King Lear Contents
- Shakespeare, William
- 1564 - 1582: William Shakespeare's Stratford Beginnings
- 1582 - 1592: William Shakespeare's Marriage, Parenthood and Early Occupation
- 1592 - 1594: William Shakespeare's Life In London, part 1
- 1594 - 1611: William Shakespeare's Life In London, part 2
- 1594 - 1611: William Shakespeare's Life In London, part 3
- 1611 - 1616: William Shakespeare - Back to Stratford
- Social / political background
- Religious / philosophical background
- The Theatre
- Act I
- Act II
- Act III
- Act IV
- Act V
An ‘answer’ to suffering?
There is much evil and suffering in King Lear, so it is not surprising that there is also much discussion of justice. Even though the pagan setting of the play entails a rejection of the idea that the world is created by a loving, just God, there is inevitably still a sense that good should be rewarded and evil punished. Common humanity demands that the innocent who suffer should eventually be rewarded. However, these easy assumptions are challenged by the world the play depicts.
Lear’s idea of justice
From the outset it is clear that human judgement about what is just can be very faulty. Lear thinks it is entirely ‘just’ to impose the love-test on his daughters. He considers justice to have been administered when he rewards Goneril and Regan with half his kingdom each, whilst casting out Cordelia for her failure to play his game. After all, she has contributed 'nothing' compared to the wordy extravagance of her sisters. In their turn Goneril and Regan think it only fair and reasonable to deprive their aged father of his retinue of knights and to cast him out into the wilderness until he sees the error of his ways.
Faced with this punishment, Lear assesses himself to be a 'man more sinned against than sinning', with which the audience would tend to agree – however, he has yet to understand his real culpability. Until that realisation, and his request for personal forgiveness, Lear wants to use justice for his own ends.
Having cursed his elder daughters, in Act 3 Scene 6 Lear abandons the idea of summarily punishing Goneril and Regan, imagining instead that he is trying his daughters in a court of law. In a chaotic world, the King believes that the orderly processes of the law will allow his grievances to be addressed and will lead to the punishment of those who have caused his suffering. He calls for witnesses and orders Edgar and the Fool to sit in judgement as if they were court officers. But it is an ad hoc judgement made by a mad man and beggars in the wilderness, which in reality carries no legal weight at all. Goneril and Regan are not punished by any legal process but bring evil ends upon themselves, Goneril stabbing herself in the heart after poisoning Regan.
Are the gods just?
Various characters offer comments on the justice or injustice of the world. Gloucester says:
As flies to wanton boys, are we to th’ gods;
They kill us for their sport. (Act 4 Scene 1)
They kill us for their sport. (Act 4 Scene 1)
clearly convinced at this point in the play that justice is an illusion since the world is fundamentally indifferent - or even hostile - to human beings. Gloucester realises that there is a huge gap between the workings of Nature (in which the strong prevail over the weak) and human ideas of what is morally right.
On the other hand Edgar has a sharply different opinion. In Act 5 Scene 3 he declares:
The gods are just, and of our pleasant vices
Make instruments to plague us;
Make instruments to plague us;
citing as a key example the fate of his father:
The dark and vicious place where thee he got
Cost him his eyes. (Act 5 Scene 3)
Cost him his eyes. (Act 5 Scene 3)
For Edgar there is no doubt that his father's immoral extra-marital relationship has been punished by the loss of his eyes. And in one sense this is true, since Gloucester is betrayed to Cornwall and Regan by his bastard son.
Shakespeare poses a problem
Edgar's idea of justice certainly occurs in the play. The ‘evil’ characters all die. Edmund is fatally wounded by Edgar and both of the wicked sisters die. However, what makes it so hard to jump to any easy moral conclusions is that the innocent Cordelia also dies, as do Lear and Gloucester, both of whom have learnt tough lessons through great suffering.
One of King Lear’s great revelations is the need for social justice. The play opens in a world of rigid hierarchies, familiar to Shakespeare’s contemporary audience. Dukes pull rank on Earls and servants are expected to be seen but not heard. Cornwall considers it outrageous when the lowly Gaius (Kent in disguise) challenges his judgement, whilst Regan stabs the upstart ‘peasant’ who dares to thwart her husband, his master. Oswald, aping his betters, regards the peasant helping Gloucester as merely a ‘dunghill’ (Act 4 Scene 6).Those of inferior social status are beneath consideration.
Yet in Act 3 Scene 4 Lear comes to realise that he has ‘ta’en / Too little care’ of those without adequate clothing, homes or sustenance to defend them. He swallows the bitter medicine (‘physic’) that will restore justice by exposing himself:
to what wretches feel,
That [he] mayst shake the superflux to themAnd show the Heavens more just.
In this he echoes the ideas of justice familiar to Shakespere's audience from the Bible. In a parallel passage, the blinded Gloucester wants to recompense ‘Poor Tom’, asking his ex-tenant to ‘bring some covering for this naked soul,’ (Act 4 Scene 1) and giving Tom a purse:
So distribution should undo excess,
And each man have enough.
