Updated: Aug 5, 2021
Toby, one of our best English tutors in London, asks if there is any justice in Lear.
After the exam, I spoke to several of my A Level students about how they had answered the question. The responses I got varied in the degree of sympathy they had for Lear and for each of his three daughters, (it is becoming fashionable these days to stick up for Goneril and Regan as victims of patriarchy) but they all had one thing in common.
The method each of the candidates used to measure justice was to consider how many of the deaths of virtually all the central characters of the play could be considered justified. (Remember it is not only Lear and his family who make up the total body count — Gloucester, Edmund and Cornwall all die on stage, and Kent’s last line is a bold declaration that he is ready to meet his maker.) The underlying assumption was a startling one, that capital punishment is a valid form of justice, and the only moral question is to decide where guilt lies.
Of course, in Shakespeare’s bloodsoaked plays, the deaths of tyrants and usurpers are generally presented as necessary to the restoration of order. Macbeth must lose his head before Scotland’s wounds can start to heal; rotten Denmark must be freed of Claudius.
Such brutal ends to villainy might address some of the aims of justice, retribution perhaps and especially deterrence — in Titus Andronicus, Tamora is punished by having to eat pies baked with the flesh of her own children — but the other, more liberal argument for punishment are served nothing by an escalating death toll. How can the death of an enemy provide reparations to the victims? And how can the criminal be expected to reform if they are killed rather than rehabilitated?
It is my aim here to point out how these softer aims of punishment might be fulfilled by the ending of King Lear. Before you accuse me of being too 21st Century in my approach to justice (David Cameron’s “Hug a hoodie” campaign springs to mind), let us remember that, for Shakespeare and his contemporaries, there was a higher law than even the King’s.
There was a belief in such a thing as divine justice, and this was concerned primarily with the reformation and the rehabilitation of one’s soul. Even a murderer was invited to turn to God before his sentence was carried out. It is precisely for this reason that Hamlet doesn’t kill Claudius when he first gets the chance; he fears that his wicked uncle has made his peace with God.
So where in Lear do we see characters undergo that more profound change brought about by punishment, a change of heart? One might start with Gloucester, Lear’s shadow, whose sin (like the king’s) is to condemn the wrong child. He is made the fool of Edmund’s malign slander, and in a moment of folly disinherits his beloved son Edgar.
The punishment that is meted out to him is extreme. His eyes are removed with a dagger, and he is left sightless and bleeding by his torturers. Regan, having blinded the old man, takes no pity on him at all. “Go thrust him out at gates, and let him smell / His way to Dover.”
However, it is this humiliation that leads him to his ultimate reconciliation with Edgar, which is his truest moment of grace in the play. After his attempted suicide from the Cliff of Dover, he comes to see the wickedness of despair. He prays to the gods, “Let not my worser spirit tempt me again,/ To die before you please!”
In theological terms he has turned away from mortal sin at the eleventh hour. Edmund too finds in himself some strange compulsion to goodness right before he dies. His final act, no less, is to attempt to save Cordelia’s life. “Some good I mean to do/ Despite of mine own nature,” he declares, indicating that even he knows how out of character this altruistic moment is.
Finally, and most crucially, we must look at the extent to which Lear himself is reformed over the course of the play. No doubt Lear’s sins are large ones. Arguably it is on account of his arrogance that the whole country is thrown into war, and there is little suggestion that he has ever been a terribly good king or father.
But when we read his soliloquy concerning the poorest of his subjects, it seems impossible not to be moved by the degree of empathy he has now obtained through suffering:
Poor naked wretches, wheresoe'er you are,
That bide the pelting of this pitiless storm,
How shall your houseless heads and unfed sides,
Your loop'd and window'd raggedness, defend you
From seasons such as these? O, I have ta'en
Too little care of this!
Equally, you would be hard pushed to find a more beautiful expression of paternal love anywhere than Lear’s words to Cordelia when the two of them are being dragged away to prison:
We two alone will sing like birds i' th' cage.
When thou dost ask me blessing, I'll kneel down
And ask of thee forgiveness. So we'll live,
And pray, and sing, and tell old tales, and laugh
At gilded butterflies
And surely there’s more justice in a tyrannical dictator learning once more to laugh at butterflies with his youngest daughter than can ever be found at the gallows.
Blog Post Crafted by Toby
Toby is in charge of recruitment of new tutors. He conducts interviews with prospective tutors and assesses their lessons to get a feel for whether they have the teaching style we're looking for.