Justice and judgment are key themes in King Lear. The first act shows how Lear treats his beloved Cordelia and his faithful servant Kent with unjustifiable banishment. As the play continues we become aware that Lear becomes a victim of injustice at the hands of Goneril and Regan. To explore Lear’s statement that he is “more sinned against than sinner” we need to examine some key moments in the play and examine if Lear is an offender or victim of injustice and whether in his madness he has redeemed himself.
The first words we hear Lear speak reflect his presence and powerful personality. This is a king that commands respect and expects all to jump at his command. He barks his abrupt order at Gloucester “Attend the lords of France and Burgundy” (1/1/29)
As we read further into Act 1 Scene 1 we learn he is a demanding father and commands love from his daughters the same way he commands his subjects. When his beloved Cordelia refuses to bestow on him an extravagant declaration of love he flies into a terrible rage and disclaims “All paternal care” (1/1/107) When his loyal servant Kent attempts to intervene on Cordelia’s behalf he too is banished. Lear is not used to being contradicted and on his own admittance he tells Kent to “come not between the dragon and his wrath” (1/1/116). The result of this “dragons wrath” is Lear’s immense misjudgement. He divides his kingdom between the insincere and evil daughters Goneril and Ragan. Lear has committed his first of the deadly sins, that of wrath. The image of the dragon breathing fire and brimstone is the traditional image of wrath. Shakespeare has used this image as a metaphor for King Lear’s rage.
Lear is blinded to the truth by flattery in the absurd “love trail” He has no concept of the true nature of parental love. He is guilty of spurning the true love of Cordelia, in favour of anger. The anger has clouded his good judgement.
As the action moves to Goneril’s house were we learn that Lear has assaulted Oswald in another one of his rages again committing the sin of wrath. Furthermore, he is so sure of his divine right as king that he will not listen to criticism. The fool repeatedly warns Lear of his folly over the banishment of Cordelia and the divisions of his land. Lear dismisses his warnings and even threatens, “Take heed sirrah the whip” Lear’s inability to recognise his moral mistakes and the excessive belief in his own sound judgement means he has committed his second deadly sin: the sin of pride and vanity. Just as his demanding declaration for love in the absurd “love trail” is rooted in his excessive pride and vanity.
Meanwhile, Goneril hospitality towards her father is becoming strained. He is an expensive and demanding houseguest. He is abusing his rights as a guest. When he returns from hunting he imperiously demands his dinner. Service is not quick enough and Lear’s retinue are becoming unruly and disruptive. She begins to see an opportunity to be free of her father and his soldiers. She complains to Lear of the debauched soldiers behaviour and demands that he reduce his retinue. This is a gross
Violation of the contract she made with him when he abdicated his throne and gave her a portion of his land. This is a sacred bond and is viewed as a serious sin towards her father. This is just the first sins Goneril and Regan commit against their Father.
Lear explodes “Darkness and devils” (1/4/208). He accuses her of ingratitude and compares her to a cold and pitiless “sea creature” (1/4/215)
He embarks on a passionate and brutal assault and calling on the gods he prays “hear nature, hear, dear goddess hear,” (1/4/233) He condemns her womanhood with ferocious and barbaric language and he curses her ” Into her womb convey sterility/ Dry up in her organs of increase” (1/4/232) He calls for the destruction of her pleasure as a parent and curses her unborn child with disfigurement so the child she bears may “be a thwart disnatured to torment her”(1/4/238) He compares her to a serpent and wishes upon her the noxious us air thought to carry the plague: “you fen-sucked fogs, drawn by the powerful sun/to fall and blister.” (2/4/158)
Forced by the obsession of ingratitude of his two pernicious daughters we can trace King Lear’s decline into madness and finally into the storm. Firstly, Goneril breaks her pledge to care for her father in her home. Forced by her ingratitude he goes to Regan’s house. Not wanting to be at home when her father arrives Regan and Cornwall leave for a stay at Gloucester’s castle. This is extremely rude and disrespectful. Lear is again a victim at the hands of his manipulative daughters.
