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King Lear: Cosmic Justice or Injustice?

In the crumbling universe of Shakespeare’s King Lear, a world in which evil and treachery is allowed to triumph for a moment too long and goodness falters under the dominion of the former, a terrible irony is made resoundingly clear. The ambiguity of the victory between the binary oppositions becomes one of the most unsettling themes of King Lear: who truly triumphs? Perhaps more importantly, what become the cruelly conceived expenses of such a victory? The prevailing question of cosmic justice pervades the longevity of Lear’s legacy; the seemingly superfluous evisceration of innocence and purity within the play forces us to confront the staggering nature of fate. And yet, the irony rests in the understanding that while King Lear’s display of inconceivable human atrocities allows us to realise the profound forces of cosmic justice, we can never truly answer the one confounding question: why?

The tragedy of King Lear lies in the seemingly inexplicable death of truth and goodness, embodied most discernibly in the central relationship dynamic between Cordelia and Lear. The king’s initial foolish blindness culminates in Cordelia’s banishment from the kingdom and as such, an understanding can be established as to Lear’s fate; his actions must inevitably account for the ruinous consequences.

In studying King Lear, one must bear in mind that there is a marked distinction between cosmic inevitability and cosmic justice. In Lear’s case, there is, for the most part, a fundamental tragic element that governs Lear’s fatal flaw with the corresponding cataclysmic implications. His foolishness and vanity are complemented essentially with the chaotic disorder of a kingdom in turmoil, reeling from the seemingly implausible division of the nation.

The duality between what is said and what is done in King Lear becomes exceedingly ironic in the opening scenes of the play. As Lear’s vanity reaches a climactic profusion, he commands rather heedlessly a speech of sycophantic doting from each of his daughters:

…Tell me, my daughters
(Since now we will divest us both of rule,
Interest of territory, cares of state),
Which of you shall we say doth love us most?

Therein, Lear’s seed of unchecked pride instigates the birth of deceit and manipulation, both of which are personified by Goneril and Regan themselves. Recklessly disregarding the potential for his self-gratifying indulgence of obsequiously contrived pronunciations of love to go terribly awry, Lear proceeds to create a spectacle of the respect he commands. It is this principle of falsehood that serves to ultimately bring about Lear’s demise; he evidently values elaborate and calculatingly devised displays of affection over genuine love, and perhaps more horrifyingly, cannot grasp initially the distinction.

The recurring exploration of the significance of ‘nothing’ is established by the unprecedented succession of events in the Act I, Scene i. Lear’s incredulity as to the rather scant content of Cordelia’s speech emanates from his hollow repetition of:


Nothing will come of nothing.

Lear’s failure to comprehend the paradoxical depth of Cordelia’s ‘nothing’ is once again reflective of his shallow understanding of reality. Incapable of recognising the inherent honesty and sincerity of her words, Lear rages in a frightening demonstration of the extent of his uninhibited wrath, culminating in the irrationality of Cordelia’s banishment;

Come not between the dragon and his wrath.
I loved her most, and thought to set my rest
On her kind nursery. – Hence and avoid my sight –
So be my grave my peace as here I give
Her father’s heart from her!

Essentially, Lear’s blindness to the authenticity of Cordelia’s affection acts as the catalyst for the resultant chaos and collapse of all established order following her banishment from the kingdom. The synonymity of the notion of truth and ‘nothing’ haunts Lear in the midst of his internal furore towards the latter stages of the play; the weight of this paradox is embodied in Lear’s resignation as one of the impoverished. His road to redemption and restoration first and foremost as an individual, is epitomised by his awesome realisation:

Is man no more than this?

Thou art the thing itself; unaccommodated man
Is no more but such a poor, bare, forked animal as?
Thou art. Off, off, you lendings! Come, unbutton here.

Lear comes to experience the misery and woes of the unprivileged, thereby recognising the profundity of true nothingness. The irony of humanity within poverty establishes the startling revelation that perhaps genuine compassion and morality is tantamount to the truth of nothing – a lesson that Lear eventually comes to understand and appreciate. The realisation of his ultimate folly in banishing the embodiment of goodness and virtue reveals the underlying reality that nothing is, in essence, everything.

The prevailing incomprehensibility of cosmic justice is encapsulated by the inexplicable silence of the gods. Throughout the entirety of King Lear, several characters come to question the apparent senselessness of the excessive display of unmitigated cruelty and brutality within the play. The indifference of the gods to the plights of several key characters compels responders to ponder the unfathomable motives behind their reluctant intercession – why is the universal notion of moral justice not adhered to?