And each man have enough.
As Lear considers the ineffectualness of legal redress against his daughters, he realises that the ‘scales of justice’ are even less likely to tip in favour of the poor:
Plate sin with gold,
And the strong lance of justice hurtles breaks;
Arm it in rags, a pigmy’s straw does pierce it(Act 4 Scene 6)
Were Lear and Gloucester to have survived, both would have become better leaders of society, having learnt the biblical injunction to honour the poor and so receive blessing (Matthew 19:21; James 2:1-9). But the two men do not survive. They pass on no legacy of justice. Any hope for the future rests on the shoulders of Edgar, who makes no assurances that he can do a better job of providing justice than the passing generation has done.
As so often in his plays, Shakespeare leaves his audience with a problem to contemplate: does justice triumph at the end of King Lear? Or do cruelty, madness and injustice?
- English Standard Version
- King James Version
1Now when Jesus had finished these sayings, he went away from Galilee and entered the region of Judea beyond the Jordan. 2And large crowds followed him, and he healed them there. 3And Pharisees came up to him and tested him by asking, Is it lawful to divorce one's wife for any cause? 4He answered, Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, 5and said, Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh? 6So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate. 7They said to him, Why then did Moses command one to give a certificate of divorce and to send her away? 8He said to them, Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. 9And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery. 10The disciples said to him, If such is the case of a man with his wife, it is better not to marry. 11But he said to them, Not everyone can receive this saying, but only those to whom it is given. 12For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by men, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Let the one who is able to receive this receive it. 13Then children were brought to him that he might lay his hands on them and pray. The disciples rebuked the people, 14but Jesus said, Let the little children come to me and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven. 15And he laid his hands on them and went away. 16And behold, a man came up to him, saying, Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life? 17And he said to him, Why do you ask me about what is good? There is only one who is good. If you would enter life, keep the commandments. 18He said to him, Which ones? And Jesus said, You shall not murder, You shall not commit adultery, You shall not steal, You shall not bear false witness, 19Honor your father and mother, and, You shall love your neighbor as yourself. 20The young man said to him, All these I have kept. What do I still lack? 21Jesus said to him, If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me. 22When the young man heard this he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions. 23And Jesus said to his disciples, Truly, I say to you, only with difficulty will a rich person enter the kingdom of heaven. 24Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God. 25When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astonished, saying, Who then can be saved? 26But Jesus looked at them and said, With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible. 27Then Peter said in reply, See, we have left everything and followed you. What then will we have? 28Jesus said to them, Truly, I say to you, in the new world, when the Son of Man will sit on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. 29And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or lands, for my name's sake, will receive a hundredfold and will inherit eternal life. 30But many who are first will be last, and the last first.
1And it came to pass, that when Jesus had finished these sayings, he departed from Galilee, and came into the coasts of Judaea beyond Jordan; 2And great multitudes followed him; and he healed them there. 3The Pharisees also came unto him, tempting him, and saying unto him, Is it lawful for a man to put away his wife for every cause? 4And he answered and said unto them, Have ye not read, that he which made them at the beginning made them male and female, 5And said, For this cause shall a man leave father and mother, and shall cleave to his wife: and they twain shall be one flesh? 6Wherefore they are no more twain, but one flesh. What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder. 7They say unto him, Why did Moses then command to give a writing of divorcement, and to put her away? 8He saith unto them, Moses because of the hardness of your hearts suffered you to put away your wives: but from the beginning it was not so. 9And I say unto you, Whosoever shall put away his wife, except it be for fornication, and shall marry another, committeth adultery: and whoso marrieth her which is put away doth commit adultery. 10His disciples say unto him, If the case of the man be so with his wife, it is not good to marry. 11But he said unto them, All men cannot receive this saying, save they to whom it is given. 12For there are some eunuchs, which were so born from their mother's womb: and there are some eunuchs, which were made eunuchs of men: and there be eunuchs, which have made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven's sake. He that is able to receive it, let him receive it. 13Then were there brought unto him little children, that he should put his hands on them, and pray: and the disciples rebuked them. 14But Jesus said, Suffer little children, and forbid them not, to come unto me: for of such is the kingdom of heaven. 15And he laid his hands on them, and departed thence. 16And, behold, one came and said unto him, Good Master, what good thing shall I do, that I may have eternal life? 17And he said unto him, Why callest thou me good? there is none good but one, that is, God: but if thou wilt enter into life, keep the commandments. 18He saith unto him, Which? Jesus said, Thou shalt do no murder, Thou shalt not commit adultery, Thou shalt not steal, Thou shalt not bear false witness, 19Honour thy father and thy mother: and, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. 20The young man saith unto him, All these things have I kept from my youth up: what lack I yet? 21Jesus said unto him, If thou wilt be perfect, go and sell that thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come and follow me. 22But when the young man heard that saying, he went away sorrowful: for he had great possessions. 23Then said Jesus unto his disciples, Verily I say unto you, That a rich man shall hardly enter into the kingdom of heaven. 24And again I say unto you, It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God. 25When his disciples heard it, they were exceedingly amazed, saying, Who then can be saved? 26But Jesus beheld them, and said unto them, With men this is impossible; but with God all things are possible. 27Then answered Peter and said unto him, Behold, we have forsaken all, and followed thee; what shall we have therefore? 28And Jesus said unto them, Verily I say unto you, That ye which have followed me, in the regeneration when the Son of man shall sit in the throne of his glory, ye also shall sit upon twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. 29And every one that hath forsaken houses, or brethren, or sisters, or father, or mother, or wife, or children, or lands, for my name's sake, shall receive an hundredfold, and shall inherit everlasting life. 30But many that are first shall be last; and the last shall be first.