Next Lear learns that Regan has Kent put in the stocks like a common criminal. Lear points out that to have the king’s messenger put in the stocks “Tis worse than murder, to do upon respect such violent outrage” (2/420) Regan and Goneril intend to strip Lear of his power. To put Kent in the stocks is the first move in their plan. However, it not the first sin they commit against their father nor will it be the last.
Although Lear begins to realise that the treatment of Cordelia was unfair in Act 1 when he admits, “I did her wrong” (1/5/24). It is not until Act 2 that there is a crucial shift and he begins to philosophise on the human condition. Although Lear is still obsessed with maintaining the appearance of power this is a key moment and the start of Lear’s widening view of human nature. Slowly we see the emergence of a more self-pitying and humble view of himself.
Lear’s enlightenment begins when he replies to Regan’s question “what need one?” of his retinue. ” O reason not the need,” (2/4/256) he argues and he reflects that even the “basest beggars” own things that are not necessary. He compares man’s need to the needs of the beast. This introspection is short lived and he soon lapses into self-pity. “A poor old man/As full of grief as age, wretched as both” (2/4/265) He still has a long way to go to redeem his sins.
Lear is driven out into the storm by his madness and Goneril and Regan secure their doors to the old man. They have no compassion or patience for their father. They have driven him out into the storm hoping this will bring about his death. King Lear’s death would ensure that he did not attempt to reclaim his throne and land.
In the last of his powerful kingly speeches he raves at the storm and calls for an end to “ingratful man” (3/2/9) It is here that he first admits and despairs at his own foolish
folly as a “poor, infirm, weak and despised old man”(3/2/19) However he is still obsessed with ingratitude and this forces him into metaphorical blindness. He cannot see life as a whole. Kent, the fool and Cordelia are not ungrateful.
The theme of divine justice and the images of the last judgement are perpetuated as Lear calls on the god’s to “find out their enemies” and destroy them. Lear has no fear of the god’s wrath as he feels he is a victim, “a man more sinned against than sinning” (3/2/58) He bears the suffering of the storm with impassive dignity. “No, I will be the pattern of all patience. I will say nothing.” (3/2/36)
Lear’s pivotal turning point comes as we see him for the first time show compassion for fellow humans. He shows for the first time an extraordinary tenderness for the fool. “poor fool and knave, I have one part in my heart/That’s sorry for thee”(3/2/70) He ushers the fool into the hovel urging “in boy, go first” the irony is that by humbling himself he is lifted spiritually. He has reversed the natural order by showing concern for the fool’s suffering above his own. This tenderness may be the beginning of Lear’s redemption.
Lear will not follow the fool into the hovel. He welcomes the storm as a diversion from his inner turmoil.
At the sight of the “poor naked wretches” (3/4/280 Lear is again stirred to a spiritual awakening. We see Lear expressing pity for someone other than himself for the first time. He is beginning to see that the duties of a king should not be for himself and his family but for all of those subjects whom he rules. He says in regretful humility “O I have ta’en to little care of this.” (3/4/33) He has realised that he has ruled with pomp and has been and inadequate king and ruler. Enlightenment and humility are the virtues he needs to redeem his sins. Temperance and patience
At the sight of Poor Tom the Bedlam Beggar (Edgar in disguise) Lear again shows concern for what could have brought him so low. ” Didst thou give all to thy daughters? And art thou come to this?” (3/4/46) Lear is awakening to the struggles of others, even though he wrongly assumes that Edgar’s misfortune must have been brought about in the same way as his own calamity.
Tom acts as a powerful catalyst on Lear. He seizes his plight as evidence that the world is a cruel and evil place. He develops an admiration for Tom and becomes convinced that he is scholarly philosopher. Lear is learning to develop pity not just for himself but for the whole of mankind. His sympathy for others moves him to a genuine prayer for the homeless.
