Freedom of Choice in Shakespeare's King Lear

Freedom of Choice in Shakespeare's King Lear

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    Humans, like all creatures on the earth, have the privilege of the freedom of choice.  There are two broad ranges of factors that affect the decisions a person makes.  The first factor that affects decision making is internal and includes a person's character and intellect.  The second factor is external such as environment and interaction with other people. Naturally, each decision a person makes results in a repercussion of some degree, usually either helpful or hindering, and rarely inconsequential. The concept of justice is based on the fact that decisions are always followed by consequences.  It strictly adheres to the rewarding of good deeds and the punishment of evil.  King Lear, a play by William Shakespeare, is a grave tragedy that is a prime example of the Elizabethan conception of justice.  Lear's kingdom turns to chaos because of a break in the "Great Chain of Being" and restores to order when justice prevails. Its tragic labelling stems from the prevalence of death the just punishment for many of its characters.  The deaths of Lear, Goneril, and Edmund are prime examples of justice prevailing for evil, and in Lear's case unnatural, acts.

    Lear's ultimate fate is death.  His early demise is a direct result of

breaching the "Great Chain of Being" which states that no mortal will

abandon his position in the hierarchy of ranking set by God.  Lear's

intention of abdicating his throne is apparent from the outset and is seen

in the following speech spoken during the opening scene of the play:

            . . . 'tis our fast intent

            To shake all cares and business from our age,

            Conferring them on younger strengths while we

            Unburdened crawl toward death. . .1


    Evidently the splitting of Lear's kingdom and abdication of his throne

is not an act of necessity, but an act toward easing the remainder of his

life.  Lear's disruption of the "Great Chain of Being" is in an unnatural

fashion because the abdication of his kingship is without dire or mortal

cause.  The method of passing down his land to his heirs is also unnatural,

as seen in the following excerpts:

            . . . Know that we have divided

            In three our kingdom. . .

    . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

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. . . . . . . . . . . . . .

            We have this hour a constant will to publish

            Our daughters' several dowers. . .

     . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

            Which of you [three daughters] shall we say doth love us most?

            That we our largest bounty may extend

            Where nature doth with merit challenge. . . .2


    Lear does not bestow his kingdom upon his eldest son, nor is he even

going to bestow the largest portion of the divided kingdom upon his eldest

son. He expresses his intent to split his kingdom and grant the pieces as

his daughters' dowers, the largest piece being granted to whichever of the

three professes to love him most.  This is a violation of the natural order

of commonly accepted hierarchy that states a father's estate  be endowed

upon his eldest son.  An error in judgement and untempered release of anger

are also factors contributing to Lear's downfall.  Lear listens to flattery

from Goneril, "I love you more than word can wield the/matter;"3 and Regan,

"I find she [Goneril] names my very deed of love,/Only she comes too short.

. ."4 in their bidding to profess they love Lear the most among the three

daughters, but Cordelia does not compete with their flattery:

            [Cor] Unhappy that I am, I cannot heave

            My heart into my mouth.  I love your Majesty

[Lear]   According to my bond [filial], no more nor less.5


    Cordelia cannot flatter Lear with praise and states that she merely

loves him as a daughter should love her father, with respect and obedience.

Lear is so heartbroken by his youngest, and until then his most beloved,

daughter's refusal to praise him with her love that a rage ensues:

            Lear.  Let it be so! thy truth then be they dower!

            For, by the sacred radiance of the sun,

            The mysteries of Hecate and the night;

            By all the operation of the orbs [stars]

            From whom we do exist and cease to be;

            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 for ever. . .6


    Lear acknowledges that Cordelia s speaking the truth.  Although

confessions of filial love are not inappropriate or evil, Lear's judgement

is clouded by anger at Cordelia's refusal to praise him with flattery as he

had planned and he swears by the gods that Cordelia is no longer his

daughter and chooses not to give any portion of land as her dower.  Lear's

disowning of his daughter for refusing to participate in his unnatural

rites of determining which daughters receive which lands has proved that

his judgements are misguided.  Finally, justice is fulfilled when Lear dies

at the end of the play.  The justice is in response to actions that he

commits which are not necessarily evil-hearted, but for the refusal to

abide by the "Great Chain of Being" and his irrational and cruel disowning

and banishment of Cordelia.

