Was there any form of justice at all?

Having finally finished the tragic play of King Lear there is a hollow taste left in my mouth seeing as almost every main character, whether virtuous or villainous, meets their end. Was there any poetic justice performed or revealed within the play? Or is there supposed to be a sense of stark depression and despair with no hope to cling onto? Was there any retribution to be realized or is the cruelty of reality with King Lear the only plausible outcome?

When the inkling of hope came to be as Cordelia finally reunited with Lear and their relationship was on the verge of becoming whole and pure again, where Lear fantasizes about the two of them finally spending their time together, “We two alone will sing like birds i’th’ cage. / When thou dost ask me blessing, I’ll kneel down / And ask of thee forgiveness; so we’ll live, / and pray, and sing, and tell old tales, and laugh/ [ . . .] and we’ll wear out / In a walled prison packs and sects of great ones” (5.3. 9 – 18). The innocence surrounding Lear’s fantasy completely separates Lear and Cordelia from the rest of the world, where there is no suffering nor is suffering brought upon them. Unfortunately that ceases to be the case since both Cordelia and Lear die. One could argue that their death is the only way Lear and Cordelia could ever enter that pure fantasy, or possibly even escape the chaos and madness and the despair that revolved around their lives.

Even though Goneril, Regan, Edmond, and Cornwall get their just desserts, those who had remained virtuous throughout the entire play see nothing but banishment, insanity, and death, a fate far worse than the villains of Shakespeare’s play. When the order of Cordelia’s hanging does not reach the executioner in time, the pained Lear goes, “Why should a dog, a horse, a rat have life, /  And though no breath at all?” (5.3. 282 -3) Lear’s question evokes the truth of how death touches the lives of anyone, no matter how they fair in life. The bleak truth regarding this matter dissolves any remaining form of justice to appear in the play, for the death of Cordelia, symbolic of purity, love, and innocence wipes out any sense of redemption or a hopeful ending. All that is left to offer is despair, especially when Lear finally passes away with the false hope that his daughter had begun breathing once more, that striving hope is upsetting to read, when even the reader is grasping for straws, like Lear does, in order to have just one inkling of hope to hold onto in the depressing, hollow world of King Lear.

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3 thoughts on “Was there any form of justice at all?

  1. paragwagle

    I agree. I know Shakespeare’s plays are supposed to be tragedies, but I think it was a little ridiculous killing off almost everyone. This play had potential to be my favorite Shakespearean play we read this semester, until everyone died at the end. This is probably a horrible analogy, but the sequence of events reminds me of the movie “The Departed.” The film had great potential, but was ruined when almost all the main characters died at the end. I also like the point you mention of Cordelia and King Lear’s death, and how it was the only way for them to enter pure fantasy. When King Lear compares them to two birds in a cage, maybe their only true escape was to die together. King Lear’s main focus was for them to be together; and maybe it did not matter where or how, as long as he was by his daughter’s side. Death, along side his daughter ultimately fulfilled his wish. I guess the only good I can take from the conclusion is that the surviving characters have good qualities in them. Otherwise, this play “ended” up being a big disappointment.

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  2. gagnonr1

    I’ve come to expect full-on deaths from Shakespeare’s plays. Comparatively, King Lear is one of the most death-filled plays in the canon. Only three main characters remain alive by the end – Edgar, Kent, and Albany. Perhaps this is a blessing for these characters to be the very few who get to recreate the kingdom as they choose and reflect on what has happened. Compare this to Romeo & Juliet, where many more characters had survived (Nurse, Friar Lawrence, Prince, Montague, Capulet, Lady Capulet, Benvolio, etc.) and they all must live with this grief following the aftermath that had happened. Does misery enjoy company or is it better to be alone with your grief following a disastrous tragedy? I thought that in King Lear, the necessary amount of characters met their ends. From the moment Lear disowned Cordelia, you had to have known that that fatal mistake would mean the end of both of their lives especially when we see the first indication of Goneril and Regan’s disdain for Lear. However, it doesn’t make it less sad to see Lear’s whole family perish — giving us a great tragedy that I, personally, do not see as a big disappointment whatsoever.

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  3. alexhammer92

    I think you made some good points in this post, and I agree in that the ending of King Lear seems a little forced, and perhaps even rushed. The play needed to be tied together in some way, and it definitely could have been done in a manner which would make more sense and in turn be more satisfying to the audience. However the play is a tragedy, and the audience’s satisfaction is certainly not what Shakespeare had in mind, when it came to the ending of the play at least.

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