King Lear’s Indifferent Universe
The Christian will not find comfort in William Shakespeare’s King Lear. Imbued with the ideals of divine justice and good prevailing over evil, the Christian will be appalled as he delves into the tragedy to find pure-hearted gentlemen reduced to rags and feigned madness and deceitful characters easily duping their way into power without consequence. This is the godless universe that Shakespeare creates, setting his characters’ plots in a world devoid of the heavenly checks and balances that reward moral people and punish evildoers. A sort of bleak chaos ensues, where wrongs are not righted in the end, and the random results of these characters’ actions tend toward calamity. As the few righteous characters in the play suffer immensely, ending up in total misfortune, and the protagonist dies, after repenting for his errors, with an anguish that is never redeemed, it is clear that Shakespeare’s tragedy unfolds in a universe where divine justice has no jurisdiction.
Of the small number of honest characters in King Lear, virtually none of them are rewarded for their pure hearts. In fact, quite the opposite occurs as the honorable are stricken with misfortune and are utterly mistreated by those they come in contact with. The character Edgar is a sound example of this phenomenon in the play. When Edgar, the loving and loyal son of the moderately powerful and respected Lord Gloucester, is framed by his illegitimate brother, Edgar must flee to save himself. Because he falsely believes that Edgar was plotting to murder him, Gloucester orders that Edgar be executed if he is found, forcing the unfortunate Edgar to assume the guise of a crazy beggar to survive and guard his identity. The reader has first contact with Edgar in his new persona when Lear encounters Edgar in a hovel pretending to be Poor Tom, a man dressed in rags, convinced the Devil is encouraging him to commit suicide. Once he is alone, Edgar contemplates the terrible state he must endure to survive:
Whiles I may ‘scape,
I will preserve myself, and am bethought
To take the basest and most poorest shape
That every penury in contempt of man
Brought near to beast. My face I’ll grime with filth,
Blanket my loins… (II.iii.5-10)
Edgar now must live as one of the most hated and despicable members of society in order to escape persecution for something he did not do. Although he has always been true to his father, Edgar is now reduced to living in rags, caked with dirt and exposed to the elements. An innocent man is driven to live like a beast while his treacherous brother reaps the benefits of his dastardly plan, a situation that divine justice, if present, would not allow. At the end of the play, Edgar returns as a gentlemen and assumes the position of King of England. This, unfortunately, is a sad consolation prize for the hardships he has endured and the despair he has witnessed. For Edgar, becoming King cannot undo Gloucester’s death, take back his brother’s betrayal, or redeem the horrors committed against Lear and Cordelier. Edgar, one of the play’s few genuinely good characters, becomes a broken man after witnessing and tolerating the pain that permeates his world.
One of the other few totally pure characters in King Lear receives a similarly dismal fate, only hers is arguably worse. Cordelia is King Lear’s youngest and favorite daughter. When the King decides to split his land between his three daughters, Cordelia receives nothing and is disinherited by her father because she will not taint the true love she feels for the man by flattering him in a grandiose way. This act of authenticity, which is contrasted in her older treacherous sisters’ fake and pompous flattery, sets Cordelia’s misfortune into action. The woman is disowned by Lear and goes to live with her new husband, the King of France. When Cordelia hears of her sisters’ mistreatment of their father and of Lear’s terrible state, Cordelia comes in to try to save her beloved father. After being so wronged by the man, Cordelia says this of Lear:
O, dear father,
It is thy business that I go about.
…No blown ambition doth our arms incite,
But love, dear love, and our aged father’s right.
