Humans, like all creatures on the earth, have the privilege of thefreedom of choice. There are two broad ranges of factors that affect thedecisions a person makes. The first factor that affects decision making isinternal and includes a person’s character and intellect.
The secondfactor is external such as environment and interaction with other people.Naturally, each decision a person makes results in a repercussion of somedegree, usually either helpful or hindering, and rarely inconsequential.The concept of justice is based on the fact that decisions are alwaysfollowed by consequences.
It strictly adheres to the rewarding of gooddeeds and the punishment of evil. King Lear, a play by WilliamShakespeare, is a grave tragedy that is a prime example of the Elizabethanconception of justice. Lear’s kingdom turns to chaos because of a break inthe “Great Chain of Being” and restores to order when justice prevails.Its tragic labelling stems from the prevalence of death the just punishmentfor many of its characters. The deaths of Lear, Goneril, and Edmund areprime examples of justice prevailing for evil, and in Lear’s caseunnatural, acts.Lear’s ultimate fate is death. His early demise is a direct result ofbreaching the “Great Chain of Being” which states that no mortal willabandon his position in the hierarchy of ranking set by God. Lear’sintention of abdicating his throne is apparent from the outset and is seenin the following speech spoken during the opening scene of the play:.
. . ’tis our fast intentTo shake all cares and business from our age,Conferring them on younger strengths while weUnburdened crawl toward death.
. .1Evidently the splitting of Lear’s kingdom and abdication of his throneis not an act of necessity, but an act toward easing the remainder of hislife. Lear’s disruption of the “Great Chain of Being” is in an unnaturalfashion because the abdication of his kingship is without dire or mortalcause. The method of passing down his land to his heirs is also unnatural,as seen in the following excerpts:. . .
Know that we have dividedIn three our kingdom. . .. . . . .
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. . . . .We have this hour a constant will to publishOur daughters’ several dowers. .
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. . . .Which of you three daughters shall we say doth love us most?That we our largest bounty may extendWhere nature doth with merit challenge.
. . .2Lear does not bestow his kingdom upon his eldest son, nor is he evengoing to bestow the largest portion of the divided kingdom upon his eldestson.
He expresses his intent to split his kingdom and grant the pieces ashis daughters’ dowers, the largest piece being granted to whichever of thethree professes to love him most. This is a violation of the natural orderof commonly accepted hierarchy that states a father’s estate be endowedupon his eldest son. An error in judgement and untempered release of angerare also factors contributing to Lear’s downfall. Lear listens to flatteryfrom Goneril, “I love you more than word can wield the/matter;”3 and Regan,”I find she Goneril names my very deed of love,/Only she comes too short.. .
“4 in their bidding to profess they love Lear the most among the threedaughters, but Cordelia does not compete with their flattery: Cor. Unhappy that I am, I cannot heaveMy heart into my mouth. I love your Majesty LearAccording to my bond filial, no more nor less.
5Cordelia cannot flatter Lear with praise and states that she merelyloves him as a daughter should love her father, with respect and obedience.Lear is so heartbroken by his youngest, and until then his most beloved,daughter’s refusal to praise him with her love that a rage ensues: Lear. Let it be so! thy truth then be they dower!For, by the sacred radiance of the sun,The mysteries of Hecate and the night;By all the operation of the orbs starsFrom whom we do exist and cease to be;Here I disclaim all my paternal care,Propinquity and property of blood,And as a stranger to my heart and meHold thee from this for ever.
. .6Lear acknowledges that Cordelia s speaking the truth. Althoughconfessions of filial love are not inappropriate or evil, Lear’s judgementis clouded by anger at Cordelia’s refusal to praise him with flattery as hehad planned and he swears by the gods that Cordelia is no longer hisdaughter and chooses not to give any portion of land as her dower.
Lear’sdisowning of his daughter for refusing to participate in his unnaturalrites of determining which daughters receive which lands has proved thathis judgements are misguided. Finally, justice is fulfilled when Lear diesat the end of the play. The justice is in response to actions that hecommits which are not necessarily evil-hearted, but for the refusal toabide by the “Great Chain of Being” and his irrational and cruel disowningand banishment of Cordelia.
Goneril suffers the same fate as Lear. However, Goneril’s death is adirect result of a series of vile, ruthless, and despicable actions,whereas Lear’s death was a result of irrational judgements and unnaturalactions. The first instance that hints at Goneril’s evil nature appears ina conversation between her and Regan as soon as Lear hands down his powerof state to them:Gon. There is further compliment of leave-taking be-tween France and him.
Pray you let’s hit together. If ourfather carry authority with such disposition as he bears,This last surrender of his will but offend us.7Goneril proposes to Regan that they join forces in stripping Lear ofhis authority because she views it as a threat. This would be consideredan evil act if Goneril was just a peasant or vassal, to plot treasonagainst the king, but it is worse since Goneril is plotting against her ownfather. Clearly she has no respect for Lear as king, superior, or father.The extent of Goneril’s disrespect for hierarchical bonds and her evilnature is further revealed in the following letter:Let our reciprocal vows be remembered. You Edmund havemany opportunities to cut him Cornwall off.
If your will want not,time and place will be fruitfully offered.8The letter is from Goneril to Edmund. It details Goneril’s wish forEdmund to kill her husband, Cornwall.