The beginning of the play marks notably the displacement of the gods, heralding the inconceivable reality that divine intervention is impossible. In accordance with the concept of the usurpation of those within the echelons of hierarchal order by underlings, Kent attempts desperately to make Lear see; to compel his vision beyond its obscurity by his growing senility and moral blindness. He thus interrupts Lear mid rant:

Lear: Now by Apollo –
Kent: Now by Apollo, King,
Thou swearest thy gods in vain.

The absence of the gods presents the unsettling reality that man’s actions must account inevitably for man’s predicament. The unnaturalness of Lear’s deed has ushered in the calamitous consequences of a kingdom plunged into chaos and bedlam, as per the element of the unnatural. This is in conjunction with the disconcerting idea that humans are ultimately responsible for the acts they commit, and thus must confront the resultant manifestations of their actions. The silence of the gods then serves to enforce the notion of cosmic justice; Lear’s appeal to the gods goes unheard, as do those of Gloucester; man is the instigator of his own misfortune.

The culpability of Lear’s actions spurred by his pride and temper correspond readily with his growing descent into madness. However, the sheer and paradoxical injustice of the nature of cosmic justice presents itself in the seemingly superfluous death of Cordelia. By this point in the play, Lear has undergone an extraordinarily insightful renewal; having assumed his ties with humanity once more and now a humble, morally conscious man, Lear has come to understand and appreciate at long last the essence of humility and what it thus entails. In a moment of true, blissful contentment – a rarity in King Lear – following his reconciliation with Cordelia, Lear envisions a future of bountiful joy in prison,

So we’ll live,
And pray, and sing, and tell old tales, and laugh
At gilded butterflies, and hear poor rogues
Talk of court news; and we’ll talk with them too,
Who loses and who wins; who’s in, who’s out…

In a sudden, brutal reminder of the harsh reality of the play, this idealistic fantasy is torn to shreds, ripped cruelly apart by the inexorable nature of a fate that is simply inexplicable: why, even after Lear’s redemption and recovery, must goodness suffer at the expense of evil? Perhaps more inconceivable is the fact that Cordelia, the personification of innocence and virtue, dies at the hand of the injustices of the world. Therein lies the injustice, however – why must the just fall for the unjust? The riddle of cosmic justice surfaces most prominently in the ultimate tragedy of the play – the exacerbation of Lear’s pain and anguish following his renewal by the untimely and unfathomable death of Cordelia:

Howl, howl, howl! O, you are men of stones.
Had I your tongues and eyes, I’d use them so
That heaven’s vault should crack. She’s gone for ever!

Cordelia’s afflictions from the beginning of King Lear through to its thought provoking conclusion represents the pinnacle of the confounding nature of cosmic injustice. She is punished unjustly for epitomising truth and sincerity, two values that are largely incongruous with the brutality of Lear’s world. Cordelia’s earnestness is discernible in her honest address of affection for her father:

You have begot me, bred me, loved me; I
Return those duties back as are right fit,
Obey you, love you, and most honour you.

However, as per the riddle of cosmic justice, Cordelia is banished accordingly for her non-conformist conduct in failing to partake of flattering displays of doting praise and exploitative affection.

Nonetheless, it is the culmination of Cordelia’s death in the final scene that makes resoundingly clear the true tragedy of King Lear: the unjustifiable casualty of goodness embodied by Cordelia following the demise of the barbaric forces of evil within the kingdom. Perhaps the ambiguous victory sheds light on the inherent need for balance – the enduring conflict between good and evil must result inevitably in the wounding of the binary oppositions in order to establish restoration.

Lear’s overwhelming incredulity serves to enforce the profundity of Shakespeare’s exploration of the nature of cosmic injustice;

Why should a dog, a horse, a rat, have life,
And thou no breath at all?

The true essence of the tragedy is encapsulated by the incredible sense of meaninglessness in her death. Why is it that those who have retained innocence and morality, particularly in King Lear, come to fall without any apparent purpose? And why is death meted out in such a way that one is to conclude that the universe is indeed hostile to humanity?

The death of Cordelia permeates every level of consciousness, and it is the penetrating force with which Lear cries out in inconsolable grief and anguish that illustrates emphatically the paradox of cosmic justice. Ultimately, Cordelia’s seemingly senseless and needless death serves as a cautionary remark as to the omnipotence of fate and fortune. The inexplicability of such a loss in all its cruelty and barbarity demonstrates the immensely overpowering forces of cosmic justice and the unforeseeable potential of the depth of its pervasion.

