The malignant ferocity and human cruelty found in ‘King Lear’ has lead some contemporary critics such as Stephen Greenblatt to deem Shakespeare “a decisively secular dramatist”. The play is often viewed as the most tragic and disaster ridden of all of Shakespeare’s tragedies. The tragic events that prevail throughout the play create the impression that there can be no form of justice or providence. At the conclusion of the play Cordelia is hung and King Lear dies in a delusional state of mind.
Samuel Johnson considered this ending to be a violation of poetic justice. Virtuous ‘good’ characters traditionally survive in such tragedies.
Shakespeare created an apparently clear division between the good characters that the audience should empathise with, and those who are “evil”. The character of the king merges the ideas of good and evil in the play. Tragedy resonates throughout ‘King Lear’, affecting all of the characters; both the “evil” and the “good”. Edgar’s assertion that “ The gods are just, and of our pleasant vices make instruments to plague us” raises a principal question from a modern audience’s perspective of whether the cruel painfully pernicious treatment of King Lear, and in parallel of Gloucester, can be justified.
To a Jacobean audience the harrowing events that take place in ‘King Lear’ are likely perceived as a punishment from God. Shakespeare wrote ‘King Lear’ in 1606 but it is set in England before it became Christian. There is conflict between Christian values and pagan ideas in the play: the use of the word ‘gods’ implies a pagan understanding of the world, contrasting pagan emphasis on gods’ whim with the Christian concept of justice and retribution. Some critics, such as G. Wilson and Roy Battenhouse interpret it as a theodicy, projecting Christian values on to the Pagan world.
The king chooses the course of action that the play does take. He puts himself in the role of God. Lear subverts nature in two main ways: through the division of the kingdom itself, and the means used to divide the kingdom. These two acts contravene the laws of nature and are essential causes for the protagonists’ respective downfalls. From a Jacobean perspective, the gods are just in their condemnation and the punishment, which follows. Do these expressions of human free will create the suffering inflicted on Lear or is that misery created as a just punishment of the gods ( or God ).
More fundamentally, is man the source of evil inflicted on himself and is the suffering deserved. There is a world order set up in ‘King Lear’, which is conveyed by the continual suggestion that the characters’ actions stem from the influence of the supernatural. The natural chaos and disorder created when the divine right of Kings is abused is a conceit that Shakespeare has explored in depth in this tragedy. From a Jacobean, Christian perspective, “The division of the kingdom” disrupts humanity and God’s order, In evading his responsibility to his Kingdom Lear transgresses from the natural God-given order of society.
In the Jacobean worldview the state was a played a pivotal role as a link between the physical universe and the individual. The disorder created by Lear in his state affects each individual directly. Shakespeare demonstrates the turmoil created by the state of affairs through pathetic fallacy. There are characters such as Cordelia representing “good” who are tragically affected by Lear’s action and to whom the “gods” are palpably not just. Unlike these characters, who appear almost as “innocent victims” Lear’s death is almost inevitable. The justice of Lear’s death is founded in his actions.
There was a world order created by God. Lear’s ‘role’ in society was to govern the country. By evading his duty to his kingdom, he changes the order of society and the natural hierarchy. The chaos following his course of actions can only justly lead to one result: his death. King Lear’s division of the country tears apart the nation, and starts a sequence of disasters. His personal actions, his personal choices, his personal behaviour in the first two acts not only show him to be an irresponsible king, but also one who is morally corrupt in his rage. He is cruel in his treatment of Cordelia, the daughter that loves him most.
He disinherits her and holds her “And as a stranger to my heart and me”. King Lear, in the first two acts, shows himself to be proud and vain, by holding the ‘love contest’ between his daughters. His wrath is shown in his treatment of Cordelia. These are fleeting mentions of what could be considered personal ‘sins’ of character found in King Lear in the first two acts. Aside from shirking his personal responsibility for both his kingdom, and his daughter, Lear also, in a Jacobean sense, avoids his moral responsibilities and displays some of the seven deadly sins in his mercurial nature.
