Justice in William Shakespeare’s King LearThe question of the origin of true, virtuous, and impartial justice has plagued mankind over the millennia and continues to do so today. In Shakespeare’s King Lear two potential forms of justice predominate: human examination through trial and divine supernatural recourse. Both systems emerge fundamentally flawed in practice, however, and by the end of the play a world of unjust chaos reigns supreme. Over the course of three “trials,” Lear’s daughters competing for his love, the blinding of Gloucester by Cornwall and Regan, and Lear’s imagined cross-examination of Goneril and Regan, Shakespeare strikingly illustrates the concept that human justice is essentially blind and the maintenance of faith in the divine intervention of the goods is hopeless naivete. Man’s justice is profoundly corrupted by the imperfection of human nature and shrouded by the inherent vices of avarice and jealousy.
The theme of flawed justice arising from defective character is demonstrated from the very outset of the play with King Lear’s demand that his three daughters compete for his love and estate. Certainly, any father that actively encourages sibling rivalry and so clearly plays favorites, as shown when he laments over Cordelia “I loved her most and thought to set my rest / on her kind nursery” (1.1.137-38), has something drastically wrong with his mindset. Thus, Shakespeare utilizes the establishment of Lear’s flawed character to reveal the detrimental effect imperfect human nature can have on the issuing of justice. Shakespeare does so in including the senseless decree that Lear rashly issues: the virtuous Cordelia and loyal Kent shall be banished, and Lear’s kingdom should be …
…Lear states, “Through tattered clothes small vices do appear. / Robes and furred gowns hide all. Plate sin with gold, / And the strong lance of justice heartless breaks” (4.6.180-83). Thus, only through madness is Lear able to see the rampant abundance of injustice present in the world caused by the abuse and negligence of the wealthy in power.
The errant “trials” of King Lear all serve to illustrate the concept that human justice is inherently tainted by the natural human tendency to abuse power for selfish means. Furthermore, characters such as Gloucester who maintain a persistent faith in the divine justice of the gods are seen as fools in a world where the innocent are senselessly taken advantage of and ultimately killed. Thus, it seems that until the essential vices of human nature are eliminated, justice will remain shrouded, and evil will reign.