Lear’s Crime and Chastening

Though King Lear, of Shakespeare’s The Tragedy of King Lear, wrongs both Cordelia and Kent in his harsh treatment against them, the unjust actions of Regan and Goneril against King Lear cause him to be “a man more sinned against than sinning” (3.2.60-61).

In order to relieve himself of the problems and work associated with holding his position so he can “unburdened crawl toward death,” King Lear, of pre-Christ Britain, divides up his kingdom into three portions, one for each of his daughters (1.1.41). To decide the daughter to whom he should give the largest portion of the kingdom, King Lear holds a competition that merely serves to feed his ego. He requires each daughter to publicly profess her love for him and promises the largest portion of land to the one who loves him the greatest. Both Regan and Goneril flatter King Lear, telling him what he wants to hear. On the other hand, Cordelia responds honestly, first expressing that she can say “nothing” in response to the question (1.1.92). When Lear presses her further, she explains, “You have begot me, bred me, loved me;” and vows to “return those duties back as are right fit” but that someday she will get married and will not possess the ability to give her father all her love (1.1.102-103). King Lear makes his first error here; he bases his decision on the superficial aspect of his daughters’ words. He favors Regan and Goneril because their words sound nice to the ear. In actuality, though, their statements have no true feeling behind them. On the other hand, too caught up in his own pride and ego, King Lear perceives Cordelia’s honest words as “pride, which she calls plainness” (1.1.137).

Because Cordelia does not give in to the temptation to flatter her father, as he wants her to, he disowns her, even going so far as to say, “Better though Hadst not been born than not to have pleased me better” (1.1.258-259). When the Earl of Kent attempts to stand up for Cordelia and point out the rashness of King Lear’s actions, he banishes him, too. Neither Cordelia or Kent deserved such severe and unforgiving punishment – in fact, they deserved no punishment at all, as they did nothing wrong.

Despite King Lear’s horrendous actions against both Cordelia and Kent, neither of these characters takes revenge on him. In fact, Cordelia eventually forgives King Lear and Kent comes back to Britain and serves the king in disguise. After splitting up the nation between his two remaining daughters, King Lear keeps one hundred knights for himself, and requests a place to stay. It only seems fitting that King Lear stay at Goneril’s and Regan’s homes, since they owe their possession of those homes and their power to their father. Regan and Goneril quickly turn on their father, kicking him out of their homes, and leaving him to die in one of the worst storms they have seen.

Though the actions of Regan and Goneril mirror the king’s, in that they banish King Lear, just as he banishes Cordelia and Kent, their sin against their father is worse than his sin against Cordelia and Kent. King Lear bases his daughters’ love on superficial characteristics, he banishes Kent and Cordelia – his own daughter – and clings to his pride, not desiring to give up the title “King” even after he has yielded his power to his daughters and their husbands. None of these actions should be the life goal of any person, but, like anyone else, King Lear is not perfect. As an aging man, his ability to reason logically gradually diminishes. Additionally, even though he makes a mistake, King Lear eventually realizes the folly in his rash actions and does what he can to better the outcome. On the other hand, Regan and Goneril not only take away all Lear has, leaving him with nothing (whereas Lear ensures that Kent has food and Cordelia has a spouse), but they also fail to repent of their actions. In fact, they proceed to carry out even greater atrocities.

From the perspective of an omniscient reader, it appears that King Lear’s receives unjust punishment – based on his actions, he does not deserve to be thrown out into a wild storm to die. This complaint, though, elicits the assumption that justice is always carried forth when, in fact, nothing could be further from the truth. September 11, 2001, enemies of the United States flew airplanes into the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center. Thousands of innocent people who were going about their own business, carrying out their every day duties, died. Many have pondered the reason such a tragedy took so many innocent lives because they fail to recognize the fact that bad things happen, even to “good people.” It is a fact of life – the world has imperfections, evil people who commit atrocious acts against innocent people do exist. Likewise, an undeserving King Lear receives treatment that is much worse than his actions toward others. Though this treatment deals with King Lear’s evil actions unjustly, in the end, it plays a critical role in his development as a character. As a result of his banishment from Goneril’s and Regan’s houses, King Lear experiences life from the perspective of the lowest citizen, status-wise, of his nation. From such a humbling experience, King Lear learns the importance of repentance, he realizes where he has gone wrong, and he learns a lesson. Even through the injustice of King Lear’s punishment, some good emerges.

Like many people today, the characters of King Lear anticipate justice. The characters see injustice frequently and question the reasoning behind it. Specifically, just as many Americans questioned the “why” behind September 11, King Lear demands, “Why should a dog, a horse, a rat, have life, And thou [Cordelia] no breath at all?” (5.3.368-369). King Lear’s question, “why?” coincides with the common question many have when bad happens – he cannot comprehend why his guiltless daughter dies. Interestingly, shortly after questioning why Cordelia had to die, King Lear, himself dies. King Lear’s death can be seen as the inability to deal with the injustice of his daughter’s death. In this interpretation, King Lear is worse off than many Americans – few, if any, died of grief from losing a loved one in the September 11 attacks, while King Lear does die of anguish over his daughter’s death. Since the concept of fate – the belief that all actions are planned out, and regardless of what people do, no one can change the outcome – frequently prevails in literature, one could also attribute King Lear’s death to his acknowledgement of fate. King Lear comes to the realization that no matter how hard he tries to do good, his actions have no bearing on what happens. Therefore, he no longer has a reason to live.

Though King Lear is by no means completely innocent and free of blame – his actions prompt some sort of punishment – his two daughters wrong him more than he wrongs the other characters of the play. Through this injustice, though, King Lear learns a lesson and transforms into a better person, even though he dies at the conclusion of the play.

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