Social injustices in King Lear
To understand why tragedy was caused in ‘King Lear’ we must understand the root of the words ‘Social Injustices’ and how each character perceived them. ‘Social’ could be defined as an individual living in companionship with others or in a community rather than in isolation, and an ‘injustice’ could be defined as the rights of others being overlooked as they are treated unfairly and there is a violation of their rights and is a cause for their behaviour.
Thus the social injustices in Lear’s society were the fuel for the tragic momentum and were met by the majority of characters in “King Lear”.
These perceived ‘social injustices’ had led to the frustration and resentment characters bred. Lear created a society where the birth of a child and how it was conceived defined its social position, characters such as Edmond were branded as ‘bastards’ as they grew up feeling isolated and faced injustices society had condemned on them breeding frustration and resentment a cause for their behaviour and tragedy.
Edmond’s status in society inevitably led him to resent the status that was awarded to him at birth, consequently the tragedy being heightened due to his undying enthusiasm to overturn the injustices that were casted upon him. The injustices in Lear’s society epitomized the frustration and resentment and drove the characters to take action into their own hands, leading the play to its tragic ending. Edmond had sought to overcome the ‘social injustices’ in Lear’s society as his obsession with being a bastard became the primary defence of his actions.
His obsession is evident when in his soliloquy he says “why they brand us/ with ‘base’ with ‘baseness’? ‘bastardy’? ‘base, base’? “. Edmond repeats both ‘base’ and ‘bastardy’ fourteen times, it is evident to the audience that he is obsessed with being a bastard and this ultimately defines his character, it is therefore unfair to judge him as he simply wants justice which does not make him evil on a causer of tragedy.
His obvious obsession with being bastard catalyses his frustration with society as Harold Bloom (1) clearly says “Edmond paradoxically sees himself as over determined by his bastardy, even as he fiercely affirms his freedom”. Edmond’s mania with his bastardy could not be dissolved by only attaining freedom as Bloom supports the idea that Edmond will never be wholly satisfied, however Edmond indicates that he might when he says ‘I grow; I prosper’ representing his willingness to climb up the social hierarchy to achieve his goals of attaining status, uncontrollable power and wealth which to him is he birth-right. Read about foreshadowing in King Lear essay
When he says ‘Legitimate Edgar, I must have your land’, he calls Edgar ‘legitimate’ and even though of the same blood he refers to himself as ‘illegitimate’ illuminating his endless hatred of his bastardy. Edmond grasping his goals would inevitably lead to the tragedy of ‘King Lear’ as the nobles/royalty at the top of the social hierarchy would have to defend their divine right.
Edmonds illegitimacy deprived him of his father Gloucester’s inheritance and his position in the social hierarchy, he was placed just above the animals, and Edmond’s perceived this as unjust and the latter bred resentment thus leading Lear’s society being a cause of tragedy. Edmond says ‘If this letter speed/ and my invention thrive’ this depicts his intention to undo his perceived injustices, as his plan evolves throughout the ‘King Lear’ creating the pathway for tragedy. Shakespeare Illustrates Edmond as a character that is fuelled by the social injustices he faces and wishes to overturn.
However Edmond’s personality slightly changes at the end of the play only when he is dying, he says ‘some good I mean to do’ showing that he is reproachful and wants to undo his doings through simple words like attempting to save Cordelia’s life, however he says ‘despite mine own nature’, Edmond doesn’t change his ‘nature’ he dies believing what he grew up believing, nevertheless, Edmond acceptance of his vile nature cause the audience to sympathise with him on a small-scale but our attitude towards him may be the same Bloom states that ‘Everyone either loves him or hates him too much’.
This could also be a close reference to Goneril, Cordelia and Regan’s characters because Shakespeare over-dramatizes his female characters as well as his villain Edmond therefore Bloom is accurate as there is no cross-boundary to our feelings towards Edmond. Edmond’s small shift of personality increases the tragedy in ‘King Lear’; however, Lear’s fixed society of inequality was the main reason that led to Edmond’s resentment and hatred that ultimately led to the tragedy of ‘King Lear’.
