Many themes are evident in King Lear, but perhaps one of the most prevalent relates to the theme of justice. Shakespeare has developed a tragedy that allows us to see man's decent into chaos. Although Lear is perceived as "a man more sinned against than sinning", the treatment of the main characters encourages the reader to reflect on the presence or lack of justice in this world. The characters also vary in their inclination to view the world from either a fatalistic or moralistic point of view, depending on their beliefs about the presence or absence of a higher power. The theme of justice in relation to higher powers can be illustrated from the perspective of King Lear, Gloucester, and Edgar.
There are several kinds of justice within the play – moral, legal, divine and poetic justice. Throughout the play, we find a clear violation of justice, but later it turns out to be justice. Therefore, the theme of justice is a subject of debate.
Some critics say that Lear begins a wheel of injustice which is going to turn on and on; he dismisses Cordelia dowerless and banishes Kent simply because he has taken the side of Cordelia. The first scene of the play indicates that Lear is very emotional; he is rash, hasty, and impatient. He is unable to perceive the hypocrisy behind the extravagant speeches of Goneril and Regan.
The first sign of injustice is clearly demonstrated by Lear from the very beginning of the play. King Lear decides to abandon his power and divide his kingdom among his daughters. But he chooses an unusual criterion based on which he gives each one her share; he asks each one to express her love to him. Based on this expression, the one who proves to be the most loving, will have the greatest division:
"Lear: ….Tell me my daughters,--
Since now we will divest us, both of rule,
Interest of territory, cares of state, --
Which of you shall we say doth love us most?
That we our largest bounty may extend
Where nature doth with merit challenge."
The most horrible moment occurs when it is Cordelia's turn to speak. Lear is shocked when Cordelia has not said what he expects from her as his most beloved and dearest child. She says that she loves him as any dutiful daughter should love her father:
"…I love your majesty
According to my bond; nor more nor less…
You have begot me, bred me; I
Return those duties back as are right fit
Obey you, love you, and most honor you."
She is very realistic in her expression which indirectly exposes the exaggeration and hypocrisy displayed by her sisters. But her father is too emotional and rash to get her point; he misunderstands her considering her ungrateful and cruel, and consequently, punishes her. He decides to banish her dowerless without giving her the third division of the kingdom and not to see her again. This is a direct indication of injustice. He says to her:
"Here I disclaim all my paternal care,
Propinquity and property of blood,
And as a stranger to my heart and me
Hold thee from this, forever."
Very soon, Lear is treated unjustly by his two daughters to whom he gave everything he has. Instead of being grateful to him, both of them humiliate him and let him face the stormy weather alone. Devoid of love for him, the two sisters show that they are ungrateful, insulting, and threatening to the father who gave them both land and power. It is not proper on all scales of morality to dismiss a father in such bad whether. This act draws his attention to his injustice to Cordelia. Therefore, Lear speaks to Kent expressing the internal storm which goes inside him. He states that Goneril's and Regan's villain actions lead him to madness:
" The body's delicate: the tempest in my mind
Doth from my senses take all feeling else
Save what beats there. Filial ingratitude!
Is it not as this mouth should tear this hand
For lifting food to't?
In the storm scene, he contemplates that state of humiliation on which he has become. His words reflect how unjustly he has been treated. He addresses the fool saying:
"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."
Now Lear has become too weak to avenge himself by punishing his daughter. Therefore, he asks for divine justice because when man's power is limited, a greater power should interfere to put things in the right order. In his cases, the cart is put in front of the horses. This motivates Lear to say:
"Let the great gods,
That keep this dreadful pother o'er our heads,
Find out their enemies now. Tremble, thou wretch,
That hast within thee undivulged crimes,
Unwhipped of justice."
Lear contemplates the miserable state of Edgar (disguised as Tom) whose poverty and nakedness reflect how gods are cruel and unjust to them. Again he asks heavens to be more just with them:
"…O, I have ta'en
Too little care of this! Take physic, pomp,
Expose thyself to feel what wretches feel,
That thou mayst shake the superflux to them,
And show the heavens more just."
In the play, a controversial question is raised about divine justice: "Are the Gods just?" Gloucester expresses the view that the Gods are unjust and cruel when he says:
"As flies to want on boys are we to the gods,
They kill us for their sport."
A similar idea is expressed by Edgar when he says:
"The gods are just, and of our pleasant voices
Make instruments to plague us"
Moreover, the play conveys an important idea about human justice. It clearly shows that, when human exercise justice, there is no guarantee that it will be fair, proper or right. Possession of power is more important than fairness. Goneril goes beyond her human limitations and assumes ultimate power. She sees herself as the queen who controls the law and decide the fate of people. She says:
"The laws are mine, not thine
Who can arraign me for't?"
Unable to tolerate injustice imposed upon him, Lear creates an imaginary trial in which he puts his guilty daughters to trial. It is called by many critics "mock justice". It is an attempt to achieve human justice and put things in the right order. He assigns the fool, Edgar, and Kent to be the judges of this trial. He begins by trying Goneril:
"Lear: Arraign her first; 'tis Goneril. I here take my oath before this honorable assembly, she kicked the poor king her father."
In the storm scene, Edgar contemplates the miserable state of King Lear, and declares that when man sees people of a higher rank like Lear humiliated, he forgets all about his miserable state. He implies that it is not just to see a man like this in this miserable state:
"When we our betters see bearing our woes,
We scarcely think our miserable our foes
Who alone suffers, suffers most in the mind,
Leaving free things and happy shows behind."
Furthermore, the code of justice is isolated by Edmund and Cornwall. Moving to the minor-plot, we find Gloucester, the victim of injustice at the hands of his bastard son, Edmund. Gloucester has always been kind to Edmund, but the latter repays his kindness with an intrigue against him and a betrayal of his secrets. Besides, Gloucester again becomes a victim of injustice at the hands of Cornwall as well. Now Gloucester realizes that he has been unjust with Edgar, and therefore, he says:
"O you mighty gods!
This world I do renounce, and, in your sights,
Shake patiently my great affliction off.
If I could bear it longer, and not fall
To quarrel with your great opposeless wills,
My snuff and loathed part of nature should
Burn itself out. If Edgar lives, O, bless him!"
However, throughout the development of the action in the play, we discover that there is a plenty of poetic justice as all evil doers (the vicious team) get the punishment they really deserve; Cornwall is killed by a servant in the act of blinding Gloucester; Regan is poisoned to death by her sister, Goneril, who commits suicide afterwards; Edmund and Oswald meet their ends at the hand of Edgar.