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How Does Shakespeare Explore the Theme of Justice in King Lear?

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How does Shakespeare explore the theme of ‘Justice’ in King Lear?

It is often assumed that the role of ‘Justice’ within a play is to serve as the source of goodness and anti-thesis of suffering, however in ‘King Lear’ Shakespeare utilises the theme of Justice to portray powerful messages, providing not just a contrast to the deterioration within the play but an explanation for the anguish witnessed.

The notion of ‘Poetic Justice’ or deserved retribution is arguably denied by Shakespeare in ‘King Lear’, revealing the dangers of ‘unnatural evils’ and their far reaching consequences through its absence. The uncomfortable dramatic irony throughout Gloucester’s journey to his attempted suicide as he calls out for his ‘dear son Edgar,’ unaware that he stands before him, leaves the audience desiring union and peace for the victim of a horribly vivid crime. Despite this, resolution is never achieved, the eventual union causes only further death and is reported alongside Edgars regret, ‘’Never - O fault - revealed myself’, and bitter comments about Gloucester's ‘flawed heart’. As a result Shakespeare builds pity for the character of Gloucester to an unbearable level, denies the audience an opportunity for ‘catharsis’ and hence Gloucester's fate feels poetically unjust. In a society that saw suicide as a deadly sin, synonymous with questioning God’s wisdom and an ingratitude for the sacrifice of Christ, the real significance of Gloucester’s hopeless situation lies in it serving as a warning against the destructive and evil nature of despair. An element of Poetic justice is achieved however by the death of the ‘she-wolves’ Goneril and Regan: the combination of suicide, poisoning and jealousy establish the women, in the words of McCluskie, as ‘the primal source of sin and lust’. Consequently their deaths, closely followed by that of Edmunds, symbolise a rising sense of good prevailing over evil and restoration of moral order. However it can be argued that this sense of catharsis is dependent upon the ideals of contemporary Jacobean society and therefore limited for a modern audience. In the original King Leir, the sisters villainy is evidently a function of the plot, yet Shakespeare chooses to define the sisters’ resistance to their father in terms of gender and sexuality, repeatedly using words such as ‘womb’, and ‘fertility’. For a modern audience this turns Goneril and Regan’s actions into a defiance of patriarchy and reduces the strength of their characterisation as villains. Nevertheless, all cathartic satisfaction and sense of poetic justice is shattered by the image of Lear carrying Cordelia’s body, as Edmunds recantation of orders comes literally too late for Cordelia, the audience is made aware of the momentum that has been generated by ‘evil’ in the play and the spiralling effects of its consequences, despite the cathartic death of its source. Cordelia shifts the dynamic of the play through the forgiveness she shows her father. Crying ‘No cause, no cause’ she refuses to take advantage of Lear’s wrongdoing and in responding ‘I am, I am’ she identifies simply as Lear’s daughter, rejecting the pride and hubris witnessed in the other characters: she introduces a new found promise for harmony, paralleled by the second ‘I am’ being added in the Folio version to balance the meter of the line. Thus, the contrast of Cordelia’s ‘heavenly eyes’ and her sudden death makes the spectacle of suffering in the play overwhelmingly suffocating; it appears there is no escape for any character from the ‘hamartia’ of others as Shakespeare utilises Poetic justice, or rather injustice, to create a tightly packed sequence of events, establishing King Lear as a tragedy according to the Aristotelian criteria.

Utilising the theme of Divine Justice Shakespeare establishes Lear’s madness and suffering, an addition to the original source, ‘as not so much a breakdown but a breakthrough’, in the words of Kettle. The image of Lear ‘shut out’ in the storm at the hands of the ‘unnatural hags’ was particularly unsettling for a Jacobean society that believed Kings were divinely appointed: the notion of a King being ‘killed for sport’ was almost blasphemous and certainly treasonous. It is in this context that Shakespeare presents the nature of the storm as a journey that shatters Lear’s ‘little world of man’ enabling him to discover ‘humanity’, affirming the presence of divine justice in the bleakest of worlds for an audience that believed all Kings deserved good. The necessity of Lear’s ‘breakthrough’ is hinted at by Cornwall, his simple comment ‘he leads himself’ contains a double meaning, linking Lear’s strong-willed nature and his lack of subjects/power to suggest Lear’s hamartia is a sense of delusion and blinding pride. It is clear to see therefore that Lear’s ‘rupture of Propinquity’ upon dividing his Kingdom was a mistake born out of his greatest flaw and thus, according to contemporary christian doctrine, his experience in the storm is the trial through which he will be given an opportunity for redemption. The image of Lear ‘unbonneted’ as he ‘tears his white hair’ furthers a sense of newfound perspective for both the audience and Lear himself, symbolic of the divine wisdom behind his suffering. Whilst the act of Lear ‘ Contending with the fretful elements’ again proves his sightless belief that his power is divine, it also establishes a link between the storm in nature and the storm in Lear’s mind. It appears that Lear’s surroundings are aiding him to discover the source of his internal conflict, forcing him to see the limits of his power, in contrast to the castle in which his arrogance was fed through Goneril and Regan’s flattery and he was deceived of his hamartia. Thus, in allowing Lear to suffer the ‘wild night’ Shakespeare protects the traditional concept of Divine Justice, proving that God’s will ensures good shall come out of evil. Whilst critics disagree over the exact moment Lear achieves this enlightenment, his progress can be charted throughout the play, for instance his concern for the Fool, ‘Art thy cold son?’, signifies his move away from self-pity. As Kettle stipulates, it can be argued that Lear’s final realisation occurs in his satirical cry ‘Off, off you lendings!’. Implying his clothing is borrowed through the term ‘lending’ Lear finally recognises that positions of authority and material possessions are temporary in nature and can easily ‘change places’. His final struggle in taking off his boots represents the experience Lear has actively undertaken, as opposed just being subject to it, hinting at a complete change in his outlook. Shakespeare shows the god’s exposure of Lear to reality is what enables him to denounce the illusion he created through forced order and face the forces that exist beyond his control. Lear dies having been able to recognise true love where, in contrast, Gloucester’s physical blindness prevents him from doing so, therein lies the role of Divine Justice in ‘King Lear’.