Not only has Goneril disregarded herfilial bond with Lear by disrespecting him and going against his wishes,but she does worse than that by disregarding her marital bond with Cornwalland plotting his murder. Finally, passing the point of plotting murder,Goneril commits the act herself:Edg. What means this bloody knife? Gent.
‘Tis hot, it smokes.It came even from the heart of–O, she’s dead! Alb. Who dead? Speak, man. Gent. Your lady Goneril, sir, your lady! and her sister ReganBy her is poisoned; she hath confessed it.9Goneril admits having administered a poison to Regan. Her main purposewas to have Edmund for herself and he would not have to choose betweenthem.
However, after Edmund is slain by Edgar and Cornwall has proof in theform of the letter that Goneril plotted against him, Goneril decides thereis no course of action other than to take her own life. There is no moreevil a person than someone who turns against a parent that gave her life,plots to take the life of her eternally vowed husband, and finally takesthe life of another human being. Goneril proves to be the basest evil byfulfilling all the aforementioned symptoms and there is no more justpunishment for Goneril than her death.Edmund is a character whose death is a befitting justice for his actsof betrayal throughout the play.
The illegitimate son of Gloucester,Edmund seeks his father’s lands through scheming and deception. Hismotives are first made clear in the following soliloquy: Edm. Thou, Nature, art my goddess; to thy lawMy services are bound. Wherefore should IStand in the plague of custom and permitThe curiosity of nations to deprive me,.
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. . . . .Legitimate Edgar, I must have your land.
10Edmund’s thoughts are of his illegitimacy. He proclaims that asGloucester’s son, he is entitled to his lands, and customs of the realmshould not be able to keep them from him. The last sentence of thequotation shows that he views the lands as Edgar’s already, even thoughGloucester is far from retiring and passing them on to his heir, and it isagainst Edgar that he must plot to receive those lands. Edmund’s schemingagainst Edgar is made clear in the latter part of the soliloquy:Well, my legitimate, if this letter speedAnd my invention thrive, Edmund the baseshall top the legitimate; I grow; I prosper.11Edmund has, cunningly, conceived a letter that will put him above Edgarin Gloucester’s favour. The letter reads, “If our father would sleep tillI waked him, you should/enjoy half his revenue for ever,”12 and is writtenin the likeness of Edgar’s script and signed by his name. It seems toGloucester that Edgar would kill him to enjoy his revenue and estate withEdmund.
The ploy Edmund initiated makes Edgar look like a traitor. In ahurried and hectic conversation Edmund confuses Edgar, who is ignorant toEdgar’s ambitious scheming, into fleeing from Gloucester, making him lookguilty of Gloucester’s suspicions: Edm. . . . O sir, fly this place!Intelligence is given where you are hid.
You have now the good advantage of the night.Have you not spoken ‘gainst the Duke of Cornwall?He’s coming hither; now, i’ the night, i’ the haste,And Regan with him. Have you nothing saidUpon his party ‘gainst the Duke of Albany?Advise yourself.
Edg. I am sure on’t, not a word. Edm. I hear my father coming. Pardon me!In cunning I must draw my sword upon you.Draw, seem to defend yourself; now quit you well.–Yield! Come before my father.
Light, ho, here!Fly, brother.–Torches, torches!–So farewell.13Edmund asks Edgar if he has offended the Dukes of Cornwall or Albanythat would provoke Cornwall to come to Gloucester’s castle with such hastein the middle of the night. Edgar pleads innocence, forcing Edmund toenhance his deception. He tells Edgar that he must draw his sword as ifdefending himself or trying to capture a wanted man. Edgar flees, and toenhance the deception in Gloucester’s eyes even further Edmund stabshimself.
“Bringing the murderous coward Edgar to the stake;/He thatconceals him, death.”14 Gloucester, arriving on the scene, is convinced ofEdgar’s treason. Edmund has removed Edgar from his father’s favour, butdoes not yet possess Gloucester’s lands or wealth. An opportunity presentsitself which Edmund plans to take advantage of: Glou. . .
.I havereceived a letter this night–’tis dangerous to be spoken–Ihave locked the letter in my closet. These injuries theKing now bears will be revenged home; there is a part of apower already footed.
. .15Gloucester reveals to Edmund a letter he received. It entails that asecret power, France, has landed in the realm to revenge disrespect towardLear. Edmund says: Edm.
This courtesy, forbid thee, shall the DukeInstantly know, and of that letter too.Seems a fair deserving, and must draw meThat which my father loses–no less than all.The younger rises when the old doth fall.16Edmund plans to tell the Duke of Albany of the letter Gloucester hasreceived and of his journey to inform Lear of the French forces coming toaid him. The information makes Gloucester look like a traitor in theDuke’s eyes and Edmund realizes he will be rewarded with his father’s landssince they will be stripped from him for treason. Edmund’s evilheartedness and willingness to sacrifice his family for status and wealthclearly demands some sort of punishment as justice. It is only fittingthat the betrayal of his own blood, both his father and brother, isanswered by justice in his death at Edgar’s hands.
Lear, Goneril, and Edmund were each motivated in different ways. Lear’swas an unnatural and irrational motivation. Greed and selfishness movedEdmund to the decisions he made. Lastly, Goneril’s heart was of the basestevil and jealousy.
Although the methods and paths of their downfall weredifferent, each person suffers the identical fate as decided by justice.It is debatable whether each decision we make is weighed on a cosmic scalewith justice waiting to punish the evil or reward the good, but what iscertain is that each decision we make plays a direct role in our futures.