- English Standard Version
- King James Version
1My brothers, show no partiality as you hold the faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory. 2For if a man wearing a gold ring and fine clothing comes into your assembly, and a poor man in shabby clothing also comes in, 3and if you pay attention to the one who wears the fine clothing and say, You sit here in a good place, while you say to the poor man, You stand over there, or, Sit down at my feet, 4have you not then made distinctions among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts? 5Listen, my beloved brothers, has not God chosen those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom, which he has promised to those who love him? 6But you have dishonored the poor man. Are not the rich the ones who oppress you, and the ones who drag you into court? 7Are they not the ones who blaspheme the honorable name by which you were called? 8If you really fulfill the royal law according to the Scripture, You shall love your neighbor as yourself, you are doing well. 9But if you show partiality, you are committing sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors. 10For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it. 11For he who said, Do not commit adultery, also said, Do not murder. If you do not commit adultery but do murder, you have become a transgressor of the law. 12So speak and so act as those who are to be judged under the law of liberty. 13For judgment is without mercy to one who has shown no mercy. Mercy triumphs over judgment. 14What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? 15If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, 16and one of you says to them, Go in peace, be warmed and filled, without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? 17So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead. 18But someone will say, You have faith and I have works. Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works. 19You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe - and shudder! 20Do you want to be shown, you foolish person, that faith apart from works is useless? 21Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up his son Isaac on the altar? 22You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by his works; 23and the Scripture was fulfilled that says, Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness - and he was called a friend of God. 24You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone. 25And in the same way was not also Rahab the prostitute justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out by another way? 26For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so also faith apart from works is dead.
1My brethren, have not the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory, with respect of persons. 2For if there come unto your assembly a man with a gold ring, in goodly apparel, and there come in also a poor man in vile raiment; 3And ye have respect to him that weareth the gay clothing, and say unto him, Sit thou here in a good place; and say to the poor, Stand thou there, or sit here under my footstool: 4Are ye not then partial in yourselves, and are become judges of evil thoughts? 5Hearken, my beloved brethren, Hath not God chosen the poor of this world rich in faith, and heirs of the kingdom which he hath promised to them that love him? 6But ye have despised the poor. Do not rich men oppress you, and draw you before the judgment seats? 7Do not they blaspheme that worthy name by the which ye are called? 8If ye fulfil the royal law according to the scripture, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself, ye do well: 9But if ye have respect to persons, ye commit sin, and are convinced of the law as transgressors. 10For whosoever shall keep the whole law, and yet offend in one point, he is guilty of all. 11For he that said, Do not commit adultery, said also, Do not kill. Now if thou commit no adultery, yet if thou kill, thou art become a transgressor of the law. 12So speak ye, and so do, as they that shall be judged by the law of liberty. 13For he shall have judgment without mercy, that hath shewed no mercy; and mercy rejoiceth against judgment. 14What doth it profit, my brethren, though a man say he hath faith, and have not works? can faith save him? 15If a brother or sister be naked, and destitute of daily food, 16And one of you say unto them, Depart in peace, be ye warmed and filled; notwithstanding ye give them not those things which are needful to the body; what doth it profit? 17Even so faith, if it hath not works, is dead, being alone. 18Yea, a man may say, Thou hast faith, and I have works: shew me thy faith without thy works, and I will shew thee my faith by my works. 19Thou believest that there is one God; thou doest well: the devils also believe, and tremble. 20But wilt thou know, O vain man, that faith without works is dead? 21Was not Abraham our father justified by works, when he had offered Isaac his son upon the altar? 22Seest thou how faith wrought with his works, and by works was faith made perfect? 23And the scripture was fulfilled which saith, Abraham believed God, and it was imputed unto him for righteousness: and he was called the Friend of God. 24Ye see then how that by works a man is justified, and not by faith only. 25Likewise also was not Rahab the harlot justified by works, when she had received the messengers, and had sent them out another way? 26For as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also.
Term applied to those who are not Christian, particularly followers of the classical religion of Greece and Rome and of the pre-Christian religions of Europe.
The Bible describes God as the unique supreme being, creator and ruler of the universe.
The opposite of goodness; thoughts and actions which are in opposition to God's will and result in wrongdoing and harm. That which opposes God.
The giving of divine favour by God which can be in material or spiritual terms; declaration of God's favour; the act of giving thanks to God.
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