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King lear 2

Many themes are evident in King Lear, but perhaps one of the

most prevalent relates to the theme of justice. Shakespeare has

developed a tragedy that allows us to see man's decent into

chaos. Although Lear is perceived as "a man more sinned against

than sinning" (p.62), the treatment of the main characters

encourages the reader to reflect on the presence or lack of

justice in this world. The characters also vary in their

inclination to view the world from either a fatalistic or

moralistic point of view, depending on their beliefs about the

presence or absence of a higher power. The theme of justice in

relation to higher powers can be illustrated from the perspective

of King Lear, Gloucester, and Edgar.

When reading King Lear, it is helpful to understand the

Elizabethan "Chain of Being" in which nature is viewed as order.

Rosenblatt (1984) states that there was a belief in an

established hierarchy within the universe. Everything had its

own relative position beginning with Heaven, the Divine Being,

and the stars and planets which are all above. On earth the king

is next, then the nobles, on down to the peasantry. Holding the

lowest position were the beggars and lunatics and finally, the

animals. Interrupting this order is unnatural.

King Lear's sin was that he disrupted this chain of being by

relinquishing his throne. By allowing his daughters and their

husbands to rule the kingdom, the natural order of things was

disturbed. His notion that he can still be in control after

dividing the kingdom is a delusion. According to Elizabethan

philosophy, it would seem that this is the beginning of his

mistakes and is also the cause of much of the misfortune that

occurs later on in the play. Chaos rules the unnatural.

As well, King Lear makes another devastating mistake which

affects his relationship with his daughters by asking them to

tell him how much they love him in order that he may divide his

kingdom according to the strength of their love. Cordelia, the

youngest daughter, states that she loves her father "according to

her bond" (p.4). She is saying that she loves him as much as any

child could love a father. On the other hand, Goneril and Reagan

easily speak the words that their father wants to hear, rather

than the truth.

Because Lear is not satisfied with Cordelia's response, he

turns his back on Cordelia and on her love. By doing this he is

destroying the natural family unit and lacks the insight to know

this. He unjustly punishes Cordelia by banishing her from the

kingdom. He casts out his daughter in an unfatherly fashion, yet

is gravely upset by the ingratitude of his other two daughters,

Goneril and Reagan.

Once again, due to Lear's lack of wisdom, he fails to recognize

the sincerity of Cordelia's words. Thus, he puts his

relationship with his daughters in jeopardy which results in a

constant source of grief for King Lear.

King Lear holds firm to his belief that the world is

governed by the gods and in justice. Therefore he does not

question the will of the gods in letting him suffer from his

daughter's unkindness, but prays

If it be you that stirs these daughters' hearts

Against their father, fool me not with so much

To bear it tamely; touch me with noble anger (p.50).

Greer (1986) reminds us that Shakespeare uses the word

"nature" often, but rarely with the same meaning. For instance,

Lear personifies nature when he calls Cordelia "a wretch whom

Nature is ashamed/Almost to acknowledge hers" (p.9). Here, it

seems as though Lear thinks himself to be particularly special

and close to nature because he is presumptuous in believing that

he can read Nature's mind. On the same note, Lear also seems to

order his goddess, Nature, as though he is in control. He

commands Nature to follow his orders,

Hear, Nature, hear! dear goddess, hear!

Suspend thy purpose, if thou didst intend

To make this creature fruitful (p.29).

Therefore, Lear is once again disturbing the order of things by

putting himself above the gods.

Lear disturbs the Chain of Being, unjustly punishes Cordelia

and misinterprets his role in life by assuming himself to be the

lord of creation. For these "sins" he is punished when Goneril

and Reagan turn on him and Cordelia dies. Thus, it would seem

that justice is served.

However, Holloway (1961) suggests that Lear suffers more for

his "sins" than seems reasonable. Holloway sums up this concept

as follows: "the world can be to mankind, and has been to Lear,

a rack: a scene of suffering reiterated past all probability or

reason" (p.506).

