Study Guide

King Lear Justice

By William Shakespeare


Act 3, Scene 2
King Lear

Rumble thy bellyful! Spit, fire! Spout, rain!
Nor rain, wind, thunder, fire, are my daughters.
I tax not you, you elements, with unkindness.
I never gave you kingdom, called you children;
You owe me no subscription. Then let fall
Your horrible pleasure. Here I stand, your slave,
A poor, infirm, weak, and despised old man.
But yet I call you servile ministers,
That have with two pernicious daughters join
Your high engendered battles 'gainst a head
So old and white as this. O, ho, 'tis foul! (3.2.16-26)

Lear sees himself as a victim of injustice – his daughters have betrayed him and now he's caught out on the heath during a terrible storm. What's interesting about this passage is the way Lear literally accuses the storm of being his daughters' agent ("servile minister"). For Lear, it seems the whole world is against him.

Act 3, Scene 4
King Lear

Poor naked wretches, whereso'er you are,
That bide the pelting of this pitiless storm,
How shall your houseless heads and unfed sides,
Your looped and windowed raggedness, defend
From seasons such as these? O, I have ta'en
Too little care of this. Take physic, pomp.
Expose thyself to feel what wretches feel,
That thou may'st shake the superflux to them
And show the heavens more just. (3.4.32-41)

This is an important moment for King Lear, who has never before contemplated the plight of homelessness. Here, he realizes that he hasn't done enough to solve the homeless problem in his kingdom as he acknowledges that, as king, he had the power and authority to do something about it. This is pretty extraordinary because it suggests that the acts of human beings are the things that prove "the heavens [to be] more just." In other words, there can only be justice in the world when human beings behave justly toward each other.

Act 3, Scene 7
Duke of Cornwall

I have received a hurt. Follow me, lady.—
Turn out that eyeless villain. Throw this slave
Upon the dunghill.—Regan, I bleed apace.
Untimely comes this hurt. (3.7.116-119)

Contrary to what he says, Cornwall's wound is very "timely"; the servant has served up justice for Gloucester's eyes.

Act 4, Scene 1
Earl of Gloucester

As flies to wanton boys are we to th' gods;
They kill us for their sport. (4.1.41-42)

This is one of the most famous lines in the play. For Gloucester, the gods are not only indifferent to human suffering but they're excessively cruel, causing human misery just as easily and thoughtlessly as "wanton boys" might swat at "flies."

Act 5, Scene 3

Th' hast spoken right. 'Tis true.
The wheel is come full circle; I am here. (5.3.208-209)

After the wicked Edmund is mortally wounded by his brother, he says "the wheel has come full circle" (once again, he's at the bottom of fortune's wheel). In other words, he suggests he got exactly what was coming to him. Is he right?

Duke of Albany

The gods defend her [Cordelia]!—Bear him hence awhile.
                                                                        Edmund is carried off.
                Enter Lear with Cordelia in his arms,                         
                          followed by a Gentleman. (5.3.307)

If you want evidence that divine justice does not exist in the world of the play, look no further. Just as Albany prays to the gods to protect the innocent Cordelia from harm, Lear enters holding Cordelia's lifeless body in his arms. No wonder King Lear is known as Shakespeare's "bleakest" tragedy.

History Snack: In 1681, playwright Nahum Tate rewrote Shakespeare's play so it would have a happy ending. In Tate's version, Lear and Cordelia live and Cordelia falls in love and marries Edgar.

All friends shall taste
The wages of their virtue, and all foes
The cup of their deservings. (5.3.366-368)

Here, Albany explains why Edgar and Kent get to rule the kingdom – they're "virtu[ous]" so, they deserve it. According to Albany, everybody gets what they deserve. On the one hand, this seems to be true – Edmund is justly punished for ruining his father's and brother's lives, Goneril and Regan end up dead, etc.

But wait a minute. Wasn't Albany paying attention five seconds ago when Lear entered the room with the dead Cordelia in his arms?! Cordelia certainly didn't "deserve" to die, so what the heck is Albany talking about? This statement seems pretty absurd, wouldn't you say? Especially since the evidence of Cordelia's unjust and undeserved death (that would be Cordelia's lifeless body) is on stage, in plain sight.

[…] O, she's dead!
Who dead? Speak, man.
Your lady [Goneril], sir, your lady. And her sister
By her is poisoned. She confesses it. (5.3.266-269)

Both Regan and Goneril get their just desserts for cruelty and scheming – Goneril ends up taking her sister, Regan, down and then killing herself, too. While there is no system of justice imposed on the characters in Lear, they end up imposing justice on themselves.


My name is Edgar, and thy father's son.
The gods are just, and of our pleasant vices
Make instruments to plague us.
The dark and vicious place where thee he got
Cost him his eyes. (5.3.203-207)

After Edgar mortally wounds his wicked brother, Edmund, he says "the gods are just" because they punish humans for their wrong doings. This seems to suggest that Edmund deserved what he got (a stab to the guts). Edgar also implies his father, Gloucester, got what he deserved for having an affair with Edmunds mother. Remember, Gloucester's eyes were plucked out after he was accused of treason, and he fathered a wicked child, Edmund, who betrayed him.

King Lear

And my poor fool is hanged. No, no, no life?
Why should a dog, a horse, a rat, have life,
And thou no breath at all? Thou 'lt come no more,
Never, never, never, never, never.— (5.3.369-372)

When King Lear, mourning the death of his beloved daughter, Cordelia, asks "Why should a dog, a horse, a rat, have life?" when Cordelia is dead, he gives voice the question we all ask when a loved one dies: Why?

In the play, Shakespeare refuses to console us with his answer because there simply is no good explanation for why Cordelia is dead while creatures with less to offer the world get to live. In other words, Cordelia's death, like so many others, simply isn't fair and there's absolutely nothing that can be done about it. Lear will "never, never, never, never" see his daughter alive again.

King Lear

LEAR […] O heavens,
If you do love old men, if your sweet sway
Show obedience, if you yourselves are old,
Make it your cause. Send down, and take my part. (2.4.217-220)

After Goneril and Regan betray him, King Lear calls upon the heavens to take his side and send down a punishing storm. As if in answer to his prayer, Lear, and not his daughters, suffers in the ensuing storm when Lear becomes homeless and wanders the heath. Does Lear deserve this?

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