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. 

Ineffectual justice

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?

Gloucester’s view

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)   
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.

Edgar’s view

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;     
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)     
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.

Social justice

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 them
And 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.    
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?
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