    Goneril suffers the same fate as Lear.  However, Goneril's death is a

direct result of a series of vile, ruthless, and despicable actions,

whereas Lear's death was a result of irrational judgements and unnatural

actions.  The first instance that hints at Goneril's evil nature appears in

a conversation between her and Regan as soon as Lear hands down his power

of state to them:

            [Gon] There is further compliment of leave-taking be-

            tween France and him.  Pray you let's hit together.  If our

            father carry authority with such disposition as he bears,

            This last surrender of his will but offend us.7


    Goneril proposes to Regan that they join forces in stripping Lear of

his authority because she views it as a threat.  This would be considered

an evil act if Goneril was just a peasant or vassal, to plot treason

against the king, but it is worse since Goneril is plotting against her own

father. Clearly she has no respect for Lear as king, superior, or father.

The extent of Goneril's disrespect for hierarchical bonds and her evil

nature is further revealed in the following letter:

            Let our reciprocal vows be remembered.  You [Edmund] have

many opportunities to cut him [Cornwall] off.  If your will want not, time and place will be fruitfully offered.8


    The letter is from Goneril to Edmund.  It details Goneril's wish for

Edmund to kill her husband, Cornwall.  Not only has Goneril disregarded her

filial bond with Lear by disrespecting him and going against his wishes,

but she does worse than that by disregarding her marital bond with Cornwall

and plotting his murder.  Finally, passing the point of plotting murder,

Goneril commits the act herself:

            Edg. What means this bloody knife?

            [Gent]  'Tis hot, it smokes.

            It came even from the heart of--O, she's dead!

            Alb.  Who dead?  Speak, man.

Gent.  Your lady [Goneril], sir, your lady! and her sister [Regan] By her is poisoned; she hath confessed it.9


    Goneril admits having administered a poison to Regan.  Her main purpose

was to have Edmund for herself and he would not have to choose between

them. However, after Edmund is slain by Edgar and Cornwall has proof in the

form of the letter that Goneril plotted against him, Goneril decides there

is no course of action other than to take her own life.  There is no more

evil a person than someone who turns against a parent that gave her life,

plots to take the life of her eternally vowed husband, and finally takes

the life of another human being.  Goneril proves to be the basest evil by

fulfilling all the aforementioned symptoms and there is no more just

punishment for Goneril than her death.

    Edmund is a character whose death is a befitting justice for his acts

of betrayal throughout the play.  The illegitimate son of Gloucester,

Edmund seeks his father's lands through scheming and deception.  His

motives are first made clear in the following soliloquy:

            Edm.  Thou, Nature, art my goddess; to thy law

            My services are bound.  Wherefore should I

            Stand in the plague of custom and permit

            The curiosity of nations to deprive me,

    . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

            Legitimate Edgar, I must have your land.10


    Edmund's thoughts are of his illegitimacy.  He proclaims that as

Gloucester's son, he is entitled to his lands, and customs of the realm

should not be able to keep them from him.  The last sentence of the

quotation shows that he views the lands as Edgar's already, even though

Gloucester is far from retiring and passing them on to his heir, and it is

against Edgar that he must plot to receive those lands.  Edmund's scheming

against Edgar is made clear in the latter part of the soliloquy:


            Well, my legitimate, if this letter speed

            And my invention thrive, Edmund the base

            shall top the legitimate; I grow; I prosper.11


    Edmund has, cunningly, conceived a letter that will put him above Edgar

in Gloucester's favour.  The letter reads, "If our father would sleep till

I waked him, you should/enjoy half his revenue for ever,"12 and is written

in the likeness of Edgar's script and signed by his name.  It seems to

Gloucester that Edgar would kill him to enjoy his revenue and estate with

Edmund.  The ploy Edmund initiated makes Edgar look like a traitor.  In a

hurried and hectic conversation Edmund confuses Edgar, who is ignorant to

Edgar's ambitious scheming, into fleeing from Gloucester, making him look

guilty of Gloucester's suspicions:

             Edm.  . . . O sir, fly this place!

            Intelligence is given where you are hid.

            You have now the good advantage of the night.

            Have you not spoken 'gainst the Duke of Cornwall?

            He's coming hither; now, i' the night, i' the haste,

            And Regan with him.  Have you nothing said

            Upon his party 'gainst the Duke of Albany?

            Advise yourself.

            Edg. I am sure on't, not a word.

            Edm.  I hear my father coming.  Pardon me!

            In cunning I must draw my sword upon you.

            Draw, seem to defend yourself; now quit you well.--

            Yield!  Come before my father.  Light, ho, here!

