On “King Lear: The Question of Divine Justice” by Timothy Burns

The fourth of five essays in his book entitled Shakespeare’s Political Wisdom, in “King Lear: The Question of Divine Justice,” Timothy Burns examines the “most celebrated of Shakespeare’s tragedies” which is also “among the most difficult to interpret.” According to Burns, “King Lear explores the relations between love –be it filial, paternal, or erotic—and justice: our sense of worthiness, not only to be ruled but to rule and be ruled” (135). Love and justice appear to be at odds in King Lear –the tragedy of a king who attempts to secure enduring justice for his kingdom. And when his plan fails, it exposes the troubled nature of love and politics, which causes a collapse in faith in the gods.

In King Lear, “nature” is referred to more often than in any other Shakespeare play. It is appealed to as the standard of human conduct by the king of Britain, over and against either law or custom, both human and divine. Some characters feel that their “nature” has been subverted unjustly. Others believe themselves deserving of more rewards according to “nature.” This wordplay with the meaning of “nature” illuminates a key problem in the play, namely that characters often believe that justice is a true reflection of nature. In doing so, the play asks us to consider: who is truly deserving of good fortune? Should Albany receive a greater portion of the kingdom than Cornwall as Kent and Gloucester discuss at the play’s opening? Or should Goneril simply inherit the kingdom by right of primogeniture, despite Lear’s awareness that she would not be a fitting Queen? Is it natural for some to undeservedly receive more than others? Despite being a bastard, does Edmund deserve a share of his father’s inheritance since is he loved equally by his father (1.1 19-24)? Burns claims that in the play, as we are cast out from the stately halls of a king, out into a stormy tempest on a barren heath, that “we will be led to reflect on the question of what constitutes true worth or desert, desert by nature as opposed to mere law or convention” (136).

Along these lines, Lear also believes himself to be deserving of more. In old age, he seeks both rest and love from his daughters as he unburdens himself from the shackles of power while also easing the troubles of his kingdom. Thus, he initiates the infamous “love test.” Here, Lear conflates filial and familial affections with his political responsibilities. Is he still to remain “every inch a king?” The only response that seems to meet the moment is Cordelia and her profession of love ‘according to her bond, no more nor less.’ Her love, in this situation, is dutiful above all else, exposing the purity of her intentions –an entirely different response from the limitless love propounded by both Goneril and Regan (who must surely be lying since they are married and thus cannot possess limitless love for only their father). In response to her rejection of the game, Lear curses Cordelia according to the Sun and Hecate, and he declares that the barbaric Scythians –cannibals of their own offspring—are closer to him than Cordelia. Sadly, virtue goes unrewarded by Lear in this moment. The perpetuation of his regime is at stake as those most deserving of rewards do not receive them. Is this a “natural” turn of events?

By cursing both Cordelia and later Kent (by Apollo and Jupiter), Lear still affirms his faith in the gods at this point in the play. In fact, both Lear and Edmund call upon the gods to justify their machinations (“thou Nature art my goddess”). Consequently, natural explanations of eclipses in the sky transform into dark foreboding omens. According to Gloucester, these events foretell of imminent moral decline in human affairs, and he propounds the conservative’s well-trod claim that “we have seen the best of our time.” Men like Gloucester have been moved from accepting mere natural occurrences as fitting, to suddenly delivering an appeal to supernatural forces. On the other hand, Edmund rebels against all customs or conventions –he embraces the notion that the most dishonest are the most deserving. In a world where all people feel they are undeserving, people turn to the gods for divine recompense. Scarcity is the fertile soil in which theology triumphs.

After Lear has been cast out of Goneril’s castle, Burns provides a wonderful explanation of Kent’s behavior. Kent, an outwardly loyal character to Lear who bombastically confronts Regan and Cornwall and battles the sycophantic courtier Oswald, is actually seeking to confirm the rumors that Lear’s knights are excessively rowdy. Kent’s higher purpose is to spark a war between Albany and Cornwall and also initiate the return of Cordelia along with French troops in order to reinstate Lear on the throne. Burns suggests Kent is more akin to a Christian rather than classical figure (indeed Kent is the future seat of the Archbishop of Canterbury), perhaps this explains why Kent is secretly a sower of chaos throughout the play, albeit a devoted and loving servant of his king. Meanwhile, Edgar’s character is also further revealed in Burns’s essay. Like his brother, Edgar is contemptuous of astrology, however Edgar has been unjustly stripped of his conventional birthright and so he “shows resourcefulness in necessity” by assuming the visage of a mad beggar from Bedlam. He becomes natural man in the state of nature.

When Lear is officially cast out by his daughters, he continually appeals to the gods for justice, and in his famous “Oh reason not the need!” speech, Lear believes he deserves more than what is merely necessary at a primal level for “superfluities are a manifestation of worth, over and against mere natural needs” (152). Perhaps most notable of all, in the lowest of moments for Lear, he does not weep. To weep in such a situation would be to admit that “man’s life is indeed as cheap as beast’s.” His resistance to self-pity demonstrates Lear’s greatness of soul. At this point, he still clings to faith that the gods will bring vengeance on his enemies, however he is now wrestling with a new problem. How could the gods have allowed such a deluge of pain to befall him? Are they even gods at all? Can they not control the “terrors of the earth?” Or is the Fool correct when he points out that people should not be guided by a sense of dignity or deserving, sanctioned by gods, but rather by interests provident for oneself first? As Lear cries out into the wilderness, his shouts fall on deaf ears. Could the just gods be simply be absent from the world?

Enter Poor Tom O’Bedlam (edgar in disguise), a former courtier who claims to be suffering some form of divine retribution as punishment for his sins –lust, greed, pride, false oaths, and so on. He proclaims a new form of punishment at the hands of a “foul fiend.” This strange demonic presence comes to represent justice for Tom as a means of averting his own suffering. It is a kind of fairy tale told for the benefit of Lear. In contemplation, Lear decides to imitate Tom in nakedness and poverty, which he assumes to be the highest state of mankind around the midpoint of the play when things seem to be at their worst. Lear is now in pursuit of answers to questions plaguing him –a quest which will eventually lead him to doubt not only the existence of the gods, but also the existence of justice. In the end, after being reunited with Cordelia, the armies of Lear and France lose the battle to Goneril, Regan, and Edmund, and Lear views his newfound imprisonment as a form of deliverance from the suffering of political life. He embraces the idea of being a prisoner and a form of security. When the safety of the kingdom dissolves, it is natural to seek refuge from the storm, even in prison. By now, Lear has been moved from king to beggar in some respects, or at least reoriented away from the practice of political things. And by the end, he has lost all impetus to call upon the those silent celestial gods in the sky.  

“King Lear provides us with the attempt of a thoughtful and remarkably resilient former king whose experiences drive him to an active denial of divine law and move him, through the ‘tempest’ of his mind, in the direction of an understanding of ‘unaccommodated’ man, man as he is by nature and without any of the artful conventions that support the belief in providential gods. Though he considers this path ‘madness,’ and while it does tax his wits beyond what they can bear, it leads him to what might have been a more serene life of greater acceptance of nature’s necessities but for the death of his beloved daughter” (181-182). It is then left to Edgar to better endure the suffering of politics and rebuild the piety of Lear’s kingdom against the deafening silence of an indifferent universe.

Burns, Timothy W. Shakespeare’s Political Wisdom. Palgrave MacMillan. New York, NY (2013).

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