Similarly, the plight of the arguably gullible Gloucester prompts the question of the paradoxical nature of cosmic justice. The error of his ways stems from his fatal flaw of lust and lechery, resulting naturally in the birth of the bastard son, Edmund. However, when Edmund conceives manipulatively a scheme to break free from the confines of illegitimacy and attain the inheritance he had previously been denied, Gloucester is deceived by the falsified revelation that his legitimate son, Edgar, seeks his death. Gloucester digests Edgar’s supposed treachery readily and rather irrationally, ordering the prompt capture of his nefarious son:

O villain, villain! His very opinion in the letter!
Abhorred villain! Unnatural, detested, brutish villain!
Worse than brutish! Go, sirrah, seek him. I’ll apprehend
Him. Abominable villain! Where is he?

Gloucester’s unquestioning acceptance of Edmund’s calculating deceit is met with devastating implications; his obstinate and promptly established belief in the essence of Edmund’s veiled treachery culminates in a disturbing succession of events following his catastrophe-inducing deed, resulting ultimately in his demise. However, once again, the prevailing tragic element in the play of Gloucester’s predicament lies in the profound yet awfully perplexing nature of cosmic justice.

In the parallelism to Lear’s fate, Gloucester is seen to atone somewhat for his ill-fated actions; it is revealed in Act III, Scene iii that Gloucester intends to aid Lear despite Cornwall’s protestations. Furthermore, the motif of the letter emerges once again, with Gloucester indicating the herald of an invasion by the French in an effort to rescue Lear:

… These injuries
The King now bears will be revenged home; there is part
Of a power already footed; we must incline to the
King. I will look him and privily relieve him.

However, the contents of the letter are abused in accordance with the recurring theme of the distortion of goodness to supplement the triumph of evil. With the advent of political unrest and anarchy within the kingdom, Edmund reverts to the abuse of its primary catalyst to exploit Gloucester’s implicit trust in him; he contemplates the advantageous implications of exposing Gloucester as a traitor:

This courtesy, forbid thee, shall the Duke
Instantly know, and of that letter too.
This seems a fair deserving, and must draw me
That which my father loses – no less than all.

It is Edmund’s devious and conniving betrayal of his father that clinches ultimately Gloucester’s imminent descent into a world of unmatched torture and cruelty at the hands of Regan and Cornwall. The riddle of cosmic justice is explicit in this instance: at a crucial turning point of Gloucester’s evolution, whereby indications of compassion and morality are increasingly evident, and the potential for the atonement of his sins is heavily apparent, the inexplicability of fate intervenes. Gloucester suffers under the torment of Regan and Cornwall’s collective sadism and appalling inhumanity; his eyes having been gauged mercilessly, Gloucester is left to ‘smell his way to Dover’, reeling from the horrifying revelation that Edmund is the true villain.

A terrible irony can be perceived from Gloucester’s realisation of his tremendous folly in wronging Edgar; immediately following the physical brutality of his blindness, his vision is no longer obscured, allowing him to recognise the extent of his error. Gloucester comes to understand that he has vilified most unscrupulously his genuinely loving son, Edgar:

O my follies! Then Edgar was abused.
Kind gods, forgive me that, and prosper him!

Blind and registering the staggering weight of his actions for the first time, Gloucester encounters Edgar under the disguise of the haggard and outwardly mad Poor Tom. With his suicide attempt thwarted deftly by Edgar, Gloucester roams the country unknowingly with his son by his side, coming to understand the truth of genuine compassion in his plight. His futile appeal to the gods to facilitate his own death,

You ever gentle gods, take my breath from me;
Let not my worser spirit tempt me again
To die before you please!

is nullified essentially by man’s action – Edgar’s ingenious design – serving to reiterate that ultimately, man is responsible for man’s fate. The lack of the gods’ interposition demonstrates that they are not, on the contrary, merciless and ‘kill us for their sport’, but rather play no role in determining the consequences of our own deeds.

In similar fashion to the inexplicable tragedy of Lear’s heartbreak, the revelation of Edgar’s true identity proves too much for Gloucester, and he promptly falls from the intensity of the sentiments coursing through his body:

But his flawed heart,
(Alack, too weak the conflict to support!)
‘Twixt two extremes of passion, joy and grief,
Burst smilingly.

The seeming injustice of Gloucester’s death following the recognition of his follies raises questions as to the principle behind the awesome notion of cosmic justice – should one be punished for his actions even when contrition is expressed and repentance evident? Gloucester’s fleeting reconciliation with Edgar explores the inexorable nature of justice itself; only a painfully brief moment of happiness is allowed between the two before death and tragedy ensue once again.

