King Lear: Mercy vs Justice Essay

King Lear: Mercy vs Justice Essay
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Mercy may have a nobler ring to it, but Justice is undeniably more effective in deterring people from committing crimes. If someone commits a crime it is important that he or she is given a punishment that is equivalent to the severity of their actions. This is how the universe maintains its equilibrium, when a good or bad deed is followed by a positive or negative consequence, respectively. Justice is an incentive for the righteous and plays an important role in consolidating and restoring everything in its rightful place in society.

Lear had been demoted from a ruler to a beggar that was his punishment for his foolishness and arrogance. His dreadful fate had finally given him insight into the enormity of his errors, Lear is taught a valuable lesson that enables him to see things clearly and further motivates him to make amends.  He begins to empathize with the plight of the poor and therefore, the course of justice brings about a positive change in his character. Lear further states:

“…see how yond justice rails upon yon simple thief. Hark, in thine ear: change places; and, handy-dandy, which is the justice, which is the thief” (Shakespeare, 4.6.145-147)

King Lear’s tragedy was further underscored by that of Gloucester, who suffered the same fate as Lear for blindly trusting his evil illegitimate son, Edmund. However, unlike Lear Gloucester’s sanity remained intact, but he lost his eyes and regretted losing his dutiful son, Edgar; who had been disinherited as a result of Edmund’s intrigues. Gloucester realizes that when all his senses were intact, he made colossal mistakes, but now that he has been deprived of his sight, he can see and understand things better. Gloucester admits, “I stumbled when I saw” (Shakespeare, 4. 1. 19) that clearly demonstrates that Gloucester is repenting his mistakes.

Edmund, Regan, and Goneril are exposed to their wickedness. Goneril is abandoned by her husband, who then hurls all sorts of insults at both of the sisters by calling them, “Tigers not daughters” (Shakespeare, 4.2.40). Regan was widowed and as each of them was now free from the bonds of marriage; their lust for Edmund intensified and their unity quickly evaporated. However, despite all this the main antagonists showed no remorse or guilt over their actions.

Justice finally eradicates all evil and the rightful individuals assume the responsibility of the kingdom. Mercy and benevolence can only be applied, but virtue has certain limitations; for instance, Lear and Gloucester showed remorse and guilt over their actions therefore they underwent drastic changes and became better people. Due to their remorse, they were naturally given second chances and were easily forgiven but Cordelia and Edgar, respectively.

Hence, mercy is a luxury that can be bestowed upon both of them. However, in the case of Regan, Goneril, and Edmund, the possibility of remorse and guilt is completely ruled out, given their character. That is why it was necessary for them to suffer in order to realize the magnitude of their wickedness. That is why not only in the Lear universe but in society Justice is important to deter people and establish fair dealings in society. (Ratri, 2007)


Ratri, R. 2007. William Shakespeare’s King Lear. New Delhi, India: Atlantic Publishers.

Shakespeare, W. 1967. King Lear. Forgotten Books.