King Lear was written around 1605, between Othello and Macbeth, and represents one of the four pillars of Shakespearean plays. The tragedy, first published in 1623, depicts events which took place in the eighth century B.C. However unusual this might seem for Shakespeare whose tragedies were anchored in his own time, it is important to note that parallel stories of Lear's and Gloucester's sufferings at the hands of their own children mirrored anxieties shared by most of Shakespeare's audience of early seventeenth century. The brutality of the play may appear meaningless at times, especially if judged from a modern perspective. Nevertheless, the succession of awful events raises metaphorical questions which aim at the very heart of human nature with the concept of 'justice' being one of the most important literary themes in the play. Is justice possible in the world, or are the mechanisms of the world opposed to the idea of justice? Shakespeare explores several points-of-view through his characters. Gloucester says that the convention of justice that is supported by society and morality does not coincide with divine justice: "As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods; / They kill us for their sport" (King Lear IV.i.37 -- 38). Edgar, on the other hand, argues that "the gods are just," and that individuals eventually get what they deserve (King Lear V.iii.169). Thesis: This play explores the theme of 'justice' in Shakespeare's play, King Lear. The end of the play offers a rather grim perspective which seems to favor the idea that although the wicked find their punishment in death, the good die along with them. The image of Lear cradling Cordelia's body in his arms seems to reflect the chaos that controls the plot of King Lear which plays out like a mixture of goodness, wickedness, madness and death.
When it comes to the characters in Shakespeare's greatest tragedies, there is always more than meets the eye. The theme of justice is inextricably linked to the protagonist of each play. His protagonists are strong, deep characters who are faced with the trials of destiny and the frailty of the human mind and condition. Although different as far as social position, culture and life, the characters in Shakespeare's tragedies share a fateful end which can be attributed at least to a great extent if not completely, to a particular flaw of character, be it ambition, superficiality or jealousy. King Lear makes no exception. He shows his flaw of character from the very beginning. He is proud to be king, and readily accepts the benefits that are associated with this title, but refuses to take on the responsibilities that it implies. He enjoys public flattery and is largely blind to the truth even when laid in front of his eyes. In this sense, he fails to see the betrayal of his daughters and is thus incapable of providing a proper response to Goneril and Regan's attempt to strip their father of his power and identity, and to reduce him to a reasonless animal: "O, reason not the need! Our basest beggars / Are in the poorest thing superfluous. / Allow not nature more than nature needs, / Man's life's as cheap as beast's & #8230; No, I'll not weep. / I have full cause of weeping, but this heart / Shall break into a hundred thousand flaws, / or ere I'll weep. O fool, I shall go mad!" (King Lear II.iv).
Acting from madness combined with a false belief in his own superiority consolidated by decades of dictatorial rule, Lear declares a love contest among his three daughters to determine she who 'loves him most', such that he may accordingly divide up the kingdom upon his impending 'retirement'. When Cordelia -- the daughter from whom he had expected the most -- refuses to play his game, Lear enters a tirade, finally disowning his daughter out of blind rage. In his initial state, King Lear derives his emotion from an assured belief in his discretionary power: "Come not between the dragon and his wrath" (I.i.136). He outwardly reveals no compassion, and shows no interest as to what is just and sympathetic. Still, Lear's fury is merely an extension of the pain he himself is suffering. Throughout the play, his suffering could be best described as a combination between melancholy and mourning. Both cases involve loss, abandonment. What is lost in mourning is a real, consciously perceived person, while the melancholy person is not aware of loss -- Lear is not aware of feeling desperate because Cordelia has abandoned him. At their root lies an unresolved ambivalence comprising love and hate, request and refusal (Speziale-Bagliacca 103). In order to stop suffering, the subject attempts to deny all distance: "the person who is abandoned becomes one with the abandoner and, like a cannibal, devours him or her; but in this way resentment and rage are internalized" (Ibid).
The greedier the individual who seeks to overcome melancholy, the more he feels unconsciously powerless to repair what he has despoiled in his greedy fantasies. His efforts to recognize not only the needy, infantile parts of himself but also his devastating guilt are bound to fail and thus he will feel obliged to direct his accusations at others: ". . . Tremble, thou wretch, / That hast within thee undivulged crimes, / Unwhipped of justice; hide thee, thou bloody hand, / Thou perjured, and thou simular of virtue / That art incestuous; caitiff, to pieces shake, / That under covert and convenient seeming / Has practiced on man's life; close pent-up guilts / Rive your concealing continents and cry / These dreadful summoners grace. I am a man / More sinned against than sinning" (King Lear III.ii.51-60).
From time immemorial, the administration of law and justice according to merit has been the characteristic duty or, rather, contribution of a father. Yet Lear, as a father, betrays this expectation. He might be called an unnatural father, for he turns out to be a possessive, irrational, and unpredictable child-father, one who gives today and takes away tomorrow. It is because Lear has not fulfilled himself as a human being capable of adult affection, with a sense of justice or the kind of sensitivity, that he is unable to appreciate his daughters' needs or qualities. Like many people who have suffered arrested development, Lear denies his need for love, denies being unable to find it, and therefore resorts to staging the initial pantomime and proclaiming his rights. At the same time, it has been seen that Goneril and Regan confusedly search for a "constitutional" father -- just as there would subsequently be constitutional kings and just as Henry VIII had also wanted a "constitutional" pope (Bloom 141).
However, the main aspect to consider when discussing the character of King Lear is whether or not he learns from his mistakes and emerges as a better king, father and human being. It appears he does since he is able to value Cordelia's love for him, and realizes that despite the fact that his other two daughters were always ready to flatter him, it was Cordelia who loved him the most. This is why, when Cordelia dies, the king invokes the theme of divine justice and says that "heaven's vault should crack" at the death of his daughter: "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" (King Lear V.iii.256 -- 260). Lear's view on justice is that morality is never synonymous to power, thus justice is administered not by the just, but by the powerful: "What, art mad? A man may see how ... this world goes with no eyes. Look with thine ears: see how yond justice rails upon yond 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?
And the creature run from the cur? There thou mightst behold the great image of authority: a dog's obeyed in office.
Thou rascal beadle, hold thy bloody hand!
Why dost thou lash that whore? Strip thine own back;
Thou hotly lust'st to use her in that kind
For which thou whipp'st her. The usurer hangs the cozener.
Through tatter'd clothes small vices do appear;
Robes and furr'd gowns hide all. Plate sin with gold,
And the strong lance of justice hurtless breaks:
Arm it in rags, a pigmy's straw does pierce it.
None does offend, none, I say, none; I'll able 'em:
Take that of me, my friend, who have the power
To seal the accuser's lips. Get thee glass eyes;
And like a scurvy politician, seem / to see the things thou dost not" (King Lear IV.vi.146-167). Lear declares that justice is a sham because the…