The harsh penalty of unnatural deeds is embodied by the physical manifestation of Edgar’s predicament. Following the implementation of his status as a wanted man, Edgar is forced to resort to the disguise of the seemingly lunatic beggar, Poor Tom. In one sudden and inexplicable moment during which chaos and disorder is induced malevolently, Edgar is reduced virtually to nothing;

Edgar I nothing am.

The baffling incoherency of the resoundingly powerful statement illustrates unequivocally the magnitude of his loss; the breakdown of the conventional grammatical structure is symbolic of Edgar’s poverty and degradation stimulated by the manipulative Edmund. The triumph of sinister schemes becomes largely dependent upon the exploitation of Edgar’s honour, valour and virtue – a disturbing reality that creates an equally unnerving uncertainty. Time and time again, it is goodness that suffers by the hand of evil, prompting the enduring perplexity that is the nature of cosmic justice. In a world where calamity pervades every level of being, the devastating truth lies in the understanding that one man’s sins can culminate potentially in the plight of the innocent; goodness is not exempt from the ruinous path of evil – an awful yet consistent reminder of the need to adhere to moral principles at all times.

The brutality and cruelty perpetrated in King Lear forces us to confront the unfathomable reason behind the conquest of evil and deception at the enormous expense of truth and goodness. Throughout the entire play, Goneril, Regan and Edmund are perceived largely as a collective impregnable force of manipulation, deceit and immorality intertwined – truly the personifications of utter and uninhibited malevolence.

Goneril and Regan’s conniving and opportunistic natures allow them to perceive the true extent of Lear’s senility at the beginning of the play; it is this realisation that they thus exploit in order to attain the power and authority they covet. Their sycophantic inclinations are nauseatingly evident in their calculating conceptions:

Sir, I love you more than word can wield the matter;
Dearer than eyesight, space, and liberty;
Beyond what can be valued, rich or rare;
No less than life, with grace, health, beauty, honour…

The recurring symbolism of the eye, and the duality between what is said and what is done, create a sense of foreboding and foreshadowing of events to come. The falseness and cunning of Goneril and Regan’s words and actions, and the appalling display of inhumanity and barbarity they exhibit once again delineate the confounding nature of cosmic justice: why is evil allowed to triumph unchecked, acting as the stem of anarchy and disorder within a kingdom crumbling in the collapse of all established order? The ruthlessness of their exploitative treatment of Lear, and Regan’s unmitigated mercilessness in gauging Gloucester’s eyes out, highlights the enormity of the riddle of cosmic justice.

Edmund’s manipulative nature in deceiving both Gloucester and Edgar in order to secure the inheritance he feels he has been denied unjustly allows for observations to be made pertaining to the nature of cosmic justice once again. His scheming act as the prophet of honesty and truth is accepted readily on faith, and it is the ease with which Edmund perpetrates his devious conspiratorial plot that forces us to identify the paradoxical injustice of cosmic justice:

Pat! he comes, like the catastrophe of the old comedy.
My cue is villainous melancholy, with a sigh like Tom
O’ Bedlam. O, these eclipses do portend these divisions!
Fa, sol, la, mi.

Edmund’s wilful deceit toward Gloucester culminates in the ultimate, debilitating act of treachery – taking advantage of Gloucester’s implicit trust in him, Edmund betrays his father to gain the his title of authority:

This courtesy, forbid thee, shall the Duke
Instantly know, and of that letter too.

The younger rises when the old doth fall.

The notion of the subordinate usurping his superior is tragically evident in Edmund’s unmitigated deceit. It enforces, yet again, the incomprehensibility of cosmic justice and its prevailing perplexity: why is evil the victor? Why does good fall victim to the suppressive clutches of manipulation and deception?

The devastating tragedy of King Lear rests indisputably in the victimisation of goodness by the hand of all that is evil, and the inherent inhumanity with which those who epitomise such wickedness commit their sinister deeds. Indeed, the ruthless perpetrators of such barbaric cruelty and brutality meet ultimately their just demise. However, the ambiguity of the victory between goodness and evil presents an unsettling uncertainty as to the true victor of the enduring conflict between the binary oppositions. The inexplicable death of truth and virtue prompts the prevailing question of the confounding nature of cosmic justice: why do the innocent suffer under the dominion of treachery and evil? Why must the structure of honesty and goodness collapse even after the evisceration of evil? The cataclysmic succession of events within the crumbling world of King Lear allows us to recognise the overwhelming and unnerving truth that the callousness of our deeds must culminate in the tragic demise of goodness. Man’s actions account inevitably for the consequences; thus, cosmic inevitability becomes synonymous with cosmic justice.