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Shakespeare's King Lear: Free Will and Justice

By Edited Jul 15, 2016 0 0

Shakespeare’s King Lear explores universal human conflicts that transcend time, culture, and age. As the play progresses, we are led down a path of uncertainty, which makes us question the bonds between parents and offspring, and also between siblings. Furthermore, we are engulfed by the plot, and enraged by the turn of events. Needless to say, King Lear can be interpreted in many different ways, ranging from the analysis of key words to the meaning of kingship or lack thereof. While this is true, the distinction between fate and free will is a particularly interesting way of making sense of one of Shakespeare’s most complex and enthralling plays. On one hand, the belief that one can control his fate lies at the core of Epicurean teachings. On the other hand, the notion that one’s actions are futile, that nothing can change one’s fate is representative of Stoic beliefs. Epicureanism and Stoicism, or free will and fate, are represented differently in King Lear. Although the characters in King Lear were confronted with situations that they had no control over, the driving force behind the majority of events that followed was free will. As a result, immoral characters such as Edmund, Goneril, and Reagan, as well as innately good characters such as Edgar, Cordelia, and Kent defined their destinies and made us question the existence of true justice. 

Epicureanism in King Lear began manifesting itself through Lear’s decision to divide his kingdom. By using flattery as the basis for deciding which part of the kingdom each of his three daughters would inherit, Lear sought validation of his self-worth from his kin. However, when Cordelia responded in a sincere manner by saying “I love your majesty - according to my bond, no more nor less,” (1.1.92)[1] Lear interpreted this as a lack of love, and banished her to France. Cordelia’s love for her father is pure and unconstrained by ulterior motives. The same thing cannot be said about her two sisters. Nonetheless, Lear’s inability to see past Goneril’s and Reagan’s false praises led to temporarily losing the only daughter that has unconditional love for him. Similarly, Gloucester faced an almost identical scenario with his two sons.

Edmund, Gloucester’s illegitimate son, sought power and wealth as he schemed to first take down Edgar, his half-brother, and later his own father. Gloucester’s naive acceptance of Edmund’s forged letter clouded his judgment and unknowingly gave Edmund the freedom to continue with his malicious plan.  This mistake set in motion events that led to the loss of Gloucester’s eyes. Like Lear, Gloucester was unable to determine which of his children truly love him. However, unlike Lear, Gloucester’s lapse in judgment caused him physical harm as Cornwall “Pluck(ed) out his eyes” (3.7.6)[1]. The difference between Lear and Gloucester is that Lear’s decisions and clouded judgment led to an internal struggle, a mental suffering that resulted in the recognition of how he views the world, whereas Gloucester recognized Edgar’s innocence and his caring love only after enduring extreme physical harm. However, one can argue that Lear’s recognition was part of his destiny.

Shakespeare portrait

The storm in Act 3 marked the beginning of Lear’s recognition. That natural event represented a Stoic aspect of the play because the characters’ fate was controlled by the severity of the weather. While being at the mercy of the storm, Lear yelled “Here I stand, your slave / A poor, infirm, weak, and despised old man,” (3.2.19)[1] as he realized that even though he is a king he is just as vulnerable to the elements of nature as any other man. At that moment, Lear’s transition from a rash, old king to a sympathetic human being is slowly gaining momentum. After having found shelter, Lear asked his fool “How dost my boy? Art cold?” (3.2.66)[1] This simple yet caring question exemplifies Lear’s compassionate side. By thinking of others’ well-being instead of just his self-interests, Lear, although still under enormous emotional stress, learned a lesson in humility.

Throughout everything that Lear went through, he was accompanied by people that genuinely cared about him (excluding his knights). Both the fool and Kent stood by Lear’s side no matter what. Their loyalty can only be compared with Cordelia’s loyalty for her father. Both the fool and Kent symbolize Lear’s rational side, his voice of reason. For instance, Kent quickly challenges Lear’s decision to banish Cordelia by unnervingly asking him “What wouldst thou do, old man?”(1.1.149)[1]. Kent’s criticism of the king leads to his banishment, but he continues looking over Lear by disguising himself as a different servant. Although Kent’s critique of the king was bold, the fool’s judgment was unrelenting and acceptable at the same time. Court jesters of that time were less constrained by social norms because they were close to the Kings and Queens that they served, and, as a result, they were free to speak their minds. For example, through the use of short stories and songs the fool communicated advice that could have helped Lear had he listened: “Fortune, that arrant whore, / Ne'er turns the key to th' poor. / But for all this thou shalt have as many dolors for thy / daughters as thou canst tell in a year” (2.4.45)[1]. In this sense, the fool is a critical character within the play since his service helps Lear better understand himself. Furthermore, the fool’s and Kent’s decision to shadow Lear was done out of love and free will.