Another form of justice found in ‘King Lear’ is Social Justice: whilst indicating Shakespeare's links to Humanism and the ongoing contemporary bourgeois-democratic revolution, the use of ‘Social Justice’ within the play indicates the extent to which the characters are victims of the world around them. Through the motif of ‘Nature’ and contrast of the first two scenes, in the words of Kettle, ‘Shakespeare establishes two clear camps; the old order and the younger individualists’. The old order, symbolic of custom and hierarchy is seen in the characters of the highest social status and those of the older generation; primarily Gloucester and Lear. Lear describes his Kingship through “Pre-eminence and all the large effects that troop with majesty”, troop here having connotations of both military knights and a proud manner of walking, confirming his belief in a traditional order in which human and divine society are one. When deciding to split his Kingdom, Lear declares that the largest bounty will go “Where nature doth with merit challenge”, making a direct link between natural affection and worthiness, Lear reveals his belief that patronage may pay for love, suggesting only the rich are comforted by honest relationships. Similarly, Gloucester defines ‘natural’ order through duty bound relationships claiming the ‘King falls from the balance from Nature’ when there’s ‘father against child’. The significance of this clear establishment of the old order lies in the painful irony that Gloucester is only able to see when his blinded, when he realises that a ‘lust-dieted man’ ‘does not feel’: Gloucester learns that the comfort of the old order, combined with power and status, made him blind to danger and unaware of how to cope with difficulty. Shakespeare suggests that Gloucester was trapped by his social status, an entrapment symbolised by the Dover cliff ‘whose high and bending head Looks fearfully in the confined deep’. The personification of the cliff mirrors the social fall Gloucester has suffered and seems to imply a social injustice, those born into a higher position have further to fall. It is therefore this fear of falling that drives Gloucester to place his trust in the son deceiving him and pushes Lear to use his power to orchestrate a Love Test and secure false loyalty. Thus, Shakespeare establishes an explanation for the suffering that dominates ‘King Lear’. Such a struggle is also seen within the individualist camp, where the notion of natural order is spoken of in conjunction with ‘lust’ and ‘good sport’ as opposed to ‘gratitude’ and ‘courtesy’. The character of Edmund challenges ‘the plague of custom’ that labels him ‘bastard’ and removes any of his wealth and status, vital for achieving respect within the old order. His declaration of intention, ‘I must have your land’ is directly followed by a recalling of Gloucester’s words ‘Our father’s love is to the bastard Edmund as it is to the legitimate’. Here Edmund reveals his motive to be much like Gloucester’s and Lear’s: he appears to desire equality in love as a source of comfort. His words after being wounded ‘The wheel is come full circle, I am here’, refer to the Wheel of Fortune or the idea that whether a man would rise or fall was the hand of a blind-folded woman, suggesting that Edmund too lived with a sense of anxiety about his fate and a fear of falling. However, upon hearing about the deaths of Goneril and Regan, Edmund reveals the lack of social justice he suffers. When he states he was ‘contracted to them both’, Edmund suggests that the only way he could achieve the desires he shares with Lear and Gloucester was through collaboration with the villainous ‘dog-hearted daughters’, implying that his characterisation and fate in the plot were decided upon by the nature of his conception. Whilst his story immediately wins the favour of a modern liberal audience, Shakespeare’s contemporaries would have dismissed Edmund as greedy and ‘unnatural’, thus making him a victim of both theirs and his own society. Shakespeare utilises the idea of Social Justice to highlight a lack of social security and social mobility in the world of ‘King Lear’, the madness, death and inversion of order seen in the play serve as a warning against a rigid hierarchy that frustrates and traps the nature of man.

Ultimately, Shakespeare’s limited use of self-evident ‘Justice’ within ‘King Lear’ appears to provide a strong argument that the characters are ‘more sinned against than sinning’; however it also provides his audience with a series of moral, religious and social warnings, using the play to prove that Justice is not necessarily what’s wanted but what is needed.

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