Although the play is set in pre-Christian Britain, the Elizabethan and
Jacobean audiences will still be looking for good prevailing over evil.
In the early 17th Century, religion played a very important part in the daily lives of the common people. The religious leaders of the time made it plain that if people gave way to temptation and carried out evil acts, they would be subject to a higher authority. So, those watching ‘King Lear’ duly expect that good will prevail, and the evil characters will be suitably judged.
Audiences over the Centuries have left ‘King Lear’ with the feeling that
good has not really triumphed fully over the evil prevalent from the very start of the play. When good has triumphed, the victory has only come after great sacrifice.
As we have noted, King Lear’s prospects looked good prior to the battle with Edmund’s forces. He is reunited with his daughter who symbolizes the hope for the future. The audience feels optimistic about the future of Britain, but are then shocked when hope is hanged, when Cordelia dies, soon followed by the death of her father. It is hard for us today to reconcile this situation. It was even more difficult for earlier audiences. Remember, we have witnessed Lear’s growing madness and mental torture, and Gloucester’s physical abuse and similar mental torture, but they had in part contributed to their own downfall. However, where is the justification for Cordelia’s death?
The battle between good and evil in the play is focused on one event – the
duel between Edgar and Edmund.
This is where divine justice prevails. The outcome of the duel between these two characters is crucial. If Edmund wins, then Britain will decline into darkness and chaos, but divine justice intervenes and Edgar wins the duel, and his reward is succession to the throne. Remember, the duel was not for sport as in ‘Othello’, but a true fight between good and evil between the two brothers.
Those that are left, Edgar, Albany and the dying Kent, will bring order to
the land out of the chaos that has culminated in the death of all the other main characters.
In conclusion, therefore, we must assume that divine justice does exist, but
it does not always act as we would hope, if it acts at all. The message, therefore, is for man to behave as if it does exist, as divine justice can intervene at any time.