Where is Justice in Shakespeare’s King Lear?

Questions concerning the nature and extent of justice have colored the literature and philosophy of societies across continents and millennia. From Aeschylus’ Oresteia and the philosophy of Plato and Aristotle to the book of Job and the writings of Confucius, mankind has wrestled with whether nature and the gods are just, and whether society can hope to ever establish justice in a way that transcends the apparent injustice of the natural world. In many ways, William Shakespeare’s King Lear addresses these same questions in a way that is deeply philosophical and deeply moving at the same time. Pitched as a profound human tragedy, the players find themselves burdened under a world that seems unjust and gods who seem unmoved by human suffering. And in the midst of such “contentious storms” in the individual heart and in the natural world, the play forces the audience to ask the question: Is nature just? And is there any hope for change? 

The play wrestles with these questions by weaving together the experiences of Lear and Gloucester, men who endure great suffering as a consequence of their unnatural and unjust actions. Lear’s suffering comes as a direct consequence of the unnatural division of his kingdom and the unjust banishment of Cordelia. In dividing his kingdom before his death, he desires to retain the honor and benefits of being a king without the responsibility his office entails (1.1.39-41). Furthermore, he does not divide the kingdom equally, preferring instead to give the largest portion to Cordelia while creating a farce by which the daughters compete to show their superior love toward him in order to supposedly receive the largest share (1.1.52-54). While Goneril and Regan join in the unnatural farce, voicing exaggerative flattery instead of genuine love, Cordelia is the only sister who acts in accordance with equity and natural love. She states that she loves Lear “according to [her] bond [. . .] returning duties back as are right fit” (1.1. 95, 101). While Cordelia’s statements might seem cold and mechanical, she reveals in her speech that her love is natural, equitable, and in proportion to her duties as a daughter (1.1.104). By choosing to speak in accordance with love, equity, and truth, Cordelia faces the wrath of a father who prefers to live in a contrived farce rather than to live in the natural world.

In his anger at the apparent “injustice” of Cordelia’s refusal to flatter him, Lear calls upon nature and the gods to bring justice upon his daughter, stating, “by all the operation of the orbs  / From whom we do exist and cease to be / Here I disclaim all my paternal care [. . .] By Jupiter / This shall not be revoked” (1.1.113-15, 180-81). And yet it is clear to Kent, France, and even Goneril and Regan that Lear has been foolish and is actually the one who has acted unjustly and unnaturally. Thus, in the peripety of nature’s justice, Lear’s decision to prevent “future strife” by dividing the kingdom actually causes division and strife, first between Lear and Cordelia and then between Cornwall and Albany (2.1.10-11). Lear even banishes the loyal Kent, and the king is left banished by his own daughters soon after. Disordered and unnatural choices lead to disordered and unnatural relations.

While Lear’s banishment by his daughters seems a natural and just consequence of his own unjust and unnatural acts, Lear questions whether nature and the gods are truly just, maintaining that he is a man “more sinned against than sinning” (3.1.57). In one sense, Lear seems to have recognized his own folly, stating, “O most small fault / How ugly didst thou in Cordelia show! [. . .] Beat at this gate that let thy folly in / And thy dear judgment out!” (1.4.244-250). But throughout Act 2, Lear calls on the gods for justice, thinking he is on the side of justice because his daughter’s faults are larger than his own (2.4.185-88, 223-24). And yet as the storm approaches and Lear begins to see that both daughters intend to strip him of his kingly office, he seems to recognize that the gods might not be on his side after all, stating, “If it be you [gods] that stir these daughter’s hearts / Against their father, fool me not so much / To bear it tamely” (2.4.270-72). In this way, Lear is thrust into a contentious storm outside his own castle and within his own heart, as he wrestles with the sentence of the gods that seems, in his own mind, to go beyond his crimes. He states that on the one hand he does not charge “the elements with unkindness,” for unlike his daughters they “owe [him] no subscription” (3.2.16-18). And yet he calls them “servile ministers / That have with two pernicious daughters joined” against “a head / So old and white as this” (3.2.21-24). Lear rages against the storm, struggling with how his conception of nature and justice seem to be contradicted by experience, as nature itself seems to help his daughters in their unnatural and unjust acts against him. Paradoxically, Lear calls on nature and the gods to be just against those who are evil, while also maintaining that nature has been unjust in their dealing with him (3.2.47-57).   

