a way, justice is served and he gets what he deserves.
As the play opens one can almost immediately see that Lear begins to make mistakes that will eventually Result in his downfall. The very first words that he speaks in the play are:
"...Give me the map there. Know that we have divided
In three our kingdom, and 'tis our fast intent
To shake all cares and business from our age,
Conferring them on younger strengths while we
Unburdened crawl to death..." (Act I, Sc I, Ln 38-41)
This gives the audience the first hint of Lear's intent to give away his throne. He goes on further to divide his kingdom, offering pieces to his daughters as a form of reward to his test of love.
"Tell me, my daughters
Which of you shall we say doth love us most?
That we our largest bounty may extend
Where nature doth with merit challenge." (Act I, Sc I, Ln 47-53)
This is the first and worst of the many sins that Lear commits in this play. By passing his throne it disrupts the great chain of the gods, which states that the King must not challenge the position that God has given him. This undermining of God's authority results in the chaos that tears apart Lear's world, leaving him, in the end, with nothing. Following this, Lear, in a foolish and arrogant rage, begins to banish those around him that genuinely care for him, as at this stage he cannot see beyond the mask that the evil wear. He banishes Kent, a loyal servant to Lear, and his youngest and previously most loved daughter, Cordelia. This results in Lear surrounding himself with people who only wish to use him, which leaves him very vulnerable to attack. Having given away his crown and therefore all his power, this is precisely what happens and it is through this that Lear discovers his wrongs and amends them.
Gloucester was another example of a character who suffered
from an awful case of blindness. Gloucester’s blindness denied him of
the ability to see the goodness of Edgar and the evil of Edmund.
Although Edgar was the good and loving son, Gloucester all but
disowned him. He wanted to kill the son that would later save his
life. Gloucester’s blindness began when Edmund convinced him by the
means of a forged letter that Edgar was plotting to kill him.
Gloucester’s lack of sight caused him to believe Edmund was the good
son and prevented him from pondering the idea of Edmund being after
his earldom. Near the end of the play, Gloucester finally regained
his sight and realized that Edgar saved his life disguised as Poor Tom
and loved him all along. He realized that Edmund planned to take over
the earldom and that he was the evil son of the two. Gloucester’s
famous line: “I stumbled when I saw” (Act IV, Sc I, Ln 20-21) was
ironic. His inability to see the realities of his sons occurred when
he had his physical sight but was mentally blind; but his ability to
see the true nature of his sons occurred after having his eyes plucked
out by the Duke of Cornwall. Fortunately, the consequences of
Gloucester’s blindness throughout the play was minimal, after all, he
was the only one to die as a result of his tragic flaw.
The blindest of all was undoubtedly King Lear. Because of
Lear’s high position in society, he was supposed to be able to
distinguish the good from the bad; unfortunately, his lack of sight
prevented him to do so. Lear’s first act of blindness came at the
beginning of the play. First, he was easily deceived by his two eldest
daughters’ lies, then, he was unable to see the reality of Cordelia’s
true love for him, and as a result, banished her from his kingdom with
the following words:
Have no such daughter, nor shall ever see
That face of her again. Therefore be gone
without our grace, our love, our benison.”
(Act I, Sc I, Ln 265-267)
Lear’s blindness also caused him to banish one of his loyal followers,
Kent. Kent was able to see Cordelia’s true love for her father, and
tried to protect her from her blind father’s irrationality. After
Kent was banished, he created a disguise for himself and was
eventually hired by Lear as a servant. Lear’s inability to determine
his servant’s true identity proved once again how blind Lear actually
was. He realized how wicked his two eldest daughters really were
after they locked him out of the castle during a tremendous storm.
More importantly, Lear saw through Cordelia’s lack of flatterings and
realized that her love for him was so great that she couldn’t express
it into words. Unfortunately, Lear’s blindness ended up costing
Cordelia her life and consequently the life of himself.
Edmund - Of all of the play's villains, is the most complex and sympathetic. He is a character eager to seize any opportunity and willing to do anything to achieve his goals. However, his ambition is interesting insofar as it reflects not only a thirst for land and power but also a desire for the recognition denied to him by his status as a bastard. His serial treachery is not merely self-interested; it is a conscious rebellion against the social order that has denied him the same status as 's legitimate son, . Goneril and Regan - There is little good to be said for 's older daughters, who are largely indistinguishable in their villainy and spite. and are clever—or at least clever enough to flatter in the play's opening scene—and, early in the play, their bad behaviour toward Lear seems matched by his own pride and temper. But any sympathy that the audience can muster for them evaporates quickly, first when they turn their father out into the storm at the end of Act II. Goneril and Regan are, in a sense, personifications of evil—they have no conscience, only appetite. It is this greedy ambition that enables them to crush all opposition and make themselves mistresses of Britain. Ultimately, however, this same appetite brings about their undoing. Their desire for power is satisfied, but both harbour desires for , which destroys their alliance and eventually leads them to destroy each another. Evil, the play suggests, inevitably turns in on itself.