Interestingly, the contrast between legitimate and illegitimate children within King Lear can be considered aspects of both Epicureanism and Stoicism. For instance, Edmund was born as the illegitimate child of Gloucester and was entitled to no inheritance, whereas Edgar was born as the legitimate son and was entitled to his father’s fortune upon his passing. Edmund and Edgar had no control over this. In other words, their destinies decided which one was born legitimately and vice versa. Although this is true, a person that believed in Epicureanism would analyze the above scenario by interpreting legitimacy to mean how one treats his parents and the people closest to him. In this sense, Edmund had the potential to be considered Gloucester’s legitimate child by earning his respect and acknowledgment through unconditional love and loyalty. Similarly, Lear’s three daughters are all considered legitimate from a Stoic point of view, but only Cordelia is considered legitimate by both philosophies. Cordelia’s love for her father was evident even when she was banished from Lear’s kingdom. Undeterred, the fact that she came back to save her father proves that she is the legitimate the daughter of King Lear.

King Lear Characters

In King Lear, Cordelia was the embodiment of virtuosity. As described by the Gentleman, “Thou hast a daughter / Who redeems nature from the general curse / Which twain have brought her to” (6.4.194)[1]. Her good nature is such that, as previously mentioned, she refuses to deceive her father through the use of flattery. On one hand, the fool, Kent, and Lear are all innately good characters. Lear, however, became a kind character as the play progressed. His reconciliation with Cordelia solidified his place among the genuinely good characters: "He that parts us shall bring a brand from heaven,/ And fire us hence like foxes. Wipe thine eyes; / The good years shall devour them, flesh and fell,/ Ere they shall make us weep. We'll see 'em starved first"(5.3.22)[1]. Lear’s love for his loyal daughter transcends everything that was going on around him, even when bestowed with his new title of prisoner. Lear, in fact, welcomes prison as long as he can be with Cordelia: “No, no, no, no! Come, let’s away to prison./ We two alone will sing like birds i' th' cage”(5.3.9)[1]. On the other hand, immoral characters such as Goneril, Reagan, and Cornwall represent forces that oppose Lear and company, and even each other. For instance, the feud between Goneril and Reagan over Edmund’s affection resulted in Goneril’s suicide and the death of her poisoned sister (5.3.80)[1]. Edmund, however, represented evil of the highest caliber.

Edmund’s soliloquy in Act 1 provides us with insight into the reason for betraying his father and half-brother. The discontent associated with the title of illegitimate son of Gloucester drives Edmund to challenge the man-made world that refused to acknowledge his worth, the world that refused to treat him like his brother’s equal. Edmund asked himself: “Why “bastard”? Wherefore “base”? / When my dimensions are as well compact, / My mind as generous, and my shape as true / As honest madam’s issue?”(1.2.6)[1]. By questioning society, Edmund sought to go after what he believed was rightfully his. His quest for wealth and power intertwined with the plot of King Lear and steered the main characters to their ultimate demise.

King Lear

In the end of King Lear, the only survivors were  Edgar, Kent, and Albany. Everyone else has either been murdered or poisoned, or has died of natural causes. Cordelia, for instance, was murdered by a guard sent by Edmund, and Lear dies shortly after of natural causes. The deaths of immoral characters like Edmund, Goneril, Reagan, and Cornwall make sense from a justice point of view, but how does one explain the deaths of genuinely good characters? We expect good to triumph over evil, yet our expectations are unrealistic. Shakespeare made King Lear as similar to the real world as possible. In the same way that good does not always prevail over evil in the real world, it does not prevail in King Lear either. For instance, out of all the characters in the play, Edmund caused the most pain to people. Yet his endeavors proved to be highly successful, to the extent of which he was a fight away from becoming king. Fortunately, the little justice that was evident in King Lear occurred at the helm of Edgar’s sword as he defeated his brother in combat (5.3.158)[1]. In addition to this, justice, in a way, was also evident in the reunions between Lear and Cordelia and Gloucester and Edgar. Having been through both physical and psychological stress, Gloucester and Lear deserved their opportunity to reconcile with their formally neglected children. 

Thus, the driving force behind the majority of events in King Lear was free will. As a result, immoral characters such as Edmund, Goneril, and Reagan, as well as innately good characters such as Edgar, Cordelia, and Kent defined their destinies and made us question the existence of true justice. The parallelism between Lear’s and Gloucester’s situations with their children represented their inability to determine the people who they could trust. Their clouded judgments also represented their free will because their decisions led to the destructive yet enlightened paths. Characters’ free will in the play gave them the freedom to pursue their respective objectives, which helped us classify them into two groups: immoral, and virtuous or good. At the two extremes of this classification, Cordelia stood for everything that was good, whereas Edmund stood for everything that was evil. In the end, however, it seems that neither good nor evil prevailed. Most of the characters died, including Cordelia, which makes us wonder if there was justice in King Lear. Perhaps the distribution of justice would have undermined the tragic fate of the characters. In this sense, the lack of justice in King Lear could have allowed Shakespeare’s audience to sympathize with the genuinely good characters while asking themselves the following question: Why do bad things happen to good people?

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  1. "The Tragedy of King Lear (1605)." Open Source Shakespeare. 8/06/2014 <Web >

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