Ideological Progression and Changing View of Justice
The study of justice in King Lear is the study of the pitiable infirmity of man; Bradley
makes the observation that “there never was vainer labour than that of critics who try to make out that the persons in King Lear meet with justice or their desserts” – at least not in any sense of a strict requital or such an adjustment of merit and prosperity as utopian morality would demand. Any account of justice as an idealized extension of a divine deity is excluded from the play; on the other hand, Justice is not portrayed as a blind or capricious power, inflicting motiveless despair upon the characters. Shakespeare explores this complexity by dramatizing the title character’s transformation from rage-filled autocrat, to ranting madman, and finally to humbled, sympathetic leader. We gradually realize that the prevailing motive of Lear’s epiphanies is compassion – and in this sense, Justice to Shakespeare is compassion: not the will of God nor natural law nor artificial construct, but common sympathy and humility. King Lear enters to fanfare in Act I. Acting from senility combined with a false belief in his own superiority escalated by decades of dictatorial rule, Lear declares a love contest among his three daughters to determine she who ‘loves him most’, such that he may accordingly dévide up the kingdom upon his impending ‘retirement’. When Cordelia – the daughter from whom he had expected the most – refuses to play his game, Lear enters a tirade, finally disowning his
daughter out of blind rage. In his initial state, King Lear derives his emotion from an assured belief in his discretionary power: “Come not between the dragon and his wrath” (1.1.136). He outwardly reveals no compassion; indeed his internal thoughts are quite clearly do not contain Justice in King Lear 3 sympathy. Still, Lear’s fury is not entirely wanton, but is an extension of the pain he himself is suffering – an enigmatic...