In William Shakespeare’s, King Lear, the concept of justice is a theme that many characters struggle with. There is a prominent emphasis on the question of whether there is moral righteousness in the world which would demand that every crime committed must have an equally appropriate punishment.
However, is justice served when some characters crimes and punishments are in equilibrium, while other characters punishments far surpass their crimes? Justice can be served by the characters being given fair punishments, however, ultimately justice in King Lear is served the best when the punishment surpasses the crime because the knowledge and compassion that the character gains have an everlasting effect on their life and ultimately makes them a better person.
For characters such as Edmund, Cornwall, Regan and Goneril it can be accepted that justice has been served because their punishments completely coincide with their crime. Edmund, the son of Gloucester, commits many crimes throughout King Lear and repeatedly exhibits disloyalty to achieve his goals. Not only is Edmund the underlying reason as to why his brother Edgar is banished, he is also responsible for the death of Lear’s beloved daughter Cordelia.
Edmund’s selfish and destructive actions tears his family apart and results in the innocent murder of Cordelia. Edmund dies after battling his disguised brother and after all the grief that he causes, his death is highly anticipated. Edmund dies exactly how many feel he should; he inflicted pain on others and his death can be seen as an appropriate punishment.
Cornwall, who was the husband of Regan, is not a fundamental character however through his actions such as the gouging out of Gloucester’s eyes; he had a major impact on the play. Cornwall’s cruelty and disrespectfulness towards Gloucester is not just, and one of the servants stands up and voices how wrong this act is.
The action of the servant ultimately causes the death of Cornwall which supports the notion that justice is served because Cornwall’s cruelty and inhumanness results in the death he deserves. Regan and Goneril, Lear’s two eldest daughters, are selfish and malicious characters who take advantage of Lear’s vulnerability. Their spiteful ways begin when they lie about their love for their father so that they will inherit more land but when Lear needs them most they banish him from their home.
Once again justice prevails because Regan and Goneril’s death was a direct result of their conniving ways. Goneril poisons Regan out of jealousy and then Goneril stabs herself. Ultimately, all of these characters receive a punishment that is in line with their crime but they do not learn anything from their mistakes and therefore are unable to become better people.
Even though many of the characters in Shakespeare’s tragedy are horrible people who deserve their punishments, there are also characters such as Lear and Gloucester who did not deserve the extent of their punishments. Lear is introduced into the play as being a selfish man who values public displays of affection over honesty and he irrationally banishes Cordelia and Kent.
As a result of his actions, Lear is severely punished by being banished from his home, experiencing madness and losing everyone that he loves. Lear’s punishment is very severe in comparison to other characters such as Regan and Goneril who commit worse crimes and then die without actually having to acknowledge their actions.
Lear does not feel he deserves his punishments and therefore says, “I am a man/ More sinned against then sinning” (III.ii.58-59). Lear not only endures severe punishments while alive, but his death can be seen as his final punishment. Gloucester is another example of a man whose greatest crime is favouring his non bastard son, Edgar. He is punished for this crime through the gouging out of his eyes. Gloucester’s punishment is not equal and appropriate to his crime.
He blames this unjustness on the gods, “As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods. / They kill us for their sport” (IV.i.36-37). Gloucester’s actions did not deserve the gouging out of his eyes and like Lear, Gloucester realizes this and he blames his punishments on the gods whom he believes can arbitrarily impact the outcomes of people’s lives. However even though in these situations the punishments were unfair the characters were forced to endure them to become better people and to make the natural order of the world better.
Justice is not always about doing the fair thing it is also about moral righteousness which is why justice is ultimately served in King Lear. Most characters in this play excluding Cornwall, Goneril and Regan in some way become better people by suffering through their punishments. Edmund was remorseful on his death bed and even tried to save Cordelia which is proof that after being a witness to the chaos that unfolded he realizes his mistakes and tries to fix them.
Lear and Gloucester, on the other hand, suffer much more than other characters and even though their punishment surpasses their crime, justice is still served because they become moral and just people. Lear ultimately becomes a just person when he says, “Poor naked wretches, wheresoe’er you are,/ That bide the pelting of this pitiless storm,/ How shall your houseless heads and unfed sides,/ Your looped and windowed raggedness, defend you/ From seasons such as these? O, I have ta’en/ Too little care of this!”(III.iv.28-33). Lear would never realize the wrongs he committed as King if he had not experienced his major downfall from the very top of society, as a King, to the very bottom, as a homeless man.
If Gloucester’s sight had not been taken from him it can be assumed that he would not realize the mistakes he made. However, he does eventually realize his mistakes and says, “I stumbled when I saw. Full oft’tis seen/ Our means secure us, and our mere defects/ Prove our commodities” (IV.i.19-22). These characters suffer through their punishments and even though they eventually die they die a better person unlike Cornwall, Goneril and Regan.
These three characters did not learn anything from their mistakes because their punishment was death. Although this is the greatest punishment of all, they did not have to work through their mistakes and therefore did not repent nor learn a single thing. Justice can be served by doing the fair thing but wouldn’t accepting your sins and dying as a good and insightful person even if you had to endure more be more righteous than dying without acknowledging your sins?
The natural order of the world is eventually re-established from fair to good by the end of King Lear. This is done through the suffering and punishment that some of the characters endure. Although some characters have to endure more suffering than others, justice is ultimately served by all and for some the restoring of justice brings on a more significant impact on their lives. In conclusion, justice did prevail in the end and through the service of justice some characters are able to die as good and insightful people.
Shakespeare, William. King Lear. Toronto: Thomson Nelson, 2007.
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