Justice in King Lear


'All friends shall taste/ The wages of their virtues, and all foes/ The cup of their deservings’. Explore Shakespeare’s presentation of the theme of JUSTICE in King Lear in the light of this remark, with comparative reference to Oedipus Rex. 


Divine Justice

  • Certain characters show a faith in divine justice; the Gods are often called upon to enact justice by Lear ("By the sacred radiance of the sun/ The mysteries of Hecate and the night", "Now by Apollo", "By Jupiter, this shall not be revoked"). 
  • There is a naïvety linked to belief in divine justice. Lear persists in calling on the Gods even though he recieves no evidence they will appear: "O heavens, if you do  love old men.../...send down and take my part". Here "O" could be seen as Shakespeare using Lear's melodrama to discredit the content of his speech. Hency why Kent tells Lear that he "swear'st [his] gods in vain!".
  • However Kent also shows an underlying belief in divine justice: "Fortune, good night. Smile once more. Turn thy wheel."
  • Gloucester too: "these late eclipses in the sun and moon portend no good to us".
  • And Albany, claiming that Cornwall's death "shows you are above, you justicers" and that Goneril and Regan's death is a "judgement from the heavens". Earthly events will always follow what the Gods deem as just.
  • OEDIPUS: In Oedipus the King a trust in divine judgement is absolutely engrained in the culture of Greek tragedy. Oedipus talks of being "determined to show the Gods' justice", and Tiresius comment of "what will happen, will happen" turns out to be true. If what happens is indeed down to the Gods then the Chorus' comment that "suffering, brief happiness, pain, is mortal man's destiny" evokes a vision of the Gods and their justice as cruel.
  • This illuminates a similar evocation in Lear. The Gods are portrayed as vindictive and cruel, even if the justice they dish out is deserved: Edgar comments that "The gods are just, and of our pleasant vices/ Make instruments to plague us", acknowledging both the cruel nature of Gloucester's punishment and the fact that is was partially deserved for his conceiving a ******* child. France also talks of their "cold’st neglect"
  • A 1606 act prohibited God being talked about on stage, but it is almost certain that the Jacobean audience would have seen Shakespeare's suggestion that the pagan Gods represented the Christian God, and in this way the negative portrayal of the Gods would have perhaps contradicted the view of some of God as benevolent and caring. 
  • Some see the lexis of redemption in Lear’s final speech to Cordelia (“blessing”, “forgiveness”) as significant of an ultimately benevolent divine justice but W. R Elton argues that Lear is specifically structured to destroy faith in divine justice.
  • In Jacobean society a topical issue was that of free will; the Calvinists believed that man


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