Gloucester plays a parallel role to Lear in the play. He is

elderly, gullible and taken in by his children. Again, the

natural unit of the family is disturbed for Gloucester has a

bastard son who is his downfall. However, unlike Lear, he is not

weak and infirm and is more good- natured and brave.

Like Lear, Gloucester makes reference to Nature. However,

Greer (1986) feels that Gloucester views Nature as neutral and

sees it existing only for man's benefit:

These late eclipses in the sun and moon portend no good to

us. Though the wisdom of nature can reason it thus and thus,

yet nature finds itself scourged by thesequent effects


Rather than blame Nature, Gloucester is aware that his problems

are a result of his own foolishness. He does not feel that the

gods are necessary to explain Edmund's treason or Cornwall's

brutality. However, he does make clear his belief that the gods

are not interested in the affairs of men:

As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods.

They kill us for their sport (p.82).

Although it may seem as though he is an atheist, Frye believes


Gloucester is not atheist: he postulates gods, divine

personalities, and if he replaces them with a mechanism of

fate or destiny he couldn't ascribe malice to it.What he

feels is that there is some mystery in the horror of what's

happened to him that goes beyond the tangible human causes"


It is true that Gloucester has been lustful and has fathered

an illegitimate son as the consequences. Since this, too, is an

unnatural act, it seems justice must be served to restore order.

However, to what degree is Gloucester responsible for Edmund's

evil behaviour? And was it just that Gloucester's eyes were

poked out by Goneril and Reagan? This leaves one wondering

whether or not justice was served as Gloucester dies at the end

of the play. The punishment would seem to exceed the crime.

Edgar is Gloucester's legitimate son who is in danger of

losing his right to his inheritance. At first, he is the good

and dutiful one. At times he is gullible and naive when

responding to his illegitimate brother Edmund, who tries to take

his birth-right.

Edgar is the moralist in this play. When he reflects on his

own undeserved troubles and the suffering of others, there is a

religious tone. He has faith in the gods and their justice, and

is quick to give the "higher powers" the credit for what happens

to men. Thus, he says to Gloucester, who believes he has fallen

from the edge of a cliff:

Think that the clearest gods, who make them honours

Of men's impossibilities, have preserved thee (p.96).

And thus he points out the justice of the gods in punishing

Gloucester by the hand of Edmund:

The gods are just, and of our pleasant vices

Make instruments to plague us (p.119).

Edgar believes that there is order in nature. He thinks

that there is a natural ebb and flow in human fortunes, meaning

that even the worst situation can become better (Greer, 1986).

He believes in the Wheel of Fortune and if he is at the bottom of

the wheel, his fortune will improve as he moves upward:

To be the worst,

The lowest and most dejected thing of fortune,

Stands still in esperance, lives not in fear.

The lamentable change is from the best;

The worst returns to laughter. Welcome, then,

Thou unsubstantial air that I embrace! (p.81).

However, he comes to realize that this belief is not necessarily

so. When he finds his father blinded, it becomes obvious that

this suffering is renewed:

The worst is not

So long as we can say "This is the worst" (p.82).

Greer (1986) comments that it may seem that nature is indifferent

to the fate of any individual.

Edgar differs from Gloucester in that he takes a moralistic

point of view. Frye suggests that while Gloucester "feels that

there is some mystery in the horror of what's happened to him

that goes beyond the tangible human causes...Edgar...looks for

human causes and assumes that there are powers above who are

reacting to events as they should" (p.111).

In Edgar's case it seems that he has received his just

reward. He does not have an easy time when dealing with his

brother, Edmund. Yet, it would seem that justice is served as

Edgar regains his proper position in the natural order of things.

In King Lear, each of the characters discussed have varying

interpretations of the importance of the higher powers affecting

their fortunes. As well, justice is handed out in different

degrees. In the eyes of the characters, Shakespeare succeeds in

illustrating the universal conflict that members of society have

always had in understanding their fate in this world.

Source: Essay UK -

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