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Divine Justice In Shakespeare's King Lear

2524 words - 10 pages

Ex Nihilo Nihil Fit—“nothing comes from nothing”. In the pre-Christian world of King Lear, this principle is a way of life. Character’s actions prove futile as tragedy befalls them; Lear loses his kingdom and his family, Gloucester his sight, and Cordelia her life. Through this, Shakespeare’s King Lear portrays human cruelty in its most extreme, base degree—thus contributing to the view of an unjust world. By depicting a breakdown in the social hierarchy and a fruitless relationship between man and the gods, William Shakespeare, in his play King Lear, establishes the absence of divine justice in human life, suggesting a minimal, even nonexistent involvement of the gods in human affairs.
Shakespeare overturns the social order in order to demonstrate the lack of justice in the world; traditional concepts of right and wrong and the consequences of each are shown to be wholly obsolete. This disruption of the natural order plays a key role in the characterization of an unresponsive heavens. Near the beginning of the play, Gloucester catalogues the disorder that has arisen, mentioning how “love cools, friendship falls off”, the “bond cracked ‘twixt son and father” and that there are “in cities, mutinies; in countries, discord” (Shakespeare I.ii.111-119). As Gloucester’s remarks signify the discord that has emerged after Cordelia’s disownment, his dismal diction works to evidence the breakdown of established order in the land—all while implying that without order, there cannot be any justice. According to Gloucester, Lear suffers because he has “fallen from what is natural” by banishing Cordelia (Hermesmann 2). Even from the first act of the play, Shakespeare reveals the darker aspect of Lear’s universe: traditions can be defied and rules can be broken without fear of consequence.
Shakespeare also incorporates differing viewpoints that indirectly indicate an uncaring heaven. Gloucester speaks of “machinations, hollowness, treachery, and all ruinous disorders” resulting from the “bias of nature”, subtly hinting that nature does not care for humanity, that perhaps there is no just force to govern the world (Shakespeare I.ii.117-119; Hermesmann 1-2). By characterizing the disorder as arising from forces of nature, Shakespeare evidences a lack of divine involvement in human affairs. After his father exits, Edmund scoffs at Gloucester’s sense of the discord, highlighting that “when we are sick in fortune…we make guilty of our disasters the sun moon and stars; as if we were villains on necessity, fools by heavenly compulsion” (Shakespeare I.ii.126-129). Edmund’s response to his father’s account is a clear rejection of the gods’ role in human life; his refusal to accept the social order as “metaphysically determined” adds to the idea of a rejection of the heavens (Dollimore 7). In this, Shakespeare furthers the idea of life as a cruel, chaotic existence, wholly exempt from divine mercy.
Lear’s fall from grace is an extension of this breakdown in order;...

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