Justice and Mercy in King Lear: Biblical Influences in Shakespeare

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“Judgment without mercy is shown to one who has shown no mercy – mercy triumphs over judgement” (James 2:13)[1]. Almost 2000 years ago one of the authors of the Bible, the source text of Christianity, spoke of mercy as being of greater importance than strict judgment; words that were as true when they were written as they were Shakespeare’s day and age.  Shakespeare’s famous tragedy, King Lear, displays the values of his day in a dark tale of suffering where mercy triumphs, even if only for a brief moment, over the judgments of justice.  In the play’s pagan worldview, justice without mercy is found to be negative and reciprocating – judgment begets judgment ad infinitum.  However, in the same story, mercy is found to be superior to justice because it ends the cycle of retaliating judgments and instead encourages thankfulness and love.  The author of King Lear’s pagan world was weaned on the biblical perspective present in 16th century England. Aspects of such Christian values are present in this play; the superiority of mercy is not merely founded upon the imaginary world of Shakespeare’s play but is first met in the reality of his everyday life.  Mercy is the superior action in both the world of King Lear and in the real world of Shakespeare.

A world of justice without mercy is one where judgement begets judgment. People who have been wronged feel justified to take up the execution of justice on their own behalf.  Because of the subjective nature of justice in the world of King Lear, where there is no objective standard of right or wrong, the characters each act on their own standard of justice. Consequently, a battle of self-righteousness ensues: Lear harshly judges Kent and Cordelia by banishing them; he feels he is enacting due justice for their offenses toward him.  The response of Regan and Goneril is one of judgment upon Lear out of fear that he may forcefully fulfill his unjust – according to their worldview – judgments upon them as he did upon Cordelia and Kent.  The cycle would have continued as is evident from the king’s desire to enact justice against his daughters: “I will have such revenges on you both / That all the world shall – I will do such things – / What they are yet I know not, but they shall be / The terrors of the earth” (II iv 278-280).[2]  Had the king been able to carry out his desires for judgment, his daughters could hardly be expected to demand less than justice against their father. In a world where everyone has their own subjective opinions of justice, without considering mercy, there is no hope for escaping the endless cycle of reciprocal judgement.  The problem is that this kind of justice can only result in the destruction of society itself – unless justice is hemmed in by mercy.

Mercy ends the cycle of judgment begetting judgment and encourages both thankfulness and love in those who receive mercy, as is seen in both Edgar’s and Cordelia’s relationships with their paternal figures.  Edgar is the first to show the depths of mercy by craftily preventing his father’s suicide. He then gives him hope that his life has significance because the gods interceded to save his life: “Think that the clearest gods, who make them honors / Of men’s impossibilities, have preserved thee” (IV vi 73-74).  Gloucester dies with a measure of joy in his heart knowing that his son is both alive and yet loves him – a joy he would not have had if he had died knowing his son hates and resents him.  Cordelia follows in Edgar’s steps. She responds in mercy to her father who had previously cast her out for being honest in her love toward him, by denying that she has a cause to wrong her father: “No cause, no cause” (IV vii 75).  Lear’s response to receiving this mercy is such love and joy that even defeat in war and imprisonment are insufficient evils to trample down his bliss: “Come, let’s away to prison. / We two alone will sing like birds i’ th’ cage. / When thou dost ask me blessing, I’ll kneel down / And ask of thee forgiveness. So we’ll live, / And pray, and sing, and tell old tales, and laugh…” (V iii 8-12). The mercy Cordelia showed, when contrasted to the judgments of her sisters, proves to be superior by the response that it engendered in its receiver. The Christian influence in his society taught Shakespeare the superiority of mercy over judgment and so he displayed this truth in the writing of King Lear.

The Biblical worldview that was being funneled in to the society of Shakespeare’s day is one that builds a logical justification for justice and also lays a foundation for the superiority of mercy.  The subjectivity of justice that results from finite beings each having their opinions of right and wrong, is removed by a moral law coming from a higher power that overrules the arbitrary opinions of mortal man. This justice is founded in something greater than mortal viewpoints.  The laws given from the omniscient perspective prove that all people, even the best of us, are imperfect and do wrong on some level from time to time. The self-righteous stance that one takes when condemning another is challenged at its roots and is replaced by a demand that imperfect people approach each other from a position of humility and self-identification as wrongdoers.  This standpoint alone builds a basis for gentle understanding between two parties who feel they have been wronged.  Furthermore, the God who authored the laws also made an open call to humanity that whoever should desire undeserved forgiveness need only look to the Son of God, Jesus, and “whoever believes in him [shall] have eternal life” (John 3:14).  The reception of this mercy is necessarily expected to result in thankfulness and love, much like in King Lear.  Since Shakespeare’s thinking would have been influenced by the society of his day, the concept of a supreme being who values mercy more than justice would have been part of his ingrained cultural values.  Perhaps if he had been born two hundred years later, in the days of Immanuel Kant and the Categorical Imperative, we would see King Lear from a very different and less mercy-approving light.

Both from the world in which Shakespeare lived and in the world of King Lear the superiority of mercy, when contrasted to judgment, is clearly shown.  The judgments of justice without mercy bring about endless cycles of people seeking justice and bringing judgment down upon each other.  Mercy ends such cycles and fosters both love and thankfulness in those who receive mercy.  These insights into the nature of justice and mercy stand firm in both the imaginary world of King Lear and also in realm of reality from which they were gathered.  The superiority of mercy is clear: “mercy triumphs over judgment” (James 2:13).


[1] Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Illinois: Crossway Bibles, 2007).  Subsequent parenthetical references in this format will refer to this edition.

[2] Shakespeare, William. King Lear. Ed. Sylvan Barnet and Russel Fraser (New York: New American Library, 1998).  Subsequent parenthetical references in this format will refer to this edition.

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About salutations75

Born and raised Atheist turned Reformed Baptist.
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