Poor naked wretches, wheresoe’er you are
That bide the pelting of this pitless storm,
How shall your houseless heads and unfed sides,
Your looped and windowed raggedness defend you
From seasons such as these? (3/4/28)
The animal images in Tom’s nonsense ravings are used to personify the seven deadly sins. “False of heart, light of ear, bloody of hand; hog in sloth, fox in stealth, wolf in
greediness, dog in madness, lion in prey.” (3/4/84) Lear, in his ignorance has certainly been guilty of committing a few of these sins. For Example, light of ear refers to his stubborn refusal to listen to Kent and the Fools criticism.
Lear begins to see that humanity is nothing but the basest of beast when stripped of clothes, perfume and the other trapping of civilisation. He scoffs at this insight and attempts to remove his own clothes.
“Is man no more than this? Consider him well. Thou ow’st the worm no silk, the beast no hide, the sheep no wool, the cat no perfume. Ha! Here’s three on’s sophisticated; thou art the thing itself. Unaccomadated man is no more than a poor, bare forked animal as thou art.” (3/4/92)
The consequences of Lear’s meditation on the fragility of humanity and the sins of ingratitude and false pride has led him to feel an passionate sympathy and compassion. Lear is now a changed man from the demanding and authoritarian character he was at the beginning of the play.
Lear continues to be obsessed with injustice and in Act 3 Scene 6 he conducts the mock trial of Goneril and Regan. He decides to judge the evilness in their absence. Lear pronounces his punishment on Regan. She is to be “atatomises” to “see what breeds about her heart” (3/6/34) Lear is now more searching, wise and just than he was ever before. He asks, “Is there any cause in nature that makes these hard hearts?” (3/6/35) He has now fully realised the extent of his daughter’s wickedness. The mock trial has finally exorcised the obsession of ingratitude and King Lear’s redemption is almost complete.
During Act 4 all the characters make their way to Dover. In Act 5 we see Lear as a changed man. He appears to be totally insane, but there is wisdom in nonsense ravings. Lear is no longer blind to the devious plans of Goneril and Regan. Prompted by Gloucester he remembers their disrespect, empty promises and false loyalty. “they flattered me like a dog and told me I had white hairs in my beard ere black ones where there” (4/5/125) He raves against hypocrisy, women and sex. He recognises Gloucester’s adultery but claims “Gloucester’s bastard son/ was kinder to his father than my daughters” (4/5/125) He realises he has been flattered all his life. By being a king he has been sheltered to the true nature of peoples feelings. He admits that justice is hidden by power and riches and deception of appearances can make justice hard to administer.
Through his own sufferings and sinning Lear has emerged not only as king but also as a man. Through his anguish Lear has discovered that all men are susceptible to sinning.
We have examined the sins of King Lear. He has committed the sins of pride, vanity, anger and greed and through his own admittance: “I am a very foolish, fond old man….I am mainly ignorant” (4/6/57-60) To consider if Lear is “more sinned against” we must not forget the evil and devious sins committed against him by Goneril and Regan. They flattered him for their own greedy gains. They broke the contract and the bonds of their daughterly duties. They dishonoured him, humiliated him and stripped him of his power. They locked their doors and let an old man face the ravages of a storm. Finally, they plotted and schemed to kill him. The source of their evil is in their absence of love or respect for their father. They set their own self-interests and ambitions above any traditional bonds. Once they have the power they desired they have no further interest in Lear .He is simply a nuisance and gets in the way.
In the tender scene of reconciliation, Act 4 Scene 6, Cordelia’s speech before Lear awakes, emphasises the extent to which Lear has been a victim at the hands of Goneril and Regan: “..and let this kiss/ repair those violent harm that my two sisters / Have in thy reverence made.” (4/6/27)
When Lear awakes, both he and Cordelia attempt to kneel. She is honouring her king and he is begging her forgiveness. Lear now understands how limited his understanding is.
Finally, Is King Lear more sinned against than sinner? It is clear that the answer is yes. King Lear is as much of a victim as he is perpetrator. Furthermore, King Lear through his suffering and madness was able to redeem his own sins and gain the forgiveness of Cordelia. He has clearly learnt to love unconditionally. Goneril and Regan on the other hand have through their own sins of avarice and ambition brought about their own self-destruction.