            Fly, brother.--Torches, torches!--So farewell.13


    Edmund asks Edgar if he has offended the Dukes of Cornwall or Albany

that would provoke Cornwall to come to Gloucester's castle with such haste

in the middle of the night.  Edgar pleads innocence, forcing Edmund to

enhance his deception.  He tells Edgar that he must draw his sword as if

defending himself or trying to capture a wanted man.  Edgar flees, and to

enhance the deception in Gloucester's eyes even further Edmund stabs

himself. "Bringing the murderous coward [Edgar] to the stake;/He that

conceals him, death."14 Gloucester, arriving on the scene, is convinced of

Edgar's treason.  Edmund has removed Edgar from his father's favour, but

does not yet possess Gloucester's lands or wealth.  An opportunity presents

itself which Edmund plans to take advantage of:

Glou.  . . .I have received a letter this night--'tis dangerous to be spoken—I have locked the letter in my closet.  These injuries the King now bears will be revenged home; there is a part of a power already footed. . .15


    Gloucester reveals to Edmund a letter he received.  It entails that a

secret power, France, has landed in the realm to revenge disrespect toward

Lear.  Edmund says:

             Edm.  This courtesy, forbid thee, shall the Duke

            Instantly know, and of that letter too.

            Seems a fair deserving, and must draw me

            That which my father loses--no less than all.

            The younger rises when the old doth fall.16


    Edmund plans to tell the Duke of Albany of the letter Gloucester has

received and of his journey to inform Lear of the French forces coming to

aid him.  The information makes Gloucester look like a traitor in the

Duke's eyes and Edmund realizes he will be rewarded with his father's lands

since they will be stripped from him for treason.  Edmund's evil

heartedness and willingness to sacrifice his family for status and wealth

clearly demands some sort of punishment as justice.  It is only fitting

that the betrayal of his own blood, both his father and brother, is

answered by justice in his death at Edgar's hands.

    Lear, Goneril, and Edmund were each motivated in different ways. Lear's

was an unnatural and irrational motivation.  Greed and selfishness moved

Edmund to the decisions he made.  Lastly, Goneril's heart was of the basest

evil and jealousy.  Although the methods and paths of their downfall were

different, each person suffers the identical fate as decided by justice.

It is debatable whether each decision we make is weighed on a cosmic scale

with justice waiting to punish the evil or reward the good, but what is

certain is that each decision we make plays a direct role in our futures.



1William Shakespeare, King Lear (New York:  Washington Square Press, 1987), I.i..38-41.

            2Ibid., I.i.37-54.

            3Ibid., I.i.56-57.

            4Ibid., I.i.75-76.

            5Ibid., I.i.96-98.

            6Ibid., I.i.115-123.

            7Ibid., I.i.331-334.


            9Ibid., V.iii.266-271.

            10Ibid., I.ii.1-16.

            11Ibid., I.ii.19-21.

            12Ibid., I.ii.52-53.

            13Ibid., II.i.20-33.

            14Ibid., II.i.68-69.

            15Ibid., III.iii.8-13.

            16Ibid., III.iii.20-24.


Reference List


Shakespeare, William. King Lear.  Eric A., McCann, ed. Harcourt Brace Jovanovick, Canada Inc., Canada. 1998


Bradley, A.C.  Lecture IX: Macbeth . Shakespearean Tragedies: Lectures on Hamlet, Othello, King Lear, Macbeth . Macmllan & Co., 1904.  

 Brooks, Cleanth. The Well Wrought Urn: Studies of the Structure of Poetry.   London: Reynal & Hitchcock, 1947.  

 Curry, Walter. Shakespeare s Philosophical Patterns. London: Mass Peter   Smith, 1968.  

Campbell, Lily B. Shakespeare’s Tragic Heroes, Slaves of Passion. Gloucester: Peter Smith Publisher Inc., 1973.


Knight, G. Wilson, 1949. The Wheel of Fire. Methuen & Co. Ltd.


Hazlitt, William.  Macbeth . Characters of Shakespeare s Plays and Lectures   on the English Poets. London: Macmillan & Co., 1903.  

 Schlegel, August Wilhelm.  Criticism on Shakespeare s Tragedies . A Course    of Lectures on Dramatic Art and Literature. London: AMS Press, Inc., 1965.  


Jorgensen, Paul A. William Shakespeare: The Tragedies.   Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1985.

Kott, Jan. Shakespeare Our Contemporary. Garden City: Doubleday & Company, 1994.

Shakespeare, William, 1998.  King Lear.  Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Rackin, Phyllis. Shakespeare's Tragedies. New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing Company, 1988.

Shakespeare, William.  King Lear.  New York:  Washington Square Press, 1987.
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