King Lear seems to promise an ending in which justice will be done, only to undermine that ending horribly with the death of Cordelia, which suggests that justice, if it exists, is cruel and merciless. While Lear deserves most of the blame for giving his kingdom to the wrong daughters, Cordelia also bears some responsibility for her fate. Rather than flatter her father as he requested, she publicly humiliates him by refusing to quantify her love. As the king’s favorite daughter, Cordelia might have known that her father is a vain, narcissistic king used to getting his way, and might have better predicted the consequences of her public disobedience. As Goneril says, “the best and soundest of his time hath been but rash.” It’s likely that Lear already divided his kingdom, and simply wants a public show of his daughters’ affection before bestowing his gift. Reagan and Goneril go along with the act, but Cordelia’s pride prevents her from playing Lear’s game. Yet we can’t argue that she deserves to die as a result of her mistake. While she may have set in action the chain of events that lead to her death, her punishment far outweighs her crime.
Even more than Cordelia, Lear’s terrible choices drive the action of the play, so one could argue that he gets what he deserves in the end. He certainly gets what he initially claims he wants: after Cordelia refuses to declare her love, he tells her she should have never been born, and is as good as dead to him: “for we/ Have no such daughter, nor shall ever see/ That face of hers again.” Her actual death realizes this wish, although Lear no longer wants it to come true. Lear is not just responsible for Cordelia’s suffering, but as king, has caused general suffering as well. He sees that he has neglected the poor, saying, “o, I have ta’en/ Too little care of this,” but this insight comes too late, as he lacks the regal power to right any of his wrongs. Simply feeling sorry for mistakes is not the same as rectifying them. However, Lear’s punishment feels unnecessarily harsh. He has already been stripped of his pride, his belongings, and his sanity, which seem apt consequences for his mistakes. Losing his daughter as well feels more cruel than just.
If we define justice as ‘an eye for an eye,’ then the characters who have killed, and die as a result, receive justice. Goneril, Reagan, and Edmund are all responsible for others’ deaths, so these characters’ deaths at the end of the play feel just. Edgar deserves to inherit the kingdom because of his birth and also because he is a morally good character, so Albany’s request that Edgar help him rule also feels like justice being served. Lear, Cordelia, and Gloucester all make mistakes that contribute to their suffering and eventual deaths, but none of them can be said the deserve the harsh punishments they receive. More than justice, the rule of consequence applies to all the characters equally – they all are forced to live out the consequences of their decisions, regardless of whether or not they later regret the choice. Lear, Cordelia, and Gloucester all make mistakes of judgment at the beginning of the play, and are unable to undo what they’ve set in motion. The world of Lear is one in which justice, if it does exist, makes no accommodation for mercy, and consequences play out regardless of remorse.