King Lear is basically a domestic tragedy with the background of social justice looming large behind it. It remarkably shows Shakespeare’s secure grasp of the prevalent social system in which prosperity wallows in vices while adversity is not without virtues. As we shall see later in this discussion, Shakespeare indicts prosperity based on inequitable property relations at the bar of social justice.
The play begins with injustice meted out to Cordelia, one of those characters caring for truth and setting at naught the gross material values of the prevalent order. Her other moral compeers are Kent and Edgar and Edgar got the very same treatment from his father, Gloucester. A grossly material atmosphere producing despotic authority, arrogance, greed, lust, and love of power pervades in the earlier parts of the main and sub-plots of the play with two old arrogant men settling or unsettling issues.
Lear in his prosperity learned nothing except to exercise power in his arrogant despotic manner which was bound to create domestic and social anarchy. He was content to remain ignorant about the hard facts of life and the harder living experiences of his subjects. He remained an arrogant prisoner of his golden world without the faintest idea of how the social system in his realm worked to increase the misery and sufferings of his poor subjects based as it was on a property relation that provided for the prosperity of the few and ensured adversity of the many. Spurned by his devilish daughters and wandering helplessly on a stormy night, he for the first time feels the agony of humiliation and faces the ugly countenance of poverty with all its sufferings, physical privations, and pangs of remorse. It is only in this school of adversity on a stormy night that he begins to learn about the inequities of life produced by an unjust social system. Lear begins to ponder now over the fate of the poor folk daily exposed to such sufferings and privations as now felt by him for the first time in his life. His heart goes out to his poor subjects in sympathy as he says: “Poor naked wretches, wherever you are/That bide the pelting of this pitiless storm etc.”
Then comes his candid confession that he had not taken much care of these pitiable men and he draws a moral too: “Take physic, pomp:/Expose thyself to feel what wretches feel. / That thou mayst shake the superflux to them / And show the heavens more just.”
In this, he very clearly admits the existence of economic injustice and the need for distributive justice to repair the health of the social system over which he once presided. We here listen to an echo of Christian Communism as Lear tells the prosperous rich to part with their superflux for the sake of the needy wretches of the earth. It is a voluntary parting, of course, depending on the good sense of the pompous rich after they expose themselves to feel what the wretches feel. Seeing Edgar as naked Tom O’Bedlam, Lear again reflects about the unaccommodated man is no more than “a poor, bare, forked animal.” Lear’s further awareness of social injustice was impeded by the swift onrush of madness upon him but even in the ravings of that stark madness, we find how Lear was struck by his discovery of social injustice perpetuated through the institutions of property. Not even man but even the animals are conscious of these social gradations, The passing beggar is banked at by the farmer’s dog, for even a dog is obeyed in office. Robes and furned gowns hide all vice and justice is bought by gold.
Gloucester, blinded and at adversity, learns the same lesson about the social inequities as Lear but it is given to him to pronounce upon the practical cure of the social malady. “Distribution should undo excess. / And each man have enough”.
The characters of Goneril, Regan, Cornwall, and Edmund enforce the adverse social picture of the upper classes of Learean England. The first of three are pure self-seekers addicted to material wealth and the pleasures of the flesh besides being vain, cruel, and despotic, In fact, Regan and Goneril are female monstrosities. Worldly wealth blinds them while they seek sensuous and illicit pleasures in simultaneous love with bastard Edmund when their husbands are living. Edmund is the cynic bastard bearing the burden of hereditary lust and even in search of power and pelf in the manner of a maniac. Through these criminal characters, Shakespeare attempts to show that “prosperity doth best discover vice.” On the other hand through the experiences of Lear and Gloucester in adversity, he points out clearly to the chastening effects of suffering.
To sum up, we may say that the entire play is a grand indictment of prosperity based on inequitable property relations. There is, we feel on going through the play, a universe ratio between prosperity and goodness that while the former goes up, the latter goes down. Prosperity breeds “lust, pride, the sadness of heart, the insolence of office, cruelty, scorn, hypocrisy, contention, war, murder, self-destruction.” The poor and the wretched, on the other hand, are humble and loving, pitiful and faithful. Lear discovers this in poverty and suffering and we have not much to quarrel with him. The remedy is distributive justice as felt by Lear and spelled out clearly by Gloucester. This was also Shakespeare’s protest against the unjust social order of his times and his prescription for the social disease as is evident from King Lear was socialism based on distributive justice.