Bent under the burden of his own suffering, Lear empathizes with the suffering of mankind in general, condemning the justice of the gods as meaningless and uncompassionate. He exclaims, “Poor naked wretches [. . .] that bide the pelting of this pitiless storm / How shall your houseless heads, and unfed sides [ . . .] defend you / From seasons such as these?” (3.4.28-32). In the midst of his suffering, Lear perceives that mankind as a whole is burdened under the weight of uncompassionate gods with little hope for heavenly remedy. Looking at Edgar, disguised as a madman, Lear proclaims, “Is man no more than this? [. . .] Unaccomodated man is no more but such a poor, bare, forked animal as thou art” (3.4.94-99). Lear rails against the natural system that he once appealed to and now hates: “See how yond justice rails upon yond simple thief. [. . .] Which is the justice, which is the thief? [. . .] A dog’s obeyed in office [. . .] When we are born, we cry that we are come / To this great stage of fools” (4.6.148-52, 155-61, 180-81).

Similar to Lear, Gloucester also suffers under nature’s hand, a suffering at least in part due to his own folly of believing Edmund’s accusations against his brother Edgar. Edmund easily convinces Gloucester of Edgar’s “unnatural” act of sedition, and Gloucester bemoans the seemingly unjust nature of the world. In view of Lear’s unnatural division of the kingdom and banishment of Cordelia and Kent, coupled with Edgar’s presumed plot against his father, Gloucester struggles under the paradox of a world run by nature and yet unnatural in its course of events: “Though the wisdom of nature can reason it thus, and thus, yet nature finds itself scourged by the sequent events. [. . .] There’s son against father. The King falls from bias of nature: there’s father against child. We have seen the best of our time” (1.2.98-105).

As Edmund’s plot leads to Edgar’s banishment and Gloucester losing his eyes, Gloucester’s struggle with the justice of the world intensifies. From the perspective of the audience, Gloucester suffers for his own lack of judgment and his quickness to accept Edgar’s guilt and make Edmund his “loyal and natural” son and heir (2.1.84-85). But is his suffering equal to his sin? And do nature and the gods have any compassion? These questions plague Gloucester as he stumbles blindly in the night. On the one hand, he recognizes that he has erred and that his blindness is somehow appropriate to his crime, crying out, “I have no way, and therefore want no eyes.  / I stumbled when I saw. [. . .] O dear son Edgar, / The food of thy abused father’s wrath” (4.1.18-22). And yet Gloucester does not sense that the gods have any compassion for his own suffering or mercy for his sin, stating, “As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods / They kill us for their sport” (4.1.37-38).

Gloucester does not seem to think that he can suffer the cruel yoke of the gods any longer, nor can he truly set right what has gone wrong. Instead, he chooses to commit suicide in an act that seems at once both despair and defiance. Addressing the gods, he shouts, “This world I do renounce, and in your sights / Shake patiently my great affliction off. / If I could bear it longer, and not fall / To quarrel with your great opposeless wills / My snuff and loathed part of nature should / Burn itself out” (4.6.35-40). In this act, Gloucester seems resigned to the fact that nature and her gods cannot be opposed, but also cannot be trusted to act according to love and compassion. Rather, life means suffering—perhaps suffering “justly,” but with no hope of mercy or restoration.

In this, Gloucester and Lear find themselves in similar positions, suffering under the weight of nature’s uncompassionate strict justice, a justice that may not even be just. And they are left with little hope. But in contrast to Gloucester and Lear, Edgar, Kent, and Cordelia seem to think that there is something that transcends justice and may perhaps provide hope in the midst of suffering: love. All three have been unjustly and unnaturally treated, and yet they all decide to forgo strict justice in favor of natural love, serving and guiding Gloucester and Lear despite being sinned against.

