King Lear Document
The role of fate and free will is much more complex in Shakespeare’s King Lear. A quick review
of the plot gives a story of good and evil characters exercising their own free wills. King Lear foolishly divides up his kingdom to his two deceitful, older daughters and ignores Cordelia, his honest, dutiful daughter. The older daughters have evil plans to overthrow their father. There is a similar subplot involving the Earl of Gloucester. His illegitimate son, Edmund, is jealous of Gloucester’s legitimate son, Edgar. Edmund tricks Edgar into running away and fools Gloucester into believing Edgar was going to kill his father. Towards the beginning of the play, Lear and Gloucester trust these evil parties. However, as the plot unfolds, Lear and Gloucester learn through turmoil that Cordelia and Edgar are the ones worthy of their trust and admiration.
There are also elements of destiny in King Lear. When Gloucester hears Edmund’s story about Edgar’s alleged plans of murder, the Earl blames it on the recent eclipse: “These late eclipses in the sun and moon portend no good to us: though the wisdom of nature can reason it thus and thus, yet nature finds itself scourged by the sequent effects” (I, ii, 112-127) [pp. 55-56]. But as soon as
he leaves, Edmund speaks his mind on the subject of predestined fate. He says, “This is the excellent foppery of the world, that, when we are sick in fortune,--often the surfeit of our own behaviour,--we make guilty of our disasters the sun, the moon, and the stars; as if we were villains on necessity; fools by heavenly compulsion; knaves, thieves, and treachers by spherical pre-dominance; drunkards, liars, and adulterers by an enforced obedience of planetary influence; and all that we are evil in, by a divine thrusting on: an admirable evasion of whoremaster man, to lay his goatish disposition to the charge of a star!” (I, ii, 128-131) [pp. 56] Given how easy
Edmund fools Gloucester in the same scene, it seems that Shakespeare is encouraging the audience to see Edmund’s view as the more intelligent and reasonable compared to Gloucester’s
belief. However, the author’s true views are questioned again in the last act. After the failure of
Edmund’s plot to disgrace his brother, Edgar says the gods are just, and Edmund agrees, “The wheel is come full circle.” (V, iii, 246)
Evil is dependent on free will; it cannot exist in a completely predestined world. While the definitions of evil vary, a general description of an evil character is one that deviates from moral standards, is mischievous, or intends to harm others. If one is not in control of one’s actions, intent is not an issue; one simply acts as fate dictates.