Soon may I hear and see him. (IV.iv.26-32)
Although the man had unrightfully disowned her, Cordelia has the honor to step in and risk her life to address the wrongs against her father and to try to reinstate the man’s power. No bitterness is detected in this markedly pure character’s speech about her father. Cordelia expresses her resilient love for Lear and the work she carries out in his name. Ultimately, death is the price that Cordelia pays for her loyalty and when the French army fails to beat the English, Cordelia and her Father are taken prisoner by Edmund. Though it would be no tragedy without this component, it is the play’s toughest blow that Cordelia should die. The most blameless character in the play, the one who comes back to the father that mistreated her to save him from his two other deceitful daughters, dies by hanging before the conclusion of this madness. Cordelia’s unfailing righteousness is not rewarded by this chaotic universe. Rather, her good heart is punished for acting lovingly and honorably and the woman is needlessly killed. Making her death seem even more unordered, meaningless, and tragic is the fact that a guard was on his way to call off her execution. Cordelia is a good-hearted character who falls victim to the godless universe in which she resides, where the gods are unmoved by righteousness and treachery alike.
Though the play is rife with good men ending in misfortune and bad ones prospering, no better evidence can be brought forth for a lack of divine justice in this world than the tragedy’s protagonist. From the very first scene of the play, King Lear does things that put him at odds with the reader. His disinheriting the pure Cordelia and banishing his just advisor Kent are inappropriate actions that depict Lear as a brash and unloving ruler and father. Through the intense anguish he experiences throughout the play, the audience beings to sympathize with the man who teeters on the brink of insanity from grief. As he is betrayed by his two oldest daughters, exposed to the harsh elements, and ends up ranting in hallucinations that mourn his lost kingship, Lear wins the audience’s pity back. By Act IV, scene vii, it is clear that Lear is sorry for his actions and the wrongs he has committed against Cordelia. Lear atones for his mistakes, recognizes his errors and asks his youngest daughter for forgiveness: “Pray you now, forget and forgive. I am old and foolish” (98-99). In a vaguely Christian sense, Lear repents for his sins and is forgiven for the wrongs he has committed. If King Lear were a Christian work, one in which the Heavens recognized a changed man and rewarded him, Lear’s fortunes would have improved and his life would have ended happily at the close of the play. Quite the contrary occurs here as this tragedy ends, as most all do, with emotionally painful deaths. Once Lear has repented, the deepest blow that the man could imagine, the death of his most beloved child Cordelia is struck, leaving him virtually shattered mentally and emotionally. With his daughter’s lifeless body in his hands, Lear cries:
And my poor fool is hanged. No, no, no life?
Why should a dog, a horse, a rat have life,
And thou no breath at all? Thou’lt come no more,
Never, never, never, never, never.— (V.iii.369-372)
With his favorite daughter dead in front of him, Lear is beside himself with emotion and utterly crushed. Here Lear notes himself the seeming injustice of this situation: his beautiful, honorable Cordelia has perished while beings of much less worth (in Lear’s eyes) go on living. Lear finds this intolerable and difficult to comprehend. The fact that Cordelia is gone forever is too much for Lear to handle as he veers off into a repetitive mantra before dying presumably from heartbreak. Shakespeare’s universe seems not to care that Lear has repented his misdeeds or even that he carried them out to begin with. The world that Lear suffers in is totally indifferent to his pain or repentance. Although Lear has suffered greatly and expresses his sorrow over disowning Cordelia, the godlessness of King Lear does not reward Lear’s change of heart but goes on unflinchingly to kill the person Lear loves the most before taking his life as well.
The conclusion of Shakespeare’s tragedy will not sit well with the Christian reader. The misfortune of morally righteous characters coupled with the success of evil ones does not coincide with the views of Christianity, in which God maintains the victory of good over evil. Naturalists, however, will see in King Lear a realistic, if not pessimistic, depiction of a world where the universe is uncaring when it comes to the fate of human beings. These minds will see good deeds punished and treachery rewarded and will embrace what they believe to be the bleak truth of a world where random results trump divine justice. Shakespeare sets his tragedy King Lear in a universe devoid of divine justice and gods who right the wrongs of the world. Instead, the playwright crafts his story in a universe where the pure-hearted suffer, dying in total misfortune, where those who repent are met with disinterest and those who do not prosper from their evil deeds, where reality prevails and divine justice does not.
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