Standing on the Edge: Moral Responsibility in Shakespeare’s King Lear

Surveying the social and physical ruin left in the wake of World War One, William Butler Yeats laments in his renowned poem “The Second Coming,” “everywhere / The ceremony of innocence is drowned; / The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity” (5-8). For Yeats, the war had destroyed the image of moral superiority long espoused by Western society. In its place, he imagines a new social order, one marked by moral ambiguity, in which no one or thing is safe. Although written nearly three centuries before, Shakespeare’s King Lear reflects very similar social anxieties. Indeed, one can almost hear the echo of Yeats lines as righteous characters like Kent and Edgar are forced to take guises ( a servant and a madman respectively) robbing them of their authority while corrupt figure such as Gonoril, Regan, and Edmund assume the mantles of justice. This inversion of moral order is exacerbated by the sense that there is no possibility of divine intervention. The play’s purported intervention – Gloucester’s miraculous “fall” in 4.6. – is actually a conceit created by his well-meaning son Edgar in order to restore some faith in the old man’s life. Otherwise, the prayers of the play’s two patriarch go unanswered, and eventually they are let go all together. By the end, all of the characters have acknowledged on some level or another that the fates of men are the province of cyclical Fortune, immune to pleas of men. Gripped in a bout of mania, the once great King Lear captures the despair at the collapse of order, “I am even / The natural fool of fortune”[emphasis added] (4.6.185).

The breakdown of divine authority poses an obvious problem. If morality is truly in the hands of men, how is society going to check the excessive behavior of the Gonorils and Edmunds out there? Particularly, when their self-absorbed will to power seems so much stronger than the more reserved, if empathetic, approach of Kent or Edgar. The answer seems to lie in endurance. Rather than fleeing the country as they are rumored to have done, both Kent and Edgar remain behind, abandoning their social status so as not to abandon their people. This is by no means an easy choice. Disguised as a servant, Kent has only as much authority as his superiors give him, limiting his agency to affect change. At one point, the Duke of Cornwall demonstrates these limits by sentencing Kent to the stock, symbolically and physically robbing Kent of all agency. Yet, Kent recognizes that this situation is bound to be a temporary one, remarking “Fortune, good night; smile once more; turn thy wheel” (2.2.165). While Fortune might not favor the moral, it does not favor the immoral either. One simply has to endure the dark times. Edgar echoes this need for endurance upon the loss of Lear and Cordelia’s forces, counseling his despairing father, “Men must endure / Their going hence, even as their coming hither; / Ripeness is all” (5.2.9-11).

Spoiler Alert: Yet, the play does not necessary make a very attractive argument for enduring evil in favor of morality. By the end of the play, nearly everyone is dead or dying, having suffered beforehand horrible mental and physical anguish. For instance, the Earl of Gloucester attempts to help the exiled King Lear, and in return, has his eyes pulled out. Later, he dies upon finding that his mysterious guide is actually the wrongfully disowned Edgar. Cordelia sails to England with a force to help retake her father’s kingdom and is captured and killed. It seems that the title of King Lear could just as easily been No Good Deed Goes Unpunished. However, it is important to notice that characters like Edmund, Gonoril, and Regan fare just as poorly. Ultimately, Shakespeare makes the best case for moral endurance in the seemingly useless Duke of Albany. Although initially willing to follow his wife’s lead in the treatment of King Lear, by Act 4 Scene 2, he has become disgusted with his wife’s ambitious drive for control over the country, asking “What have you done?” (4.2.40). While he does not immediately halt the moral travesty created by his wife and her sister’s conniving, Albany endures, eventually restoring order the world of King Lear.

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