Out of love, Edgar tries to restore his father’s hope in the gods and the natural world. Recognizing Gloucester’s despair, Edgar’s only hope of restoring his father’s spirit is by convincing him that nature and her gods are indeed compassionate. Leading him to a faux cliff and allowing Gloucester to try to commit suicide, Edgar creates a scenario where Gloucester can experience mercy. At first, Gloucester is upset that his suicide failed, unable to “beguile the tyrant’s rage / And frustrate his proud will” (4.6.63-64). But Edgar convinces him that the gods miraculously preserved him. And in experiencing what he perceives as the gods’ mercy and compassion, Gloucester discards his defiance and submits himself to the “ever-gentle” gods (4.6.214). In Edgar’s act of love, Gloucester finds a measure of peace amidst his suffering. Of course, the audience must wrestle with the sincerity of Edgar’s act. Because Edgar, not the gods, preserves Gloucester’s life, it is unclear whether the gods themselves are shown to be merciful. And while preserved for the moment, Gloucester still dies of a broken heart (5.3.190). On the other hand, while Edgar contrived a fake miracle, it may nonetheless reflect how the gods sometimes deal with suffering men, if for no other reason than the fact that the gods allowed Gloucester to live by means of Edgar. And while Gloucester did finally die, his death was more noble and merciful, dying having seen Edgar and with joy in his heart, rather than dying by ignoble suicide in complete despair. Nevertheless, even if Edgar’s act of love did restore Gloucester and remedy his suffering, the restoration was only partial and redemption was not fully accomplished.

Cordelia, too, thinks that nature and the gods still provide hope for the suffering, praying over Lear, “O you kind gods / Cure this great breach of his abused nature” (4.7.17-18). Instead of being motivated by strict justice, Cordelia chooses the path of love, stating, “O dear father / It is thy business that I go about. [. . .] No blown ambition does our arms incite / But love, dear love, and our aged father’s right” (4.4.23-28). Cordelia recognizes that even though her father was unjust and made unnatural choices, it does not negate his natural right to be loved by his daughters, for, in the words of France in Act 1, “Love’s not love / When it is mingled with regards that stand / Aloof from the entire point” (1.1.240-42). Lear can hardly believe his daughter’s love because he lives in a world governed by strict justice, stating, “I know you do not love me, for your sisters / Have (as I do remember) done me wrong. / You have some cause, they have not” (4.7.67-69). But Cordelia assures him that there is no cause that merits one to stop loving (4.7.70). And in this act of love, Cordelia moves Lear’s heart to repentance: “forget and forgive. / I am old and foolish” (4.7.79-80). 

At the end of Act 4, it seems as though love may perhaps triumph over nature’s strict justice, and perhaps there might be hope of greater restoration and forgiveness. The audience hopes that Cordelia and the love that she represents can “redeem nature from the general curse / which twain have brought her to” (4.6.202-03). But Act 5 plays out a different narrative, ending in the deaths not only of the unjust characters of Goneril, Regan, Edmund, but, most tragically, Cordelia herself. As the audience sees the limp body of Cordelia, Lear utters words of profound despair at the injustice of a world that would take the life of the innocent: “My poor fool is hanged! No, no, no life. / Why should a dog, a horse, a rat, have life / And thou no breath at all? Thou’lt come no more / never, never, never, never, never” (5.3.280-83). With these words, Lear dies, leaving the weary world of injustice and suffering, and leaving the audience wondering with Lear whether love can actually conquer the cruel injustice of an uncaring world.

Albany seems to think that justice can still be meted out within human society, envisioning a kingdom where “all friends shall taste the wages of their virtue, and all foes / The cup of their deserving” (5.3.277-79). He even charges Kent and Edgar with ruling and sustaining “this gored state” (5.3.295). But Kent seems to have given up, embracing his immanent death (5.3.296-97). And it seems apparent that in the midst of such suffering, it is not appropriate to even speak of practical measures to remedy the injustice of the world. Instead, as the final lines aver, “the weight of this sad day we must obey; / Speak what we feel, not what we aught to say” (5.3.298-99). And so the audience is left without an easy answer, but perhaps wishing in their hearts that “the young shall never see so much, nor live so long” (5.3.300-01). For sometimes compassion and tears may be the only meaningful responses to the injustice of this weary world.

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