17 November 1993
The Trials of King Lear
Justice is a strong theme of Shakespeare's King Lear. The use of trials seem to indicate this rather strongly. "The movement of the plot, the character of Lear's mind, and, above all, the larger meaning of the play have been dramatized with incredible aptness as trials." Dorothy Hockey, in her article "The Final Pattern in King Lear," supports this immensely.
Hockey's main emphasis is how the trials of Lear further Shakespeare's comments on the subject of justice. The significantly repeated pattern of Lear is the trial. "In presenting several kinds of trial, Shakespeare comments on two major themes--love and justice." The love test of the first scene is just such a case. "The action pattern. . . is that of a trial, suggesting justice, and the quality being weighed is love." Cordelia fails to place unselfish love before everything else. "Cordelia's 'Nothing' places a youthful sense of self-righteous honesty--something akin to a sense of justice--above love that is freely given."
Lear also puts a love test to Cordelia's suitor Burgundy.
What in the least
Will you require in present dower with her,
Or cease your quest of love? (I.i. 194 ff.)
Burgundy fails, just as Cordelia did. "Burgundy places worldly goods before love."
Paralleling the first love test is the incident of the retainers in II.iv. "When Lear turns from one tiger-daughter to the other, fighting to retain 100, then 50, then 25 followers, he is again demanding an outward, visible sign of--to him--respect and honor, but--to us--love, if his daughters could only find it in their hearts."
In a speech in III.ii., Lear, obsessed with the idea of justice, sees the gods as bringing their enemies to the final bar of justice.
Let the great gods,
That keep this dreadful pudder o'er our heads,
Find out their enemies now. Tremble, thou wretch,
That hast within thee undivulged crimes
Unwhipp'd of justice. Hide thee, thou bloody hand;
Thou perjur'd, and thou simular man of virtue
That art incestuous. Caitiff, in pieces shake
That under covert and convenient seeming
Hast practis'd on man's life. Close pent-up guilts,
Rive your concealing continents grace. I am a man
More sinn'd against than sinning. (III.ii.49 ff.)
"When he speaks of his own guilt, Lear stands before a greater bar of justice."
Hockey points out that it is hardly coincidence that Lear's two maddest scenes both use the trial pattern. "Lear at his maddest is Lear most justice-minded." The joint-stool trial of III.vi. is the peak of madness in the play, according to Hockey. It is also one of the scenes most concerned with justice. Hockey refers to a paper by a Robert Heilman who calls this a "duplication" of the play's first love test. Can the heartless be brought to trial? This is exactly what Lear attempts. "By using the trail pattern of action and now combining it with madness Shakespeare dramatizes the supremacy of love over justice, for justice can neither force nor punish its shortcomings."
In the sixth scene of the fourth act, Lear switches between being a clear-headed judge and a madman. He is the judge when he holds court, talking in verse. He is showing his madness when he speaks in blank verse. "Blank verse, then, here and in the joint-stool scene sets off and emphasizes the trial pattern."
"'I am a very foolish fond old man.' One piercing line gives us the hard lesson of the play, putting justice and love in their proper places as no love test ever did." Freely given love and remorse for the injustice he has wrought have displaced Lear's concern for love from others and the injustice he has suffered. Nothing could be further from the mad preceding scene.
Hockey also thinks that Gloucester's blinding comes across in the form of a trial. "The placing of the scene adds emphasis to it as a trial, for it immediately follows the strongest trail scene of the main plot, the joint-stool scene." Hockey quotes from Cornwall to show that his repeated command emphasizes the trial motif.
Go seek the traitor Gloucester,
Pinion him like a thief, bring him before us.
Though well we may not pass upon his life
Without the form of justice, yet our power
Shall do a court'sy to our wrath, which men
May blame, but not control. (III.vii.23 ff.)
Hockey says that "lovelessness" is on trial. "The trial is a mockery of justice. . . a dramatization in trial form of the need for love, not vengeance."
Hockey now says that the conclusion of the play is another kind of trial, a trial by combat. Albany has arrested Edmund, with Goneril as accomplice. "The ensuing trial by combat is carried out with ceremony: The trumpet sounds, Albany casts down a glove, Edmund casts down a glove, the heralds reads out the summons, the trumpet sounds three times, and finally Edgar appears, armed. Formal question and answer follow. Edgar bids Edmund draw his sword for justice. . . Edmund's reply that he will fight, though by 'rule of knighthood' he might delay, is repeated by Goneril after Edmund has fallen." Here is the play's last trial, one to recall the opening.
At the very end of the play, Lear sentences himself as if all the play's action had been a trial. He would now be happy in prison with Cordelia. "Justice. . . is of little concern; repentance, forgiveness, and reunion with a loving daughter are Lear's choice." His lesson is learned. "We judge him, too, condemning him for foolish pride and unbalance values, pitying him for his overwhelming suffering and rejoicing at his dawning consciousness of others."
Hockey does a marvelous job throughout this article. Her objectives are clear and well-defined; her support is solid as concrete. Hockey's easy language and simple structure make the paper easy to read. Hockey effortlessly shows that the trial motif dramatizes the larger meaning of King Lear--justice.
Hockey, Dorothy C. "The Trial Pattern in King Lear."
Shakespeare Quarterly 10 (1959): 389-96.