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William Shakespeare’s King Lear
is a quintessential play of human indecency and retribution. The audience is challenged by the dichotomy of the goodness of man and man’s primordial evil. Many characters demonstrate these tendencies throughout the play, as the play features many gratuitous and unjustified deaths. The tragic end of the play questions the audience whether legitimate justice is exhibited, or whether the characters are inevitably doomed to their fate. King Lear demonstrates this thematic duplicity through instances of poetic justice, social and divine justice, and ultimately a misguided sense of justice.
Poetic justice is a literary device that defines the appropriate retribution to a character’s vice or virtue. Shakespeare utilizes poetic justice in many of his most famous plays; whether in the death of the tyrannical Macbeth, or the righteous defeat of the deceitful Edmund, Shakespeare demonstrates a deep understanding of poetic justice. In King Lear specifically, poetic justice is portrayed in the subplot through the character Gloucester and his sons Edgar and Edmund.
Draw thy sword,
That if my speech offend a noble heart
Thy arm may do thee justice. (draws his sword) Here is mine.
Behold: it is the privilege of mine honors,
My oath, and my profession. I protest—
Maugre thy strength, youth, place, and eminence,
Despite thy victor sword and fire-new fortune,
Thy valor and thy heart—thou art a traitor,
A most toad-spotted traitor. Say thou “No,”
This sword, this arm, and my best spirits are bent
To prove upon thy heart, whereto I speak,
Thou liest. (5.3.153-165)
In this climactic battle between Edgar and Edmund in 5.3, we see the virtuous triumphing over the malevolent. Edgar confronts his brother about his treachery and delivers this monologue before they fight and Edmund is defeated. While this demonstrates poetic justice in that Edgar avenges his father and Edmund is punished for his vice, it is not without the superfluous death of Gloucester.
All friends shall taste
The wages of their virtue and all foes
The cup of their deservings. (5.3.363-365)
Albany says this to Edgar and Kent as one of the last lines of the play; from his perspective, everyone gets what they deserve. Therefore, Edgar and Kent should be justly rewarded for the virtue, as it is assumed that they go on to rule Britain after the events of the play.
While Shakespeare uses his characters to demonstrate Poetic Justice, there are also undertones of Social and Divine Justice throughout King Lear. Initially, Lear is apathetic to the struggles of the noblemen of Britain; as he gradually loses his mind, Lear becomes more empathetic and gains humility, showing development of his character. There is also mention throughout the play of a greater, omnipotent influence on the characters and their actions.
What, art mad? A man may see how this world goes with no eyes. Look with thine ears. See how yon justice rails upon yon simple thief. Hark in thine ear: change places and, handy-dandy, which is the justice, which is the thief? Thou hast seen a farmer’s dog bark at a beggar? (4.6.160-165)
Lear says this to Gloucester in 4.6 and as he begins to “lose his wits” he ironically becomes more aware of his surroundings and offers a more satirical view of the state of Britain under its new tyrannical leaders (Regan and Goneril).
Howl, howl, howl, howl! O, you are men of stones:
Had I your tongues and eyes, I’d use them so
That heaven’s vault should crack. She’s gone forever!
I know when one is dead, and when one lives;
She’s dead as earth. (5.3.306-310)
Lear says this in the last scene of the play as he hold Cordelia’s corpse, lamenting on the gratuity of her death and the gods’ indifference to the righteous. While the play has many examples of the wicked being punished for their malevolence, Cordelia’s death marks the ultimate tragedy of King Lear as Cordelia had no offenses to warrant her death.
As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods;
They kill us for their sport. (4.1.44-45)
As this is one of the most famous melancholy quotes in Shakespeare, it culminates Gloucester’s revelation of human cruelty and divine apathy. Gloucester likens the gods to immature and unjust children who torment man for their enjoyment. In this moment of desperation, Gloucester eludes to the fate of many characters and the tragic ending of the play, plagued by seemingly ineffectual deaths and unaltered by a divine influence.
Many characters in King Lear are victims to injustices. An abuse of power and a misguided sense of justice all contribute to man’s mutual unkindness. The characters of Cornwall and Lear clearly demonstrate such a misguided sense of justice, which inevitably lead to their deaths. The dichotomy of justice and injustice informs the motives of some characters and establishes the faults of others.
I have received a hurt: follow me, lady.
Turn out that eyeless villain; throw this slave
Upon the dunghill. Regan, I bleed apace:
Untimely comes this hurt. (3.7.112-115)
This demonstrates the dramatic irony of King Lear; as Cornwall is too obnoxious and overwhelmed with his false sense of power, he fails to realize that the cause of his downfall was, in fact, his own arrogance. Although he says that his wound is “untimely”, it is evidently a direct product of his unjustified torture of Gloucester.
Here, Lear feels that he is suffering an injustice at the hands of Regan and Goneril. He curses them and prays for the gods to take his side in the argument and send down a punishing storm; ironic, as it is Lear who is cast out into the storm by his daughters. While unfortunate, Lear’s fate is sealed in the first scene, as banishes Cordelia, demonstrating his pre-existing misguided sense of justice.
[…] O heavens!
If you do love old men, if your sweet sway
Show obedience, if you yourselves are old,
Make it your cause. Send down, and take my part! (2.4.213-217)
King Lear allows the audience to consider the element of justice, and whether or not it is ever fulfilled. There is evidence to support and argue against this idea, and that uncertainty makes the play more compelling and dynamic. We can see this through the inclusion of poetic, social and divine justice as well as a fundamental misuse of justice. The dichotomy of justice and divine indifference add to the tragedy of the play, because as the guilty are persecuted and experience an appropriate fate, the innocent also endure cruel and superfluous ends. From this, we can interpret Shakespeare’s intent to create a tale in which the characters’ fates are not necessarily a result of their action, but can also be influenced by external forces.