John F Danby’s response to Lear’s callow claim to be “a man more sinned against than sinning” is a fair assertion and strongly supports one of the key reasons why the ‘Gods are just’ in the play. Danby claims that this line is a “reversal of the judgement we have been making on Lear in the first two acts”. What occurs to Lear in the following three acts is in many ways a direct result of his actions in the first two acts of the plays and demonstrates that Lear himself is the source instigating the evil and suffering that prevails throughout the play.
Shakespeare has used Gloucester and his sons as a literary device to parallel King Lear’s story. Gloucester disturbs nature in one of the same ways that Lear does. Gloucester misunderstands his child and is foolish. Why would Edgar write a letter to Edmund when they were in the same household? Ironically Gloucester does not see his mistake until he is blind. Have the Gods acted justly in this circumstance? Or does this sequence have a more malicious meaning about the nature of bastards?
To a modern audience perhaps the God would not be just for punishing Gloucester’s ignorance with pitiless blindness. To a Jacobean world the God would have been just in punishing Gloucester for having a bastard son, and trusting him over his real son. This theory is demonstrated through the characterisation of the bastard, Edmund, as twisted and cruel, compared with the real son, who is honest and earnest. This was a device frequently used in Jacobean drama, such as the Revenger’s Tragedy, where Spurio’s soliloquies closely parallel Edmund’s in their bitter, repressed hatred.
There is a reasonably clear picture established that the judgement and preferred treatment of his bastard son is a free choice of will of Gloucester, and the inevitability and just nature of the God’s punishment follows that sinful human choice. ‘King Lear’ can be viewed as a political message to King James, who had created havoc by bringing England into an uneasy political union with Scotland. The play is a veiled warning to the King. The chaos and disorder reminded the audience and the King of the King’s responsibilities and the turbulence that follows the neglect of these responsibilities.
From this political perspective, in Lear the gods are just because they are reacting to the shifting of nature by Lear usurping their role to create the natural order of the succession of Kings and the undermining of their authority, which is one of the ultimate offences. From a contemporary view the extremely harsh consequences of Lear’s political manoeuvre seem unbalanced . Contemporary morality might judge that Lear’s incompetent decision to make a division of the Kingdom does not equate to the scale of the bleak events that follow.
However, from an historical, political and religious viewpoint King Lear contravenes the course of nature and undermines the divine authority of the Gods, his death is justified. Perhaps one could justify the long cruel path to Lear’s death as a moral learning process. The gods are just in their treatment of Goneril and Regan, the Duke of Cornwall- the play’s villains. Albany greets Cornwall’s death with the utterance , “this shows you are above, you justices that these our nether crimes so speedily can venge. These ‘justices’ are not quite as rapid in their disposal of Goneril and Regan, and too rapid in their punishment of the innocent Cordelia. Samuel Johnson said of the death of Cordelia, “Shakespeare has suffered the virtue of Cordelia to perish in a just cause contrary to the natural ideas of justice”. This analysis is correct and summarises the purposelessness of Cordelia’s death. Cordelia, is the daughter who will not express her love for her father, because no words can quite explain the extent of her boundless love. Banished and betrayed by her father, Cordelia’s only sin is forgiving her father and caring for him.
Both of these actions should be revered by the Gods. In a not quite so clear cut manner , the deaths of Kent, and the fool, who sin only by association with the King, demonstrate an unjust conclusion. The deaths of these characters, particularly of Cordelia provide the clearest explanation of why the gods in ‘King Lear’ can never be entirely viewed as ‘justices’ who are just. If there are gods in the play, they are not just. The injustice and malice of the gods is described by Gloucester, “As flies to water/ bugs are we to the gods/ they kill us for sport”.
John F Danby cited King Lear as the “profoundest expression of an essentially Christian comment on man’s world. ” The ‘God’ in King Lear cannot be a Christian God. The suffering that affects the characters that have sinned, and those who have not is so great that it cannot be justified with Christian virtues in mind. ‘King Lear’ is a demonstration of one of the fundamental problems with Christianity and the Judaeo-Christian ‘God’. The Christian God is omnipotent, omnibenevolent and omniscient, and yet evil and suffering exist. ‘King Lear’ provides the ultimate understanding of this problem with the Christian God.
