The Gods are just” – Discuss – King Lear
The malignant ferocity and human cruelty found in ‘King Lear’ has lead some contemporary critics such as Stephen Greenblatt to deem Shakespeare “a decisively secular dramatist”. The play is often viewed as the most tragic and disaster ridden of all of Shakespeare’s tragedies. The tragic events that prevail throughout the play create the impression that there can be no form of justice or providence. At the conclusion of the play Cordelia is hung and King Lear dies in a delusional state of mind. Samuel Johnson considered this ending to be a violation of poetic justice. Virtuous ‘good’ characters traditionally survive in such tragedies. Shakespeare created an apparently clear division between the good characters that the audience should empathise with, and those who are “evil”. The character of the king merges the ideas of good and evil in the play. Tragedy resonates throughout ‘King Lear’, affecting all of the characters; both the “evil” and the “good”. Edgar’s assertion that “ The gods are just, and of our pleasant vices make instruments to plague us” raises a principal question from a modern audience’s perspective of whether the cruel painfully pernicious treatment of King Lear, and in parallel of Gloucester, can be justified.
To a Jacobean audience the harrowing events that take place in ‘King Lear’ are likely perceived as a punishment from God. Shakespeare wrote ‘King Lear’ in 1606 but it is set in England before it became Christian. There is conflict between Christian values and pagan ideas in the play: the use of the word ‘gods’ implies a pagan understanding of the world, contrasting pagan emphasis on gods’ whim with the Christian concept of justice and retribution. Some critics, such as G. Wilson and Roy Battenhouse interpret it as a theodicy, projecting Christian values on to the Pagan world. The king chooses the course of action that the play does take. He puts himself in the role of God. Lear subverts nature in two main ways: through the division of the kingdom itself, and the means used to divide the kingdom. These two acts contravene the laws of nature and are essential causes for the protagonists’ respective downfalls. From a Jacobean perspective, the gods are just in their condemnation and the punishment, which follows. Do these expressions of human free will create the suffering inflicted on Lear or is that misery created as a just punishment of the gods ( or God ). More fundamentally, is man the source of evil inflicted on himself and is the suffering deserved.
There is a world order set up in ‘King Lear’, which is conveyed by the continual suggestion that the characters’ actions stem from the influence of the supernatural. The natural chaos and disorder created when the divine right of Kings is abused is a conceit that Shakespeare has explored in depth in this tragedy. From a Jacobean, Christian perspective, “The division of the kingdom” disrupts humanity and God’s order, In evading his responsibility to his Kingdom Lear transgresses from the natural God-given order of society. In the Jacobean worldview the state was a played a pivotal role as a link between the physical universe and the individual. The disorder created by Lear in his state affects each individual directly. Shakespeare demonstrates the turmoil created by the state of affairs through pathetic fallacy. There are characters such as Cordelia representing “good” who are tragically affected by Lear’s action and to whom the “gods” are palpably not just. Unlike these characters, who appear almost as “innocent victims” Lear’s death is almost inevitable. The justice of Lear’s death is founded in his actions. There was a world order created by God. Lear’s ‘role’ in society was to govern the country. By evading his duty to his kingdom, he changes the order of society and the natural hierarchy. The chaos following his course of actions can only justly lead to one result: his death. King...
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