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Because justice is not administered according to moral arguments -- Lear also argues that since laws are made by the same people, they cannot be moral ones -- it is reduced to who holds power at a given moment in time. Similarly, the death of Lear's daughter, Cordelia, at the end of the play suggests that not even the gods or the divine powers which rule the universe have a sense of justice. "What! art mad?" Lear retorts. "A man may see how this world goes with no eyes. Look with thine ears." And then follows a terrific indictment of the rich and powerful "which is the justice, which is the thief?") that sums up under the same metaphor of blindness all Shakespeare has had to says about Commodity-servers from King John on: "Plate sin with gold, / and the strong lance of justice hurtless breaks; / Arm it in rags, a pigmy's straw does pierce it. / None does offend, none, I say, none; I'll able 'em: / Take that of me, my friend, who have the power / to seal the accuser's lips. Get thee glass eyes, / and, like a scurvy politician, seem / to see the things thou dost not" (Bloom 26).
Lear's last speech eschews the common imperatives of order and justice that so often apply to the last words of dying characters; it supplies instead a cry of something grotesquely approximating happiness. Much earlier in the play, Cornwall's dying Servant speaks of justice as a value for which to live and die. He sees an evil thing being done and acts heroically to prevent it. His words carry the force of his conviction and faith. The Servant is wounded and knows he is about to die: facing death in drama usually has the effect of concentrating the mind upon death and provides the occasion for the dying character to dig deep inside himself or herself, to end his or her life with a statement that in some way defines and dignifies it. Sometimes the process of dying is marked by self-consciousness as the victim gasps out a declaration of self-conscious significance. Dying words are usually heard with respect. The fact that the speaker here is a nameless Servant makes the drama unusual: it engages morality ("better service have I never done you / Than now to bid you hold") and memory or personal history ("I have served you ever since I was a child") (King Lear III.vii.75-6, 74) and briefly, but powerfully, individualizes the valiant speaker (Beauregard 378). He wounds his master in the defense of Gloucester and is then killed by Regan. He begs to be looked at, to be recognized as a force: "O, I am slain! My lord, you have one eye left / to see some mischief on him. O!" (King Lear III.vii.84-5). The words refer to an old code that recognizes the kinship of justice and revenge. It is, in all, a triumphant end to the life of one of those minor characters who normally pass through the plays unnoticed and undistinguished (Ibid 380). This servant is given character and value by his admission to the pantheon of dying heroes. He can be regarded as a kind of dramatic, moral antidote to the episode when Cordelia is taken to her death by the pragmatic Captain. The death of innocent Cordelia sparks the discontent and fear of Kent and Edgar who consider it a sign of the approach of the apocalypse "Kent [as Lear enters with Cordelia's dead body] / Is this the promised end / Edgar or image of that horror?" (King Lear V.iii.261-262)
The conclusion's simultaneous agglomeration of moral opposites and extremes carries a deep sense of existential despair. It brings into being a powerful dramatic image of nihilism and, thus, a viable alternative to the mono-logic conclusion that many critics have argued for. Lear has often been critically regarded as a universal man, most famously expressed in the twentieth century by a.C. Bradley, a famous Shakespearian literary scholar who referred to a feeling that haunts us in King Lear, as though we were witnessing something universal, a conflict not so much of particular persons as of the powers of good and evil in the world (a. C. Bradley, Shakespearean Tragedy, London: Macmillan, 1905, p. 262 in Cohen 255). Harley Granville-Barker wrote likewise of a "larger synthesis" that suggests a universal relevance to Lear's moral progress (Harley Granville-Barker, "King Lear," Shakespeare Criticism 1919-35, ed. Anne Ridler, London: Oxford Univ. Press, 1936, p. 293. In Cohen 257). John Middleton Murry in the early 1950s saw the "positive theme" of the play as "no less than the Self and the birth of Divine Love. That comes to pass in Lear, through absolute isolation, through his becoming 'the thing itself,' through 'madness'" (John Middleton Murry, Shakespeare, London: Jonathan Cape, 1956, p. 338 in Cohen 258).
There he stands, alive and well, an evil witness who has done what he has blandly described as "a man's work" (King Lear V.iii.40). Like Oswald, the Captain had hoped to thrive by murder. His visible survival as engineer of Cordelia's death and spectator of Lear's may make us shudder as he blends into the crowd. He confirms Lear's claim to have killed Cordelia's murderer, and he does so in a spirit of admiration that may be authentic or may seem designed to mask his own part in the murder: "Tis true, my lords, he did." This contribution to the dialogue by this character at this particular juncture implies the presence of moral mayhem at the heart of the play: it forces a double take by the external audience that, unlike the onstage audience, possesses privileged knowledge of the Captain's complicity. The Captain endures to hear Edgar's despairing last words. And with him endure the forces of violence and evil that have carried the drama to its finale. In him, watching and listening, the spirits of Edmund, Oswald, and Cornwall loom and hover silently beyond the end of the play. In the closing moments of Lear those who have survived the catastrophe actually attempt to recuperate their society in just those terms which the play has subjected to skeptical interrogation. A concept of innate nobility in contradistinction to innate evil is firstly invoked and, second, its corollary: a metaphysically ordained justice. Thus Edgar's defeat of Edmund is interpreted as a defeat of an evil nature by a noble one. Also nobility is seen to be like truth: "Methought thy very gait did prophesy / a royal nobleness" (V.iii.175-76). Goneril is "reduced" to her treachery ("read thine own evil," King Lear I.156), while Edmund not only acknowledges defeat but also repents, submitting to Edgar's nobility (King Lear II.165-66) and acknowledging his own contrary nature (King Lear II.242-43). Next, Edgar invokes a notion of divine justice which holds out the possibility of rendering their world intelligible once more. As far as Edgar, critics have suggested that his blindness comes as a punishment for his affair thus it is safe to argue that justice is attained in his case: "I am no less in blood than thou art, ... Edmund; / if more, the more thou hast wrong'd me. / 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" (King Lear V.iii.165-170).
The study of justice in King Lear is the study of human nature, with its faults and shortcomings. Shakespeare suggests that the only way to end the physical and mental suffering of both Lear and Gloucester is for them to make amends, so that the punishment for their wrongdoings towards their children can stop. 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. In this sense, Bradley makes the observation that "there never was vainer labor than that of critics who try to make out that the persons in King Lear meet with justice or their desserts" (Bloom 124) -- at least not in the sense required by conventional moral percepts. Any account of justice as an idealized extension of a divine deity is excluded from the play; on the other hand, justice is not portrayed as a blind or capricious power, inflicting motiveless despair upon the characters. Shakespeare explores this complexity by dramatizing the protagonist's transformation from rage-filled autocrat, to ranting madman, and finally to humbled, sympathetic leader (Speziale-Bagliacca 135). It becomes gradually obvious that the prevailing motive of Lear's epiphanies is compassion -- and in this sense, justice to Shakespeare is compassion: not the will of God nor natural law nor artificial construct, but common…[continue]
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