King Lear inspires many philosophical questions; chief among them is the existence of divine justice. This concept was particularly important during the Elizabethan era, because religion played such a significant role in everyday life. Religious leaders directed people to expect that they would have to answer to a higher authority, expressing some hope that good would triumph and be rewarded over evil. But throughout King Lear, good does not triumph without honorable characters suffering terrible loss. In fact, at the play’s conclusion, many of the good characters lie dead on the stage–Lear, Gloucester, and Cordelia. In addition, the audience hears that Kent will soon die, and the Fool has earlier disappeared, presumably to die. Of course, the evil characters are also dead, but their punishment is to be expected according to the laws of divine justice. But how then does the audience account for the punishment and, finally, the death of the good characters in King Lear?
Lear makes several poor choices, most importantly in misjudging the sincerity of his daughters’ words; but when he flees out into the open heath during a storm, his madness seems a painful and excessive punishment to witness. Parallel to Lear’s punishment is that which Gloucester suffers. The plucking of Gloucester’s eyes can be perceived as another instance in which divine justice is lacking. Gloucester has made several errors in judgment, as has Lear; but the brutal nature of Gloucester’s blinding–the plucking out of his eyes and the crushing of them under Cornwall’s boots–is surely in excess of any errors he might have made.
Both Lear and Gloucester endure terrible physical and mental suffering as punishment for their misjudgment, but before dying, both men are reunited with the child each earlier rejected. This resolution of the child-parent conflict, which earlier tore apart both families, may be seen as an element of divine justice, although it offers little gratification for the audience.
Throughout King Lear, the audience has witnessed Edmund’s growing success as a reward for his evil machinations. But when Edgar and Edmund meet in Act V, the duel between these two brothers is very different from the traditional match for sport. Christian tradition recalls several biblical battles between good and evil, as divine justice is an important component of trial by combat. The duel between Edgar and Edmund is really a conflict that replays this ongoing battle between good and evil, with Edgar’s defeat of Edmund obviously signaling the triumph of righteousness over corruption. Edgar’s victory, as well as his succession of Lear, as king of Britain, points to an intervention of divine justice.
And yet, when Lear enters with Cordelia’s body, any immediate ideas about divine justice vanish. The deaths of Cornwall, Edmund, Regan, and Goneril have lulled the audience into a belief that the gods would restore order to this chaotic world. But Cordelia’s death creates new questions about the role of divine justice; a just god could not account for the death of this faithful and loving daughter.
In spite of the seemingly senseless death of this young woman, Shakespeare never intended for his audience to escape the painful questions that Cordelia’s death creates. Instead, the audience is expected to struggle with the question of why such tragedies occur. The deaths of Gloucester and Lear are acceptable. Both have made serious errors in judgment, and although both came to recognize their complicity in the destruction that they caused, the natural resolution of this change was an acceptance of their future, whatever it held. But Cordelia is young and blameless. She is completely good and pure.
At the play’s conclusion, the stage is littered with bodies, some deserving of death and some the innocent victims of evil. Cornwall has been destroyed by his own honest servant; Edmund is killed by the brother he sought to usurp; both Goneril and Regan are dead, one murdered and the other a suicide; the obedient steward, Oswald, is dead, a victim of his own compulsion to obey. In the end, no easy answer surfaces to the question of divine justice, except that perhaps man must live as if divine justice exists, even if it’s only a product of rich and wishful imaginations.