Shakespeare’s brilliant sub-plot of Gloucester-Edgar, Lear-Cordelia illuminates how different characters accept social injustices, Bloom (1) also conjures the idea that only tragedy is amongst these four characters ‘yet there is tragedy, and only tragedy amongst them’, however Bloom neglects the idea that there is also tragedy amongst the villains of the play, as Edmond, Goneril and Regan ultimately face death.
The tragedy of the villains is that they are entrapped by their perceived social injustices and their inability to cleanse themselves of it, affecting not only themselves, but those around them creating the pathway for tragedy. Gloucester and Lear’s tragic endings were undoubtly self inflicted, but we cannot help sympathise with them. Even though these two characters were loved by their children and to a certain extent the audience, their actions could be described as folly, since it was their naivety that pushed them to trust their deceitful children and banish their inculpable ones.
As the play unfolds they realise their mistakes, not only concerning their bad decisions concerning their children but the injustices they created amongst society at large. This highlights the tragedy because a sense of hope is created amongst the readers that the outcome might be positive but because a tragedy cannot be a tragedy without a sense of hope being created as Shakespeare cleverly knew. Arthur Miller (4) supports that idea that ‘the possibility of victory must be there in tragedy.
Where pathos rules, where pathos is finally derived, a character had fought a battle he could not possibly have won’, Arthur Miller not only suggests that tragedy has to have a sense of hope, but he enables the readers to relate it to the other characters in the play. It is to be acknowledged by the audience that Shakespeare creates hope right till the end when Cordelia brings her army to save Lear and even right at the end of Act 5 when the audience believe all hope is lost Shakespeare cues Edgar to say that there is still hope for England, and future societies.
Shakespeare skilfully parallels Lear and Gloucester’s experience’s after being outlawed to demonstrate how each character would react to the injustices. Gloucester remarkably does not resent his position ironically he is angered by the misconduct of society ‘so distribution should undo excess/ and each man should have enough’ this shows his view and the most primitive allusion to Marxism, where all men should be equal, and not have more than they need.
Gloucester takes aboard the degrading position as a blind suicidal (as earlier in the play he is blinded by Goneril and Cornwall), but paradoxically able to visualize the social injustices more vividly, strangely this does not breed resentment – it however, helps Gloucester grow and learn from his mistakes accelerating the pathway to tragedy in ‘King Lear’ a reason being that we realise that there is not only tragedy because of the degrading positions in society and death but Gloucester’s ability to recognise them and not being able to make any reforms.
Lear created segregation in his society, where people felt ostracised, interestingly Lear ultimately faces his own social injustices and as a result he says ‘Is man no more than this? ‘ Lear is finally brought into reality; he experiences his own ruling and is saddened by it. He also condemns the laws as he says ‘Unaccom-/modated man is no more but such a poor, bare, forked animal’ when he says ‘Unaccom-/modated man’ he refers to the people who have lived with the injustices as he is, describing their social position in the hierarchy being equivalent to animals.
Shakespeare also uses Lear’s lack of clothing as a metaphor for status, and demonstrates Lear’s state of mind, knowing what and where he is. Phyliss (3) implies that ‘Clothing symbolism suggests that Lear learns pity and wisdom only when stripped and exposed to the storm; reason, like other forms of clothing must be removed before Lear can ask and answer the ultimate question about human life’.
Lear does learn pity as Phyliss remarked, however, Lear still lacks wisdom and does not completely ‘answer the ultimate question of human life’ because he fails to understand Edmond’s frustration and that it had seeded from the society he personally implemented while in power. This idea is supported when so late in the play Lear talks to Gloucester and believes that he should not be condemned of his actions of baring a ‘whoreson’ and says ‘what was thy cause’ ‘adultery? , so late in the play Lear still accepts adultery and does not remotely understand the injustices ‘bastards’ feel. However there is a brief acknowledgement from Lear when he says ‘O I have ta’en/ too little care of this’ this brief concession shows that he is reproachful, because if given a second chance, he would undo the injustices he implemented; however, this heightens the pathos and sense of waste because Lear is powerless and lost all right to repair his damage therefore his own tragedy as well as other characters is heightened.