The most frequent cries for justice arise from the ‘good’ characters in the play, Cordelia, Gloucester, Albany, Edgar and Kent, all cry for the gods, but receive no forgiveness, nor aid. Even Job is rewarded eventually. The injustices that they suffer are no different from those endured by the ‘evil’ characters that very rarely mention the gods. The strong implication is that the suffering of the innocent must be part of the world order. In what way can the death of Cordelia be justified; throughout the process she remains innocent her one crime is not flattering her father’s vanity, which is not a crime.
Edgar’s grand heroic statement, “the gods are just” is qualified by his next statement, “ and of our pleasant vices/ make instruments to plague us. ” There is a clear statement that the consequences will be meted out through the medium of man’s “pleasant vices” , his actions of chioice. The ‘gods’, if such there were, cannot be understood to be divine deities that provide moral guidance. From a modern perspective King Lear is stranded on an indifferent, even hostile universe, where a number of decisions that he undertakes determine his fate, the fate of his kingdom and the fate of those individuals around him.
There is no evidence throughout the play that there are any gods who offer salvation to humanity. The argument that there is no Christian ‘God’ in King Lear, because there is no justice, can be undermined by the Old Testament parable of Noah and the Ark. The human race is so ridden with evil that it is beyond salvation. The ‘Gods’ are very removed from the play King Lear. The evil in the play lies not with the ‘Gods’ but with the characters. It is not God that is to blame for the malice in the play but the characters themselves that, “must perforce prey on itself, like monsters of the deep”.
Lear created Goneril and Reagan -he raised them. Cordelia grew up in the same household. The lesson for man is that his actions, his character and his decisions can impact his whole life, the good parts and the bad . A blight fall on all the aspects of Lears’ life and all his children perish. A more modern political analogy might be the Bolsheviks’ heartless massacre of the Tsar’s children during the Russian revolution. If there were to be a total sweep of the main culprits for chaos and disorder is it not just, in a utilitarian sense, to kill the innocent offspring?
Whilst this consequence for Lear may be justifiable on a utilitarian basis, it is merciless and , especially in the context of Cordelia, profoundly unjust. However, that inhumane judgement is not handed out by God or the gods, but originates from Lear, the man . According to critics Roy Battenhouse and G Wilson Knight the gods in the play are just because the ending is redemptive: the sheer quantity of suffering and pain endured in the play teaches the audience about the virtues of forgiveness and the problems with disrupting nature’s course.
This thesis is reflected by the loose use of the morality play format adopted by Shakespeare in this play. The ending, according to Ivor Morris, teaches King Lear the importance of love and self understanding: “the business of ‘the gods’…was neither to torment him, nor to teach him a ‘noble anger’, but to lead him to attain through apparently hopeless failure the very end aim of life”. Has King Lear attained the “very end aim of life? ” He divides the Kingdom, loses all three of his daughters, he is driven to insanity and eventually dies of heartbreak. Nor are these superficial observations.
Lear does not repent for what he has done but requests of the gods that they might, “show the heavens more just”. For a twenty first century audience the play does not favourably portray Christianity, nor does it create an impression of a balance and justice. The ‘gods’ in King Lear are just in their treatment of the ‘evil’ characters and also of Lear for instigating the turbulence and unbalancing the natural order of providence. That is, if one is viewing the play from a religious, Jacobean perspective. Christian readings of the play can offer no solid explanation for the suffering that ‘God’ does not relieve, despite being omnipotent.
Ten times in the play the cries to the ‘Gods’ or the ‘heavens’ are ignored. The secular reading of Lear’s Kingdom being situated in a secular, indifferent universe provides a far more pessimistic, yet realistic understanding of the play. The play can almost be seen as a mockery of the idea that the gods as ‘justices’. There is structural irony throughout, each cry for help being met by disaster. As Greenblatt correctly surmises the “divine cruelty apparently has no limits”. If there are ‘gods’ they are cruel supernatural beings that punish the innocent and the guilty in the same devastating manner.
A. C Bradley, “Shakespearean Tragedy fourth edition”
Cite this The Gods Are Just- King Lear
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