In Act 1, Lear intends to divide Britain between his daughters. As a result he sets them a test – whoever expresses the greatest love will be given the largest portion of land, money, and power. Goneril and Regan voice their limitless love for Lear, Cordelia, however, refuses to join the love test ‘I love you majesty/ According to my bond, no more nor less’ she simply states that she loves her father as a daughter should.
Lear loves Cordelia uncontrollably, but allows his folly to conquer it, as she refuses to express her love through futile words. Lear rages ‘I loved her most, and thought to set my rest’. Lear knows Goneril and Regan claim false love for him, but ultimately halves his kingdom between them. The ‘love trial’ illuminated the way Lear was impartial about the way he ruled his Kingdom, vindicating social injustices in its most primitive form inside the Royal family.
Cordelia raises Goneril and Regan’s bitterness and desire for power, Harold Bloom argues (1) ‘the resentment of Goneril and Regan, weary of their being over passed over for their sister’ Bloom states this obvious as Lear’s love for Cordelia was genuine which is a cause for Lear being an outcast into the storm, as well as Goneril and Regan’s lack of emotion to their father’s short temper ‘Tis his own blame’ Goneril expresses no sympathy or understand in her words they view his suffering as a form of justice to his years of mishap ruling.
Goneril and Regan lived in a patriarchal society, the frustration towards their father’s fixed power led them to disown Lear from the kingdom ‘must needs taste his folly’ which he ultimately does taste. Men controlled society and Lear brought this about “must needs taste his folly” this could be Goneril foreshadowing the storm, his madness and his death. Goneril and Regan have to wield their power through their husbands as did women in the Jacobean society “women had powerful roles within their families during the sixteenth centuries.
However, the power they had outside the family was limited by the rules of inheritance, ingrained traditions and prejudice attitudes of the state” (2) Shakespeare acknowledges this as the role of women in Lear’s society was very similar to the Jacobean society. When Cornwall is hurt by the servant Regan shows no implication or sorrow, this could show that Regan is content with a man not ruling her life. Her craving for power could have ultimately been satisfied. As a twenty-first century young woman it is simple to understand Goneril and Regan’s craving for equality, power and the ability to make their own decisions.
However, the tragedy of it is that Lear’s society was not ready to accept Goneril and Regan as powerful influential figures as it would upset the natural order of society thus heightening the tragedy due to the violation of female rights as it increased the frustration of Goneril and Regan. If tragedy were to be explored as the main theme in ‘King Lear’ there would be several reasons for the cause of it. Shakespeare explores several themes throughout ‘King Lear’; however, tragedy dominates them all.
Tragedy throughout ‘King Lear’ could have been caused by many factors such as; the madness of ‘King Lear’ and the storm that portrays it. Another factor could be Goneril and Regan’s loathing for their father and their urge to exploit their father’s vanity and highlight that he was unfit to rule the Kingdom. However, it would be an understatement to say that these were the reasons that defined and caused the ultimate tragedy that entrapped the play, as it was the social injustice’s Lear created and how he inflicted them upon his characters.
The characters throughout ‘King Lear’ reacted to the injustice’s and perceived them differently as some had bred hatred and anger, as others fought to break these injustice’s because they witnessed what they were doing to people. Therefore, we acknowledge that the social injustice’s that were created before and implemented during ‘King Lear’ were the dominating reasons for tragedy. Lear’s vanity and highlight that he was unfit to rule the Kingdom. However, it is an understatement to say that, that was the sole reason as injustice’s in society had led to their frustration.
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